Jana Hunter: 'I spent most of my life hiding from myself'

The singer, who identifies as transmasculine, talks about his ‘politically risky’ new album and the difficulties behind his transition

In November of 2005, Jana Hunter released a collection of songs recorded almost entirely alone over a decade, titled Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom. It was Hunter’s first solo album after years of collaborating with the 2000s freak-folk mainstay Devendra Banhart. The album contained short songs (mostly hovering around the two-minute mark) that were haunting and wistful, with muddled vocals and warped instrumentation, and earned Hunter glowing reviews and a proper spot in the then blossoming world of blog-approved indie music.

Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom ends with an exclamation point, a surprising stylistic shift in the form of a pop song called K, which is based around a video game-like electronic loop, interwoven with ghostly vocal “ahs” and twangs of guitar. The lyrics are a blend of mundane lightness and hints at darkness: “I’d love to see you Saturday afternoon / I’d spin you out and show you what you’re worth / I’d love to hold your backbone in my hands / I’d be your favorite cartoon.” The song now feels prescient, a glimpse of the themes and sounds that permeate The Competition, the fourth album from Lower Dens, Hunter’s band with drummer Nate Nelson, which formed in 2009.

While on the surface, Hunter’s early songs may appear to be more intimate and confessional by nature of their genre’s styling, he says the pop songs on The Competition are his most honest yet. “I spent most of my life hiding from myself,” said Hunter, on the phone from Los Angeles, where he moved from Baltimore on Thanksgiving day in 2018 (though he still spends a lot of time there). “I’ve tried to limit myself” with past albums, Hunter said. I wanted to push myself to write songs that felt a little less restrictive.”

Hunter is more nervous about releasing this album than he ever has been with anything before. “I wanted to risk more vulnerability. I feel like I got to that place.”

Hunter in the video for the song I Drive.
Hunter in the video for the song I Drive. Photograph: Torso

Hunter was assigned female at birth. In a 2015 essay for Cosmopolitan, he described telling his parents he was a boy when he was three or four years old, the fifth child in a family of eight kids, and their dismissal of it: “It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized there was more to that conversation than my childish fancy.” He identifies as transmasculine, which he explains as identifying more as a man on some days and more as a woman on others. “It’s not more toward one side of the binary or the other.”

The Competition was mostly written over a period of three years, in bursts of inspiration and creativity that were bordered by difficult periods that necessitated breaks from music to cope with mental health issues. For him, transitioning was bound up in those issues. “When I was a kid I did express my gender identity and it didn’t go over very well,” Hunter said. “That stuff has colored my whole life.”

The album also interweaves his personal experiences with politics. (The press release calls it “a pop album that is politically urgent”.) Hunter says writing the first single, Young Republicans, “felt politically risky”. In the video for the song, directed by Raul Gonzo, Hunter acts as a narrator, singing in a glittering black bomber jacket as a bleak, Twin Peaks-esque montage plays out. A blond woman suns herself while glaring at detectives investigating a crime. A man in a white tennis outfit glares at a woman repairing his television. The whole thing ends with a group of preppy people in red suits pledging to the American flag before feasting on Hunter, who is lying face-up on a dining table with his torso sliced open. He used to follow the news closely but had to take a break in the Trump era, so he follows journalists he respects instead: “And I worry that they’re just losing their minds.”

The video for Young Republicans, a song Hunter said ‘felt politically risky’.

The song sounds like a crisp 80s dance pop hit, with all the requisite electronic synths, bleeps and bloops, but with an eeriness that’s unsettling, lyrics about people who “just don’t fit in” and a world that’s burning. Stylistically, the whole album is a giant leap away from the Heirs of Doom era (with the exception of K), and from the first Lower Dens album, 2010’s Twin-Hand Movement (NPR described Lower Dens at the time as “a blissful swarm of feedback”). As a child, Hunter listened to mini-cassettes via headphones with a Fisher-Price Pocket Rocker, escaping into pop songs and a world where he imagined anything was possible. For this album, he says, he wanted to recreate that feeling: “I wanted to write songs that might have the potential to do that.” He says the ideal way to listen to it would be with headphones, to get the feeling of not being in a physical space (whereas his older, more lo-fi recordings could be described as all about physical space, with the echoes and reverb of wherever they were recorded ingrained in the songs).

Hunter has experimented with a progression of musical styles over the last 14 years, and The Competition is the latest iteration of that, but thankfully the core elements of his singular songwriting are still always present – the unusual chord shifts, the serene vocals, the way Hunter invites listeners to settle into a song and become transfixed by it (the best example of this might be the gorgeous song Brains, from their 2012 album Nootropics), the sense of hopefulness that’s always present, even if it’s nearly imperceptible.

“I love the textures they use in their production and the songwriting is always heartfelt,” said :3LON (Elon Battle), a Baltimore electronic musician who appears on four songs on The Competition. “I love working with artists that push the boundaries of societal norms.” :3LON lends a vocal complexity to I Drive, a song Hunter says is about feeling rejected by his family, “leaving behind obligations to people who don’t love or care about you, being with and about people who do. It’s a feeling so strong it’s driving me. That’s the driving I’m doing.”

While Hunter views The Competition as an escape, at the same time he hopes its deeply confessional nature might serve as a beacon for others struggling with their own realities: “Anguish is how we start looking for other people to connect to.”

  • The Competition is out now


Caitlin Curran in New York

The GuardianTramp

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