Van Hunt's eponymous debut, released on Capitol Records early this year, may well be the year's most compelling R&B album, even if the 26-year-old, Atlanta-based musician doesn't quite see it that way.
"I wouldn't necessarily call it an R&B record," Hunt says during a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. "To me, it's a pop record, a blend of different stuff -- funk, blues, little doses of rock here and there. I'd hesitate to call it an R&B record in the same way I'd hesitate to call a Prince record an R&B record."
The Prince reference is meaningful in multiple ways. In Hunt's press bio, he describes receiving a Prince album from his father as a kid (and budding musician), along with the instruction that "I want you to be like this guy." Hunt doesn't say which record it was, but from his description of the album jacket, it was clearly Prince, the artist's second album -- when he was still primarily identified as a soul performer, but when his rock-oriented interest in the guitar was first peeking through.
This is a useful template for understanding Van Hunt: Ostensibly, it's a soft-soul record, in the same Marvin Gaye vein as most other male neo-soul artists. But the multi-instrumentalist Hunt's interest in the guitar is a sonic identifier that differentiates him from other contemporary soul men. There are no solos or heavy rock riffing on Van Hunt, as there is on Prince's "Bambi," but the instrument has a clear presence on the record, noticeable on such touches as the bluesy guitar line that snakes through the entirety of "Seconds of Pleasure" or the crisp, unadorned strumming that kicks off "Down Here in Hell (With You)." Hunt even recruited onetime (Prince & the) Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin to add some rhythm playing to the record.
For Hunt, Prince is a "huge, huge inspiration" that he ties into a heritage of African-American musicians who have broken genre barriers, among them also Sly Stone, Thelonious Monk, and Ray Charles.
Prince also might be seen as a lyrical inspiration for Hunt, not because he apes Prince's style but because Hunt's lyrics have a similar appealing oddness and individuality. Most modern male soul singers traffic in bland, incense-scented love-man patter or rote horndog bedroom talk, but Hunt's romantic problems sound entirely his own.
"I write about pretty much the same thing everyone else does," Hunt says. "Pain. Pleasure. It's hard to avoid those subjects. I just try to approach things from a different angle, using my limited vocabulary. Just trying to come up with something new."
The result is a magnificently glum single called "Dust" ("It's just another ray of merciful hope/I don't expect many more") and a sadomasochistic lover's plea called "Down Here in Hell (With You)," on which Hunt can't comprehend the notion of "love without pain" and asks, "What would I do if we were perfect?/Where would I go for disappointment?/Words without hate/Would leave me nothing left to say."
If Hunt is a little different from other neo-soul contenders, that's reflected in a touring schedule that has him in such unlikely places as Austin's South By Southwest Festival earlier this year and Seattle's similarly alt-oriented Bumbershoot Festival next month. It'll also make Hunt one of the rare national soul artists to play a Memphis rock club this week when he takes the stage at Newby's for his Memphis debut.
"We can adapt to pretty much anything," Hunt says, when asked about his and his band's eclectic touring schedule. "We feel like we can play with anybody -- Norah Jones, Outkast, Seal, Kanye West. We've played with all those people. I'd love to tour with Neil Young or David Bowie."
Though next week's show will mark Hunt's first Memphis performance, it won't be his first trip to the city. In fact, the first sessions that eventually produced Van Hunt were cut in the Bluff City.
"I'm really excited about coming to Memphis," Hunt explains. "We haven't played there before, but I recorded there. I was a fan of the White Stripes, and I read that they had just finished recording [at Easley-McCain] in Memphis. And I thought, man, I want to go there and get some of that blues vibe too. Of course, when I got there, I realized how much they had actually chopped off of Beale Street, which definitely isn't what it used to be. But that was only mildly disappointing, because Memphis has a lot of inspiration for me." Hunt cites such Delta-to-Chicago migrants as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, in particular, as musical heroes.
"We found a nice place at the House of Blues [Studios] and set out to record," Hunt says, "but we really only made it through about two and a half weeks because the band just didn't seem too happy with the way things were going. So we moved over to Nashville. But those Memphis sessions were the foundation for the album."