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.

Within that 15 years, of course, you recorded Popular. I remember how that album was still on Blue Note’s release schedule when you and I first did an interview in 2007. Explain why Blue Note didn’t release it initially and how they came around to releasing it ten years later.

If you ask Blue Note, they’ll say that it was really the pressure from the mother company EMI and I’m sure EMI will tell you it was the pressure from the larger economy and how the recession was impeding the release at that point. There’s probably truth to that, but I also think that if the record had been a different kind of record, then it would have put less pressure on the company to go out with it and release it. I think it’s the kind of record that you have to get behind the artist, or maybe if you don’t believe in the artist or the record, you just close your eyes, throw it out there and see what happens. [laughs] They weren’t prepared to do any of that. 

The artist community, thankfully — Nicholas Payton who was once on Blue Note, to Jason Moran, who was also on Blue Note, to Robert Glasper, who was once on Blue Note — they all at different times were like, “This record is important.” When you look at the landscape of where things are and where we are as artists, this was a record that was, particularly for Jason Moran, a record that bridges a lot of things. Through them and their connection with Blue Note, which was deeper than mine, of course, we were able to start having those conversations. 

Popular is not only my favorite album of yours, but it’s also one of my favorite albums ever. It’s interesting how certain songs grab you immediately and stay with you, but then other songs take a little bit of time to sneak in. For me, “Blood from a Heart of Stone” was one of those latter songs. I know you said that Count Bass D gave you the title, but musically how did that song take shape? 

One of my earliest songwriting partners, Curtis Whitehead, is just a dynamic bassist. Curtis grew up in Georgia. He’s the son of a preacher and they just traveled the Georgia countryside helping people put together churches. They would actually build the churches for them and then Curtis and his brothers would be the church’s band until the church got on its feet, so they would literally travel to three, four, five churches every Sunday, churches that they had once built and also were the bands for. Through that, they were indoctrinated through gospel quartet music. He really taught all of that to me. Gospel quartet, particularly the African American tradition, is steeped in rhythm and blues and really deep soul. It took me ten or 15 years for me to get it into my blood.

I’m telling you how important Curtis was to my sound because I spent the better part of a decade trying to emulate the world that he grew up in. We get to 2007 and Curtis had been a part of my band up until then but then Curtis had to take a leave of absence for personal reasons. Now I’m stuck doing this album [Popular] and I’m kind of confident, because I’ve always been confident in my ability to write, but Curtis was always someone I bounced ideas off of. Now I didn’t have that, so the bitterness that I began to feel and the insecurity I began to feel birthed “Blood from a Heart of Stone”. 

That’s really what the song is about — trying to get something out of someone who isn’t even there. It’s like trying to make a friend out of the walls, you know what I mean? [laughs] Which would go well in COVID, with everybody by themselves! That was kind of where the song was birthed from and of course, Count gave me the title, which tied it all together. 

Van Hunt
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

“Blood from a Heart of Stone” was playing earlier here in the studio and it sounded so good. Finally, I could experience that song in a room that’s bigger than my apartment!

One of my friends who actually worked at Capitol when I was there has spent ten years trying to play that bass line. He’ll check in with me every few years. “Man, do I have it yet?” I just lie to him — “no!” — but he’s had it for about five years. I just make him feel like he’s going to always be in pursuit of trying to tackle that bass line. 

Last year, you released your own version of “Hopeless”. You mentioned how that was the first song of yours that went out into the world. Walk me through the conception of that song and then how it got to Dionne Farris for the Love Jones (1997) soundtrack. 

I was really struggling, trying to make a way in music when I wrote that song. I was probably 25 or 26. I remember sitting at my mentor’s house. He had allowed me to work inside his studio to learn how to operate a studio and play around with songs. I was still trying to develop my songwriting at the time and I remember sitting at a Fender Rhodes and I was messing around with the chords of that song. I was looking out the window and there was a squirrel and a bird chasing each other. I hadn’t seen that before. I was like, I didn’t know squirrels and birds played with each other. That’s weird! The song just started coming together then and that’s when I wrote it. 

I was in between my first tour with Dionne and working on her second record. Randy Jackson had signed Dionne. He was an A&R person at Columbia Records at the time, so he had always been in support of the little demos that I was making and the songs I was writing, so I slipped it to him first. He liked it and then he let Dionne hear it. She was like “I like that song! Why didn’t you give it to me first?” “I didn’t know if you’d like it.” So then we went into the studio.

How did Dionne amplify that song in terms of her delivery?

She amplifies everything in her delivery. She’s one of those singers, man. I don’t know if people realize that she, for me, is up there with an Ella Fitzgerald or a Sarah Vaughan. Her ability to sing and interpret a tune is every bit as skillful as some of the best jazz singers out there. I don’t know if she’s ever really had the opportunity or the vehicle to display that ability, but that’s what she brings to it. To be honest with you, it would be like giving a song to Billie Holiday — how is she gonna do it? You don’t know. You just know that you’re gonna love it.  

Shortly after “Hopeless”, you collaborated with Rahsaan Patterson on a few songs off Love in Stereo (1999). It’s amazing to think that album was recorded more than 20 years ago. How did you and Rahsaan first connect with each other?

That was another Randy Jackson connection. After being at Columbia, he moved to MCA Records. He said, “You and Rahsaan should write together.” We wrote three songs the first day, all of which were on his second record. He’s another example of a fantastic singer who’s up here in terms of ability. I learned so much from Dionne and Rahsaan about how to sing and how to record vocals and layer vocals. 

In terms of songwriting, what distinguishes Rahsaan from other collaborators you’ve written with over the years?

Well, Rahsaan is a real artist, and so is Dionne. A lot of people I’ve collaborated with are professional songwriters. Literally, they show up at ten o’clock in the morning and they finish at six. They just try to hammer out tunes. That’s not Dionne and Rahsaan at all. They show up when they want to and you might wait on them for seven hours and they’re gonna be there for 20 minutes and do the most amazing thing you ever heard in your life. [laughs] That’s who they are. 

Rahsaan, as a collaborator, is a lot of fun. I’m usually the business-minded one when I’m with Rahsaan. Now, I couldn’t even tell you right now what day it is or what time it is, which lets you know how crazy it is for me to be the organized one in that collaboration but that’s the way it works. [laughs] I’m usually at the studio waiting on Rahsaan. He gets there and I give him a song and then he just laces it with beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime vocals. It’s like flying on an eagle. That’s the opportunity that you have when you’re working with someone that talented. 

Van Hunt

You mentioned Sly earlier. Take me back to being a young boy and hearing Sly & the Family Stone for the first time. What impact did their music have on you?

I don’t know if I’ve ever said this before, but I actually didn’t get into Sly as a young boy. I was on that first Dionne Farris tour. I was 24. David Ryan Harris turned me on to Sly, and particularly There’s A Riot Goin’ On (1971). I bought two Sly & the Family Stone records, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Fresh (1973). There’s a Riot Goin’ On was too weird for me. I thought I liked it but I wasn’t sure and I wasn’t ready to go back and experience it again.

I immediately liked Fresh, though. It sounded more modern. There were things that I was familiar with. Fresh was nice. It’s got “If You Want Me to Stay” on it, this really funky stuff. All the musicians love that album because of “In Time”. The drummers love that song.

Maybe a month or two later, I revisited There’s a Riot Goin’ On and it just kept calling me. I got back into the record. I spent a decade just trying to allow my body to absorb the sound and what the record was saying — like we were talking about with “a slip of the tongue” — hearing it and feeling it. It took me that long to get it into my system, so I didn’t hear it as a young child. I heard it as a young man and it was completely formative for me. It’s a big pillar in who I am as an artist. 

Thank you for correcting that assumption for me! 

The only cool music I had as a kid was because my father played Prince for me. That was it. The rest of it was everything that everybody else listened to and that formed my pop sensibilities, so I’m happy about that. I’m never very far away from the Commodores or Lionel Richie, to be honest, or George Benson — the singing George Benson, not even the deep jazz guitar George Benson — or Whitney Houston or Diana Ross. I’m never far from that space. 

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