Jana Hunter's Beautiful Doom
Against a precise and somehow unhinged pattern of picked guitar, Jana
Hunter's voice rises with soulful eerieness, murmuring lines like "This
cradle is a tomb/ An everlasting sense of doom/ My momma's in her room/ She's
dead; she died too soon" in a sibyl's whisper.
Hunter's Blank Unstaring Eyes of Doom is the first-ever
release on Gnomonsong, a label headed by Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic.
She says that the witchily intense tone was intentional, part of an aesthetic,
or worldview, she developed during the period in which she wrote the first three
songs. "Some friends of mine and I were making a lot of art and jokes and
movies and things that all... it was just a few of us colliding who had
similar feelings," she recalled in a recent phone interview. "It was a
really dark vision of the world, but also very funny." This aesthetic
permeates the album, from the detailed line drawings her friend Arthur
Bates created for the liner notes, to the supernatural spookiness of
Hunter's blues-inflected voice.
Yet despite this overall mood, the songs are varied. They range in tone
from the early-'60s girl-group sound of "All My Best Wishes," to the elegiac "Farm Ca,"
which appeared on Devendra Banhart's Golden Apples of the Sun, to
the giddily drum-machined "K," to the weirdly beautiful harmonies of "The
Earth Has No Skin."
Andy Cabic put it this way: "Jana's record is kindling for the soul, rough
hewn and reverb-soaked," he said via email. "High on handclaps and mic
fuzz, her charmed voice changes shape from song to song, sometimes stark,
otherwise embellished by the crackle of an unending bedroom of sound."
Recorded on four-track over a 10-year period, the 12 songs on Hunter's
debut chart the remarkable progress of a self-taught talent. Hunter, who
comes from Texas, learned classical violin at 9, growing up in a
rambunctious extended family, with eight brothers and sisters and, as she
said, "tons of cousins and aunts and uncles and that sort of thing."
Yet though her early life was crowded with family, Hunter's adolescence was
lonelier. "When I got older my immediate family kind of split up. And my
extended family kind of split up, stopped coming together so... then my
parents went separate ways and I went to California for a little while,"
she said. "After that it was much more like a solitary life."
It was during this isolated period that Hunter first picked up the
guitar. A brother taught her one or two chords, she said, and she learned
the rest by trial and error. "Having violin experience really helped as far
as trying to figure out what I was going for," she remembered. "But also I was
just making up chords. In the really old songs that I have from when I was
16 and 17, the first songs I ever wrote, I can't even figure out what the
chords were, because I just made them up and they sound really weird."
She also taught herself to sing then, using jazz great Ella Fitzgerald as a
model. "When I first started writing songs, at 16 or 17, I was listening
to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald, pretty much. I think that's how I learned to
sing, just singing along to her... never being able to match anything she
did but just trying really hard," she said.
Fitzgerald appealed to Hunter,
she said, because "she has this really, kind of an epic control over her
voice. A single little inflection is so emotive. I don't know... I had
never heard anybody sing like that before. My experience of music was so
limited to 1980s music, and I'd never heard anything so powerful."
By the time she was 18, Hunter was playing violin in a band and sharing
four-track recordings with band members, who urged her to play at local
open mics. Over the next several years, she collaborated with a whole
string of bands, including Ejaculette, Jracula, Szok, Robot Fish, Slang,
Slord, and Matty and Mossy. She was playing solo, opening for Entrance (real name: Guy Blakeslee) when she caught the eye (and ear) of Devendra Banhart.
By this time, a friend had noticed that Hunter sounded remarkably like
Karen Dalton, the lost Bleeker Street folk legend who had died of AIDS in
1993. One of Banhart's earliest influences, Dalton had a rich, soft
jazz-inflected voice with extraordinary phrasing and capacity for
emotion. "The first time I ever heard of Karen Dalton was right before I
met Devendra, when I was going to be doing the show," Hunter said. "The
man that I was dating at the time thought it was really amazing he knows
a lot about music and he thought it was really amazing that Devendra knew
about Karen Dalton... so he played me some of the things. That was really
the first time I had really heard her."
Whether it was her evocation of Dalton or her own unique aura, Hunter made
an immediate, positive impression. "On the first tour I ever did with
Entrance, she played with us in Houston," Banhart said by email. "I
flipped, and I have admired her music and her heart ever since. Forever
now, always, she, truly to me, is the Iggy Pop librarian love machine."
It was mutual. Hunter said that Banhart and his people spent the night at
her house and went to breakfast with her the morning after the show. "They
were just they were kindred. They were really incredibly nice and they
were enthusiastic... it was really great to meet them," she said.
As for so many young artists, Banhart proved to be a catalyst for Hunter's
career, including her "Farm Ca." on the Golden Apples of the Sun
compilation released by Arthur Magazine. In 2005, she and Banhart
recorded a split EP on Troubleman, and this fall she issued her debut
full-length. This CD covers her entire career, from older songs
like "Have You Got My Money," "Restless" and "The Angle" to newer ones like
the first three cuts on the album.
These three, Hunter's favorites, start with the haunting "All the Best
Wishes," which Hunter said was recorded "on four-track with a really bad
microphone and a plastic bottle wrapped around the microphone, so that it
would distort." That distortion was intended to mimic the distant sounds
of old-fashioned radio, her primary inspiration for the track. She said,
"I had just started listening to a lot of 1950s songs. I was just
listening to oldies radio basically. I wanted to get something with that
kind of reverb, that kind of classic reverb that makes those songs kind of
timeless and eerie."
This gorgeous track is followed by the creepily intense "The New Sane
Scramble," and then "The Earth Has No Skin," with its layered vocals. "I
was playing around with the four-track and I wanted to do something with a
lot of voices, so I just kind of scratched down those lyrics really quickly
and then recorded it," Hunter said of this weirdly compelling and beautiful
"From start to finish that song probably took me 30 minutes, and it wasn't
even supposed to be a song. It was just supposed to be an experiment with
the four-track." Yet, she said, the song is now one of her favorites,
perhaps because she has not had the opportunity to get tired of playing it
in concert. Performance of this tightly harmonized track, she explained,
would require a backing track. "I used to do recorded backing tracks, but
I didn't really like doing that very much, eventually," she said, "So I
never get to do it live. Maybe it's just the one that I haven't gotten
sick of playing.
Hunter said that she is working on a number of projects now, trying to revive Jracula, setting up a spring tour with Castenets and developing
what she calls "an aesthetic" for her next solo album. "The songs that I'm writing now, the songs that were on the split with
Devendra, happened much later than most of these songs, and definitely were
a different, more hopeful, less doomy idea about the world," she said. "The
thing that I'm working on now, I'm still not quite sure what it is."
Hunter has a few Texas shows posted on her Web site or her myspace page for November and December. She will be
posting other dates in Europe and North America as they're confirmed. Jennifer Kelly [Wednesday, November 2, 2005]