Ten years ago, Jana Hunter was a solo artist associated with the freak-folk movement. She had recorded a split release with Devendra Banhart, released material on Gnomonsong - the label run by Devendra and Andy Cabic of Vetiver - and was one of the artists included on the genre defining Golden Apples of the Sun compilation, alongside those aforementioned people, as well as Joanna Newsom, Vashti Bunyan, Josephine Foster and other luminaries.

After a couple of albums of psych-folk, she side-lined her solo material to become the singer and principal songwriter in a new band - Lower Dens - which she formed in 2010. On their albums Twin Hand Movement and the highly acclaimed Nootropics, they embraced krautrock, psychedelic rock and electronica. Now, on their third album Escape From Evil, the band have refined and tempered these influences whilst adding a touch of eighties pop to create their most accessible and immediate work to date.

I spoke with Jana on the phone to her home in Baltimore, but before we got around to the specifics of the new record, I wondered what had made her switch from being a solo artist to becoming part of this band.

I had been touring for a few years and I really didn't like it. I thought that eventually I would figure out how to enjoy it but instead I found myself enduring it, and not very well either. I was drinking a lot, trying not to be miserable, and I decided that I was going to quit playing music. I thought that that was the problem, but instead of quitting outright I put a band together to do a final tour of the US - mainly because I wanted to see friends and places that I might not get to see otherwise for a while - and on that tour I took two people along as part of the band and those two ended up forming Lower Dens with me afterwards, because during that tour I discovered that if I was sharing the stage with people, it was more about a group effort and I enjoyed myself. I've been in bands before but I've never given collaboration the same sort of effort that I should, so I thought I would try that.

Was it strange to start again with Lower Dens and to treat the band as a separate entity from your solo work?

Initially it was kind of an issue, but mainly that was because my label weren't confident that I could change the name and not lose followers of "Jana Hunter". I wanted the new project to have a chance to establish itself and make an impression on people so I was keen from the get-go that we call it something else, so that it was a fresh start. Lower Dens is meant to be different, I hope it is!

When Nootropics was released you said that it was the second of four albums that you intended to be part of a cycle. Is this still the case, is this new album the third part of a cycle?

It was intended to be. Escape From Evil started off as not as much of an intellectual venture as Nootropics did but, yeah, it was supposed to be like a hopeful utopian record. I didn't know what it was going to be at the same point in its development as I did with Nootropics, but I was sure that I wanted to make things simple, to stop over-complicating things. I wanted to break things down into their essence and figure out what about them was important, so we did start to do that in our writing sessions, but there was a lot going on with people in the band and it became kind of a personally difficult emotional experience.

Behind the scenes there was private grief and loss, yet the new record still seems outgoing and uptempo. Nootropics had a lot of lengthy, drifting songs and whilst 'Your Heart Still Beating' from the new record recalls those Berlin-Bowie influences and 'Company' retains the motorik beats, you only have to hear the first single 'To Live and Die in LA' to realise that Escape From Evil is more succinct and much more of a pop record.

It is! I think that maybe incidental because I was writing about things that I needed to write about instead of things that I wanted to write about. There were no conscious aesthetic decisions like there were on Nootropics or even on Twin-Hand Movement. I like pop music but I grew up with a very specific era of it. I had older siblings listening to REM and U2 and Joy Division and I still think of all those bands as pop bands - I don't know if anybody else does. Nootropics is a very distant record and is best served up with the concepts that go along with it like trans-humanism - the use of technology to extend human capabilities. There was a very abstract science fiction thing going on, which people defined specifically as a William Burroughs aesthetic. It is within that kind of world, and it is very distant and detached and I like it. But this record is... concentrated! I needed to accomplish something for myself, and it required a lot of focus and a lot of grit and the willingness to face difficult things and so it think it has ended up a much more concentrated work.

You say concentrated, but the band were a bit scattered during it.

Right now there are three of us living in Baltimore and one in Los Angeles. I think it helps that we have been in a band so long and we are closer to each other now that we were for previous albums. If I am working on a song alone and I need to know what to do with it I feel very confident that I can call any of them up and ask their advice.

Thematically then, Escape From Evil is different to your previous albums, so did your musical influences and reference points change as well?

Yeah, as I was saying when I was growing up my older siblings were listening to U2 and the Smiths. Of those bands that I listened to a lot when I was a kid they are the two that have had more of an influence than I've really given them credit for. On this record I tried not so much to let anything consciously influence me but also not to shy away from letting specific influences have an impact - particularly U2, who in my adult life have been more of a guilty pleasure than anything. After we finished the record I went back and listened to their first five albums and I heard so much of what I do within those records - they're so brilliant, I don't know what has happened within the life of that band internally but those five records had a really big impact on me. The first couple of records are much more primitive than I ever remember U2 being and they sound like teenagers - they pretty much are teenagers back then I think. It's pretty simple basic music, but fun. And the Smiths as well, in a kind of more complete all round way since I was a kid; the Smiths have been a pretty huge influence on me.

I did notice that the guitar parts on 'Société Anonyme' from the new album are very much in the style of Johnny Marr.

[Laughs] When I started to write that I thought, oh, I'm trying to do a Johnny Marr thing aren't I, but I just didn't stop myself, because even though I'm never going to be able to play like him, it's still fun to try! Over the course of history, music has been a way for people to pass information and traditions down. It even became part of western classical music to do variations of the people that you admire and learn from, but I don't know why that same thing became so anathema in modern music. I can see the argument that you think that people are sometimes trying to steal from other artists to make a name for themselves with other people's work, but I think more often than not it's more of a case of doing something as a tribute to people, consciously or not. Any time I've ever been aware of someone's direct influence I think that's its appropriate and I think that I'm doing something interesting with it, and that in a way I'm paying tribute to them, so I don't fight it. I don't mean like a direct Sam Smith / Tom Petty thing, I wouldn't do that! But I really like the idea of doing variations and tribute as tradition and it is something that people shouldn't be afraid of.

It's like how folk music, traditional music, has worked over the centuries.

Right! I mean how many blues songs are basically the same songs with different words - it's important, it's actually important!

I read about you having to sell your guitar to keep going as a band, is that true?

Oh it wasn't to fund a recording or anything, it was just to pay bills. I sold my first electric guitar, yes. I don't mind so much, it's a thing, and I might feel different about my first instrument which was a violin, or my first acoustic guitar but... actually somebody stole my first acoustic guitar so I don't have that anymore! I didn't grow up with money, I never had things - like antique playthings or heirlooms or anything like that of value, things don't mean very much to me. They have utility and that's it.

Can you make a living off your music now though? Do the changes in how people consume music cause problems?

Well, I get jobs occasionally if I need them but at the moment I'm making a living off it. If everyone who wanted to make a living off of music tried to they wouldn't be able to, it is far from ideal but then again it's kind of like a corrupt system to begin with, and it always has been. You're trying to value something that is intangible so why that would ever be expected to be a perfect system I don't know. That's not to say that people's criticisms of corporations in the music industry aren't correct - they are - it's just that it's a flawed system.

I know you have commented on the gender division in the music business in the past, but it is still something that just won't go away.

I probably have been vocal about this before [laughs]. Again it's just... at what point do you just surrender your frustration because it's almost too ridiculous to conceive of a division like that anymore. I was just thinking about a friend's tweet who said something like "I rolled my eyes so hard that my page refreshed" and that's what I think of a gender division within music, it's so outdated that it is absurd and I... I don't know what to do with it. It does matter, but it matters in a much more fundamental way. Why do people think that they can value men and women differently, that they have to adhere to binary? It just seems like such a waste of their time to do that and then to argue with them about it, when we could be doing much more interesting things with our days and our lives. I would never blame anyone for their frustration or their anger about something like that, or for putting their best effort into changing it, but it's just a question I ask myself - do I want to spend time on these people and those ideas or is my time better spent elsewhere.


Lower Dens' forthcoming third album, Escape from Evil, is out on March 30th (March 31 in the US) vis Ribbon Music.