D//E Interviews: Djunah

With a fantastic new album underway, Chicago's Djunah are making the most out of their 2019. The band will soon be captivating audiences through their fully realized first full length as much as they have done through their unique live presence. Donna Diane rocks the guitar, vocals, and an imposing Moog bass organ with her feet at the same time, and Nick Smalkowski, an experienced drummer previously of Arctic Sleep and Fake Limbs, completes the band's arresting sound.

Ex Voto is a deeply expressive and sentimental work, and one of the year's finest debuts, produced by Kurt Ballou at God City studios.

Donna talks to D//E about the band, the album and the inspiration behind it, in an interview followed by the brand new, madly colorful video for Animal Kingdom, directed by Dave Rentauskas.

How long did it take for you to get comfortable enough with playing live two instruments, and also sing, all at the same time?

I actually dove right into it. The most time-consuming part was learning about synthesis because I’d never used an analog synthesizer before. I played a few solo shows with the bass organ first to see if it was something viable to do on stage. Then Nick and I started playing together, and it took us just a couple months to get a set together. I will say I’ve improved a lot over the two years I’ve been doing it. I’m constantly developing technique and changing my setup to help me to do more complex things. So, it’s always a work in progress.

Do you think that listeners appreciate the music more when they see how much dexterous you can be on stage?

I do! I think people enjoy the show a lot in intimate settings when they can see what I’m doing up close. In rock music, it’s rare to be able to show people something they haven’t seen before, so I enjoy being able to do that.

Does being a gearhead add value to a musician's quality, or is it just an idiosyncrasy? How does it work for you being totally hands on with your equipment?

I think when a musician is gear oriented, you can hear that in the music. Gearheads like to experiment with lots of different setups, so they end up developing their own sound rather than just doing whatever everyone else is doing. I think that makes for more interesting music. Especially when you get into noise music, if the noises you make are boring, you’re pretty much dead in the water. Personally, if I can’t make it bite or scream, I don’t want it.

How did you end up collaborating with Kurt Ballou? What does his contribution bring to the band's sound?

Nick and I were driving to a show one day and playing “If you could record with anyone in the world, who would it be?” Of course, Kurt was number one on the list, but neither of us thought that was very realistic. Probably six months later, I messaged Kurt, half expecting not to hear back since he is really busy. I sent him a video of us playing live in a studio so he could see who we are and our whole setup, and he got right back to me. I think I almost had a panic attack. It felt very surreal getting to go to God City to record with him.

Kurt’s instincts in the studio are incredible. To me, his spontaneity and intuition are what set him apart from other engineers and producers. I don’t usually fuck around with guitar pedals much, so dialing in new sounds on the fly with him was really fun. During some of the songs, he’s actually manipulating the pedals while I’m playing, which is the kind of stuff that I think puts his stamp on the record. He’s also pretty much the dictionary definition of a gearhead, so he made the recording sound really unique.

Evidently, just like with the actual music, you've put a lot of thought into the album's artwork which draws influence from two particular classic paintings. Why those?

Shortly after I wrote Nurse and Nun I visited the Louvre for the first time and saw Philippe de Champaigne’s Ex-Voto de 1662, which shows a couple of Jansenist nuns and tells the story of a miraculous healing. It went so well with the themes of the song, I decided to sew a miniskirt version of the nun habit to use on the album cover. After I told the idea to the photographer, Dave Rentauskas, we decided to add more to the shot, so I brought in elements from Frida Kahlo’s Henry Ford Hospital to flesh out the whole ex voto theme. I’ve never planned and conceived artwork like that, so I’m amazed at how well it turned out!

Does the album owe its title to the votive paintings alone, or does it fulfill some kind of a vow itself?

I do see the album as my ex voto. Ex voto works are given in tribute to a saint or deity for presiding over a healing or recovery from a tragedy. For me, it is a tribute to self-healing. I think many people are turning to self-healing because they have not found what they are looking for from the health care industry or from religion. Self-healing is when you preside over your own physical, mental, and spiritual care. This album is to honor people who have had to search for alternative methods of healing for their pain, such as gut healing or energy healing.

Animal Kingdom slyly refers to the 1932 film of the same name. Are there any other non-musical influences that had a strong impact on Djunah?

Sure—I’d say the majority of my influences are nonmusical because it makes for more interesting art that way. Some influences are related to the gear I use and building songs around those sounds. Politics had an incredibly strong influence on the album—songs like Built, Bless Your Money, and Mirrors for Narcissists are good examples of that. Messing around with poetry and meter is also a big source of inspiration for me. The name Djunah actually derives from one of my favorite writers, Djuna Barnes, eternal queen of the ungodly long sentence.

Your lyrics can become strongly political. How do you feel about the current state of politics and society?

Oh my god, it depends on the day. Every morning is a crazy high or stunning low. But that’s the pain of progress, I suppose. Today I’m optimistic. Tomorrow I’ll probably want everyone to go to hell.

What are you currently listening to mostly?

I’m back in an all-over-the-place phase, which is nice. Early R&B, soul, and blues are constants in my life. My knowledge of metal is pretty spotty compared to Nick’s, so I’ve been trying to catch up there. Music’s weird—I don’t like to shit where I eat, so I find myself avoiding anything that sounds similar to what I do.

What comes next for Djunah?

Playing shows, shows, shows. We are first and foremost a live band, especially because of what I do with my feet, so you got to see us live to fully understand us. I hope to tour a lot in 2020!

"The video’s our kinky love letter to music gear," Djunah state about the new video for Animal Kingdom. "We’re both gear obsessed. I love gear videos, and I love gear nerds even more. I like the contrast between mechanical and sensual things, so I came up with this idea of crazy stiletto nails touching all sorts of objects. I even made the nails I’m wearing as a tribute to audio electronics. (They’re a set of Genalex Gold Lion KT88s, P-90s, orange drop caps, and resistors.) Visually, the video sums up our sound, which is hard and soft, bright and dark, all at once. The director, Dave Rentauskas, did an amazing job of capturing who we are: fun, dramatic, and a little weird."

Upcoming Djunah Tour Dates

11/01 - Madison, WI - Wisco
11/02 - Milwaukee, WI - X-Ray Arcade (tix)
11/04 - Chicago, IL - Empty Bottle (album release show)

Photo by Dave Rentauskas

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