Jana Hunter isn't in a talkative mood. She picks her words slowly and gives brief, sometimes ambiguous answers punctuated with odd pauses.
"So, do you see any difference between American and European audiences?" I ask.
(An extremely long pause) "I don't know. Maybe," she finally says.
With her green jacket zipped up to her chin and her arms crossed across her chest, she looks like she's cold. We're in a small conference room listening to her new CD, There's No Home, and instead of the usual barely contained enthusiasm most singer/songwriters display, Hunter is wearing a little frown.
This is her second solo CD, a follow-up to her 2005 Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom. Hunter also has a 2004 vinyl-only split release with Devendra Banhart, who is cofounder of Gnomonsong, the label that released both Heirs and Home.
Gnomonsong is hailing There's No Home as an "extrovert to Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom's introvert." I notice most of the songs are low-key, slow ballads with little instrumentation and minimal production, and wonder exactly how introverted Heirs of Doom was.
"Valkyries in your nest / Oh, they're not supposed to be there? / I didn't know that / I can't imagine your horror at the prospect," her voice sings softly.
"What are valkyries?" I ask her brightly.
"Valkyries, ah, are (big sigh), uh, spirits that come to take you away (pause), off of the battlefield when you've, when you've passed away gloriously," she tells me, evenly.
The next song is a bit more up-tempo. It's called "Vultures."
"So, is being carried off a theme here?" I ask.
She gives me a blank stare, her frown deepening just slightly.
"Valkyries and vultures, they can both carry people off," I say.
"Ahh," she nods. "The song titles aren't necessarily indicative, uh, of what the songs are about. Whatever is the first impulsive name that jumps out at me, that's what I name songs regardless of if it has to do with the song. The word 'vultures' does occur in that song somewhere, but it's really about someone who, um, someone who is about to be hung and kinda has hope for not being hung and then gets into being hung (long pause), at the end of the song, anyway."
"Are many people getting hung these days?" I ask.
"Sure they are, in songs, in books, everywhere," she tells me without even a hint of irony in her voice.
If Hunter isn't the most sparkling conversationalist, she is nonetheless a talented songwriter and a popular performer, both in the U.S. and Europe. Both her CDs are what industry insiders call "buzzworthy," and her touring schedule routinely takes her through France, Spain and the UK for months at a time.
"It's starting to become easier for me on tour," she says. "It took me a while to figure out how to have fun doing that. It's pretty goddamn grueling touring most of the time (pause), because you don't have your room to go home to, ever. For two years, I didn't have a room to go home to and, you know, you're not always with friends. You spend long stretches of time without any confidante at your side. And there's only so much partying that a 27-year-old woman wants to do.
"But flip side, you meet amazing people and have incredible experiences you never would have otherwise. You get to play your songs for lots and lots of people," she adds.
The song "Regardless" is playing now. Another low-key ballad, it features Will Adams on a lap steel guitar. The effect is surprisingly soothing. Cohesive and, while stark, still well produced, Home seems to have dodged the sophomore jinx bullet.
"[Heirs] took half a lifetime to make. This CD was written over the course of a month. That CD was more of a message. That CD was about being in a real dark place," she says.
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The darkness obviously lifted for There's No Home, despite its dark title, but Hunter is still slow to go into detail about not only her songwriting methods but the meaning of each song.
"I mean, you know...I feel like it's kind of a cheap trick talking about it. The last song on the record is about someone really close to me passing away. But these songs can mean whatever for anybody else. People don't need to be involved in my story for these songs to work. There's no reason for that. I'm not necessarily telling you anything about who I am. The kind of language I use is not explicit. And no one is going to develop a relationship with me. They might develop a relationship with the song, but that's going to be an entirely subjective experience for them. I don't want to sell someone a song because my grandfather died, and it killed me, and so I wrote a song about it.
"I don't like ripping my chest out and throwing my heart in [people's] faces. That's gross," she says, her frown finally disappearing and a little laugh slipping through.
Jana Hunter performs Saturday, March 31, at the Proletariat, 903 Richmond, 713-523-1199. Jracula, Balaclavas and Arthur Bates also appear.