The Van Hunt Parlor Game: An Interview

Van Hunt just performed “Ur Personal Army” and the applause is deafening. A young woman turns to her friend, a twinkle in her eye, and shouts, “What album is that from?” She’s sitting at the front table inside the Gatehouse at Harlem Stage. The snow has finally melted after a 72-hour white-out in New York City. It’s no matter that plane delays to JFK and LaGuardia prevented Van Hunt’s band from arriving for rehearsal, postponing the show to Sunday from Saturday. The band is tight. The crowd is hungry for Hunt, even with snow on their soles.

“Ur Personal Army” is a song casual listeners may not recognize. It’s from Hunt’s still-unreleased Popular (2008), the album that Blue Note shelved, which precipitated the artist’s exit from the label. However, a digital copy of Popular circulated among the loyal die-hards, underscoring the three types of Van Hunt fans: listeners who scream for “Seconds of Pleasure” or “Down Here in Hell (With You)”; the ones who sing along to rarer cuts like “Hidden Charm” and “Her Smile”; and those who attend enough shows to recognize songs that are only available with the price of admission, like “On the Jungle Floor”, a song Hunt wrote with Paisley Gordon that furnished an album title but not an album cut.

All three types of fans are gathered at the table where that young woman just fell under the spell of “Ur Personal Army”. A Van Hunt show is a little like a parlor game, and some attendees hold more “clues” about the songs than others. Throughout Hunt’s performance, it’s obvious that more people than not are trying to deduce where the lesser-known material belongs. “I love when that happens,” Hunt grins mischievously backstage after the show, “when the song is just met with stone silence. I’m experienced enough now to know that it’s not because they hate it.”

Inside The Gatehouse, the crowd salutes the man who, though based in Los Angeles, represents an edgy, NYC sensibility. He smashes drum cymbals with a towel, then executes a kind of capoeira dance. When the band exits the stage, Hunt surprises the audience with acoustic renditions of “What Can I Say?” and “Dust”. The band returns and they sock the audience with “Hold My Hand”. The crowd is up on their feet. Van Hunt steps down from the stage and jumps jack-in-the-box style with the same kind of spirited verve as the audience, which includes fellow artists like Bilal, Tamar-kali, and Kimberly Nichole. It’s official: Van Hunt has shaken the cabin fever loose from everyone’s bones.

“Tonight was one of my favorite shows,” he says, reclining on a black leather chair in a board room at Harlem Stage. “It’s fun when you actually can convince people to engage with you and come out of their shell. It’s no fun to just stand up there and play songs the same way that people expect to hear them. Part of what I use to balance my shyness is tricking people up. It’s their favorite song and they’re like, ‘I really want to try and stay with it but I don’t know if I like the way he’s doing it.’ It takes the tension off of me. I’ll do whatever just to give them something to address while I try to sing these songs differently — I’ll wear a fighter pilot hat, I’ll have paint on my head.”

Despite his shyness, Hunt delivers a show the envy of extroverts. “Man of the Year” conveys a boisterous strain of Hunt’s personality that was somewhat dormant on his debut album. Its guitar motif boasts an ominous quality, as if a Mulholland Drive-type monster is just around the corner. Though the song might initially sound foreign to audience members, chances are they’ve actually heard it before in the guise of “Hot Stage Lights” from On the Jungle Floor (2006).

Van Hunt explains the metamorphosis from the all-out rock of “Man of the Year” to its R&B counterpart, “I played ‘Man of the Year’ for (producer) Bill Bottrel. He didn’t say anything, so I assumed he didn’t like it. I loved the words so much that I went in and redid it the way I thought the producer probably wanted to hear it. Later on he said, ‘What happened to the other version?’ I said, ‘I thought you didn’t like it.’ He said, ‘No I loved it!’ He was really into doing things from scratch with the band. The original version is just me.”

There’s a lot of “just me” on Use in Case of Emergency (2009), Van Hunt’s first independent release since the Blue Note debacle. The album spans a decade or so of demos, song ideas, and original versions of tunes that, like “Man of the Year”, later appeared reconfigured on his two albums for Capitol, Van Hunt (2004) and On the Jungle Floor (2006). The collection reflects the talents of a music magician who concocts a variety of three-to-four minute tricks: there’s two versions of “Anything (to Get Your Attention)” (from Van Hunt), one in the form of new wave-rock (“ATTENTION!”) and another that sounds funneled through an oil wheel projector (“N.E.Thing2getura10chin”).

“I just wanted to reconnect with the people who have followed my records with Capitol,” he says about the album’s genesis. “I named it ‘Use in Case of Emergency’ because I needed money. I needed to put out material without having to make a new record, which I couldn’t afford to do. I found these B-sides, remixes, things like that, and made a compilation. In this modern era, most people just like to talk about what you’re doing and that’s all you can capitalize on — just people talking about you.”

Use in Case of Emergency provides a tossed-salad evolution in Hunt’s songwriting and recording. It closes with the oldest song (“Tingle”), which Hunt composed while he worked on demos for hip hop acts at his mentor Victor Reed’s studio. It features tracks intended for other artists, some who demoed them (Dionne Farris) and some rumored to have recorded them (Beyonc√©). “Hidden Charm”, which Farris recorded for her unreleased For Truth If Not Love album, contains some of Hunt’s most vivid sets of lyrics.

How did he conceive words like, “Our lady of fortune and fame/Maybe your baby or just an illusive mermaid”? “Painstakingly,” he laughs. “I came up with the music and a friend of mine, Curtis Whitehead was encouraging me to finish the song. I knew the music was really good but I just didn’t have any lyric. I literally sat on the floor for three days straight just playing the song over and over until I finally got this lyric. I had the ‘silver spoon’ idea and I just started writing from that, stream-of-consciousness. I shaped it as I went along. I sang that demo and then Dionne did it. I love playing ‘Hidden Charm.'”

Of course, Dionne Farris also lent her vocals to “Hopeless”, a song written by Van Hunt that was popularized on the Love Jones (1997) soundtrack. “Hopeless” is one of a very few R&B songs from the ’90s that could truly be considered timeless. “I didn’t produce that song by myself,” he clarifies. “When I hear it, I still think it sounds good. The same things I didn’t like then, I like even less now. I had so many more ideas for the song. Dionne sounds amazing, though. She always does.”

In the instances where Van Hunt does produce other artists, his process contrasts with his approach to producing his own material. “It’s much more personalized when I produce myself, more meandering. When I’m producing someone else, I’m as cookie cutter as you can imagine,” he laughs. “You really do need to try to help this person express themselves, hopefully it’s somebody who has something to say.”

Swiss act Brothertunes had a “million” things to say when they invited Hunt to produce their album. “I wasn’t going to do it,” he remembers, “but they played me their stuff. They’re really good guys. I needed a break so I went over to Switzerland. They had this studio that was in the middle of a cow pasture with huge flypaper hanging from the ceiling with huge nickel-sized flies hanging from these things in the middle of the studio. I was like, ‘This is just too wild!'” Hunt’s touch on “She Told Me So” and “Starship” made A Million Things to Say one of the hidden gems of 2008.

The release of A Million Things to Say followed Hunt’s falling out with Blue Note in early-2008. Popular was a 14-song masterpiece, but it bewildered Blue Note, whose best-selling acts included Norah Jones, Al Green, and Cassandra Wilson. Aside from the obvious genre/marketing issues, the label may not have understood Hunt’s frank, honest expression of sexuality. “I want to fuck you baby”, he shouted on “The Lowest 1 of My Desires” and described a threesome on “Prelude (The Dimples on Ur Bottom)” — worlds away from the kind of music that earned the label its seven-figure revenue.

It remains a challenge for Hunt to divorce his experience with Blue Note from the experience of hearing Popular. “Every time I listen to it, I get mad,” he confides. “It’s better than it was before. I really wasn’t upset at the time I parted ways with Blue Note. Over time, I did become angry that the project couldn’t come out. It’s something that’s just lingering over your head.” However, the story of Popular has not ended. “I suspect it will be available soon, maybe even before summer, with the artwork and another song.”

When Popular eventually enters the marketplace, it will face, what Hunt calls, a culture in decline. Without a trace of braggadocio, he explains why his work stands apart from the popular music hegemony of 2010. “Culture is in such decline,” he begins, “that when someone is trying to live up to their own personal standards, it does stand out to me… and probably only to a few others, but those others are probably more evolved culturally. Their taste is refined. That’s not a knock on the people who are plugged into what’s going on now but, to me, it’s obvious that culture has been on a decline for some time. This is an age when everybody wants to be a star. Anybody can have their 15 minutes, from a reality TV show to using Pro-Tools or Garage Band to make their own record.”

Musically, Hunt cites the prevalence of Autotune as symptomatic of the decline. “I really don’t like it,” he says thoughtfully. “It started out as such a great idea, just to be able to fix things here and there. I’ve used it, just for something I really didn’t feel like singing over. You can just fix a short word or note here and there in your background vocals. Why it has now become an ‘instrument’ I don’t understand because the sound is not a good sound. It’s ‘see-through.’ It’s digital, not warm at all, and yet it’s ever-present on the radio.”

Coupled with Popular, Hunt has two other projects that adhere to his high standards: an album of instrumental pieces and a brand new studio record. “It’s the best stuff I’ve ever written,” he says about the latter. “There’s certain ingredients in a song, which I always argue about with my band: tension and release. I’ve done the songs well, where the bridge goes somewhere else. The story is there. I’ve been able to do that and still keep all of the funk and raucousness. I think that’s a rare thing to be able to be accomplish. The Beatles did it, so did Elvis Costello. David Bowie is probably the best example, in my opinion.

“Bowie is by no means Duke Ellington. He’s not a musical virtuoso but that’s what makes the songs that much more incredible. He pulls off these songs because they’re really good songs. He’s probably the best in the pop world, maybe next to Prince, at delivering everything that needs to be delivered in a song — the gnarliness, the story, the song, the performance. It’s all there.” Beyond his new material, Hunt cites “Bits and Pieces” (Popular) and “God Moves at Midnight” (On the Jungle Floor) as songs that give him the most satisfaction because they have those essential elements.

Because virtually hundreds of tracks reside in Van Hunt’s vault, it would seem that new lyrics or melody lines come to life at any second throughout a given day. “I’m not really a talkative person,” he explains. “I’m actually shy and introspective. That’s why melodies are always swimming around in my head.

“I’ve been reading this magazine about brain activity. Your brain activity actually increases when you’re at rest, daydreaming, or sleeping. You hear a lot of musicians say they get ideas in their sleep, that part of your brain is able to really function undisturbed when you’re at rest and that’s why it’s able to feed you these ideas. That’s not a new concept but the fact that your brain increases that activity when you’re at rest is, because many people thought that nothing happened while you’re asleep, just a bunch of white noise. That’s not the case at all.”

One musician who astounds Van Hunt is Johann Sebastian Bach. Unlike his relationship to the music of Thelonious Monk, Hunt doesn’t get inspired by Bach, just amazed. “Man, Bach is everything,” he enthuses, “particularly the Cello Suites. You’re talking about the guy who essentially taught everyone how to play the modern piano. To have been unknown at the time of his death is amazing. The Bach Cello Suites is my favorite piece of work, by far. I think, ‘Golly, listen to that!’ I just get lost.” If message boards and YouTube comments are any indication, contemporary musicians feel similarly about Van Hunt.

Even with the accolades from fans and fellow artists alike, Hunt doesn’t take his vocation for granted, appreciating the conditions to record on his own terms. “I’ve never been more broke but I’ve never had this much fun making music,” he smiles. “I think that when you can do what you want to do for a living, it’s as satisfactory as it gets. Life is harsh, man. The Earth is harsh. My son and I were just watching one of those DVDs about the Earth and you see how many times it’s destroyed and recreated itself, regardless of who inhabits the Earth at that time. I think once I accepted that, life has become much more meaningful.”

One final thought. As Van Hunt continues to “regenerate” himself and introduce new material, can he imagine a day when “Seconds of Pleasure” is no longer part of the concert set?

“No… but I can imagine a day where it’s unrecognizable!” Attention listeners, there’s another clue.