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Lower Dens: Freak-Folk Femme Lets Her Indie-Rock Flag Fly

Lower Dens / Photo by Sean Donnola

WHO: “When I first started playing the guitar, I had no idea what I was doing,” says Jana Hunter, 33, on discovering the instrument in high school. This wasn’t for lack of musical acumen, though — before leading Baltimore five-piece Lower Dens, Hunter was a classically trained violinist turned intrepid singer-songwriter, first as part of Houston outfit Matty & Mossy and later as a knuckleballing solo artist on Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic’s Gnomonsong label, home to like-minded freak-folk oddballs. “[Classical music] is very rule-based, and being introduced to a new instrument I didn’t know anything about was liberating.” When it came time to write the songs that would become Nootropics, Lower Dens’ second proper full-length, Hunter went further outside of her comfort zone, writing on another new instrument: keys. “I need kind of a vacation from the guitar,” she says. “That gave me an opportunity to write things I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

SOUNDS LIKE: Wrestling with the new-instrument challenge has yielded Hunter’s most expansive and fluid work to date. “I claimed the backseat of the touring van,” she says. “I hung out with the mini-keyboard and would work on the same minute of a song for hours without any exhaustion, just kind of getting sucked into it like a video game.” On “Alphabet Song,” Nootropics‘ oozy opener, the faces and places just outside the van window took on a characteristically cerebral role in the process. “I wanted to see if the sound I was making was projecting itself upon the image of people in their daily commute,” she explains.

CHEMICAL SISTER: The album’s title (pronounced “no-eh-tro-piks”) refers to “smart drugs,” intelligence-enhancing cousins to psychotropics, a topic that seems near and dear to Hunter’s heart. “There’s this theme of being fascinated by man and our capabilities, being kind of terrified by our inability to incorporate new technologies,” she says, of the album. “It’s wonderful and amazing that we have drugs that we can take that make us smarter or improve our memory, but it’s also a sad state of our society that we want so badly to have that without knowing why it works or what the long-term effects will be.”

SHARING IS CARING: Far different from the confessionals that marked her solo output, Lower Dens is a band just as much as it is an ongoing philosophical statement. “I had always been very isolated, even amongst people,” Hunter explains. “[Playing in Lower Dens] was the first time I’ve felt comfortable sharing an experience and existence with other people. This record is an exploration of the larger human community. I want to see how far I can take those ideas. I want to be here and I want to participate.”