Jana Hunter // Lower Dens
“I feel much more comfortable in music composition than I do in writing lyrics.”
For Jana Hunter of Lower Dens, the words are often the most challenging part of the songwriting process: how to express his “impossibly strong” feelings in a way that is accessible and clear to his listeners.
Every writer imagines that every other writer at that very moment is composing with grace and efficiency, where words pour effortlessly from the pen or keyboard without hesitation. In this world, drafts are completed in no time.
But this is not the case. It’s hardly ever the case. For most of us, writing is intimidating. For Jana Hunter of Lower Dens, lyric writing is usually his least favorite part of the process. “It feels like toil,” he told me.
Hunter’s typical songwriting process involves writing music and lyrics separately. He writes all the music first, then all the lyrics. To come up with these lyrics, he’ll often listen to his music composition and sing along to it while doing something else. It’s how he came up with the lyric “just before you shake the hand of God” while driving on the Washington, DC beltway.
Hunter says that the lyric writing process can feel intimidating. “I’ll put it off forever,” he told me. He’s never been one to say he’s goingto sit down and write. Instead, he gives himself a break from thinking about writing the lyrics and only returns to it when the ideas come naturally in such a powerful fashion that he has no choice but to write.
Lower Dens’ great new album is called The Competition. Watch the video for one of the singles, “I Drive,” below.
Outside of songwriting, how much writing are you doing?
Very little. I feel really tentative about putting words to the page. And the longer that my writing has been in the public sphere, the more hesitant I've been to write things. I pretty much limit my writing right now to what I'm going to use for the record. Every once in a while, somebody asks me to write something for publication. I enjoy doing that, but I do feel less and less like I have any kind of authority to write anything. Because of that, I find myself doing it less frequently.
Are you doing any journaling?
I do write every day as a way to process things. I have a lot of mental health struggles, and I write about that to express my strong feelings and also to have a record to look back on and keep me in check with reality.
Do you ever find yourself turning back to those words for songwriting ideas? Or do you keep those separate?
They do find their way into songs, but a lot of what I find myself expressing in songs and for myself has to do with having these impossibly strong feelings about things and struggling to find a way to communicate them to people in a way that isn't overwhelming or off-putting.
Does the everyday writing make it easier to express ideas that are harder to express in songs?
When I’m writing songs, I'm trying to be as clear as possible. When I'm writing to journal or to explore my thoughts, I'm writing in a much less restrictive environment because I'm trying to bring things out of myself that aren’t obvious to me. I'm trying to find the underlying and subconscious thought processes and bring them out in the open.
Some songwriters have told me that they go through their old journals for song ideas when they’re stuck. Has that worked for you?
From time to time, yes. If I’m able to stop analyzing what I'm doing and stop checking it for quality, that’s when I finally feeI myself writing an honest expression of who I am or what I believe. Those sometimes make it onto the records.
But a lot of what my songwriting has been since I was a very young person simply involves singing along to something that I'm already playing when I’m paying attention to something else. That's how I ended writing lyrics by accident on the DC Beltway when I was driving there. I played these songs over and over again until I just started singing something without thinking about it.
How does the process normally start for you?
I always write music first. I feel much more comfortable in music composition than I do in writing lyrics. As I'm writing a song, my feelings are very strong, but I don't know exactly what it is that I'm writing about, or what I feel like would be appropriate for those feelings. But I'm listening to them over and over again, and then letting myself kind of zone out. “Shaking the hand of God” is a line that just came out on the Beltway, for example.
I wrote the instrumental parts for every song on the new record before I wrote the lyrics. The only exception to that was “Young Republicans.” With the lyric writing process, the only time I ever feel comfortable is if I don't think about them too much. When the lyrics do come first, it’s when I'm in a particularly jocular frame of mind.
When the lyrics are done, do you do a lot of revising? Or do think the first draft is the best?
I don’t touch the songs that come out all at once. Even hooks or parts of a song: if they come out at once, I keep them like that. Every other part of it I labor over for a long time with a lot of revision. Finding words that fit rhythmically and that have the right consonants and that carry meaning that I want: all of that I find really difficult.
The best lyric writers to me are writing poetry, and I feel incapable of doing that. To me it seems impossible. I wonder how the fuck they get there in the first place?
You’ve used the word labor twice. Do you enjoy writing lyrics? Is it generally a struggle?
It’s my least favorite part of the process. The word that I should be using shouldn’t be labor because I don't mind labor. I like having something to do that feels meaningful. But writing lyrics feels like toil.
Because of trying to get the words right?
Getting the words right, because I’m trying to communicate something that’s intangible and emotional. And when I’m writing lyrics, I have a responsibility to make it mean something tangible to someone. It’s super intimidating.
Paul Banks from Interpol told me that he’s willing to sacrifice the meaning of the song to achieve the ideal melody. The sound takes precedence. How do you feel about that?
Definitely. I find that the right word or the right meaning sometimes does not fit with the composition. Finding the right consonants or the right vowels to express the emotion of a song can be more important than finding exactly the right word.
That's a poetic way to look at it. Do you read a lot of poetry? If not, who do you like to read?
I read things that have kind of a spiritual and philosophical angle. Right now, I've been reading a couple of books about Judaism. And I’ve also started to get into Samuel Delany. I’ve brought a ridiculous amount of books on this trip that I'm never going to get to. I'm reading this book called The Sabbath. It’s a book that you need to read in one go because it’s so short, and I seem to start it over every day. That’s ok because I love reading things over and over again. A really good writer will reward you with something new each time you reread a book.
Can you read many books at the same time? I can’t, but I've talked to many songwriters who read three or four books at once.
Yeah, I like to do that. I like to have my thoughts pulled in different directions. Sometimes I reach a certain point in a book where I need to set it down and think about it for a while. Usually it happens with nonfiction more than fiction.
Does anything you read ever make it way into make its way into your songwriting?
Laughs. I try not to let it because I'm so bad at imitating. I do it a lot in music composition, just naturally. It's something that I can't turn off even if I want to. With lyric writing, if I'm taking words from something that I'm reading, I'll do it really poorly. Laughs. I love Infinite Jest, and I have to constantly stop myself from writing in that style because it’s so bad when I do it.
Wow, I'm impressed. You finished it?
I did. I was very fortunate to know someone who has read it a few times and actually wrote a guide to the book. He encouraged me to keep at it. I did stop and start it several times before getting all the way through. It took a lot longer than any book I’ve ever read to feel comfortable with the language. It took at least 200 pages to settle in.
I'd like to talk about your rituals. Is there an environment when you get your best writing done?
That’s a good question. I put off lyric writing as long as I can until the end of the process. I tend to do it all at once. And I isolate myself. I used to be so anxious and nervous about the process that I couldn’t do it without hard drugs. That’s not a part of my life anymore, so it’s a lot more intimidating. I need to find a place where I can close a door and no one will bother me.
I write better at night, but I'm more clearheaded in the morning. I’ve always stayed up really late since I was young. When I was a teenager in Arlington, Texas, there was no nightlife. The whole town shut down after dark, so I’d ride my bike or walk around and sing to myself. That's how I wrote lyrics and became comfortable doing it: at night and alone.
How about writing utensils? Songwriters are especially particular about that. Do you have a favorite kind of pen and paper? Or do you use a computer?
Pen and pencil for sure. Words mean more when I write them on paper.
Oh, I like that. Do you have a favorite brand or style?
I like a fine ball point, but I forget the brand name. It has to be black ink. I like to buy them in bulk. They have a comfortable rubber grip.
I’m the same way. I love my blue Bic Atlantis pen. It gives me a measure of confidence when it’s in my hand because I feel like things will flow.
But do you think it’s about having the right materials or just not changing something that’s already worked in the past?
I think it’s about having something that you know works.
It’s like a woobie.
Exactly. How about paper? Do you like a certain type? Are you a legal pad type of person?
I do love my yellow legal pad. My paper must be lined because if I write on an unlined piece of paper, my sentences all veer towards the upper right-hand corner. And then I get really distracted about how sloppy the page is.
I want to explore that idea of writing all the music then all the lyrics. Is that something that you’ve always done? How did you discover that process works the best for you?
When we started work on our second record, it was the first time I wrote music with the computer, writing with MIDI and software synthesizers. That was way more compelling. It came naturally and was less intimidating. It was also more fun, and I could do it surrounded by people and not be distracted and anxious about it. It was like a kind of like a video game to play on tour.
All of my confidence is in writing the music and creating the sounds. Those are the crafts that I've been building for the past seven or eight years with this band. But my lyric writing has only gotten more intimidating for me over that time.
Why is that?
Because when I was younger, I really didn't worry about it too much. I just let everything out, and I found comfort and satisfaction in obscure lyrics. But the longer I've been in this band, I’ve felt like it's important to write lyrics that are unobscured and more vulnerable. And that’s naturally more intimidating.
Do you write all the lyrics, then all the music? And do you ever mix and match the lyrics and the music?
That has changed over time. With Nootropics, I had an idea of what I wanted that record to be. And I decided that there were topics that I wanted to write about within that greater theme. I tried to match those topics to the songs that were already written and the feeling that those songs evoked.
But the more I write, the more I'm trying to let the song dictate what the lyrics are about, without trying to predetermine what things I want to be talking about. The exception would be “In Your House.” I knew that I wanted a song that spoke specifically to Donald Trump the predator.
Along those lines: when it comes to writing lyrics, is there an ideal emotion when you’re at your most prolific?
Yeah, longing is in almost every song in one way or another. I think all of my writing has an element of longing, of strong, powerful longing. And then beyond that, I want to write things that don't shy away from the complexity of emotion and feeling. There’s no pure feeling; there’s no pure love or pure hate. They're all wound together. In my own writing, I don't find it possible to reduce things. And I don’t want to, either.
What was your favorite song on the album to write? It may not have been the easiest, but it gave you the most joy to write.
“Buster Keaton” was my favorite from start to finish. The song has a strong sense of mischief and humor. I knew the lyrics were going to be funny. That's where I feel most comfortable as a performer too. Every night when we play that song, I love singing the first verse. It gives me such great pleasure to sing that to a huge crowd.
The flip side to that: what was the most difficult song to write? One that you almost gave up on.
I think “Empire Sundown.” I felt good about the music composition, but it took a long time to find a vocal melody and style of singing that could work for that song. And it took a long time to figure out what lyrics to pair with what music. It was one of those songs that I stopped working on, but I don’t know if it was finished. I still don’t know if I got it right.
Do you get writers block?
I feel really intimidated and anxious about writing lyrics, so I'll put it off forever. I don't feel like there's anything that I can do about it until I've given myself a break from thinking about it and then come naturally back to the ideas I feel strongly about that are likely to give rise to some kind of some kind lyrics. But I if I say I'm going to sit down and write, it doesn't usually happen.