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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 track.

"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]

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