Van Hunt
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

Night Writer: An Interview with Grammy-winning Funk Rocker Van Hunt

In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, Van Hunt discusses his new collaboration with Nate Smith, the influence of Sly & the Family Stone, and a career-spanning compilation that defines independence.

In 2017, the world finally caught up to Van Hunt. That was the year Blue Note issued Popular (2007) a full decade after shelving the album. It was originally slated to be Hunt’s third set following Van Hunt (2004) and On the Jungle Floor (2006), a pair of albums that introduced him as a dynamic force on Capitol’s roster. “Popular was so far ahead of its time that it sounds fresh today and reaffirms Van Hunt as an important musical voice,” Blue Note president Don Was stated at the time. “The opportunity to right this wrong is both karmically and musically solid” (19 September 2017). 

Written and produced by Hunt, Popular foretold his trajectory as an independent artist, far removed from the marketing machine of major labels. “I would say to people who are now finding themselves independently driven and responsible for themselves and their own ideas to keep going,” he says. “You can’t deny that you’re having fun, even in your brokest minute and you don’t know how things are going to get paid. You don’t even know how things that are now overdue are going to get paid. [laughs] It’s a lot of pressure. At some point, things are going to break open. One thing’s for sure: if you stop, it will never happen. The struggle is not only real. It’s necessary for you to achieve something that is so grand as sustainability with your own ideas.”

Hunt’s always drawn from a creative wellspring that’s catnip for curious listeners. He cleverly melds and repurposes familiar pop forms, crafting hooks that seep into the marrow and move the body. The album cover for The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets (2015) captures Hunt in pensive repose like he’s divining inspiration from someplace beyond the present moment. The Chicago Tribune described The Fun Rises as “a plunge into layered and trippy funk and soul … music that dances between the headphones: subtle, slinky, insinuating” (1 May 2015). Six years later, the “trippy funk and soul” of that album still seems like a postcard from the future.

A generous sampling of cuts from Popular and The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets anchored fifti (2020), a career-spanning compilation that Hunt unveiled last year, track-by-track, culminating with his fiftieth birthday. The set also included choice cuts from What Were You Hoping For? (2011) — his first independently released album — plus Trim: The Reimagined Van Hunt (2019), which features re-workings of songs from his GRAMMY-nominated debut. All 31 tracks are bound together by an artistic sensibility that seldom adheres to the conventions of genre. To hear fifti from start to finish is to experience Hunt’s uncompromising vision. 

“I can’t even think of a greater success than materializing your own thoughts and to just see how people react to them,” Hunt says. “It’s the most courageous and it’s the kindest thing that you can do for someone — be honest with them. To me, that’s what we’re here for. That person may not like what you have to say and what you’re about, and their initial reaction could be dangerous, so I understand why people are quiet and shy. I understand why people are afraid of other people, so the exchange in showing somebody what you’re about is the most important thing that you could possibly contribute. I’ve always done that so, for me, I’ve always felt successful.”

The spirit of collaboration has also generated some of Hunt’s greatest success. Artists like Dionne Farris (“Hopeless”) and Rahsaan Patterson (Love in Stereo) have helped articulate his musical ideas, while his recording of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” with John Legend and Joss Stone won a GRAMMY Award for “Best R&B Performance By a Duo or Group with Vocals” (2006). His latest collaboration with composer/drummer/producer Nate Smith on “(If Love Won’t) Can We Forgive Ourselves” is the centerpiece on Smith’s Light and Shadow (2020) EP, which arrived just as COVID-19 shuttered nightlife across the country. In fact, Smith and Hunt’s joint appearances bookend the sudden closing and gradual re-opening of music venues in New York, from their first gig at Rockwood Music Hall in February 2020 to their April 2021 appearance at BRIC JazzFest. The song is a teaser of what’s to come from two musicians whose contrasting musical predilections fashion a unique blend. 

Whether partnering with other artists or following his own solo pursuits, Hunt operates in a mode of constant creation. He lovingly refurbished the Commodores’ “Zoom” on his latest single, “commodore (zūm)”, and the effect is as personal as anything on fifti. Indeed, for all of Hunt’s musical adventures in the studio, the pop music of his youth remains an integral part of his foundation. En route to the studio, Hunt recently joined PopMatters for a conversation where he delved into his creative process and reflected on a career that’s always known forward motion.

I’d love to start with the show you and Nate did for BRIC JazzFest. At the beginning of the set, you said “I’d like to dedicate this show to change” …

Oh, you caught that! [laughs]

In what ways are you seeking change?

Part of what made me say that is that you don’t have to seek change. It just happens and you can embrace it. It was really more my intent to say I’m embracing change, and that change is good because of my embracing it, not because I have any power over whether or not change affects my life … because I know I don’t. 

I loved watching you and Nate play “(If Love Won’t) Can We Forgive Ourselves”. Both on record and in concert, you have a great musical marriage. It’s still a relatively new collaboration, but it feels like it’s steeped in a kindred sensibility. What kind of outlet did writing and performing that song with Nate give you?

The song started because Nate asked me to come and perform with his band Kinfolk. Out of performing with them a couple of times, then he started sending me tracks that I thought were for another Kinfolk record which turned out just to be for his own solo record. One of the tracks didn’t resonate with me so he sent me two more and by the third one I thought, This one is strange enough. I’m just challenged to do it.

I started trying to think of things that I could sing to it and, bam, the song just came together from there. I don’t even think Nate thought very much of the chords that he put together at first until I sang on them and then he got excited, so we both got excited about the track at the same time and then it really became a thing, a really powerful song that I’m proud to be a part of.

I think people will be surprised about how big our sound is. Maybe it was less evident at BRIC than it was a year ago but that was really because of COVID. We weren’t able to do all that we wanted to do, but on the record, people will really hear it and that’s what I’m most excited about.

You say the sound is kind of kindred, but Nate loves big sounds — Peter Gabriel, Toto, Yes — whereas I love really tight, funky things or blues. We kind of come together like that. I give license to his dynamism and he gives license to my more personal approach. It’s really working out in the studio. 

Van Hunt
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

When I read your description about the music you’re making with Nate, and you listed CHIC as one of the influences, my first thought was “those string flourishes on ‘(If Love Won’t) Can We Forgive Ourselves’ are very CHIC-like!

Yes, people don’t really realize that Nate can orchestrate. He plays all the instruments. It’s fun to sit with him because I’ve always wanted to do that. Nate wouldn’t like this comparison, but he really is like Quincy Jones and I’m his Michael Jackson, so I get to just show up with these little demos. “Hey, make something of this!” Nate jumps right in with strings and rhythm components to add to it. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve always wanted that kind of synergy with a partner.