Art Rock

Jana Hunter, Lower Dens Redefine 'Art Rock' at CAMH Lecture, Gig

Lower Dens are having quite a year. The Baltimore band released their third album this past spring, Escape From Evil, to widespread critical acclaim and are currently in the midst of a worldwide tour supporting that record. Beyond touring and promoting the new record, songwriter Jana Hunter has kept a busy schedule penning opinion pieces for online publications on a variety of subjects such as white privilege in the Baltimore music scene and misogyny in the music industry for someone perceived as a woman who identifies as genderfluid. Hunter resides in Baltimore now, but many will remember the artist as having a long and active history as a musician in Houston.

This weekend, Hunter and the rest of Lower Dens will take over the
Contemporary Arts Museum Houston for two nights as a part of the museum’s music-based lecture series, "20 Hertz." Thursday night Hunter will speak at length about the decline of political messages in popular music over the last few decades, while Friday night Lower Dens will perform inside the museum. No stranger to the Houston Press, Hunter spoke with us about the upcoming weekend, performing in an art museum, and why political messages in pop music are important.

Houston Press: How did the performance and lecture come around? Did they reach out to you or were you already friends with them?

Jana Hunter: I don’t know Max [FIelds, Communications Associate], who works at the CAMH, but I know that we have some mutual friends. I believe that he reached out to us. Later I asked one of our mutual friends about him and they just said that he is very cool and is working to bring people into the CAMH and make interesting things happen there. He reached out to our camp and gave me the opportunity. I’m hoping I have it in me to live up to people’s expectations. I’m really excited for the show, the performance part. It would be cool to do more things like that but people don’t ask very often and it never occurs to me to find out if those opportunities are available. I’m very excited about it.

Did you go to the CAMH a lot when you lived in Houston?
I’d go a few times. I wouldn’t say a lot. I spent most of my time at shows and clubs and bars and not a ton of time at the art museums. I would go to the Menil pretty often. It was free, and sometimes empty and very cool, like literally quite cool in the summer. It was well air conditioned and very beautiful, kind of a sanctuary or holy space type of atmosphere. I would go spend a lot of time in there when it first opened. The CAM I didn’t make it to very much. I think because it just seemed like a more stately environment that I didn’t really feel like I belonged in, and I think also it cost money and I never had any. I went to the CAM a few times but I hardly ever went to the MFAH and the two I went less frequently than I did the Menil or Cy Twombly or Rothko Chapel.

Have you done a lot of shows like this, outside of a festival or bar/club before?
Not a ton of them. I like playing a variety of places. It is fun to see how your music works based on the environment you’re in. we haven’t really done any museum performances. I’m really curious. There’s an inherent amount of interacting in art projects when you’re making a band. You’re writing music and you’re putting as much of yourself as honestly as possible into the music, but you’ve got to pick and choose pieces of yourself to put out, and it feels like an art project. I’m really curious to see what it feels like for us and what it’ll feel like for an audience in a museum. I’m most comfortable in bars and clubs because I’ve spent so much time and done so many shows there and I know what the music’s going to do and how to reach people in those spaces. I don’t in museums, but it’s good to keep yourself challenged and not get lazy. It’s very cool to have museums recognizing that these art forms are ones that are worth examining in that way.

How did you come up with the topic of political messages in music for your lecture?
The reason I went with that topic is it’s been such an integral part of my life lately. I live in Baltimore now, where there’s a lot to talk about and some people are talking about it and speaking about it really honestly and other people aren’t, or they are speaking about it in these ways that I feel are timid and understandably designed to protect their careers. They will speak about it in really limited or vague ways because it’s really hard to get into conversations about things like inequality, segregation and oppression and speak really honestly and not alienate anybody. If you’re protecting your career, which I’m not saying is not an important thing, then it’s really hard to do that.

I think that’s been a struggle for musicians in this country for a long time, and looking back a few decades you see people more often staking their career on saying what they believed in and being very clear about it. I think that’s important for people who are listening to music. I think that’s important for musicians. I think it changes who you are as a musician, and it can have a really strong impact on the way that changes happen in this country. It seems like right now is an especially important time for musicians to be really clear in making statements in what’s going on that are representative of feelings and opinions that go unrepresented by politicians. You see some people doing that and you don’t see other people doing it. I feel it’s very worth having a frank conversation about.

You mentioned how some artists are timid about protecting their career — do you think there were specific events that led artists to go that direction or a more organic shift?
I haven’t done enough research to find out whether or not there were any, I’m sure there were events that changed things. I’m sure there was somebody voicing their opinion and then falling off of the map afterwards as a result. It wouldn’t make sense if there weren’t instances like that.  What’s much more insidious to me is when you have cultural shifts that lead to that. We definitely have had a cultural shift in the past decade towards a more fevered kind of capitalism where you are required to fight for your life in the arena of capitalism, and that often means completely discarding your values or looking like you’re discarding your values, or looking like you don’t have any values or that your values wouldn’t compete with the betterment of the whole, which in the arena of capitalism means economic growth. We’re all human and we’re susceptible to those trends, and we’re susceptible to the fear that drives that entire cycle.

Do you think social media in that culture has made artists more cautious of delivering political messages?
I doubt that has really affected how cautious you are, I just think that has made people more panicky. People were cautious in the past but they had more time and freedom to craft their message. It wasn’t as stressful to them and it wasn’t as half-assed to us. I think nowadays people are much more nervous about what they say or they just have stopped putting as much out. It’s much too complicated for me to understand.

I just have this idea of it as being a very kind of panicked, chaotic environment where people feel pressure to try to say the thing that will appease both people that expect them to have strong values and people who expect them to protect their brand, and that is impossible. That’s the standard that we hold everyone in the public eye to, and it makes for total chaos and this lack of message or farce of politics.

Jana Hunter will be giving a lecture at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose Blvd. Lower Dens will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 7. Both events are free and open to the public on a first-come/first-serve basis, but seating is limited.

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David Sackllah
Contact: David Sackllah