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VAN HUNT 2011 SOULMUSIC.COM INTERVIEW
PERSONAL, ARTISTIC EXPRESSION IN ITS PUREST FORM
Van Hunt speaks to SoulMusic.com’s Michael Lewis, shares some insights into his musical evolution, and talks about his move from Atlanta to Los Angeles and the inspiration for his latest CD release WHAT WERE YOU HOPING FOR?...


Michael Lewis: Good day SoulMusic community, this is Michael Lewis. Today I’m sharing the mic with a Grammy-winning musician, songwriter and producer who has forged his own distinct style and in the process gained a legion of diehard fans who are anxiously awaiting his first new CD release in five years. Please welcome Mr. Van Hunt. How are you doing today, Van?

Van Hunt: Fantastic, man. Thanks for that introduction.

ML: Cool, cool. I know this is an exciting time for you, preparing for the September 27th release—is that the correct date—?

VH: Absolutely.

ML: —of your new project, WHAT WERE YOU HOPING FOR? Before we get into that, let’s talk a little bit about some of your earlier works. I know most of us probably first came in contact with you as a co-writer of the Dionne Farris song “Hopeless” from the “Love Jones” soundtrack. How did that come about?

VH: Well, Dionne had come to one of my rehearsals. I had my band, we were just a bunch of kids playing in somebody’s garage, and she was looking for a band to go on tour with. She came to a rehearsal, and then they called me the next day and I joined her band. Instead of taking my own band I actually just joined her band and toured with her for a minute, and met her A&R person, who was Randy Jackson at the time. Then after the tour subsequently they told me they were looking for some songs, and I just gave them a bunch of stuff and that was one of the tunes they picked.

ML: Cool. Randy was managing you at some point, was he?

VH: Yeah, he managed me nearly for five years and then he moved into a more advisory, if you will…

ML: Capacity? Yeah. I actually worked with Randy when he was doing A&R at Columbia Records back in the day. I was doing A&R administration. He was actually one of the most genuine people that I met during that time.

VH: Yeah, I tell people that all the time. I don’t know how they imagine him being.

ML: Well, because everybody’s not that way. He was always just very open and helpful in really reaching out to make everybody’s job easier, as far as I could tell.

VH: Yeah, a really smart dude. I enjoy my relationship with him. He’s executive producer on this record, by the way.

ML: Oh, really? Okay, cool. And then from there I know you did some work with Rahsaan Patterson.

VH: Yeah.

ML: That second CD: “Sure Boy”, “Friend of Mine”—my favourite song—“The Moment”… that was a great relationship you had there too.

VH: Thank you, man. That was also through Randy’s doing because he was his A&R person too.

ML: So what led you to Capitol Records for your first release?

VH: What led me to Capitol? I don’t know if you’ve heard of an artist by the name of Count Bass D, but he and I met also through Dionne, and he was managed by a person out of Nashville who, through Count, got a hold of one of my demos and he started to shop it around for some label deals. And also I was working with Dallas Austin at the same time in Atlanta, and he started shopping around the demo, and through one of their contacts Capitol was put on to me. They’d just gotten a new president, Andy Slater, who then moved forward with offering us a deal, which we took.

ML: What was that time like, when “Dust” first came out and you started touring and doing shows around that? What was that time like for you?

VH: I can hardly remember, man. The thing I remember most is the two and a half, nearly three years of waiting for the record to come out.

ML: Oh, really?

VH: Yeah, because I had the majority of that album done as early as late 1999, 2000, and it was just a bunch of sitting around waiting, battling with the label about how the record should sound. I won most of those fights, and finally by 2004 the record came out.

ML: Wow, I didn’t realize that it had been that long in process. But I know that you’ve released a lot of your vault material in USE IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. Now that was from around that same time period of a lot of recording that you were doing?

VH: Yeah, a lot of that stuff was done… some of it right around “Hopeless”, some before “Hopeless”. Even tunes that were on the ON THE JUNGLE FLOOR album, “Character” all those tunes were done in 1996 on.

ML: So you had a nice little catalogue before you even got to the record company, obviously?

VH: Yeah, it was a time when writing songs was like putting on socks.

ML: I saw an article in the Atlanta Post a couple of months ago, and it was called “Seven of Black Music’s Most Misunderstood Albums of All Time.” Did you happen to see that?

VH: No, but I’m scared of what you’re about to say next.

ML: Van Hunt was one of them, right along with Common’s ELECTRIC CIRCUS, Labelle’s CHAMELEON (correction: the album listed was Labelle’s PHOENIX), Betty Davis, Millie Jackson’s CAUGHT UP. I thought it was a great article and it really talked about these particular records that didn’t necessarily get the kind of attention and acclaim—not necessarily acclaim, but I would say more attention—that they deserved. Let me just read a little part, it says: “Yet when it came time for his own album, the alternative soul scene he helped build was nearing its commercial end, and his record’s distinct fusion of genres got lost in the shuffle. At the time it came out the soul movement was dead and hip-hop was the prevalent force. It was so unique that it was a little niche.” And I think that kind of encapsulates what was going on, that it was a little too rich for everybody to grab hold of.

VH: At least I got in the same article as Millie Jackson, so…

ML: Right, and Labelle’s CHAMELEON (correction: PHOENIX)

VH: It was worth the anguish if that’s the case.

ML: Now for your second CD, ON THE JUNGLE FlOOR… and then you had a third CD, POPULAR, that was not released, even though I think I’ve seen most of it on YouTube and different places online. It is really a disservice that that music has not been readily available for people. Is there any opportunity that that music is going to come out?

VH: I suspect that depending on how WHAT WERE YOU HOPING FOR? does and how the rest of my career goes that that music would be made available by some enterprising young cadet at EMI.

ML: Possibly. We’ll see how that goes, because I guess they own the masters, so you never know, right?

VH: Yeah.

ML: Now you’ve been living in L.A. for a few years now?

VH: Yeah.

ML: That move from Atlanta, how has that informed what you’ve been up to in the last couple years or so as you’ve been putting this record together?

VH: Well, it took a couple of years for me to even absorb being in a different location.

ML: I know. I moved from L.A. to the D.C. area four years ago, so I understand that very well.

VH: Yeah. And then I started taking a bunch of pictures, just as an outlet, and in those pictures I was shooting all of these abandoned couches. I got this habit that I picked up from my uncle, and every time I go to a new city I always seek out the very worst parts of the city and check out what’s going on. It’s a way of just checking out the parameters of your surroundings, almost like checking the exit signs when you get on an airplane: “Okay, I’m two seats from the exit, so now I know my limits.” So that led to, at least, a theme for a new record, which was “discarded people” or “discarded items”—like abandoned couches and homeless folks—and even myself going through a tumultuous time trying to wait for the dust to settle on the music industry, the recession itself… and the record just started from there.

ML: But in the meantime you still were doing a little bit of touring, though, right?

VH: Oh, sure. I did a couple of solo tours, which was really fun because I enjoy just sitting down and shooting the shit with my fans and telling jokes and playing songs.

ML: Yeah, I saw you here at the Black Cat.

VH: Oh, cool. D.C. is one of my favourite places, the crowd is always so reactionary.

ML: Oh, yeah [laughs]. I think that was one of the first shows I saw when I got here.

VH: Oh, okay.

ML: Yeah, it was good—it was good. Now this is going to be on your own label?

VH: Yes, a joint venture, actually, with Thirty Tigers and my label Godless Hotspot.

ML:Thirty Tigers, what is that?

VH: It’s a label out of Nashville, a record label/marketing firm. A really good group of people.

ML: As an independent artist it’s going to be very important, and it seems like the way that this is being set up, it’s already looking like it’s a good setup for this release. I know you’ve done some early free downloads of songs and just really getting the word out there on Facebook and social media, so I think you’ve got a good step forward on this so far, it looks like.

VH: Thank you, thank you. Like you say, we’ve been working hard.

ML: Let’s talk about this new record, WHAT WHERE YOU HOPING FOR? Going into it, what were you thinking about as you were putting this together? What was your intent going into this and how did it roll out for you?

VH: I just didn’t want to bullshit on the record, to be honest. I wanted to be as honest as I could in expressing myself. And I know that sounds like some kind of clichéd artistic statement, but it’s only cliché because people say it all the time and it’s rarely done. Even with myself on previous records it’s really hard to not answer to outside pressures and change your sound up based on this or that. I was really intent upon looking in the mirror and trying to just stay who I am, in the lyric and in the music and where I am with myself.

ML: And I guess the great thing is that there is none of that outside pressure—it’s all on you and your integrity to give it all up.

VH: Sure. Certainly that was more allowable on this record, but the pressure is still a threat because part of the reason why I was left to do my own thing on this record was because a lot of the attention had left. As a major-label artist there’s a lot of attention because there’s a lot of money invested in you, but as an independent artist those same folks are not around. So there was still the threat of that kind of pressure.

ML: Can we talk about some of the particular songs? I’ve had the pleasure of listening to it for a few days before we got to this interview. And we might as well start at the top with “North Hollywood”, a complicated love child. I felt like I was there.

VH: Good, good. That melody just came to me one day and I was like, “Well, this sure is a silly little melody but I like it.” Then I started shaping the song and I was like, “This is an opportunity to really stake a claim inside this place where I am and the place where I walk around every day.”

ML: That’s good, because sometimes when people move to another city, they don’t do that. They don’t stake that claim, and I think that’s important.

VH: Yeah, it was a good start to a burgeoning relationship with this city.

ML: The whole record is instrumentally spare, but it’s very sonic—a lot of texture—and the lyrics are just amazing all the way through.

VH: Thank you.

ML: There’s a lyric on there that says, “There’s no more secrets after you’ve been evicted/Your story sits on abandoned couches.” That was kind of deep.

VH: Yeah, thank you. That’s what I was telling you about the pictures. I actually had done a book of pictures of just abandoned couches, and as I was referring to that experience seeing all of this… because the recession was kicking in and people were moving, they were downgrading, going downsizing, and they were kicking out these couches as they moved out of these expensive houses and apartments. And in the city, this particular area was just strewn with all these abandoned… I mean, just sitting on top of each other. Actually, one of the pictures is in the album artwork.

ML: The picture that I saw on your website, the woman with the bags—is that one of your shots?

VH: There are two of them. There’s a woman with some trash bags—

ML: With the white bags?

VH: Yeah, and that’s the album cover. But yeah, that was one of the pictures.

ML: Okay. What about “Watching You Go Crazy Is Making Me Insane”?

VH: Oh yeah, “Watching You Go Crazy Is Driving Me Insane”. That was one of those storylines where you’re struggling with the money, you and your girl, and she’s stressed, you’re stressed, and you’re trying to just hold it all together. So that story just went from there, and I tried to keep it as fictional as I could.

ML: That’s hard sometimes. How about “Plum”? That’s a great visual metaphor right there, man.

VH: Well, I was just trying to characterize a relationship between a man and his woman’s body. He’s just talking to her… he’s letting her know that her body has her own affair with him, no matter what she’s thinking.

ML: I really like “Moving Targets”.

VH: Oh, thanks. That was one of the older songs on the record. I cut it in 2008, I think—that’s when I first started trying to shape the song.

ML: Yeah, it had a little bit different feel than most of the rest of it, but it definitely fits the picture. Especially lyrically, I thought it was a really great song about determination.

VH: Thank you. And there was a bit of a political commentary in there too, just about how people evade issues and how the truth always comes back and bites you in the butt, which is exactly what we’re experiencing now… globally, but particularly in America. That was really what set me off in making this record and got me inspired, because I was watching all of these issues which have been evaded and avoided by, not only our political leaders, but the population, and how all of that has now converged into this huge collision of immigration politics, poverty, green movements… I mean, everything. It’s kind of crazy.

ML: And not just here in the States—it’s globally, because in the song “What Were You Hoping For?”, the title track, it starts off with those news clips. And going back and listening to it in the last couple of days there’s that one that goes: “The British government has embarked on an unprecedented experiment.” And based on what we’ve been looking at on the news for the last few days that was a little prescient on your part to include that commentary into that song.

VH: Well, thanks, man. I know it’s a global issue and it is amazing to watch these things erupt globally, but it’s particularly fascinating for me because America has been the quote-unquote global leader for so long, particularly when you’re talking about it as an economic power. And to watch its own festering problems boil to the surface and turn into this myriad of issues… it’s just a collision of things continuing to decline, which is pretty amazing to watch. But that’s where the title of the record came from: “What could you have been hoping for when you were ignoring all of these issues?”

ML: Right, okay. That does make sense, man. “Cross Dresser”… man, that is a humourous song. I like that, it’s a lot of fun.

VH: I appreciate it, man. I think that falls in line with if I have a writing style, it is that there’s usually a wink and a smile with everything that I write. As opposed to trying to make everything have a happy ending, I like to take the problems as they come along and I address the issues that come up in my life. But at the same time, I don’t think anything should or can be handled without a sense of humour. And that’s really the underlying tone of the song, is a guy gets left and he starts engaging and having a relationship with the clothes that his woman left—

ML: That his girl left? That’s good.

VH: As a way of mourning.

ML: The last song on there, “Mysterious Hustle”. Man, is that like… I don’t want to say autobiographical. I guess in some ways it talks about what we all go through.

VH: Yeah. I’m a father, so the song for me—and I hope it doesn’t ruin it for anybody—is directly spoken to my son. Before I saw the movie “The Road”… did you ever see that?

ML: No, I didn’t.

VH: It’s a post-apocalyptical story about how this family is trying to survive, and the mother commits suicide and the father is left trying to find his way with his son and survive with his son. Before I saw that movie I had written this song, but when I saw the movie it really did, for me, set the song in the right environment. I knew I was on the right track when I saw that movie, because I do feel like parenting right now is such an important role in our society. I take it very seriously. And that song was written with that kind of love and attention to the challenge of the role as a parent.

ML: Yeah, it’s quite a message there, man. I didn’t know that intent of it, but that sheds an even brighter light on it for me.

VH: Thank you.

ML: That was really good, thank you so much for that. I saw an earlier interview with you where you were talking about classic soul music, which is our main focus here at SoulMusic.com. You were talking about Sam Cooke and Al Green and gospel music—you mentioned The Swan Silvertones and The Dixie Hummingbirds and artists like that, and you were speaking specifically about the purity of the music. Do you feel like this is pure Van Hunt that we have coming out here?

VH: Yeah, there’s no doubt about that. But I wasn’t trying to compare the purity of my effort to the purity of the sound of The Sensational Nightingales or Sam Cooke—not that there is or isn’t any difference in quality. My point is when I hear The Sensational Nightingales, for me, music could have stopped there. When you start talking about… okay, somebody’s got something on their heart to say and they’re going to sit down with a guitar and they record it and it’s done, as far as that process goes that’s the best you could ever hope to hear it, in my opinion. My offering of WHAT WHERE YOU HOPING FOR? is a more artistic expression, a more personalized expression and a look into who I am as a person, as opposed to listening to a product. But when you talk about a product of the entertainment industry like Motown or Sam Cooke or even the gospel music industry, it doesn’t get any better for me. That was my point with The Dixie Hummingbirds

ML: Yeah, that’s what I meant: artistically, was this your pure artistic statement?

VH: Yeah, I don’t think I could have said it any more honestly.

ML: There was one closing line in the biographical information that I got for you, and it said, “I feel like I’ve finally shed the music that I grew up with.” Could you expound on that a little bit?

VH: Sure. I have a person in my life who grew up with a set of parents who wouldn’t allow them to listen to the radio, and all they ever knew was John Coltrane and some classical music. And so when they’re sitting in their car in the middle of traffic, what comes to their head is a John Coltrane solo. Well, when I’m sitting in traffic, what comes to my head is some Donna Summer song or something… or a Luther Vandross cut. And there’s nothing wrong about that, but I was definitely—

ML: It’s just a point of reference.

VH: Yeah. I was definitely a product of my times, and sometimes I really resent that. Because sometimes I just want to express the little shadow of an idea that I have circling around in my head, and I have to work through twenty or thirty years of listening to the radio to get to that one idea. And trying to make sure that it hasn’t been shaped by all these other things is really difficult and next to impossible. And sometimes I wish my only frame of reference was something as simple and wonderful as John Coltrane and Bach.

ML: Well, I am really looking forward to hearing these songs performed live. I’m listening to the drummer, Ruthie Price?

VH: Yeah.

ML: Man, she’s incredible. I’m listening to her drumming on these songs and it’s just coming at me hard and heavy.

VH: I’m so proud of her, man. We’ve been playing together for nearly four years, and I’m so proud of her and Peter, the keyboardist. They’re going to be with me on tour.

ML: So it’s just basically the three of you on this record, right?

VH: Yeah.

ML: That’s amazing, what you guys have created. I think that people are really going to be surprised because it doesn’t sound like what we’ve heard before, and I think that people who are following you are open enough to take it all in. And you have what, a twenty-date tour coming up?

VH: Yeah. I’m excited, man. I just appreciate people like yourself who are open-minded enough to allow an artist to express themselves. I think it’s such an important part of any functioning society—culture is and art is. And it’s one of those things where it’s almost like opening the door for a woman: it’s not anything that you’re going to be rewarded for, other than the feeling of bettering a moment in somebody else’s life. And it’s something that so many of us miss out on because we’re usually trying to survive the grind of this life, but it’s a really important part of society.

ML: All right, sir. Well, is there anything else you want to say to our audience before we finish up here?

VH: No, man, I just appreciate the opportunity and I hope they’ll come see us on tour and check out the record, or both.

ML: And we can find you on Facebook?

VH: Yeah, Facebook, Twitter… usually off in the shadows over there somewhere.

ML: Okay, good, good. All right, man. I’ll be looking forward to seeing you at the Birchmere in Virginia.

VH: Cool, thank you, Michael. I’m looking forward to it too—I don’t remember even playing Virginia, but I want to go check it out, man.

ML: Well, the whole D.C. area makes it to that spot because it’s really not that far from National Airport.

VH: Okay, cool. I was curious about that, man—so if you’re a person in D.C. and you don’t have a car, is it easy to get to the Birchmere?

ML: You can get there. You can take the metro and then take a cab from the metro station, it’s not that difficult. Most people here have cars, though.

VH: Okay, gotcha. I was just curious. I have a lot of students in D.C. who are fans and I didn’t know if it was an easy place for them to get to or not.

ML: Not the easiest, but they’ll be there. I guarantee you they’ll be there.

VH: Cool, man. I appreciate the time.

ML: Thank you so much, I appreciate the time, and we look forward to seeing you soon.

VH: Absolutely.

ML: All right, have a great day. Bye-bye.

About the Writer
Michael Lewis is a long-time associate at SoulMusic.com. His industry experience includes Sony Music, Motown and La Face Records, and a tenure at HEAR Music. He is grateful to contribute to sustaining the legacy of R&B and soul music.
  
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