Q&A: Lower Dens' Jana Hunter
Baltimore singer-songwriter talks 'Nootropics,' learning from drama and playing at home
Lower Dens perform at The Ottobar in support of the new album, "Nootropics." (Shawn Brackbill, Handout photo / May 2, 2012)
"I'm very excited about it," Hunter said earlier this week. "I feel like a little kid celebrating a birthday or something."
It's a feeling the members of Lower Dens have earned. After the band released its critically acclaimed debut album, "Twin-Hand Movement," in 2010, the group toured beyond the point of exhaustion, leading to member departures and panic attacks. But the band regrouped (guitarist Will Adams left and came back; original drummer Abe Sanders was replaced with Nate Nelson; keyboardist Carter Tanton joined the band; only bassist Geoff Graham stayed put), signing with Ribbon Music to release "Nootropics."
Before Lower Dens hits the road, which includes a stop with Celebration at The Ottobar on Saturday, Hunter spoke about learning from previous mistakes, hometown shows and more.
"Twin-Hand Movement" was a lauded album and it seems "Nootropics" will likely follow suit. How surprising is it to be a critical darling? And how much attention do you personally pay the critics?
I pay more attention to it than I'd like to. What I attempt to and sometimes do is ignore it as much as possible. The more other people's reflections come in, negative or positive, they tend to cloud the creative environment and process. What I prefer to do is to make it a personal and intellectual pursuit. I think, whether you're lauded or negatively criticized or anywhere on the spectrum — especially professional critical opinions — it cheapens that process. I'm doing my best to accept the attention and enjoy it while it lasts, and go on making my music regardless of it.
The inspiration for the lyrics is all heady stuff, dealing with humanity, language and technology. It's not the easiest stuff for new listeners to just grasp on to. As a songwriter, is there ever a concern about alienating listeners that may not be used to these themes?
I like to think there's enough in the music itself for people to enjoy it. If they choose not to dig any deeper that there's prerogative and I would certainly not tell anyone how to enjoy the music they choose to spend their time with. … But if I started to change my approach to writing music, making it as accessible to as many people as possible, I'd probably prefer to remain in that heady space.
There were a lot of things happening behind the scenes after "Twin-Hand Movement." What did you learn most from all of the drama? Has the band changed enough so that it won't happen again?
I do. I'm very optimistic about the future of the band. The drama we experienced was not uncommon; a lot of bands face turnover. You have to deal with your personal life. It's hard to say if we've had more or less problems and issues of that nature than other bands. I think we've tried very much to learn from our mistakes, which is pushing ourselves too hard at the expense of our enjoyment of what we're doing. I find generally that even though we're as busy as we've ever been, we enjoy ourselves a lot more. Everyone seems to be comfortable but excited to be doing this. Based on that alone, I very much look forward to keeping on.
You started writing "Nootropics" with a keyboard, an instrument you weren't known for playing.
It was partly done out of necessity. I tried creating a mobile guitar workstation in the van and it worked to an extent but the decision to move to the keyboard was that it created enough of a challenge that I could be very focused on conquering a new device. [laughs] I'm not one that was completely unfamiliar with keyboards. I grew up playing classical music and I had a basic understanding from it from that. It was challenging enough to make it part of the inspiration for the new songs. Fortunately, it's an instrument that allows you to approach it as simply or as complex as you want.
How have hometown shows gone for Lower Dens in the past?
They're fantastic. I can't really think of many more cities that I'd rather play. People are so engaged in Baltimore. They're engaged in their lives and engaged in the performance. It can be intimidating because there are so many people I have a lot of respect for. I know that we're going face a crowd that at the very least is paying attention. You can't ask for much more than that. It doesn't really matter where you're playing Baltimore. Whether you're playing the Round Robin show at Sonar or someone's stinky basement, it's going to be a crowd that's giving you their attention.
If you go
Lower Dens perform Saturday at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St. Doors open at 9 p.m. $10. Call 410-662-0069 or go to theottobar.com.