On a chilly Friday night in New York City, Jana Hunter sang a dreamy ballad over a persistent bass line, her quivering voice cradled by the atomic guitar work of her bandmates in Lower Dens.
Though it was impossible to tell from their tight set at Rockwood Music Hall, the Baltimore band was exhausted from its marathon of gigs for the CMJ Music Festival, indie music's Schwab's Pharmacy.
Every October, musicians from across the globe come to New York to play there, performing at venues across the city before industry cool kids and music critics with hopes of landing a record deal, an agent, a jingle, whatever might snatch them from anonymity.
Lower Dens may only be about a year old, with some 20 songs in its repertoire, but it was among the most sought-after bands at CMJ last year, playing 11 concerts in four days.
"We took every show that was offered," Hunter said. "We were definitely feeling pretty threadbare, but the anticipation of finishing that run of shows gave us motivation."
Two years after Beach House and Wye Oak were signed to major indie labels and the goofballs at the artists' collective Wham City brought national attention to the Baltimore area's ramshackle music scene, Lower Dens and several other bands, none of them more than five years old, are poised to be the city's next breakouts.
In the past year, the art-pop trio Future Islands, rock 'n' rollers J. Roddy Walston and the Business and Lower Dens all released their first label albums, sold thousands of copies and toured internationally. And upstarts Weekends and Lands & Peoples have moved from playing shoebox venues to opening for bands like Wye Oak, and are on the verge of releasing their first full-length albums.
None of them is originally from this area, but it was the city itself that expedited their rises to success, they say.
"Literally everything changed for us when we moved here," said William Cashion, bassist with Future Islands.
Hunter first visited Baltimore in 2007 on a tour with Wham City alum DJ Dan Gaeta, better known as OCDJ.
The 30-year-old Texan was then a successful solo singer-songwriter, signed to a vanity indie label and a regular on the festival circuit.
Baltimore's music scene was not where conventional wisdom would have sent a budding musician like her. There were no major record labels here or savvy talent scouts, and Dru Hill was perhaps the city's most well-known group nationally.
But Hunter recognized signs of a different kind of music scene forming, one where artists were looking for creative freedom, not money. In 2004, a bunch of graduates from Purchase College, State University of New York, began relocating here, lured by cheap rents and a sense of possibility, to form Wham City.
"Among my friends, the city had the kind of reputation of a very dark, scary children's playground," said Ben O'Brien, a comic and musician who's a member of the collective.
From their home at the Copy Cat building, a former bottle cap factory in Greenmount West, they became well-known for what Cashion called "legendary" warehouse parties that married music, performance art, video, even stand-up comedy and absurdist theater.
Hunter, whose conversation is as dry and self-possessed as one of Lower Dens' songs, doesn't seem as if she'd fit in with these anarchic goofballs. But she was attracted by their commitment to working for art's sake.
"The people I met were interested in pursuing artistic goals regardless of other ambitions," she said. "They shared a work ethic: Make what you want and always be making it."
She left Texas in 2007, resettled in Waverly and in 2009 recruited guitarist Will Adams, bassist Geoff Graham and drummer Abe Sanders to form Lower Dens.
In August, Lower Dens released its first album, "Twin-Hand Movement," a spare, hauntingly beautiful set of 11 tracks that sometimes eschew vocals in favor of showing off the band's smart instrumentation. It has sold a remarkable 3,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The band went on the road with other recent arrival Future Islands, and later continued on its own in the United States and in Europe. (It will open a string of shows for locals Wye Oak starting in March, and this month released a new 7-inch.)
At CMJ, it was going to play just a few showcases for online magazines, but the offers kept arriving.
At the show, Hunter didn't seem to want to be noticed. She wore a low-key sweater and hid her big, saucer-like eyes behind long, lopsided bangs. Whenever she didn't sing, she looked down at her guitar.
The band is intentionally un-theatrical. Hunter described it as a "straight-presentation-of-our-[expletive] band, and that's served us pretty well."
Though she acknowledged the festival is an opportunity for many bands to sell out, Lower Dens' goal was to find an audience.
"We want our performances and music to speak for us, and if any career advancement opportunities come up, we want it to be because we worked hard and made good music."