Artist Spotlight: Jana Horn

    Jana Horn is a Texan songwriter who grew up in a Baptist household in Glen Rose, a town of around 2,500 people. After working with bands like Reservations, American Friend, and Knife in the Water, she scrapped her first solo effort because it sounded too polished and returned to the studio in 2018 to record her debut proper, Optimism. Re-released last year by the Philadelphia label No Quarter, it’s a wondrous collection of skeletal folk-pop songs, and though its follow-up, The Window Is the Dream – out Friday – retains her penchant for minimalism and cutting ambiguity, it came together under different circumstances. Essentially written in one room while Horn was focused on teaching and earning her MA in fiction writing from the University of Virginia, the album hangs in the liminal space between being and dreaming, grasping at the elusive nature of time, of life as passing by. The songs are treated with simplicity and warmth yet be as can tricky to dissect as its subtle flourishes can be disarming. They draw the dull stillness of anticipation out into something circular, mysterious, and engaging, like a conversation suspended in mid-air.

    We caught up with Jana Horn for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about transitioning from Optimism to The Window Is the Dream, the ideas behind her new album, songwriting as a process of discovery, and more.

    What’s your headspace like with the release of the album coming up?

    It’s all pretty exciting to me, and maybe unexpected. I’d come to Virginia, where I live now and am in a writing program, and I didn’t necessarily expect for making music to be a kinetic aspect of my life. I always make it, but for it to have its place where it where it is really cool and I think mysterious. It has everything to do with the re-release of Optimism and Mike [Quinn, No Quarter Records owner] having found that and creating this really interesting path for me. I kind of feel like I’m living out some kind of premise that I was unaware of before I got here, and it’s been really fun to see where that goes.

    Can you elaborate on what that new place is that you feel your music has found?

    It’s just another avenue for expression and for translation of what I’m living through. So much of all the literature and things that I’m interested in now are finding a place outside of the page, which feels really clever. The two practices are no longer so compartmentalized. It feels like there’s this nice blending of the two. My ways of expression, intake and output, feel more complicated and interesting than before. I used to just write stories and write songs, and it was this very separate process. It doesn’t feel that way now.

    I was struck by the fact that, in your press bio, the names Eminem, Weird Al Yankovic, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Leonard Cohen are all mentioned in the same line. Tell me about some of those early influences and how they developed over time.

    I grew up in a place where I just didn’t have a big breadth of influence, of what the possibilities were of culture and music and all these kinds of things. There was a pretty limited set of what I had access to. Reaching out for something more literary, something more wordy and clever, I clung to, at a young age, Eminem or Weird Al, who are obviously very playful with language and were doing something different. And while I very quickly grew out of that, it makes sense to me why those artists sparked my attention. There was something more to their expression – say what you will about Eminem or Weird Al, but they have the power of language, and that was very fascinating to me. And then I found Leonard Cohen and Neutral Milk Hotel when I was 14, 15 years old, and that really resonated in a way that felt more true to me, and not just “This person’s clever with words” – this person also is rendering language to this soul level that was, you know, ruining and giving my life meaning at that age.

    How did you become interested in songwriting as a means of finding meaning for yourself?

    I was always singing. I was singing before I was talking, kind of, and was singing country music. I was writing songs when I was 5, 6 years old – I can remember the first song that I wrote at that age. I’ve always written songs, and I guess the difference between and then now is that I record them. I started recording songs for the first time in high school, and at that time it felt like I wanted to be able to give a song to someone. I always just played that song for one person, and I would want that one person’s validation. If I had that, I had achieved my aim.

    You’ve said that you went into the new record with a different headspace compared to Optimism. How would describe that headspace?

    I felt in most every way that my lifestyle was different. And in a lot of ways, it has to do with years. I began working on Optimism in 2015, and I began working on this in 2020, so there’s a number of years that have passed. When I was writing Optimism, I was just everywhere all the time, nowhere at the same time – very transient, hopping from house to house, from experience to experience. I was doing a lot of traveling and playing in a lot of bands, and writing songs was like a vehicle of motion, like the songs were getting me from place to place. And [The Window Is the Dream] was very much written after a long day of writing and a long day of reading. I was kind of just dumping the day into this, like, “I’ll just sit here and I’ll play two chords, and I’ll wind myself down, kind of settle this stirring into something.” So it felt a lot more like a funneling kind of thing. You sit for so long, and then you have to put the book down, and I pick up the guitar and something occurs. Some of the songs took many days of that, so I’d sit down with that guitar and keep playing those two chords, and for many days I’d just let a melody kind of rock me, figure it out as I go.

    The album is full of quiet revelations, and one of my favorites is on ‘Days Go By’, where you sing, “Maybe one thing doesn’t lead to the next/ Two sides of a coin are not the head leading to the tail.” It’s questioning the linear logic of time, but it’s also a wonderful way of framing time as currency. How quickly or consciously do you tend to jump from one thought to the next?

    Yeah, I love that connection. It’s really just different for every song. Funnily enough, ‘Days Go By’ is the oldest song on the album. I actually started it the summer before I got here, and all it was was, “Days go by, they don’t have time.” I kind of have this thing rolling around in my head, and then I picked it back up a year or more later and finished it out. I was in Austin and I was doing this crazy, transient lifestyle, then I was in Virginia, and then this small incubation period of a summer in which I was transitioning, and in that period I was already beginning this album. That was the first song, ‘Days Go By’. There could probably be something interesting about that if I really really thought about it, but I haven’t yet.

    Listening to the album, things like the window and the door feel like both actual objects in a room and abstract metaphors. What drew you to playing with those elements that way?

    I think probably a lot of it had to come from what I was reading. I was reading a ton of Borges. I have to think that some of the things that come out are just synthesizing what I’ve been reading through my own silly little machine up here. A lot of stuff on dreams, Jung and Clarice Lispector and all these authors who are really breaking down dimensions and giving dreams and things like that that don’t necessarily have empirical value the right to exist, if that makes any sense – giving them the weight that we don’t seem to give them, but perhaps they literally do have. I was just vibing on it and letting that come through.

    But also, quite often looking through a window, quite often coming in and out of the same door – my life was just so regular, just sitting in a chair. The past three years have been very procedural and ritualistic, and these metaphors come easy to me because they’re sitting right in front of me. It’s just what I’ve got to work with, and some of that is really conscious and some of that’s less conscious.

    How do you identify that moment when it feels like you’re translating these ideas and experiences through your own voice?

    In a way, I think if it comes out of me, it’s mine. It’s not like I’m looking at a book and singing along to the words that I read. So much of the task of writing is synthesizing observation with experience and then kind of trying to get that out. An example of when this maybe has not been the case – there’s a song on Optimism called ‘Tonight’, which I had to dedicate to Sibylle Baier because I really felt like it wasn’t mine. It had to belong to her because I was so devoted to her album that it just seeped too far into me, and I wasn’t able to create something wholly unique. I think I created something that was partially me, but mostly her. Of course, all the stuff in the song itself is very personal to me, but I think crossed the line. [laughs] That doesn’t happen too often, but when it does I try to give credit where credit’s due.

    I wanted to draw attention to these lyrics from ‘Leaving Him’: “You look up to the sky/ With a question burning inside/ Who can put it out?” Do you remember writing down that line?

    Yeah, I wrote that song a little bit differently than I usually do. I really don’t often have an object of my attention for a song. But in this one, I really had someone in mind, and I was imagining them having agency in a situation that they don’t. It’s kind of back-and-forth I can go through of wondering whether your idea of bettering someone’s life means anything.

    It feels significant to bookend the record with that song and ’The Way It Was’, because in some way the album deals with abstract feelings, and I get the sense that you’re gradually pulling back the curtain while returning to this place where you started. But it also feels like a vulnerable choice to close off with that song.

    That was the last song I wrote for the album. I never bothered to learn how to play it on any instrument, so when I perform it live, I just sing it a capella. I wanted to give it that kind of treatment on the album, so it almost has that a cappella vibe.

    Does songwriting feel like a process of self-discovery for you, or is it more about articulating something that you already recognize in yourself and the world around you?

    It’s certainly a process of discovery – a process of illuminating the dim, daily thing that we do. It’s certainly surprising to write in any capacity, and I don’t set out to communicate any kind of idea when I sit down. I think if I were sitting down to communicate an idea that would be really bad for me. I really use songwriting as a way of, like, “Show me something, brain! Dance for me!” [laughs] I’m not always going to get something, but when I do, that’s the reward. That’s the game I’m playing with myself: seeing what can arrive if I course it a little bit, or trick it, or whatever I have to do.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Jana Horn’s The Window Is the Dream is out April 7 via No Quarter.

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