JANA HUNTER with the PICKUPS and KAT BURNS at Sneaky Dee's (431 College), Friday (April 14), 10 pm. $7. 416-603-3090. Rating: NNNNN
Austin -- I bought the Devendra Banhart-compiled contemporary freak-folk scene survey The Golden Apples Of The Sun (Bastet) for the tracks by the Espers, Vashti Bunyan and Josephine Foster of the Children's Hour.
But it was the strangely haunting Farm, CA by Jana Hunter that stuck with me.
Its slow-rolling tempo and slightly off-kilter rhythm seemed to be something out of an Appalachian field recording from the late 20s, which made it more akin to those mesmerizing performances gathered by Harry Smith for his Anthology Of American Folk Music.
It's now been two years since I first heard Hunter's Farm, CA and I can still hear that creaky fiddle droning behind a whispy voice that could be coming from the bottom of a well.
If it was, she managed to get herself out, because on my way to meet her for an interview in a north Austin coffee shop, I've been listening to more of her wonderfully entrancing tunes collected on the Blank Unstaring Heirs Of Doom disc that her buddy Banhart just released on his new Gnomonsong label.
Since there are no photos of Hunter on the sleeves of her recordings, if she hadn't been the only person in the joint I doubt that I could've picked her out of a crowd. In fact, the girl sipping on a fruity drink looked like she was cutting her grade 11 chemistry class. If you have an image in your mind of what a typical freak-folk artist looks like, Hunter is the exact opposite.
"I didn't set out to be any kind of folk artist," says Hunter, slurping away. "I might have been doing metal songs or punk rock songs, but all I had during the period these recordings were made was an acoustic guitar and a four-track tape machine.
"A lot of of my friends were really into the whole four-track aesthetic, and it was typical of a certain kind of music I was listening to while growing up you know, early Guided by Voices, Sebadoh, that kinda stuff. I didn't have any plans for doing anything with my early recordings. They were just meant for myself and my friends Matt Brownlie and Arthur Bates. They shared a strong feeling with me about the need to keep recording whether or not anyone heard the songs outside our own homes."
That explains why Hunter's home demos, recorded song-by-song when inspiration struck over the last 10 years, are only now seeing the light of day. Yet the GBV-inspiration doesn't account for the eerie, old-timey quality of the 27-year-old Texan's singing and playing. It might be hard to believe from listening to Hunter's music, but she claims to be unfamiliar with any of the pre-war blues or string band recordings I mention.
"Between the ages of nine and 15, I was studying violin, so it was all classical music for me. I didn't listen to any sort of popular music until I was 15, at which point I got really into Ella Fitzgerald who showed me how a singer could manipulate her voice in different ways. It was singing along with Ella that caused me to listen to my own voice and think more about what I was doing with it.
"The only connection I have to music in my family background is my grandfather, Wayne Hunter, who used to sell beer in Texas during the 30s and 40s. As part of his promotion, he would put on performances where he'd sing and play western swing music. I like the idea of having that as part of my family heritage."
According to Hunter, her fortuitous hook-up with Banhart, which led to 2005's Devandra Banhart/ Jana Hunter (Troubleman Unlimited) split LP and later the Blank Unstaring Heirs Of Doom demos collection, happened by chance. They were sharing a bill in Houston, where Hunter was living, recording and working in an ice cream shop with her guitarist brother John Hunter.
"Devendra was unlike anything I'd ever seen in Houston. He was really weird and incredibly charismatic. He was playing his own music really loud and intense there was something very genuine about him. We wound up hanging out after the show, but I can't recall anything that we talked about. I was pretty drunk."
Although Hunter says she would be happy to release another album with Banhart's Gnomonsong label, don't count on anything new from her in the immediate future.
"I don't write that many songs to begin with, and most of the ones I finish I don't really like, so adding new songs to my repertoire is a very gradual process. It's gonna be a while before I put out another album."