Funny thing, this music business. Every year—or for that matter, everyday—a new artist emerges from obscurity into the blinding light of this magical and sometimes bizarre rat race, fighting with all might to secure his or her place in the musical landscape. And every year/everyday, it seems an artist disappears almost as quickly as they arrived. Some may argue that many of these artists lacked staying power from the outset; others may contend that these artists were victims of an industry more focused on profitability than quality output. And still others will assert that the playing field is too uneven; or audiences are too unsophisticated; or that video killed the radio star or what have you.
What is so sweetly amazing is that, despite the battles they may face, some artists manage to brave the storm and push through. They stay alive in the hearts, souls, and iPods of die-hard fans who never stopped believing and who kept the torches burning. Their names may not be as ubiquitous nor their visages as commonplace, but their imprint is indelible and unmistakable.
One need look no further for proof of this phenomenon than Van Hunt. When his eponymous debut fell from Heaven in 2004, it was immediately evident that everything we thought we knew about funk, soul, rock, and R&B was about to be turned on its ear. His singles “Dust” and “Down Here in Hell With You” proved to be stunning exhibitions, and the song “Seconds of Pleasure” served as a delicious bed for Simon Baker and Sanaa Lathan’s love scene in Sanaa Hamri’s film Something New. His second offering On the Jungle Floor spurred the single “Character” and featured Van’s version of “Mean Sleep”, an achingly splendid duet with Nikka Costa previously recorded by Cree Summer and Lenny Kravitz for Cree’s album Street Faerie. A third studio album was promised for 2008 but never materialized, so, like any enterprising musician would, Van Hunt gathered a collection of B-sides, out-takes, and remixes and released the EP Use in Case of Emergency independently.
At long last, new Van Hunt music is on the horizon. On September 27th he will release What Were You Hoping For? (godless-hotspot), which promises to be his most adventurous project yet. Embracing an array of platforms for getting his work to the masses, Van is utilizing a variety of music blogs and websites to share one new song each month leading up to the September release of the entire album. The first of the new tunes, “June”, was released (quite appropriately) in June via Huffington Post, with more to follow and free downloads available on his newly re-launched official website, http://www.vanhunt.com.
The opportunity to speak to Van Hunt for the exclusive SoulTrain.com Artist to Artist series sent us flying. And here’s how it all went down.
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SoulTrain: Let’s go back to the early years, because the truth is we’ve been hearing and listening to your music for longer than we may even realize. After all, it is you who penned the song that elicits a hearty “That’s my song!” every time it comes on—“Hopeless”, sung by Dionne Farris on the Love Jones soundtrack. You’re even in the video. Several of your songs also appeared on Cree Summer’s 1999 release Street Faerie. When did you decide to go from working behind the scenes as a songwriter and producer to recording and performing as a solo artist?
Van Hunt: I was in love with the idea of being a recording artist, without ever telling “her”. After working with such wonderful singers as Rahsaan (Patterson) and Dionne, and even a personality as quirky and strong as Cree’s, I thought, ‘Maybe there is a place for me’. I was pretty sure I had something to say as an artist. I went into the artistic side of it, trying to get these songs out of my head—and that was really a ten-year odyssey.
ST: How did your relationships with those artists evolve?
VH: Dionne saw my band rehearsing one night when she was about to go on tour. We were just a bunch of kids having a ball and someone told us this girl might come by to check us out, to maybe be her touring band. We were cocky like, ‘Whatever, we’re just gonna play’. She showed up with her manager, then I went by her place a few days later and sang and played for her and her manager. They said, “We want you. We don’t really need the band”. Dionne introduced me to Randy Jackson, who was her A&R person at Columbia Records. He found out I’d written a bunch of songs and decided “Hopeless” was a song Dionne should do. And Randy also hooked me up with Rahsaan and Cree.
ST: When you go into the studio, do you play everything yourself or do you bring in other musicians?
VH: For this record I wanted to make the demos sound so awful that I would have to re-record them with other people. In the past I’ve performed all the instruments myself. I’ve gone in with the demos, and the engineers will be like, “Man, we’ve been sitting in here and you’ve had five guitarists and drummers come in here and none of them sound as good as the demo”. This time I really wanted to use some other people, and I felt like I had the right kind of musicians around me.
ST: You’re one of those artists whom people in the know often lament should be more well known. Does the fact that your music is not as widely recognized as others’ bother you, or does it give you a greater sense of freedom when you create?
VH: It bothers me insofar as, I know that I wouldn’t have to go to LAX and try to catch a flight if I had more money (laughs), I could just get on a private jet. I would love that! It bothers me insofar as sometimes you don’t have all the money you need so that you don’t need money. But, the most important reason it bothers me is because I know that the people who make the decisions to invest in artists make assumptions about the audience. There is the assumption that audiences will not get art at a certain level, and I think it’s counterproductive not to expose art and artistry to a wider audience just as you would other products. I once opened up for Kanye West, and there were 10,000 people out there and 7,000 of them booed me. I don’t know if many people know what it feels like to be booed by 7,000 people. The next day, Myspace blew up with people who were at that show, like, ‘Dude, I didn’t even know who you were! That was amazing!’. And I realized, and Randy pointed it out, I gained 3,000 fans. That would have taken me ten nights in ten different clubs to play for 3,000 people who were supportive of my work. So in one fell swoop I was able to pick up 3,000 fans. And I realized how important it is to get art in front of people you’re not sure will get it. You’re going to present it as a product and do everything you would do to prepare it for market. You take a risk, you invest in it, you put it out there.
ST: It’s been a few years since your last official studio release, On the Jungle Floor. A third studio album was supposed to come out a couple years back, but the rumor is that the label shelved it. Can you talk about that experience?
VH: That album was called Opulence, and I’m very proud of the work. The label, for various reasons, decided not to put it out and we decided to split ways. The business was failing, the industry was failing, and so I had to figure out which way I was going as an independent artist. The dust was still settling on this new technology, selling music online, what that meant to the modern music industry. So I took that time to write, take pictures; I wrote some short stories. I took a year and wrote this record, What Were You Hoping For?. I feel this record now is meeting a more settled record industry.
ST: Tell our SoulTrain.com audience about your new project, What Were You Hoping For?.
VH: Some would say it’s a blend of punk and soul, and I would agree with that. But at the same time, Black music—early rhythm and blues—was always about a fast tempo, a gnarly guitar sound, and love songs. While this record has a little more social commentary than my last records and a little more social commentary than those early rhythm and blues records, it borrows from the same elements. When I hear a really fast tempo I don’t necessarily think of punk music or rock music; I think of a gospel quartet. I’m just a guy who likes to play guitar, so it’s really me putting my 80s-influenced pop music on top of these gospel quartet rhythms.
ST: Your sound is frequently described as a blend of funk, rock, soul, and R&B. But how do you define your sound, and who are some of the artists who’ve influenced you?
VH: Sly Stone, Prince, Theolonius Monk, Richard Pryor, Iggy Pop…I like to describe my music as, “Imagine if Richard Pryor could sing, but would only do it if James Brown produced David Bowie songs with members of the Ramones playing in the band”. All of these are elements people have heard of. Black culture is so rich, coming from the cotton fields and the field hollers to the Negro spirituals, jazz, blues, pop music, and so on.
ST: We’re celebrating 40 years of Soul Train! Share with us some of your favorite Soul Train memories.
VH: As a viewer, by favorite Soul Train memory by far was when James Brown was on in 1973. His leg was injured, but he was playing with his band and it was live. I performed on Soul Train twice, once with Dionne and then also with my first record.
Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter from Dallas, TX whose EP “Nuda Veritas” is available on CDBaby and iTunes. Follow her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/rhondanicolemusic and on Twitter, @wildhoneyrock.