Interview: VAN HUNT

Definition: Other.
Words: Marsha Gosho Oakes
People have been using music to identify themselves, distinguish themselves from others, and unite, for centuries. The ability to mark your identity with music suggests to many that the music itself should be definable, and along with it, its makers. This limiting pigeonholing is many an artist’s fear, and a particularly troubling reality for a young black male artist who isn’t rapping and is intensely fond of guitars after growing up on a vast range of soul, rock, punk and funk from Ohio Players and Minnie Ripperton, to AC/DC, Van Halen, and Pantera, to Sly and the Family Stone. Eclecticism in black music seems to a nightmarish moving target for the marketing teams at major labels, and Van Hunt should know. “I listened to all R&B and punk, the usual. When I got older and moved to Texas I started listening to some ‘white music’ – then I moved to Atlanta and I found Sly and hip hop. I was always into Prince too”, he explains. “I’m more eclectic now; I listen to anything and study it.” Van Hunt’s music swings between funk, blues, rock, soul, and punk in ever-changing measures; his 2004 self-titled debut album had a clear soul slant, whilst his sophomore ‘On The Jungle Floor’ (2006) surprised some people with its emphasis on guitar. He is soulful, but his songs are more guitar-based than many soul and R&B radio stations will accommodate. He rocks, but the funk is undeniable. Perhaps this is why his MySpace genre categorisation lists him as ‘Other / Other / Other’. In speaking to Soul Culture, Van Hunt expresses his discomfort at music industry politics, payola, and talks to us about insecurity in both artists and the industry.
“My manager told me that I’ve come a long way and listened to a lot of music, studied all the greats, and it’s now time to forget all that and go to the studio and figure out who I was. All those influences I had would come when I needed them to be there”, tells Van Hunt as he describes the best advice that has been given to him. “And he was right.” Such advice was important to Van Hunt particularly whilst recording his debut album, as he confesses to early insecurities in his artistry. He explains that, whilst recording the first album, “I held back because I was insecure about singing and playing. I’ve always had a fear of being outstanding, and sometimes when I’m playing or singing and I sense the reaction from people, it makes me want to shy away. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a roar of approval or a loud boo; it’s still affecting people. That was something that was kinda difficult for me. Now it’s become easier for me to go inside myself and perform, and do it for the joy of it, like so many other artists that I admire. I admire that they’ve been able to do that. With ‘On The Jungle Floor’, I feel I’ve been able to get a little closer to that than I did on the first album…” The fact that many fans initially prefer his debut album to his rockier sophomore release, does not avert Van from stating his own criticisms of his first record: “There are a couple of songs [on ‘Van Hunt’] that, to be honest, I didn’t feel are saying enough; lyrically, and as a result, musically. I would change a few things that made me feel it was more ‘me’.”
From his initial insecurities to those of the people who mould the industry, Van Hunt imparts a theory of the industry being as unstable as the foolish man’s house built on sand, so to speak. He discloses, “The industry is full of people who just want to make money, they have clue, they’re all insecure. It’s the worst situation you can imagine. You have to be strong enough to be who you are in the face of all that. I don’t know how I stay grounded, I’m just honest. Maybe the songwriting is grounding – I love the process, I’m such a fan of my own sh*t. In my head it sounds so gorgeous. So I protect them, and I think that’s what grounds me.” With the increased confidence Van possessed in creating ‘On The Jungle Floor’, came a change in sound. Did he find it difficult to break through image and music stereotypes? Before even having to tackle presenting an altered sound to his listeners, he had to face record label attempts to manipulate his music to fit the existing mainstream prototypes for black music; which invariably involves a rapper, somewhere along the line… “They try to bring in someone to rhyme on your track, or bring in some hip hop producer to do his magic on your thing so you can get it on the radio. I’ll do it if I think it’s good – Common is on a version of Character that I thought was amazing. The label didn’t like it so they bullshit it. It wasn’t cool, the way it went down”, he describes.
The next glitch on the production line was radio stations who wanted more beat and fewer guitars before they would consider play listing Van Hunt’s music, on top of the stress of a circuit where battling payola is another issue: “In mainstream radio there are so many games and lies and tricks being played to get your music played. It’s all a bunch of bullsh*t; I don’t enjoy that at all. I’ve had radio programs telling me to take the guitar out of my music and they’ll play it, it’s amazing,” he sighs. “It’s gonna take a whole bunch of short manoeuvres to break an artist like me, it might take 3 or 4 records – who knows – but the point is you have to keep doing it, keep chopping at the tree. That’s why it’s a shame that we haven’t heard from D’Angelo, we need an influx of artists willing to say what’s on their mind and express themselves.”
With the success of mainstream artists largely relying on having a well-financed campaign behind them, many soulful artists find themselves scraping the barrel as they attack the independent route, whilst the few on major labels usually find themselves with the short end of the budget despite the name behind them. As a cost-effective alternative with extensive influence, many use the internet to foster an audience and spread awareness. Whilst this makes it viable for some artists to take their careers into their own hands, Van Hunt proposes the free resource is vulnerable to becoming as corrupt or limiting as major outlets, saying, “If you give those things too much power they’ll just become the next radio. Just like an independent label; all the major labels were once independent labels. It will all grow into something dangerous if you give them too much power. I just want people to be honest – if you like my music then play it, why have I gotta buy you out!? Do your job. You’re supposed to bring music to people, just do it.”
Artists scrambling for money also find themselves multi-tasking in a Do-It-Yourself attempt to cut costs and extend their talents – ‘though the latter doesn’t always work, according to Van. “For me there’s very few real artists and there’s very few good songs. I just think people don’t know HOW to write a song, and they don’t even care. But I do see that there are still really good writers, good performers, good singers, good arrangers, good musicians; I just think everybody needs to bring what they do to the table, and stop trying to worry about the money,” he assesses. “If you’re a good musician, why are you trying to be a producer? Because that’s where you heard the money is. But you’re not really a good producer! Or writer. Or you can’t really sing. If everybody stuck to their thing and brought that to the collective, it would work.”
Van Hunt falls into the category of soulful artists ‘lucky’ enough to find deals on a major label; in a three-album deal on Capitol Records, owned by EMI. Is the label everything he hoped it would be for his career? “To be honest, not really…” he responds. “Because I had an ideal of how I wanted things to be, but it wasn’t based on reality. So it wasn’t fair to them – because I’m a different kinda artist. I think they would tell you that they’ve done the best that they can. I would tell you that they’re to be praised for putting out an artist like me and a record like mine, but sure there are certain things they could do to make it easier for all of us to sell records.” What was his ideal, which proved unrealistic? “My ideal was that I would write these songs that I felt like anybody could get into and all you had to do was put it on the radio. And who was better to do that than a major label with some money. But they’re not as major a label as other labels so it’s hard for them to play that game, and radio’s a money game. Most of it is about money. It’s unfortunate. It’s ok to have commerce but you’ve gotta have the art with it…”
Hence the recording contract is a learning curve, and creative and financial freedoms are incentive enough for Van Hunt to pursue a wider audience and persist with his creative instincts. He describes a familiar story; “You get freedom when you sell records, there’s no doubt about it, so I’m trying to do that and I’m positioning myself within the label and within myself to make sure that I’m the man and the next album will be as I hear it without any interference from anybody. That’s what I want.”
Interferences aside, his critically acclaimed journey is engaging thus far. The night is young for Van Hunt.
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