When Jana Horn wrote her song Jordan, she didn’t know what it was about. She had spent two days at her brother’s house following a breakup, ruminating over two chords, when a line came to her: “They called me to Jordan.” She followed the thread. “I had no idea what I was doing, but it felt really important, like I had to finish the story,” she says, calling from the last day of class in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she is a postgrad fiction-writing student and teacher.
It became a five-minute narrative about someone who heeds that call and embarks on the long, trying journey by foot. On arrival, he is instructed to bomb the city where his family lives, but chooses death instead. Horn delivers this potent tale over those two colourless acoustic chords, her affectless, curious delivery evocative of Phil Elverum, or a twilit Laura Marling.
This stunning, spooked song scared her. “It felt long and strange and blasphemous,” she says. “Like – what have I done?” She almost left it off her debut album but, thankfully, Jordan is now the foundation stone of Optimism, a record of enigmatic songwriting about broken communication and what it means to be known; her skeletal band evokes Yo La Tengo, desaturated girl-group classics and the softest of country shuffles.
She realised Jordan unnerved her because it isn’t the traditional biblical narrative she was used to. For Horn, 28, faith is inextricable from life and writing. She grew up in Glen Rose, a Texas city of 2,500 or so people, a nuclear plant, a creationism museum, dinosaur footprints and the state’s largest outdoor production of the crucifixion.
She didn’t find much freedom there. “There’s no separation of church and state. I was pretty contrarian but I was still also part of everything that town was.” She participated in “Bible drills” (speed verse-finding contests), played in the marching band and saw screamo (a subgenre of emo) shows in Dallas. “I loved growing up there and I love it even more now, on the other side of the coin and seeing the total strangeness of where I came from.”
But leaving for college “challenged so much of what I thought about”, she says. “I came to understand things about myself that I had never been taught.” Studying in Austin, she yearned to join bands, although playing with “seasoned” musicians made her underestimate herself. “I felt like a minor character in a play I had written.”
She came to appreciate “ugliness and imperfection” in music, which led her to abandon one solo album because “it didn’t reflect me very much – instead it just sounded really good”. After that, Optimism arrived “seamlessly”. Horn self-released it last spring and was happy enough that her family and “40 listeners on Spotify” liked it. Then the Philadelphia label No Quarter (Joan Shelley, Chris Forsyth) offered to do a proper release.
The album reflects a time when Horn was “always on the move”, a form of impermanence she craves. “It’s very on-brand for things in my life not to be working, but I just live with them. My phone’s insides are exposed. My car gas gauge doesn’t work. I would live in darkness if someone didn’t change the lightbulbs.” She’s never thought about why. “I guess my interests are immaterial, and I’ve never been interested in making myself comfortable.”
It’s the weird epiphanies that she thrives on (reading Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Horn was astonished to discover sentences that she had previously written in her own fiction). And she considers those first lyrics that come out of the blue to be gifts. “You don’t know why you said it. But you follow it to its end.”
• Optimism is released by No Quarter on 21 January