When speaking to Van Hunt, even his silence speaks volumes. Reserved and thoughtful, Van Hunt weighs his answers carefully, often taking them into unexpected territory. These forays into the less obvious are part and parcel with Van Hunt’s signature sound, a combination of neo-soul, rock, R & B and funk. Having released three full length albums in the span of six years, Van Hunt explodes into the minds and hearts of his fans, hooking them with one sound and then feeding them with another.
His latest effort, Popular, is no different. While On the Jungle Floor was a marked departure from his self-titled debut, Popular challenges listeners to embrace other sides of Van Hunt that have yet to be seen. While tracks like “Turn My TV On” and “Lowest 1 of My Desires” are guaranteed to get people to the dance floor (or to the bedroom), other songs take a delightful departure from neo-soul territory.
One, offers sounds like a beautiful lullaby–until you listen to the lyrics. You’re a monster/hell is where you are/ until you’re back in my arms again. The vaguely frightening lyrics layered over a melodic guitar rift provide a jarring experience while listening to “Ur a Monster.” “N the Southern Shade” is a country soul offering that would be nice accompaniment to a mint julep, slowly sipped on the front porch. The title track, “Popular,” defies explanation featuring haunting lyrics on the fickle and elusive nature of popularity.
Beautifully eclectic, Popular represents the current incarnation of Van Hunt on wax–atypical, unexpected and impossible to ignore. Clutch caught up with Van while he was on the west coast and talked to him about life, love, the creation of this album and the need to face life honestly.
Q: What is currently influencing you musically?
Van Hunt: Well…not much.
I feel like I am getting closer to [this record] being the ideal record I want to make.
Q: The ideal record you want to make? Is this in reference to your MySpace blog post (where Van apologized for using the “ghetto music” brand )?
Van Hunt: I don’t think I was apologetic about my music. I think I was apologetic about using my background as a selling point. I think it undermined the legitimacy of the music. I have had to make a few compromises, sonically, but nothing that I didn’t sign off on. I’m proud of all the records.
Q: Why do you think your records attract such different audiences?
Van Hunt: I try to tell people [in the industry] at these shows, there are people from all walks of life. I think it’s because of who I am. My influences come to me when I’m writing–the influences that were there in my formative years. Some of these audiophiles think I am just showing off when I say I listen to Bach and Gang of Four and the Ohio Players and Thelonious Monk, but I really do. Or at least I have.
[The music I make] is my personality.
Q: How do you establish such a strong connection with your fans?
Van Hunt: It is only recently that the fans have been able to see my personality on stage. I think I am comfortable as a performer now. I got a whole new band. The bands previously–though they were really good–were filling in the spaces I felt I couldn’t as a performing artist. But now I’ve matured, and I don’t need that any longer.
Q: What are your impressions when you see people at your shows, and you have such a strong fan-base?
Van Hunt: This show, with this band, has been the most fun I have had. And we haven’t even really started on a full fledged tour…but it’s been the most fun I’ve had. I’m so glad to say that, on my third album, that I am really enjoying myself. And I think that people can tell when they see me on stage. I don’t know that they were able to tell before because I certainly wasn’t having that grand of a time.
I don’t know what your question was, but…
Q: What parts of yourself are you trying to express in your albums?
Van Hunt: Every ounce. And I think that is why the album refuses to be ignored. I like that my personality and my music is of such potency where you have to make a decision about it. And you either love it or you hate it. And I am equally thrilled with either choice. I do like the fact that the music gets to people’s ears, and they can hear it, and it’s unavoidable.
Q: What’s up with all the break up anthems?
Van Hunt: Certainly, I’ve had my share of ups and downs like everyone else. I’ve come to realize that life is less than perfect. As long as you’re living–living honestly that is–that is life’s form of perfection. And I think every song has been about that without me even knowing it. You listen to the first song on the first record which is “Dust,” and it’s certainly about that. “I am dust blown away over the edge”–he’s falling, and he’s happy about it.
That’s definitely been the theme of my life. I am a survivor. And I enjoy every second of it.
Q: What three songs epitomize Van Hunt?
Van Hunt: I couldn’t really say that any of those songs exist in entirety yet. I could pick “Out of the Sky” for the first record, second record I can say, I don’t know, maybe “The Night is Young,” and this record I could probably choose “The Lowest One of My Desires,” but I don’t think any of them philosophically cover who I am. Now, the fourth record (laughs)? It is my charge to make that record the ultimate statement.
Q:So you’re already planning the fourth album?
Van Hunt: Yeah, I’m about four to five songs into it. I want it to be a piece that makes all musicians–singers, songwriters, everyone in the industry–at least take a breath if not put their instruments down. They should hear it and just say, “Well, shit, he done said it.”
Q:How did you come up with the concept for “Ur a Monster”?
Van Hunt: I was breaking a heart while simultaneously having my heart broken. Unless you know the details, it is hard to fully understand the song from my perspective. That duality was going on, and I think the angst is in the song. As a concept however, it is about a woman who is not ready to love me. And I’m telling her “well, you go out there in the world. Just know that you’re a monster; you’re in hell until you come back to me. At that time you’ll be my angel.”
And at the end of the song, it goes into me talking to the world, I’m talking to civilization. And I’m telling them “this is my woman, whether she knows it or not, and if y’all fuck with her, y’all gonna have me to answer to.”
Q: Not a lot of collaborations with other artists. Why?
Van Hunt: There’s not a lot of people that I would even consider working with. I think that quite frankly, there’s just a lot of mediocrity out there. And the people that I have reached out for and invited to join me, they either haven’t or they have, and…it just hasn’t worked out yet. I reached out to Stokely from Mint Condition, Fantasia…We just haven’t been able to hook it up. So if you’ve got an invitation…
I reached out to Common because I thought the track was perfectly him–and he agreed. So he jumped on it, but I wasn’t able to put it on my record. But I loved what he did. John Legend has reached out to me to produce a song for him…India Arie…there have been a lot of people who have reached out and said ‘I liked your music.’
If I have a specific idea in mind, I wouldn’t hesitate to reach out to anybody. From singers to actors to politicians.
Now, in terms of hip-hop, I worked with Count Base D on two songs now, and to me, he’s the dopest. I don’t know who else I would need to work with.
Q: Count Base D?
Van Hunt: Count Base D, that’s my nigga right there.
Q: A lot of R&B/Neo Soul/Hip-Hop crossover in recent years, but it appears to be fading…
Van Hunt: Thank goodness.
Q: Why is that a thank goodness?
Van Hunt: *Dave Chappelle voice* That was…those were some awful times.
I used to have people around me who would be like “Sssh! Don’t say that! You gonna drive people away!” But man, I have to be honest. It was some lean years in the R&B world. As bad as it was, I didn’t think it could get any worse. And then it just hit rock bottom on a shovel.
Q: If there was one thing you could tell everyone in the world to pay attention to, what would it be?
Van Hunt: Oh, themselves.
Van Hunt: Yeah, by far. As a matter of fact, if they make that their one and only thing that they pay attention to, the world would be a better place. What is your ideal person? Who are you ideally in your mind? You need to frame that and make it a target, and shoot for that every day of your life. Because that is all that is important in this life, I promise you. Everything else will fall in line. Your children, your mate, your love life, your dogs, your money. It will all fall in line after you have done the hard work which is facing your life honestly.
Q: So there’s a whole self-growth component?
Van Hunt: You call it self-growth, I don’t know about that terminology. It’s been used so much, people come to look at it like it’s fuu-fuu or shay-shay. It’s not legitimate. It is self-growth, but I prefer to call it facing your life honestly.
Q: What’s in your clutch? What are the things you cannot live with out?
Van Hunt: My ideas.
Q: So if you were stranded in the wilderness, you would only want your ideas?
Van Hunt: My ideas, my woman and my child. That’s all I need.