Van Hunt Lets the Pink Elephants Out to Play

North Hollywood is nestled in the San Fernando Valley. According to a 2008 profile in the Los Angeles Times, it has among the highest population densities in the entire county of Los Angeles, nearly 13,300 people per square mile. About 2,900 veterans reside in North Hollywood and approximately 3,300 families are headed by single parents. The median household income measures $42,791. Of course, that figure was collected during the middle of an 18-month recession.

“North Hollywood” is also the title of the opening track on What Were You Hoping For?, Van Hunt’s first release of new material on his own “godless hotspot” imprint via Nashville-based Thirty Tigers. “I would say North Hollywood is a combination of maybe East Village (NYC), Haight-Ashbury (San Francisco), and any other little L.A. city like Studio City or West Hollywood”, says Hunt. “There’s a NoNoHo in North Hollywood and that is definitely a rougher part, if you will, a poorer part of the area.”

Van Hunt, one of the neighborhood’s 90,000 or so habitues, sees a lot of elephants in North Hollywood. The pink kind. The kind that people blatantly disregard rather than admit are there in plain view. Elephants like poverty, racism, and abuses of power. “There’s so many issues resulting from the recession”, Hunt says. “People are poor and struggling. It’s a neighborhood that really wants to be rough and the city is trying to make it polite and nice. It will never be that.”

The album cover of What Were You Hoping For? is a snapshot of quotidian life in North Hollywood. It depicts a woman of elderly or middle age in knee-high stockings looking askance at a tidy collection of white garbage bags leaning up against a concrete wall. With the photo as a canvas, Van Hunt’s name is spelled out across the garbage bags in a rainbow of colors. Might he feel disposed of?

In 2008, it might have seemed so. Blue Note Records shelved Hunt’s third album, Popular. He’d toured in advance of the record’s scheduled release date, but parted ways with the label after realizing that Popular would not be effectively supported and marketed. (As of this writing, EMI still owns Popular, which Hunt hopes will receive a proper release.) Coinciding with the financial meltdown in the U.S., Van Hunt compiled tracks from his vault for the digital-only Use in Case of Emergency (2009) and released it on his website. He also explored another creative outlet amidst his frustrations with the music industry, photography.

Walking and driving around the streets of Los Angeles with a camera, he noticed abandoned couches populating the cement. “I was under the impression that all of these couches that were strewn about the city reflected the recession”, he says. “It did, in a way. It wasn’t necessarily that people were being evicted but people were downsizing and had to move to smaller places. I started off with 36 pictures of just couches. In the process, I started taking pictures of people hanging out on the corner as well. I thought some of them were just funny, like when people avoid pink elephants. I don’t know why, but that’s very ticklish to me.”

As Hunt began capturing people in his photography, he imagined the stories of his unknowing subjects. Like Hunt, many of these individuals might have had dreams or pursuits that manifested differently than they envisioned. “It’s sad as you can quite imagine”, he says. “It’s also kind of welcoming to me. Sometimes I do get a chance to talk to them and hear a bit of their story. I’m not the only one out here who had an idea of trying to make it happen. Some of us are luckier than others. Some of us are more prepared than others. That’s just the truth of the situation.”

Hunt’s photography is congruous with his music. It’s realistic, disruptive, and thought-provoking, but also beautiful and moving. It’s appropriate that Hunt’s own photographs would accompany his first physical release since On the Jungle Floor (2006). Instead of music and images being diluted through a corporate machine, Hunt’s work distills the essence of who he is. The kaleidoscopic collage of Hunt’s photo subjects in the fold-out CD booklet reflects people of different complexions and suits of armor. Similarly, What Were You Hoping For? contains a superfetation of musical ideas that are unified by Hunt’s singular vision. There’s the raw punk of “A Time Machine Is My New Girlfriend”, the aquatic grooves of “Plum”, and the country western swing of “Falls (Violet)”. Each song could almost correspond to a different face in the collage.

It’s a long line between What Were You Hoping For? and the past, specifically 2004 when Van Hunt debuted with his self-titled album after years of artists like Dionne Farris and Rahsaan Patterson recording his songs. “I recognize that there are a lot of heartfelt songs on there that took me years to come up with”, Hunt comments about his first album. “It was the first thing that I was allowed to do. My first thought (now) about that record is, the mid-range is weird. I don’t know if I like the sound but I like the record. There were a lot of headaches trying to just get it to the market.” Once Van Hunt reached the market, the artist earned a legion of fans through the smoldering soul of “Seconds of Pleasure” and “Down Here in Hell (With You)”, and the hook-filled sway of “Dust”.

In fact, it’s those songs that prompt a sea of camera phones to record every nuance of Hunt’s performance during his concert appearances. The opening night of his fall 2011 tour to support What Were You Hoping For? is no exception. Standing onstage at Webster Hall in Manhattan, Hunt even conducts the audience as they sing the familiar refrain of “Dust” a cappella.

However, “Watching You Go Crazy Is Driving Me Insane”, the song that precedes “Dust” in the set, provides an intoxicating departure from the more familiar grooves of songs on Van Hunt and On the Jungle Floor. Certainly, a record company like Capitol that was determined to break Van Hunt on urban radio five years ago would now be totally confounded by the unbridled cathartic energy of that track.

The spirit of creative autonomy that bolsters “Watching You Go Crazy . . .” complies with a line from another song on the new album, “It’s a Mysterious Hustle”. In the spoken-word section that concludes the track, Hunt says, “If you follow the beaten path, it will keep you tied to the past.” The artist asserts that, in music and in life, he’s always sought to travel roads that diverge from paths already taken. “If you’re not aspiring to what the culture should aspire to, I don’t understand what you would be doing calling yourself an artist or a composer”, he states. “I don’t understand why you would try and do something that someone’s already done, other than you’re trying to discover the foundation of what it is that you want to do.”

Hunt’s approach to his art is not without conflict, for he’s still confronted with a multiplicity of expectations from the audience when he performs. There’s a line in “Falls (Violet)” where Hunt sings, “Give them what they want and all they want is more”. Though Hunt clarifies that the premise for the song is about a relationship between two people, he accepts how those particular lyrics could apply to a performer and his/her audience. “When I’m writing, I do think about those kinds of things”, he says. “When I say a line like, ‘Give them what they want . . .’, I do think about the crowd and me. I’m conflicted–or I was, less so now–about my role on the stage.

“All of these people come and they want to hear the music. The way it’s all situated, I’m elevated. I’m on a stage and they’re all just standing there. It really feels weird to me. Oftentimes, I just want to be down on the floor with them. It feels better when I’m with the people, singing the words with them. I want to make sure that they know that I’m not here to dumb down what I do and I’m also not here to pretend that I’m a leader that they need to have. Before I wasn’t so sure about that. I want to respect the audience. They respect the work that I do. I’m not a religious person–I don’t debate the existence of God–but I was telling someone earlier, if God gave me the ideas and vision that I have, I want to make sure that I’m representing that as honestly as I can.”

Honesty is one of the defining characteristics of a Van Hunt concert. The audience expects to hear certain songs. He will oblige them, but perhaps change a song’s arrangement to satisfy his needs as an artist. One-third of the Webster Hall set is culled from What Were You Hoping For?. Hunt thanks the audience for their patience with the new material, especially since the album’s release date is still days away. Though the songs are new, they garner no less enthusiasm from audience members, many of whom are transfixed by the abrupt changes between musical styles. Addressing the crowd from the stage, Hunt says, “It’s nice to know somewhere in the world art is still appreciated”.

The audience is perhaps even more appreciative than Hunt knows. Because some of the lyrical ideas on What Were You Hoping For? were conceived during the recession, there’s a serendipity to Hunt’s appearance in New York on Day 3 of the Occupy Wall Street movement in downtown Manhattan. He notes that the album title is not just a rhetorical question. “It’s a statement about the collision of unspoken issues around society”, he says. “The pink elephants that everybody walks around. It’s the indecision that comes back to bite you in the ass. What turns out, inevitably, to be a bad decision. Based on the decisions that we make, what were you hoping for?” The karmic undertones of Hunt’s explanation seem tethered to some of the issues Occupy Wall Street are protesting–for example, what happens when greed and corruption within financial institutions go unchecked?

“Economic plight”, for one. It’s a condition that Hunt expounds on in the lyrics to the title song, rhyming those two words with “It’s the end of white flight”. The couplet suggests that the fallout from the recession has halted the mobility of, well . . . “Instead of saying ‘white people’, let’s say ‘people who abuse their position’,” cautions Hunt. “When I’m talking to my son about how people abuse power, I try to make sure that he understands that it does not mean that every white person you run in to, you need to share with them that you think they’re an ass.” However, in the progressive-minded logic of Hunt’s story, “the end of white flight” yields a potential love interest. “Maybe now you’ll see something you like / Baby I’m your type,” he sings.

Hunt further explains the sentiment behind “What Were You Hoping For?” by sharing an analogous scenario, one that he gave to Melissa Mattey when she requested a visual to mix the album: “Imagine post-apocalypse. I and my family are the only ones left in the neighborhood. We’re struggling to survive. Another family comes in and they stumble upon us. We stumble upon them. In another world, they would never have spoken to us but here we need each other to survive. We have to trust each other. That is where the relationship between myself–the kid in the family–starts with the other kid in the family. ‘What if you and I were to take a walk down to the acid creek and start a relationship?’ That’s where the song began.”

Van Hunt views relationships through an even more subversive lens in “Cross Dresser”, where the character in the story dons the attire of his ex-lover to “disguise the hurt”. The act of a man wearing scarves, mink furs, high-heels, and skirts precipitates an insurrection against gender mores. Speaking in character, Hunt exclaims, “Shit, I was just wearing her clothes ’cause I missed her and damn, I look around and started a counterculture!” Van Hunt thoughtfully considers his rejoinder to listeners whose response to “Cross Dresser” might be clouded by homophobia. “It would make me laugh because I know this person hasn’t addressed some basic issues in their life”, he says. “It’s another pink elephant. This person is running around throughout society bumping into other people. Anything can set them off. I used to have somebody in my band like that. I’d say, ‘Dude, I’m telling you, you’re homophobic.’ ‘That ain’t it, man! I just don’t want them sitting close to me!'” Hunt says that his awareness about different forms of personal expression is a constant thread through his life. “It’s always been there”, he continues, “but it wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles that I found a wonderful person to have a relationship with that I–as clich√© as it sounds–was able to see who I was. She made me feel like it’s okay to be myself. I could actually know when I’m being disrespectful and separate that from being direct and honest with people.”

What Were You Hoping For? is as direct and honest as its creator. On “Designer Jeans”, Van Hunt holds us accountable for our complicity in the “mass production and consumption of opinions”. One of the strongest tracks on a strong album, it tackles the erasure of independent thought, where social and political trends become “fashion” that determine an individual’s course of action. “Our political views are tattoos”, he sings. Though it’s natural to become engrossed with the groove of “Designer Jeans”, Hunt’s lyrics call for more than passive contemplation, especially with an impending election year.

From Pennsylvania Avenue to North Hollywood to Wall Street to online social networks, pink elephants are conspicuously in sight. What’s the antidote to a culture that, as Van Hunt often observes, is perilously in decline? Though he addresses the symptoms on What Were You Hoping For?, he’s still pondering the remedy. “Man, I would love to say I know. I don’t think that I could give you an answer that you probably would want or someone else who wants a leader, like President Obama, would want. It’s really adjusting to what is and making sure you’re making good decisions for our present and our future.”

Heed the lyrics on What Were You Hoping For? and decide for yourself.