Rick Diamond, WireImage
The jack-of-all-trades artist, who first gained buzz after penning Dionne Farris' melancholy 1997 hit 'Hopeless,' went on to drop scribe-praised albums -- his 2004 self-titled debut and the sneering 2006 follow-up 'On the Jungle Floor' -- as well as confounding efforts -- the strange, but cool unreleased 'Popular'. So what do you do for an encore? You go independent and unleash a Sly Stone-meets-Bo Diddley-meets-the-Sex Pistols-meets-Joni Mitchell-meets-Charles Mingus eclectic statement. Yeah, it's a head-scratcher. However, his new LP, 'What Were You Hoping For?' displays Van Hunt's bold, who-gives-a-f--- approach to making music. No one ever said it was easy. But it's quite refreshing.
With the release of your new album, 'What Were You Hoping For?' you have taken the independent label route. How is life after the majors?
It's actually going very well. It's a lot of work, but I'm more aware of the deals involved and what goes on with my career. I'm more mature now than I was then. I've been able to be involved in artist development, strong A&R and strong songwriting. Just having a team around me that's influential in many ways. It's taken me a while to get there.
Did the messy experience of being on Blue Note Records, which refused to release your 2008 album 'Popular,' sour you on being signed to a major label?
The thing with Blue Note is they just decided that that record wasn't a part of what they wanted. Times were changing. They were seeing the writing on the wall with the recession and the dwindling music industry. I was just glad that I was able to get out of that relationship and move on and allow the dust to settle on the new music. I'm very comfortable right now.
Watch Van Hunt's 'Dust'
Some of your past album titles seem to give a wink and a nod. What was the inspiration behind 'What Were You Hoping For?'
You brought up the title of the album, which is also the title of one of my songs. I have to touch on the making of the song. Writing the tune was essentially a response to some of the things I have seen as a result of the global recession we are going through. I wasn't trying to make any political statement. I was more making a philosophical comment that essentially says we have all these unspoken issues in our society. But I see a collision of those ideas and unresolved issues. My question is what could you have been hoping for when we make the kind of decisions in our society that we have made.
Did you go into this project thinking, "OK, this is going to be my punk rock album," or "This is going to be my funk album"?
Well, I knew I was going for a harder edge. But it wasn't necessarily punk music. It was more about trying to capture the growl of a cello. That to me is as nasty as it can get. That's a beautiful sound to me. When people talk about the distortion on the guitar, I hear the same thing with that growl of a cello. That's what I'm going for [with 'What Were You Hoping For'?] as opposed to just distortion coming from a guitar.
You mentioned the raw aesthetic of your new music. But a song like 'June' has a very somber jazz element about it. It sounds like something that could have found its way on Joni Mitchell's 'Mingus' album with its upright bass and blue chord changes.
Man, that may be too big of a compliment [laughs]. I really appreciate that. But sonically you hit it on the head. I was trying to set a blue mood because 'June' is really about a somber girl. I'm identifying with her somberness, but trying to make her smile.
June is supposed to be that awakening period for all the months, right?
Exactly. But the June bloom has set in her and she's struggling with it.
Did you do most of the songwriting and production by yourself on 'What Were You Hoping For?'
I started this record like I always do. Usually I'll make the demos at home and go into the studio with 40 musicians [laughs]. We spend months essentially getting people to play what I played on the demo, which turns out to be unfair for those musicians. So this time, I said I'm going to make the demo my usual way, but bring in people who I trust to do what they do without a whole lot of guidance from me. I rehearsed with my drummer for about two weeks, just to give her the changes and the new tempos. Because this is a different set of tempo for me. We did this for two weeks. I just did the basic tracks in the studio with her and I called up my keyboardist and told him I just wanted him to give me an aural landscape on the songs. He did that and I shipped the whole thing. It was the most hands off approach I've taken thus far on an album.
Kevin Winter, Getty Images
What was so different about the time cadences on the new songs?
A lot of people call it punk rock [speed], but to me, it's just old church, gospel quartet stuff. When you listen to a song like 'Time Machine Is My New Girlfriend,' it has a Bo Diddley rhythm. But really it's old Negro spiritual gospel music. So it's hard for a drummer who spends most of their days living in modern music and trying to make a living among modern artists to take their minds back to what that is, which is much more primal.
Well, I don't know too many brothers who would do a cover of pre-punk godfathers The Stooges' 'No Sense Of Crime,' which was featured on your 2006 album 'On the Jungle Floor,' and make it sound funky.
[Laughs] I just identify with that need for aggression like most dudes. You go to some of those shows, even the post-punk stuff like Bad Brains, and it was mostly dudes there. That was essentially me back then. And while I didn't follow one particular group or one movement, there were just things that came into my life like Bad Brains and Fishbone while at the same time Thelonious Monk and Sly Stone did.
Of course there's that strong funk element as well, which can be found in the music of Sly. Were you always a funk disciple?
I think it's just a natural feel, it's second nature. I grew up in Dayton, Ohio. When I was there, funk was all you could listen to. People had so much pride in their groups. And I'm talking about the eight or nine groups that were hot then. There's a smaller group called Dayton and I actually know all their songs. And of course, you have the bigger groups like Slave and the Ohio Players. I had to know all that stuff. It was like you were given a quiz.
How underrated are the Ohio Players?
That's amazing to say for a group that was as popular as they were. But I agree with you. They are definitely underrated and under-explored. That was a group of brilliant dudes.
What comes to mind when you listen to your self-titled 2004 debut album?
To be honest, I see a hint of grays and shades. Somebody was telling me, "Well D'Angelo was really into your first album." And then I get embarrassed because I'm listening to it like, "Aw man. We had too much reverb on it." [Laughs] Just silly things. But I was a little disappointed in that album because I felt like that record had been tainted and interfered with.
I didn't compromise much, but I compromised enough to make me feel insecure about what I was offering.
There is one song that you have become well known for, which you ironically wrote for another artist, entitled 'Hopeless.' Erykah Badu says that 'Tyrone' will forever be attached to her. Do you get a sense that 'Hopeless' will one day become your "Freebird?"
I think there has only been one person that has hollered out that song [laughs]. I don't have to worry about that as much as Dionne does.
What are your views on the music scene right now? Are you listening to Lady Gaga on the low?
I like some of the sounds that seem like there's a convergence of ideas going on. While it may not be something that I would listen to all the time, I like the strangeness of it. Like a Frank Ocean and the crew he comes from.
Right. I like that crew, like Earl Sweatshirt. Some of those tracks sound so strange [laughs]. Even the Weeknd, you listen to their music and it sounds like Marvin Gaye mixed with the Art of Noise. I like the rebelliousness that's going on in today's music.
What do you hope for your fans to get from your new music?
I can get into that song-by-song, but I'll be here all day. I would love for people to listen to 'Time Machine Is My New Girlfriend.' Just allow themselves to be washed over by the expansiveness of that record, and go from there. But as far as what my goals are for this album, I really just want to present something that I felt like the culture should aspire to. As long as I represent that, I'm fine.