Depending upon the after-school special, we've learned that peer pressure can lead to any number of unspeakable calamities: incurable disease, severed limbs, children, death and so on. Though surely we're flexible enough to believe in positive peer pressure, it's rarely associated with a group of friends tugging you to get your songs together for a nationally visible album and out of the house for overseas tours.
Such has been the case with Jana Hunter. Before she opened for charismatic neo-troubadour Devendra Banhart a few years back, she'd been in a few bands in her home state of Texas and performed the occasional solo gig, but probably didn't have much in mind for her backlog of haunting, minimalist recordings sitting at home. Or, she didn't think of the songs the way her friends did.
"Other people got me excited about it," says Hunter about her music.
Banhart, who has been a kind of de facto leader of what the press has dubbed "freak folk," has done much to include his friends in his notoriety. He placed Hunter's song, the intoxicating, nostalgic "Farm, CA," on his 2004 compilation Golden Apples of the Sun, a disc that includes other now-notables Antony, CocoRosie and Joanna Newsom; he enlisted Hunter for a split LP last year; and, most recently, released Hunter's debut album, Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom, on his and cohort Andy Cabic's new label, Gnomonsong. The whole process of involvement with Banhart and friends (who call themselves The Family) has caused Hunter to warm up to her own growing visibility.
"Devendra is pretty motivating to say the least," says Hunter. "The friendship and support and the feeling of having colleagues, in a way, makes it much more exciting."
Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom was recorded over the course of a decade, she says, mostly on "whatever happened to be lying around the house": on four-track home recorders, "cheap effects pedals," a "clock radio with a cassette deck in it," a "microphone buried in a Sprite bottle." Her voicewhich has a soulful rattle reminiscent of Billie Holiday or Karen Daltonoften swirls in haunted, grainy layers over building guitar strums.
The result isn't an obscure, lo-fi gimmick, either; her songs are too powerful to get lost in a four track's guts. In fact, like a friend who makes you a card instead of buying it at the mall, the personal, homespun songs begin to mean more in the medium.
And, lest we forget the doom: What's in the title?
"[The title] refers to a group of friends of mine who are aware of the tragic reality of the world," she says. "But in the midst of it mostly getting drunk and doing drugs, making zombie movies...but it also [is] trying to be funny in the midst of feeling really helpless about it, trying to push all those thoughts out of your mind and being totally unsuccessful and ending up having to do a bunch of drugs and make zombie movies, you know?"
Of all the responses to a doomed world, at least Hunter is now sharing, rather than keeping her songs locked up in her room. On her longest solo tour yet, she is feeling more comfortable in her own shoes.
"I'm finally figuring out how to enjoy doing this thing," she says. "And that's nice." Capsule:
Jana Hunter with Irving and Everything Absent or Distorted
Hi-Dive, 7 S. Broadway, Denver
Sunday, April 2, 9 p.m.
Tickets: $8, 21-plus; visit ticketweb.com
I miss you, Lenny! My family and I thank you for all the special times…
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