Do you want proof positive of Van Hunt’s versatility? Just look at what he’s doing in town this week. Thursday afternoon at 2 p.m., attendees of the NON-COMM radio programmers’ convention can see a live performance by this young polymath of rock and funk and R&B. (The results will be broadcast later on World Café — check www.worldcafe.org for local schedule.) Then on Saturday night, Hunt appears with Anthony Hamilton and Vivian Green at the Louisville Palace.
This is in the wake of Capitol’s release of On the Jungle Floor, Hunt’s sophomore album. It’s a disc that goes masterfully into the terrains of dirty guitars (“Ride, Ride, Ride,” as exciting as anything from Lenny Kravitz but without the ego preening) and even dirtier mindgames. Hunt writes about people who are full-blooded but very real — including flaws, trials of confidence and passionate wrestling matches between desire and conscience. “Hot Stage Lights” and “Daredevil, baby” are just two of several songs that get into the shoes of characters who have been torn in the past and now wonder who they are in the face of romantic opportunity. Hunt was working on such challenging directions on his self-titled first album from two years back, but his increased experience with songwriting, singing, playing and arranging have added to his capabilities — culminating in the fabulous “Character,” which daringly flaunts its Curtis Mayfield inspiration. LEO got phone time with this Dayton, Ohio, native while he’s on the road and headed this way.
LEO: You’re admired for your musical variety. Do you get frustrated that you play for distinct audiences that don’t all hold your range? On Saturday night you’re a support act for Anthony Hamilton’s new-soul styles, while down the street the “adult album alternative” crowd you did the radio show for is having has their own concert, dominated by blues-pop and progressive alt-country. Do you wish you were at the other venue?
Van Hunt: It used to be frustrating. But now I look at it all as opportunities. I didn’t get through that … for quite a while.
You can say that the modern album-rock crowd doesn’t go out too far to hear different things — but the R&B audiences aren’t opening up, either. What’s given to them is what they like, and they don’t learn to like something new.
LEO: When I first heard that you’d done an Iggy Pop cover (“No Sense of Crime”), I was sure that’d be where you brought out the guitars. But it wasn’t … what is that you used to make that flute-like rendition of the melodic line?
VH: It was me sittin’ down at a mellotron, trying hard to get the strangest sounds I can.
LEO: A mellotron?! I thought all of those were relegated to museums or John Paul Jones’ collection.
VH: Nah. There’s actually two good ones that’re being made these days.
LEO: Do you like outside shows and festivals? What’s your favorite kind of venue? That’s great that you carry the same ensemble to all of them — but how much do you mix things up?
VH: I like ’em all. Our usual is I go out there and try to give the audience somewhere between Prince and James Brown — because to me, that’s the epitome of a live show. But I can go out there by myself and do something more like Leadbelly. With all seven of us on our acoustic sets, I want to sound more like Duke Ellington … or, sometimes, like Joni Mitchell.
LEO: Do you like what you hear about your radio play?
VH: I don’t know much about it. A lot of people have told me that they hear my songs … I wish I could say that I’ve had the pleasure, but I haven’t.
LEO: You work a lot of emotional twists into your songs. Relationships get real-life bumps and challenges, and musically that could get in the way of some listeners’ ideas of smooth sounds. Do you ever get any pressure to make the songwriting a bit less dynamic?
VH: The label’s never questioned my songwriting style. They know what my music’s about, and I’ve never heard any suggestions in the way of asking me to change. Now, they might ask me to do things like go work with somebody — like, record something with Kanye West or Jay-Z. I’ve had to honor those requests. So to some extent, I’ve had to make compromises. But I figure that by working with the label, I’m able to get to just about all I want to do — instead of fighting over everything and not getting to do as much to get my music out.
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