Graham Reid | | 15 min read
At 46, James Hunter from Colchester in Essex is an overnight soul-singing sensation who took a couple of decades to get to where he is. But for most people he seemed to appear out of nowhere with his breakthrough album People Gonna Talk in early 2006.
Hunter’s effortless blend of Sam Cooke-styled soul with soft reggae rhythms and his snappy original songs found immediate critical favour and the album appeared in the “best of the year” list here at Elsewhere and in Mojo, USA Today and many other magazines and newspapers internationally. It garnered Grammy nominations, Hunter was suddenly the centre of attention and opening for the likes of Aretha Franklin. People like Elvis Costello and Eric Clapton had their photographs taken with him.
What few people knew however was that far from coming out of nowhere Hunter had long been a musical journeyman who had sung back-up with Van Morrison (who called Hunter “one of the best voices and best kept secrets") in the early 90s.
But then Hunter fell on harder times and just two years before People Gonna Talk he was taking labouring jobs. Those experiences -- plus his working class background and age -- make him a grounded and very witty and quick conversationalist with a story to tell.
And with his new album The Hard Way -- as with People Gonna Talk recorded at Toe Rag Studios in London, and with guest Allen Toussaint -- he has consolidated his reputation. It seems there will be no going back to digging holes.
Elsewhere caught up with Hunter, after an initial attempt in New York was postponed through the singer being unwell, as he and his cracking band take their soul-pop across America.
First of all thanks for taking the time to talk. We were scheduled to talk a week or so ago but I understand you got sick. I imagine you might have just been tired because you have been working a lot in the States the past few months.
Yes. We’re halfway across the country going right to left as it were and now we are in . umm, let me see . . . Ann Arbor in Michigan.
When we were originally going to speak you were in New York and doing Conan O’Brien’s show or Letterman, that kind of thing?
You are doing dates under your own name at the moment but I understand you’ve been out with Willie Nelson?
Well, we’re just mates really. Do you write a gossip column or what? (Laughs)
I walked right into that, didn’t I?
You did, didn’t you? You have to steer clear of the obvious or I’ll be right onto ‘em.
Obviously. But you have toured with Willie, and soon with Chris Isaak?
Chris Isaak is coming later but we did about four gigs with Willie back in the UK and two over here and one was at the Fox Theatre in St Louis, a fantastic place.
It’s all happening for you at the moment, isn’t it? The last two years have been remarkable.
It’s certainly been a change of pace. (Laughs)
Is there a downside to the fame thing that no one warned you about?
There is, but not much of one. The fact of the success -- which some say is somewhat belated -- is that I am more tempramentally suited and more able to cope with it. And less physically able to cope with it. It’s give and take on both sides.
I guess the other thing is you have a story to tell.
I suppose so. There are a lot of people get famous at 19 and then someone wants them to write their autobiography and basically it says, ‘watch this space’.
Let’s go back five years because it was a very different story then. Was there a point where you thought, ‘I’ve done a lot of work and this just really isn’t happening’. Was there a point of giving up and getting a day job?
No, there was never a question of that, there was the temporary measure of getting labouring work because the only two things I’m any good at are singing and digging holes. Some might say I’ve been digging one for my career for about 20 years!
But I did have recourse to go to an agency to find labouring work, but I never actually stopped [playing] and there was always something coming in, but never enough to support me. I stopped doing the agency thing and started going busking again and found I wasn’t getting stitched up as much because the agency would ‘ave your trousers down in the blink of an eye. I found by busking I was getting a much better rate of pay -- and hanging out with a much nicer class of people on the streets.
Was that a good experience in terms of what you do now, because if you are on the street you are actually eye-balling people. You must bring something of that to the stage?
I think so, the stuff on the street you could call ‘character building’. (Laughs) But I did notice at the time my playing got a bit more assured and harder, and I suppose in another more spiritual way it also reminds you that you are never very far from the streets anyway.
And the need to project comes over on stage these days?
Definitely, a bit more in-your-face. I intended it to be much like that anyway but it became more so after that. You could liken it to the Beatles’ apprenticeship in Hamburg.
Yes, I often say to young bands that they need to play more. Many play two gigs then need a cup of tea and lie down for six months.
Yeah, they should wait until they are my age before they do that!
Exactly, to perform you need to get your stamina up if nothing else.
Absolutely, and you learn your lessons out there as well. We have run-ins with people who are much younger than us who have been used to being pampered because they had [success] early. I feel sorry for kids who get it the opposite way around to what I got. Through no fault of their own they get spoiled early and suddenly it’s all downhill from there.
What did you learn from someone like Van Morrison, any life lessons as it were?
I didn’t pick up any spiritual lessons -- he’s one of them fellahs (laughs) -- but I did pick up a bit about mike technique on a technical level in the studio. I did a lot of stuff on the road with him, but I never really picked much up until we did a record which he guested on doing some vocals [Believe What I Say, 1996]. I learned a bit about mike technique from him, because he has a really strong presence on the mike and is quite consistent -- so I poached a few ideas from him on that.
Something on a technical level then.
Yeah, and people always expect something a lot deeper, like something spiritual.
To be honest I would think ‘no’ to that! Maybe you‘d learn ‘don’t get in his way if he’s in a bad mood’.
Is he really the grumpiest man in the world?
The second. You ain’t seen me on form. I think he found that out quite early! I saw flashes of temper if there was some imagined slight, but we’ve all done that. A lot of people don’t see his sense of humour, maybe because it doesn’t make such a good story, but I did have quite a few laughs with him. Underneath his comic exterior . (Laughs)
Let’s talk about the turnaround and get a bit of distance on recent things. People Gonna Talk was really the start of this, and it interests me that you’ve now done the last two albums at Liam Watson’s Toe Rag Studio in London. What got you there in the first place?
Yeah, The Hard Way is the second album there but the third time we’ve recorded with Liam. The very first time was a demo session to prepare us for an album we were doing about 10 or 12 years ago, and the blokes sent us in there because in those days Liam was pretty cheap to record with. He hadn’t run into the White Stripes yet and put his prices up!
We kind of knew he had a fairly crusty place and a very direct sound along the lines of a lot of classic records that we remember fondly -- as opposed to the ones people have recently forgotten (Laughs)
So we went in and it sounded great and we really wished we’d recorded that album with him instead of where we ended up going. So we didn’t make that mistake twice -- although in fact we did! After one more try we decided to insist on going to Liam’s to do People Gonna Talk -- and you get a very honest sound out of his studio. You get out of it pretty much what you put in. You’ve got to play authentically. He said that some people have gone in there thinking his machines will make them sound like such’n’such -- but really it’s the complete opposite.
You get such a naked sound it is a mirror to what you really are doing If you’re not Solomon Burke then Solomon Burke ain’t not goin’ to come out the other end.
What does Liam bring to the project, as a producer does he say ‘wait a minute let’s not put the horn section in there but let’s try it here’?
Oh, it’s minimal, just a token gesture so he can call himself ‘the producer‘ (Laughs) I might get into contractual trouble for saying that, but the arrangements and all that was pretty much done. The first time around it was nearly all me arrangement-wise but this second time for The Hard Way the lads have come to the fore. Especially Damian [Hand] the tenor player and Jonathan [Lee] the drummer who put all the posh string arrangements in and stuff like that. It was a revelation in how clever they was actually.
The Hard Way really is a step up from People Gonna Talk -- and step sideways with more interesting sounds from the band.
Yeah, it is a bit more varied musically I think.
And how did Allen Toussaint come into the picture?
He’d seen us in New York and we met him subsequently and we’d heard secondhand that he really liked what we did. So we thought we’d presume upon that approval and ask him if he’d come and record with us.
So your people spoke to his people.
Yeah. Well I asked him . . . and then ‘our people’ got involved (Laughs).
I didn’t know that he travelled that much these days, but he came over to the UK to work with you?
Yeah, it must have been a culture shock for him to come to Hackney in East London from New Orleans. Although he’s staying in New York these days for the most part because since Katrina his home is sort of destroyed.
Professionally, an easy man to work with?
Oh, he’s too good. He knows what you want before you do. You’re in and out before you know it. He’s a genius. He said, ‘this track doesn’t need me, it’s complete already’ and I said ‘yeah but there’s nothing wrong with having it a bit more complete’. He added so much that you didn’t even know was possible to graft onto a song. It was amazing and I heard lots of echoes of his classic songs in his playing.
It was pleasant for us, a mixture of being in awe of him and being comfortable with him, just talking about all the people like [guitarist] Edgar Blanchard and Guitar Slim and all them New Orleans luminaries. And he knew about all of them.
When you meet someone like that -- someone who music and background you know and maybe as a kid thought ‘one day I’d love to meet that person’ -- do you actually sit down over a curry and say ‘tell me about so-and-so’?
We didn’t particularly hang out with him during the recording because he was in and out, but in the tea breaks we’d start talking about music and I’d bring up a name and he’d have something good to say. Even though he’s quite approachable he always only ever says exactly as much as he means to say. He has a very concise way with language. Sometimes you wonder, ‘oh is he all right?’ He wouldn’t say much, he had a very economical way of putting things and you’d realise that subliminally he’s said more than you think. He’s extremely articulate but he’s not one of them fellahs who uses polysyllables to make himself sound clever, but he will use a word to describe something that you never would have occurred to you to use. He uses language sparingly and very beautifully and this is pretty much analogous to how he plays his music.
The word he used about you was ‘fresh’ which is interesting. How do you interpret what he means by ‘fresh’?
He’s obviously picked up on what our influences are, but I assume he means he thinks we’re approaching it like it’s real music -- which we are and that’s how we regard it. People will ask if we're doing something just in a particular style or from a certain period, but as far as I’m concerned all I’m trying to write is pop music -- so there’s no self-consciousness about it and we’re not treating this music like it’s a museum piece . Which is possibly what he means.
Yes, that this music is in you and alive for you.
Yeah, a lot of people will revisit a particular style from somewhere and then they’ll start getting really self-conscious about it and overdo the tongue-in-cheek thing -- or there will be constant reference to periods. People do that when they make films about it as well.
Let’s talk about films in a minute because I know you are a bit of a film buff. I’m sure you get tired of hearing people make reference to Sam Cooke (right) in what you do, but what occurred to me when I first heard you was how much reggae is a part of your music also. It’s a very gentle and very English influence of reggae. Do people get that in the States?
Yeah a bit, but the ska thing was always very underground here in America, and it was a bit in England too. But most of the black population of the UK tends to be less African than Caribbean so those guys brought that stuff with them, Lord Kitchener and then the Skatalites and Prince Buster later. So that was much less of an open secret in Britain.
It interests me that reggae is such an integral part of English musical culture as it is in New Zealand, and I’ve heard recently some Amy Winehouse outtakes where she does real ska stuff and it sounds astonishing.
Oh, I didn’t know that. She’s a bit of a rare one. She’s surprised me a few times too.
Regrettably other aspects of her life seem to have taken over.
Well, that’s because of the press really. Once somebody dips a toe into that world it makes a better story and I tend to think the press drives them further into that hole. The fact her material is largely autobiographical means hopefully she’ll keep hold of things and start fixing her life -- and still be able to write about that load of misery without actually having to experience it anymore. She’s a proper writer, mate. Hats off to her totally.
There’s that Martin Scorsese movie out now about the Stones [Shine A Light] out now and occasionally in it they drop in old clips and there’s a very young and battered Keith Richards after a heroin bust. They ask what he thinks he might get out of the experience, and he says ‘hopefully a good song‘.
(Laughs) For meself, I’ve always maintained you don’t have to fall off a cliff to know it hurts -- but I suppose it helps to re-enforce the knowledge somehow.
Things are going really well for you at the moment.
Yeah, I’m getting paid regularly and that’s an unknown experience for me. I could actually get used to it.
I hope you do. Let’s talk about something else, I know you like films and on your website you pick out one of my favourite films, the Sean Connery one The Hill [from 1965].
Isn’t that a great film? It’s marvellous. I used to get talking to Georgie Fame [Van Morrison’s musical director] and it was one of his favourite films too. He met Harry Andrews [who acts in The Hill] when he was doing a soundtrack, Entertaining Mr Sloane I think, and he got to buttonhole Harry. It’s a great film about someone trying to poke the system and sort of failing. It’s a much less cuddly version of Cool Hand Luke. You always get the feeling the profanity in it is quite vivid, but they don’t use that much although you feel the characters are f-ing and blinding each other.
The sound in that was live and you got background noise coming through.
I might have known that once actually.
What are you watching on the tour bus?
More sort of film noir that they’ve got here and you can’t get in the UK, some box sets, the post-war stuff. I’ve always been keen on that and I’m discovering more stuff with Robert Ryan. It’s pretty intense. I like when stuff reflects what’s going on in a country. Now over here they do it negatively and they just reflect the lethargy -- which isn’t like that post-war disillusionment that was coming through in film noir. I do like that intensity of film noir which is not overstated and just hovers in the background. I saw a good one called The Set Up with Robert Ryan who is a boxer and his manager agrees with this gangster for him to take a fall. Of course they don’t want to cut him in on it, they just assume he’s going to oblige them by losing -- but he lets them down by beating the bloke. It’s all filmed in real time like High Noon, it all takes place within the time it takes to watch it.
And what are your reading?
(Laughs) It must be the fourth or fifth volume of Clive James’ autobiography. The only thing I knew about Clive James when I read the first one was that he was famous for writing his autobiography! He’s a smart arse but it does work really well in print. When you read something and you are on your own and laughing you know it’s got something.
When you have downtime in a city on tour do you go into Borders or wherever and buy up music that you couldn’t get at home? Or do you just go in to put your CDs to the front of the rack?
Yes. (Laughs) I don’t go into record shops that much for pleasure these days but I do go for that sole purpose, to put my albums in a more prominent position. Then I drag everyone around and say ‘are you gonna buy dis or wha’?’ (Laughs)
Do you pick up some old stuff you've been looking for?
I used to be a bit of collector but until I get rich enough to get a bigger house I might stop the collecting. The thing I was always after was original Jackie Wilson albums and they are difficult to get hold of at home. But here I bought his first album for $25 and you’d pay the equivalent of $100 at home for that. That went straight into me bag I can tell you -- no, I did pay for it. I’m not that poor.
James, I shouldn’t hold you up, do you have a gig tonight?
No actually, we have the night off and it’s nice to have a bit of a rest. When we were supposed to talk originally that day it was just endless, I surrendered and caved in and went to bed. So thanks for waiting.
My pleasure, as you might have guessed.
(Laughs) Nice to talk to you too, and hope to see you down your way sometime soon.