[Read Patrick Corcoran’s ★★★★★ review of Van Hunt’s Popular here]
Since his debut in 2004, Van Hunt has cut a swathe through the modern soul landscape fusing R&B, funk and rock to create a winning hybrid that makes him one of the most interesting artists currently working.
Having written for other artists such as Dionne Farris and Rahsaan Patterson, his eponymous debut garnered a Grammy nomination for second single “Dust” in the Best Urban/Alternative Performance category. On the Jungle Floor followed in 2006 and his third album Popular was set to be released in early 2008. Fate, though, had other ideas.
Shelved by Blue Note Records in a perfect storm of both record label and wider economic meltdown, it was seemingly lost to all but those who managed to secure a copy through other, less legal, means. This month though saw the surprise emergence of the album almost 10 years after its original release date, a welcome development that prompted this interview with the man himself. It proved to be an enlightening and heartfelt discussion, as Hunt explores how Popular finally took center stage and the pride he feels for the album, while delivering an unexpected revelation about his career.
Patrick Corcoran: Why did you feel the time was right to reunite with Blue Note regarding the release of Popular, nearly ten years after they opted not to release it in its original incarnation? Did (Blue Note president) Don Was being there play a part in your thinking? Had you tried to reconnect with the label before?
Van Hunt: After hearing that Don Was had taken over Blue Note, I began looking for a way to have a discussion with the label about Popular's release. But, peripheral conversations had already begun—with Ambrose Akinmusire, Nicholas Payton, Jason Moran. These musicians, among the very finest in the world, were telling me, a kid with minimal formal music training, that there was something they respected about what I do. Even though I had been on Blue Note as an artist, just like these musicians, I had never—not even for a moment—thought of myself as a musician whose work "real" musicians—i.e., formally trained musicians—would respect. So, THAT, I would say was the impetus.
Along with the presence of Don Was, a guy who I felt would have an appreciation for my musical influences, being there, the label's own artists telling me that they looked at Popular as a bridge between styles, eras...maybe even an important one, the passing of time, all those things helped shape the pitch I would make to the label about releasing the music. Additionally, I figured that as an historic label, the opportunity to put out a rediscovered album by an artist who is actually still living—as opposed to a posthumous release—might also be an intriguing narrative.
PC: And when the answer from them was “yes,” how did that feel? Did you celebrate or was it more a sense of vindication?
VH: Both. I celebrated feeling vindicated.
PC: Did you periodically listen to Popular in the intervening years? If so, did it make you more frustrated that it hadn’t been released or were you able to remain a little more “Zen” about the situation?
VH: The album is among my proudest moments as a recording artist—like, I'm a fan of that work. Whereas I don't really care that much for my previous work up to that point. There was too much interference, between me and the recording process. Popular was my environment and my influences being allowed to work more directly through me. I was allowed to make the record I wanted to make, note for note. So yes, I listened to it over the years with a mix of pleasure and anguish. And "Zen"—or a loss of illusion—is exactly how I would describe my emotional state as I listened to it during that time.
PC: Hearing Popular again as a widely available release, did it transport you immediately to that time and place when you created it, and if so, was that a good headspace to be in?
VH: Ha! Hearing it as an official release took me to an experience I didn't get to have a decade earlier. The most important part of creating is seeing the reaction of the people you create for. An architect builds a house for people to live in. He wants to see the adaptive qualities of his design, along with the first impressions. How useful was the home when the lady of the house lost her mother and needed a sanctuary within which to grieve? Could the kids find themselves inside the walls? Could you have passionate sex there? Did cracks appear in the foundation? Did vines crawl up the outside of it? I wanted to experience the usefulness of the music.
PC: Presumably the experience with Popular was the reason behind your independent path from that point on. Is there anything you’ve missed about life with a major label’s support or has independence been a slice of utopia?
VH: Independent artists go and try to find success on their own. And during that process, they knowingly or unknowingly begin building simulations of major label systems, because there was a reason the major label system was successful. Those reasons are the same traits that any system, major or minor, needs...to find success. In fact, those successful traits will be the ones that breed high entropy, and turn minor systems into majors. Then, the system begins to subdivide, with diminishing returns. And it takes faster and larger productivity to enact more consumerism and warrant further investment. Mass-production extracts time-consuming qualities—like craftsmanship—out of the process in order to achieve faster return. But, with growing piles of less meaningful product you begin to have system failure. The same traits that helped negatively impact a major system will also negatively impact a minor system.
So, to answer your question, the things I miss about the major system are the attributes you rarely come across on an independent path—where resources can provide craftsmanship a sanctuary within which to blossom. And the things I find utopian about the independent path are the attributes that the major label system struggled with: artist development, an allocation of resources centered around human capability, as well as self-restraint. I'm a non-reductionist. So, I think all three phase transitions work together: the collection of ideas, the intense work, and the subdivision caused by growth. You can see that happening more and more, now—associations between artists' labels and major institutions.
PC: Given the current spate of expanded or deluxe editions, did you feel any inclination to tinker with the original album you had initially crafted years ago or add any other tracks that almost made the cut?
VH: I felt an inclination to mess with the liner notes, which is weird. Of course, I didn't. Other than that, I figured the release of a 10 year-delayed record was the "deluxe edition,” and in those 10 years of sitting on the shelf, NONE of the tracks made the cut! [Laughs]
PC: I’d like to talk specifically about “Lowest 1 Of My Desires” for a moment. It’s a rampant beast of a song that doesn’t have any time for messing about. Is the inspiration for the song aware of her influence or even still in your life?
VH: Why, thank you! I love that you describe it so primally. The album's influence stems from a single source, but that song is written from all lovers TO their lovers.
PC: Popular was a victim of a very specific set of circumstances, including the collapse of global markets crushing the industry and the rise of downloading music. What are your reflections on that time and how do you see the state of the music industry some 10 years after those circumstances surfaced?
VH: Well, those were the worst times of my life, and it seemed similarly so for the industry. It all came apart. Revenue stream, infrastructure, et cetera, and, of course, this collapse was simultaneous with the global economy's near-collapse. The state of the current music industry is one that still mirrors the global economy, with a global pivot to connecting services to consumers and de-emphasis on content (except on the local level). It is a complex system design that is flourishing as a component of a shared economy, but is trying to find more solid footing in quality and consistency of quality.
PC: And now that Popular has seen light of day, what are your hopes (and dreams) for it?
VH: My only hope was for it to be accessible. Anything beyond that would just be rubbing it in.
PC: What’s on the horizon for you? Any hints of a new album on the way? Will you be heading out on tour soon?
VH: I'm retired.
PC: Retired? That's quite a surprise. Is that from music as a whole or just certain aspects of it? What prompted the decision?
VH: I've retired from the cycle of making records with a commercial expectation associated with it. And that's not because I wouldn't relish the opportunity to bridge my latest art with commerce. But, art needs the strength of a distribution and marketing arm. It needs an impetus. Creativity doesn't just come out of a genius garden. Art has to solve something within an artist. The artist is usually driven by a question he has formed from watching a dysfunctional society. So he births a solution. But, if there is no system by which he can entrust the robustness of his solution—that is, artist development, marketing, publicity, promotion, strategy...other ideas about how to peel and articulate the layers of his work to the market—then the fire of his work is doused.
If I may return to my architectural analogy, I have built a home—in this case, a collection of music. Now I need a driveway, by which visitors can access my home. Hell, I need a highway, by which the world can access my home. Otherwise, no one experiences or benefits from the work. And I just don't see a system like that, one that can support the articulation of my work to a market. I see shells, echoes, and skeletons of that system, but nothing quite ready. I'm imagining that what's missing is my own contribution to that system I want to see.
PC: So what does this retirement look like for you? What else is on the horizon? What else fills Van Hunt's life these days and beyond?
VH: So, without the system I just mentioned, I have set about explaining complex systems design through music. I've begun helping other artists develop their arguments, the issues they wrestle with. I want to help them find the tools to solve the questions within them, which really are the questions we all have. And then, once they know how to come to terms with the unknown, they may then network with others—photographers, engineers, promoters, publicists, designers, et cetera—and build a coalition of resources that can produce the most functional, raw, mind-blowing expression of our fears, our desires, our animalism, and our civility. Art created from a blueprint, tested for its robustness, and funded, but without the self-indulgence that so often accompanies the practical matters of economy. Meaningful music can make money. Its production needs to be thought out, and the economic growth of high-quality goods has to be realistically evaluated for its incremental growth and long-term profitability.
PC: I’m based in London, and would love to see you back here in the UK to perform. Any chance of you returning to England anytime soon?
VH: I love England. I'll definitely return to visit, as often as I can. But it won't be to perform. While I’m there, we can chat over a pint. That would be great.
PC: OK, last question, in keeping with the spirit of Albumism. What, if push comes to shove, are your five favorite albums of all time?
VH: The Stooges’ Raw Power, Thelonious Monk’s Alone in San Francisco, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Bach Cello Suites, Ron Carter’s Where?, and the Chess Record Box Set.