On a recent weekday morning, Jana Hunter is on the phone, calling from a place still somewhat unfamiliar to the singer/songwriter — a house she recently moved into in Waverly.
Hunter has had little time to get situated, given the near constant touring her Baltimore indie-rock quartet, Lower Dens, has done this year in support of the band's third album, "Escape From Evil."
The record, which Hunter co-produced with Chris Coady (Beach House, Future Islands), has been widely celebrated since its March release, with many critics calling it a significant step forward for the group. It is not exactly a jarring departure — with Hunter's entrancing vocals anchoring the songs, there is no doubt it is still Lower Dens — but the tracks are noticeably more immediate and pop-minded. Crowds, she said, have responded accordingly.
"I don't want to say that they're more responsive, but the show is a more physical show," Hunter said. "There's more dancing, basically, if you want to put it really simply."
Is that a good thing?
"It's great!" she said. "I really like playing shows when the crowd is intimate and just being in the space and listening carefully, but it's really fun, kinetic energy when people are dancing. It's still pretty new for me." (See for yourself on Saturday, when Lower Dens play the all-day inaugural Bombadillo Festival at Druid Hill Park.)
Lower Dens — which includes bassist Geoff Graham, drummer Nate Nelson and guitarist Walker Teret — have steadily evolved since forming in 2009, a couple of years after Hunter moved from Texas to Baltimore. The group's first two albums, 2010's "Twin-Hand Movement" and 2012's "Nootropics," established Hunter as a heady figure with the chops to write material equally influenced by psychedelia and krautrock.
"Escape From Evil" finds the group refining this sound with a subtle pop edge. Hunter said Teret, who replaced original guitarist Will Adams after his departure a couple years ago, was a key contributor to the album.
"He's a real musical force, you know?" Hunter said. "He doesn't just play guitar in the band. He has a lot of ideas about production and songwriting that are really valuable to me and to the band, and have really challenged us to work in different ways than we have before."
More than five years since Lower Dens' debut album, Hunter said music remains the best outlet for self-expression. Hunter, who said she has a history of anxiety and panic attacks, said many of the topics on "Escape From Evil" deal with inner turmoil, and the effects it can have on personal relationships.
"I still feel like my ability to talk to people is definitely learned and not an instinct," Hunter said. "But I do feel like I've made a lot of progress. As I get older, I'm able to let go of needing to control situations [and] to be right in an argument rather than just talk to people and understand them."
This approach has informed Hunter beyond music. In recent years, she has written thoughtful online essays on a range of topics, from the role of streaming services and the value of music to sexuality and Hunter identifying as gender-fluid.
And in late July, she wrote an op-ed for the music website Pitchfork called "White Privilege and Black Lives in the Baltimore Music Scene." In the piece, Hunter quotes another Baltimore artist, Abdu Ali, the experimental rapper who has spoken out about the divide between artists of color and white musicians in the city.
Hunter, who is bringing Ali on an eight-show run with Lower Dens starting Saturday, said Ali's thoughts on race and opportunity were on her mind constantly, especially after the death of Freddie Gray. Hunter was happy to spark a local conversation on a national website, and only wishes the article had facilitated more discussion within the Baltimore arts scene.
Clearly feeling a wave of inspiration following "Escape From Evil," Hunter said after completing tours in the U.S. and Europe, the plan is to spend December writing new music with the band, which the singer hopes will lead to a new album in 2016. Regardless of what comes in the future, Hunter is proud of what Lower Dens has already accomplished.
"I don't know if I ever expected to be this confident in music that I've written or helped to write," she said. "There's a lot of discouraging things in the industry and in our culture, and it's very hard financially to get by as a band of working-class people.
"Even when those things are particularly tough, we're still trying to put our focus to our artistic goals and our social goals and our community goals — those sorts of things that are really important," Hunter said. "I'm proud of us for doing that."