The Revelation of Jana
"Have you ever creeped yourself out? Me, too." Jana Hunter is talking about what motivates her to write songs. "I had a period where I was kind of going crazy at my house. I was broke and out of a job. Really depressed. And I just started getting really paranoid. I wrote some great songs during that period." Of course, that period was over three years ago. "There have always been huge gaps between the times when I write songs -- it's always like a year and then four songs will magically pop out within a week," she explains. "I can't just sit down and write a song. I feel like some really bad songs have come out of people sitting down, trying to write songs."
But what was she so paranoid about? "It was just before New Year's Eve, 2000. I was pretty sure that there was going to be some kind of apocalypse or something." Oh, that. Remember that? "I wanted to run out and tell everyone about it and be a total freak on the street." Suddenly, she turns self-conscious. "I'm going to come off sounding like a total fruitcake."
She says she was obsessed with one particular CD, a collection of Greek Byzantine liturgical songs called Hymns to the Holy Mother of God. "I think it worked into the whole apocalypse thing," she says. "I kept thinking about New Year's and how man will destroy himself. I decided that if the world didn't collapse on that New Year's, I would secretly install speakers all over the city of Houston that would play Hymns to the Holy Mother of God," thus turning H-town into a twisted Greek Orthodox version of Disney's "It's a Small World" ride.
She survived the Y2K apocalypse. We all did. And since you haven't heard ancient Greek chants at the Galleria or in the downtown tunnels, you know that she didn't follow through with the Holy Mother of God project. Instead, in keeping with the whole Greek thing, Hunter went to Athens. Only it was the one in Georgia.
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She took her four-piece band -- Matty & Mossy -- with her, and once there, they hooked up with producer/engineer Chris Bishop. Bishop is an associate of the Elephant 6 recording collective, whose many-bands-with-common-members ethos looks familiar to most observers and participants of the Houston rock scene. Bishop proved to be the right guy for the job, and Jana and the boys returned to Houston with Fraimer's Hamey, an album of delicate, personal songs that belie the often brash and ugly city that produced them. After all, Houston is the city of Destiny's Child and ZZ Top -- my body's too bootylicious, a haw-haw-haw-haw, and so forth.
But it turns out Houston isn't entirely responsible for Fraimer's Hamey anyway. "A lot of the way I am was influenced by the town that I grew up in," says Hunter. And that town is Arlington, the suburbopolis that sits squarely between Dallas and Fort Worth. Hunter liked the "big suburban wasteland" well enough up to a certain point. But, she says, "as I got older I felt like it betrayed me."
After high school Hunter went through a period of stagnation. "I had a lot of things to complain about," she says, "and writing songs was a way of resolving those issues." The songs were therapy, something she needed to do, something she wanted to continue doing, just not in Arlington. But where does a teenager from Arlington take her songs if she wants to do something with them? The answer for Hunter was whichever city her friends lived in.
Once on the other end of I-45, Hunter convinced a few Arlingtonians to join her. The first of these was guitarist Heath Flagtvedt. Hunter and Flagtvedt co-wrote the bulk of the songs that would become Matty & Mossy's repertoire in a relatively short period of time. Then they assembled a band. Drummer Matt Frey came on board, and later Jana's brother John rounded out the group on bass. Things were going well. They recorded an album. They went on a tour. In the short time they had been together, they had done more than most bands do in years. But here comes the VH1 punch line you've been conditioned to expect: Flagtvedt was involved in a car accident that damaged his right hand, but happily left everything else intact.
It was several months after the accident before Matty & Mossy were able to play again, and the band was never quite the same. "We tried to get it back together and regain momentum, but it just wasn't happening," says Hunter. "I had a conversation with Heath one day where he admitted that he just wasn't really interested in writing anymore, so I started pushing him towards his [visual] art." And that was that. Frey is now in Swarm of Angels and has played with John Hunter in Deathro Skull. Flagtvedt is pursuing his art. And after a long break, Jana is playing live again, albeit reluctantly.
"When I started writing my own songs I never really had the intention of doing shows," Hunter says. "And even now I question whether or not I want to perform live or release records. When I first started thinking about it, I was into the Residents and was really, really excited by the idea of obscurity." But it's a little late for that, isn't it? There were all those times she played live. "I still kind of believe in it; it's just not really so much of a possibility anymore because enough people have heard the stuff that it's no longer completely obscure." So she plays but she has reservations. "I feel like I really have to put everything into these songs that can be put into them. They have to come off really well because I don't want them to be half-assed. The songs are so personal, they have to be really convincing."
To help her with the doubts, she has begun playing live with a new collaborator, the multi-instrumentalist Simeon Yurek. On stage, Yurek flits from chord organs to guitars to toy pianos to drums as if he can't decide which one he wants to play. "He plays a lot of instruments, but he's never been trained on anything," Hunter says. "He's really good at finding textures and sounds."
But more important, he's less precious about the songs and, well, everything. "He looks weird all the time, he talks weird all the time, and unless it costs him his job, he just doesn't care," she says, adding that his abandon balances her perfectionism. And to make the experience even less conventional, they throw in some surprises. "On a couple songs, Simeon doesn't even play instruments live," Hunter explains. "It's all backing tracks bounced down to a MiniDisc. And since we were going to be doing that anyway, I also have all this other stuff that I've been collecting for years like field recordings, thrift store tape finds, and little snippets of songs that I decided could be used. I just really wanted to get away from being in a rock band."
She's succeeded; her music is not at all like a rock band's. In fact, there's really no easy way to describe it. Hunter agrees. "I thought it would be great if I could have an artist statement, but I don't think I could do that," she says. "There's just so much about it that I've never really tried to articulate." This writer's happy to try to oblige. How about this: "I wanted to remain as obscure as possible " Hunter laughs at the suggestion. "And it didn't really work out? Maybe."
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