The Art of Artlessness
Jana Hunter embraces imperfection,
Matt Pond PA takes on the open road
by Kevin Crowe
Jana Hunter has that subdued, slow, cadenced voice you’d expect to hear coming from some dimly lit living room after a stellar party. Hers is a drowsy kind of wisdom, something that’s only found in the darkest hours of night, right before exhaustion sets in, that moment of sweet, perfect clarity before you shut your eyes.
Admittedly, her music isn’t perfection. There are flaws, sure; slight scratches and static rip into the recordings from time to time. Imperfections, she explains, can happen quite easily.
“I can screw up the recording,” she says, “my voice breaks, I start too early. Those things capture the moment as much as any note in the song. They help define whatever feeling or moment I’m trying to capture.”
She is classically trained on the violin, and those countless childhood hours spent practicing works like “Toccata and Fugue” might explain why she eschews the idea of perfection and favors raw, unpolished recordings.
At home in Texas, when she’s not on the road doing her solo thing, Hunter keeps busy with some of the more experimental groups in the Lone Star State, which allows her to keep taking chances toward developing an ever-stranger philosophy of sound.
She’s known to play with the band Ejaculette, an homage to hair metal; then there’s Invisible Robot Fish, a kind of electronic improv in the spirit of Ornette Coleman. She’s also into sludge metal and pure, unmitigated—and inharmonic—noise metal, the kind of hardcore, angst-filled, jetsam sounds that cause old people to give up trying to understand kids these days.
Perhaps the appearance of artlessness gives her solo project its slightly folksy feel—an eccentric kind of folk, not the so-called “freak folk” that consists of wailing, whining and not much else. It’s weird music, no doubt, but it’s not without a purpose. Hunter will describe her style as “crazy folk,” explaining how her music subtly shares a creative vein with the movies of David Lynch.
Her latest album Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom embraces the same surreal, non-sequitur moments that Lynch loves to weave into his dystopic dreamscapes. Most of Hunter’s album is like a nightmare, as it embraces an elongated vision of doom, contained within an unapologetically eerie aura, made all the more resonant when Hunter adds her airy, almost ghostly voice and sparse guitarwork.
But it never reaches its expected conclusion. We’re not completely thrown into a bleak world of emo fetishism. The last song, cryptically entitled “K,” has a happy, preset Casio backbeat, which pulls the album out of what would otherwise be a depressing cycle of gloom and doom, throwing the listener into an upbeat, positive buzz, filled with esoteric—perhaps senseless—lyrics. It’s an odd reminder that, although there are often great periods of depression, life’s much too complicated and beautiful to focus solely on the downside.
“‘K’ is so much fun,” Hunter laughs. “I didn’t want a wholly depressing album. I wanted to go from the most weak moments to the most exciting moments.” And she crosses that threshold quite eloquently. The stark juxtaposition of the morose with the sublime might best be described as sprezzatura , the art of appearing totally artless, or an act of elegant carelessness. The feel is similar to postmodern drama, like a Caryl Churchill play or a Ntozake Shange choreopoem, wherein all the actors unexpectedly break into song-and-dance numbers for no obvious reason except that, sometimes, you’re supposed to sing and dance and make your own merriment. Sometimes, happiness doesn’t need to make any sense. It just happens, and no amount of learning or reason can figure out why.
“Farm, Ca.,” a slow, full-on folksy ballad, has become somewhat synonymous with Hunter’s style. When you begin to listen to the lyrics, it defies reason. “I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote it,” she confesses. “The first couple of lines are kinda about The Grapes of Wrath , maybe. Then gossip. Then coveting hipsters.... I was just playing a guitar and making up words over it, and that’s what happened.”
Happenstance has always played a big part in the evolution of Hunter’s sound. She once toured with the group Matty and Mossy until a freak car accident crushed her bandmate’s hand. That’s when her solo career began. And now the sound is “much more personal. It’s an individual thing. It’s incredibly personal, to me it is.... It’s more sparse.”
With chance as a guiding factor, Hunter’s found something that’s different, not just weird or crazy. “I have no idea how I got where I am,” she says. And her live shows are often just as unpredictable.
“It’s better sounding live,” she says, adding with a slight chuckle: “They have better microphones than what I have.”
Who: Jana Hunter, w/ Mountains of Moss and Bradford
Several Miles Later
by Leslie Wylie
Satellite images of Wyoming look a lot different from those you’d cull from a map. One’s crisscrossed by a network of blue and red highways that are almost circulatory in nature, a scaled-down network of veins and arteries connected by capillary-thin back roads. The other looks more like a work of art than an actual place—wrinkled swaths of chartreuse laid flat against manila expanses, inlaid with threads of navy-blue.
At the moment, Matt Pond is coasting through a composite sketch of both perspectives, having just played a show in Laramie the night before and headed now to Colorado Springs. He’s on one of those red lines, probably, but exact location doesn’t seem to matter. There’s no way of calculating exact location, anyway, when you’re on the move. Sometimes it’s nicer to just look out the window, watch the watercolor world tumble past.
“It’s just what we do,” Pond says from his cell phone, which should—geographically speaking—be cutting out at any second. “But it’s still strange sometimes, playing in the middle of nowhere.” Not that he hasn’t had adequate opportunity to get used to it: For years, and especially since his band’s release of Several Arrows Later in October 2005, life’s been a non-stop slideshow of America as framed by the window of a tour bus.
“Certain places have certain meanings…there are little places and pockets of places I really like,” Pond says. He has a soft spot for Los Angeles, for instance, but not because of the city itself. “I like how brown it is, or something. Brown and green.”
In music and life, Pond calls it like he sees it. And his willingness to allow certain images to speak for themselves—whether they represent fact (L.A. as city) or selective perception (L.A. as color palate)—lends a lyrical sincerity to his brand of brisk, velvety indie-pop. Wrapped in lush strings and nursed forward by shapely melodies, it’s music for those days when you’d rather do something productive with your emotional aches and pains than wallow in them.
“I think the music is pretty heart-on-my-sleeve, but with my tongue in my cheek at the same time,” Pond explains. “I don’t think I’m going to go around crying all the time. But I think I know what I think and I tend to say it, whether it’s right or wrong.”
It’s an attitude that’s been a long time in the making. Growing up in Pennsylvania (hence the PA), he recalls feeling smothered by the pressure to keep his mouth shut and stay on task. As a multi-instrumental child, for instance, Pond admits to hating music—an animosity that now seems ironic.
“What’s so appealing about sitting around and playing a bunch of crappy John Sousa songs? That sucks,” he says. “It’s the way that it was, everything I did, until I finished college—this series of ‘what you’re supposed to do.’”
Nowadays, circa the rise of Matt Pond PA, things are different. Pond plays his own music, not somebody else’s, and he plays it the way he feels it desires to be played. “We’ve always wanted to do whatever we wanted to,” he says. It’s an attitude that’s gotten him in trouble on a handful of occasions, most notably when he agreed to expose his music to the unwashed masses via The O.C.
“It’s fine. It’s something we did. You get different reactions from people but you just can’t pay attention,” Pond says. “I’m glad we’re not too subconscious to try things. I think that’s the problem with indie rock—everyone is so worried what everyone else thinks.”
Self-conscious simply isn’t Pond’s style. If anything, he seems more hypersensitive to the world around him than to his own dramas. Sure, his personal life seeps into his songwriting—“I can’t write anything unless it’s autobiographical,” he says—but getting it out just makes it available to be seen, not to be confused with dwelled-upon, from different angles. Not that it loses any meaning: “Sometimes I think about when I’m writing things from memory, whether it was a horrible time or an amazing time, I wouldn’t want to do it if I wasn’t attached to it,” he explains.
It’s a challenge, the idea of enjoying life as it approaches and then surrendering it to the rear-view window. But it’s that kind of trust-the-moment, whatever-the-moment-means, songwriting that pushes Matt Pond PA above its peers. And months spent on the road, staring out the window, is excellent training. “I like doing this, and I hate doing this. But five days after I’m home, I’ll be ready to go back on the road,” he says.
It comes as a sudden, pleasant revelation that the cell phone hasn’t given out, or at least not yet. Maybe they’re approaching a city. Pond considers this for a moment. “Well, we’re always getting closer to something,” he concludes. m
What: 90.3 The Rock presents: Matt Pond PA w/ Lucas Reynolds (of Blue Merle)