Beyond the Mainstream

Jana Hunter brings her lovely folk/blues songs back to Tucson

Through a haunted, subdued haze of faux-primitive folk music and psychedelia-steeped blues, Jana Hunter's songs are intimate, revealing and utterly lovely.

Balancing a medieval grace and some of the dark heart documented in seminal recordings of rural Americana by Harry Smith or Alan Lomax, her guitar-playing recalls the experimental traditionalism of John Fahey. And the beautiful, off-kilter melodies and eccentric phrasing of her singing recall the styles of kindred spirits Tara Jane O'Neil and Kristin Hersh, as well as that of pal Devendra Banhart, whose label, Gnomonsong Records, has released both of Hunter's albums.

Touring to promote the more recent of those two CDs, There's No Home, Hunter will perform at Solar Culture Gallery on Friday, June 22.

Perhaps it's not surprising that the 29-year-old Texan (born in Arlington, now living in Houston) is classically trained. For much of her life, violin was her instrument of choice.

"I got into classical music when I was a child, and they still had really good music programs in public schools, and I played a lot in regional youth orchestras during high school," Hunter said.

She spoke via cell phone from outside a roadside diner in Eugene, Ore., where she was playing a gig last weekend. I could actually hear birds chirping in the background as she spoke.

"But I also had siblings about a decade older than me, and they listened all the time to The Smiths, Prince, R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs and U2 at the time. They're older enough than me that they weren't pushy about it. It wasn't like they would sit and analyze the music for me and tell me what I was supposed to be listening to and getting out of it. They also weren't very experimental in their tastes. They didn't explore beyond the mainstream.

"And neither did I, until later. I tried to at a certain point, but I really didn't understand the vastness of what was available in music until much later, like until my early 20s. I still feel pretty behind when it comes to that."

But in her teenage years, Hunter also discovered the joys of making rock music in bands with her friends, she said. Her first was called McGillicutty.

"When I was about 15, my friends from the orchestra and I started a really terrible folk-rock band. One time in rehearsal, I was fooling around with a guitar. And one of my friends said, 'You look good with that; you should write some songs.' That's literally how I started down this path."

Her future started to unfold when McGillicutty broke up due to the proverbial "creative differences," and Hunter, in the words of her bio, "began in earnest the pursuit of solo writing, performing at local open mics and house parties."

She called those early attempts at songwriting failed experiments.

"Then my writing was just so terribly forced. It took a long time for me to develop to where I have a songwriting process that isn't like that, that works a little better, although I can't say I am all that sophisticated at it yet."

And Hunter says it has never been effortless.

"I don't think that ever happened, you know, where you are like channeling anything. But there was definitely a point at which I went from picking a topic that I felt had meaning and trying to write a song out of it, to actually writing based on my real feelings and based on honest experiences."

After she started playing solo, Hunter soon began burning her songs onto CDs that she sold at gigs. Eventually, she met Banhart.

"I met Devendra first when we played a show together back in 2002 or so. It was one of his first U.S. tours. We liked each other's music a lot. We played another show the next time he came through Texas. He's been a very good proponent for the things that I have done. He would take my CD-Rs and give them out to people, trying to get my name and music out there."

Banhart took his championing of Hunter to the next level by including her music on the compilation Golden Apples of the Sun (Bastet Records) and then releasing a split LP with her on Troubleman Records.

Banhart and Andy Cabic (a member of the band Vetiver) started Gnomonsong in 2005, and its first release was Hunter's debut album, Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom.

When she appears this Friday at Solar Culture, Hunter will be accompanied by guitarist Ray Raposa (leader of the San Diego/New York City band Castanets) and drummer Yoni Kifle.

Hunter--who also moonlights in the band Jracula--recalled that she has played Tucson once before, but it was hardly her finest moment, she said. "I think it was in a diner."

The Red Room at Grill, perhaps?

"That was it. Hopefully, the people that saw that show will have forgotten about it entirely."

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