Jana Horn considers her output carefully. After performing eponymously for years, the cerebral Austin singer-songwriter finally offers a debut statement. Optimism masters clear-eyed, sure-footed folk rock with subtlety, allowing space for each phrase to land.
Between thoughtful pauses and laughs, she explains that a long educational period of tour tapes and an entirely scrapped album preceded her official bow.
"My head was too far inside it," says Horn. "I needed to let it go completely. As a solo artist, you're always trying to figure out how you record with other people. In that process, I learned what I need to do and felt like I could do it better the second time around."
"Broken record" thus shelved, Optimism came together locally at Hen House Recording with guitarist Aaron Blount and bassist Vince Delgado, both bandmates of hers in Knife in the Water, as well as drummer Ian Phillips. Only the title track carried over, its somber, just-enough vocals holding down a buoyant pop chorus: "Baby, there ain't no clouds/ Baby, there ain't no crying." Flashes of levity like the dreamy piano gleam of "Man Meandering" and country lilt of the Laura Marling-like "Driving" balance sturdy basslines and literary lyricism throughout.
"For some reason that song, 'Optimism,' apart from all my others, felt really positive," says Horn. "I remember sharing it with my mom and telling her that I'd finally written something happy, and she did not think so, but I knew it should carry forward. Songs do have a weird power to them, and I followed that."
Horn wrote the album's central cut in the van returning from tour with college band Reservations, launched out of her early songwriting while attending St. Edward's. The artist's preferred method of creation pivots on arrival rather than belaboring. The majority of her new material came together over a week after Horn graduated in 2015 and began playing solo – a time she calls "untethered."
"Most of my songwriting is just being available, and keeping a clear mind," she offers. "I don't sit down to write songs, or even really think about them. I try to be aware of them. I know this sounds very vague, but I feel like songs already exist, and I – or anyone else – happens to access them.
"Maybe they were always being written in the back of my head as I was living."
A prime example is the stark, intense "Jordan," where a biblical story channels Horn's emotions in an ending relationship. The 27-year-old's storybook songs often venture into brambles, caves, and locked doors. She suspects a religious upbringing in the small town of Glen Rose gave her the prophetic framework.
There, Horn says she became obsessed with Leonard Cohen but wore thick eyeliner to screamo shows in nearby Dallas.
"I had these competitions called bible drills," she remembers of her youth. "You have to locate verses very quickly then read it. Those things are buried in my subconscious."
Tapping the psyche, Horn embraces boredom. Her recent activity includes watching Fleabag and the release of two singles by her new band American Friend with partner Adam Jones (Deep Time, Bill Callahan) and Sarah Beames (Chronophage). The group's debut LP prepped, Horn exerts full focus to the task of graduate school at the University of Virginia.
There, the fiction writing program extends her longtime love for short stories and allows her to split time between Austin and Charlotte, Va. Although classes are virtual, she meets with her small group of classmates on front porches. Even with the structure of school, Horn tries not to force the process.
"When I really work on something, and there's too much of myself in it, it's not going to sound good," she furthers. "If I over-thought things, they just wouldn't work."
- Rachel Rascoe, Austin Chronicle