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.

I’ve been wanting to ask you this question for a year. When you released fifti last February and March, I thought, “Oh there’s going to be a “fifti” tour and Van’s going to play all of these songs for us…” and then COVID-19 happened. I’d love to know about the process of revisiting 15 years of recorded output and narrowing it down to 31 tracks. How did you form that list of songs? 

Well, it started with my co-manager Monyea. He’s also been my tour manager for a very long time. He said, “You should just run a playlist of your favorite tunes.” Of course, I couldn’t just name those tunes. I had to also go in and record a new one [“Crystal Oscillator”] to put the cherry on top of the list, so that’s how it started.

I chose songs and versions of songs that I really felt showed the best of me. I stuck with that criteria. I was able to create my own videos for many of them, one of which had a lot of shots of my son when he was a kid, on one of my favorite songs, which was “A Time Machine Is My New Girlfriend”.

I’ve been in a mad love affair with The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets, so I appreciate how you incorporated a lot of those songs on fifti. It was fun to hear them shuffled around in a different order. “Teach Me a New Language” is definitely one of my favorites, especially the line “a slip of the tongue is felt but never heard”. When have you experienced that particular dynamic in your own life? 

My mind is dirty Christian so now you’ve taken me to a whole different place with the question. [laughs] You mean in communication … let me see. I think that it was kind of a play on words. I’m a big Sly Stone fan. He does that all the time and of course if somebody’s teaching you a new language you need to become accustomed to the slips of the tongue. It fits into today’s world where nobody trusts anything that they hear and everybody gets in trouble for slips of the tongue, which is really just people talking, and that goes to a bigger conversation about politics and communication.

I want to know all about a person. You initiate a conversation. You have to break into it in some kind of way. It’s all about really forgiving a slip of the tongue. 

How I interpret that line for myself is that a slip of the tongue can be non-verbal as well. “I didn’t necessarily hear that slip of the tongue, but I felt it.” 

I really appreciate you bringing that up because I guess that’s what I’m saying. When you’re trying to understand where someone is coming from, you do have to feel them as much as you hear them. I think that’s what makes a conversation what it is and why it’s important to allow someone what you might call a mistake, which I just call an initiation — that’s how it gets started.

I don’t want to jump too far into politics, but I do think that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are really really big initiations into new conversations now that no one can deny. In that way, they’re very similar. They really brought with them a completely different conversation that they forced people to have. One will have to be forgiven at some point, if ever. The other is a sweet old man, but they’re both catalysts for new conversations. 

Your singing voice fascinate me. There are three songs back to back on The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets — “Emotional Criminal”, “If I Wanna Dance With You”, and “A Woman Never Changes” —  that spotlight this strength in your voice. It’s almost like this mountain of sound comes out. At what point in your life did you discover that you had the capability of singing with that power at that level? 

I was just thinking about that because I was talking to a friend of mine who was saying, “I love this quality of your voice”. He couldn’t show it to me until the show we did at BRIC and he said, “Oh! That’s what I’m talking about!” because I hadn’t really sung in a year. No one’s really heard me. The people I’m hanging out with, I don’t really get to practice so when we announced the show I had to start practicing, but even then I couldn’t really let it out until we actually got to the show to get ready to perform. I was warming up and I just started screaming, so that I would be able to go to those places that you’re describing. 

I’ve always had the range in my voice, but I don’t feel like I had the confidence to use it, or maybe not even the ability to use it the way I wanted to, until I would say 2010 or 2011. When I recorded “A Time Machine is My New Girlfriend”, that was the first time that I noticed a quality in my voice that I really liked in my highest range in between what we call falsetto and the natural chest tone, and one that I could control. It put me in a space where I felt like not a lot of male singers existed, so the only competition there, unfortunately for me, is Stevie Wonder. [laughs] There’s a big huge gap between first and second place, but I’m working on it.

When you performed “That Lucky Old Sun” the other night at BRIC, there was a moment … 

Yeah, exactly!

I thought, where did that voice come from? That was the first song you performed that night. 

I needed to get that song out first in the set to then feel comfortable about the rest of the set. Even though I haven’t performed in a while, I can’t stand doing one-off shows. I prefer touring. You become a much better performer on tour, in my opinion. For somebody like me, to perform, it really takes a lot out of me to engage and project my voice. To do one show a year is just crazy.

Van Hunt
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

I was struck by the comments you wrote about “French for Cloud (cstbu)” in the liner notes for fifti. You wrote, “People say I’m ahead of my time. I don’t think about time that way. It all happens at once — the past, present, and future. I let others divide it up.” How did you arrive at that perspective in life?

I think it’s probably through religion. In speaking about time and the history of things, magic was kind of taken over by religion and religion was kind of taken over by science. I feel like it’s easy for people who believe in God to understand what I’m saying because I think if you believe in a creator then these things were already here, so there is no real concept of time except for you to maybe make sense of things in your life. It’s very clear to me that we’re operating in a material world and a spiritual world. That’s kind of what I meant.

The material world is manipulated and driven around by the spiritual world. I feel that in the things that I do — making music of course, the one big one. I think that if I have any belief in God it would be because of music and the power of it and how it flows through me and out of me. It comes to me in the middle of the night, songs I’ve never heard and I’m not responsible for! [laughs] So this is clearly bigger than me. They always come to me around the same time.

I’m sure you’ve heard other creators talk about this, other writers especially. Toni Morrison talks about writing right before she goes to bed or right after she gets up. That’s when the song ideas come to me — the best ideas, I think. Frankly, they feel like flashes, like walking into a thunderstorm, but you wouldn’t take credit for the thunderstorm. I don’t care what any brain specialist or psychologist says. These thoughts are coming from somewhere else … luckily, through me and I can manipulate them however I need to in order to materialize them. That part is really fun but man these ideas come from otherworldly places. 

In 2019, you re-recorded songs from your debut on Trim: The Reimagined Van Hunt. At that time, you wrote, “There are things that have happened to me in the last fifteen years that seem to make sense only when I look back and sing the words to my first record. It seems like they were written to explain the aftermath of what was to come.” What songs on Trim best illustrate some of that aftermath?

Well definitely “Who Will Love Me In Winter”. I think I was probably speaking about that song specifically when I was even thinking about that. When I went back to re-do that song from my first album into Trim, I had a little trepidation because honestly, that was a song that I never really knew where it came from. It just shot up in me.

My friend David Ryan Harris, who had also taught me how to play guitar when I was 23 or 24, was like “Hey man, all your other songs? They’re cool, but that one? That one scares me! You got something.” This is a 26-year-old talking to a 23-year-old. I always held on to that song, but I just don’t know where it came from. I feel like it was a very mature song for a 23-year-old to write. At the time when I did the Trim album, as a 49-year-old going back and playing it, it all made sense based on the things that happened in my life. I can finally explain the song to myself. 

Van Hunt
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media