With the release of James Hunter’s fourth CD in 10 years, Mojo Magazine, England’s answer to Rolling Stone, calls him “the UK’s best soul singer.” “That’s like Mad Magazine being number 1 in a field of one,” he says dryly in a heavy Cockney accent.
Calling from London a month before his May tour of the states, and two months after the release of Hold On!, his first album for Daptone, the 52-year old Hunter comes across as a street savvy scrapper who dances to the tune of his own drummer. He grew up in poverty in a trailer near an onion field outside of Colchester, England, 50 miles from London, the oldest town in England. His speaking voice sounds like he’s from a back alley British pub, while his honey sweet vocals on record are one part Jackie Wilson, two parts Sam Cooke with a twist of Tommy Edwards.
“I’ve had nightmares where I can’t switch properly over to the other and I sing in a Cockney accent and talk in an American one. But that’s never gonna happen. It’s because of the nature of music I’m always listening to. It’s no danger of switching inadvertently from one to the other.”
A kind of street fighter mentality in his conversation makes an interview as much a sparring match as it is an over-the-back-fence blab.
“Did you interview me before,” he asks me early on.
“I did,” I answer. “I interviewed you in 2006 over the phone, and here we are again.”
“Did you get anything out of me?”
“No! You were a tough interview.”
“That sounds like me, yeah.”
“I figure you got 10 years under your belt, so now you’re going to be a lot better at it than you were 10 years ago”.
“I’ll have a go, but I’m not promising anything.”
“I’ll try to ask more pointed questions, and maybe that’ll help. How’s that?”
“Well, in the intervening 10 years you should have tried again half way through, ’cause I was immature then. I’m senile now.”
Hunter left school at 16 and made more busking on the streets of London than he did mending signal boxes on the railway. Early in his career he had a band called Howlin’ Wilf and the Vee Jays, but soon dropped the moniker because the Brits didn’t get the references. Never mind that he misspelled Howlin’ Wolf, and had the wrong Chicago blues label. “I think playing blues was a way of playing rock and roll without people laughing at you,” he says in retrospect. “Once I started doing John Lee Hooker, kind of getting his vibes, I was effectively still playing rock and roll, but without people laughing at me. Calling it blues gave it some kind of legitimacy”.
In the ’90s he toured and recorded with Van Morrison, and in 2006 he made a splash with his debut American release People Gonna Talk. Because of his soulful voice, the press labelled his music retro. But he’s retro the same way Sharon Jones and the Daptones are retro. In other words the feel may be 1959 Memphis, but the songs are all originals and the arrangements featuring two saxophones and keyboards are unique in the history of the genre.
“I’m listening to this stuff in a different way than a lot of people,” he told me in 2006. “I’m not as academic about it. You wouldn’t know to hear me talk. I mean I’m gassing off about it, but my approach to it is more visceral. I think most white people, American or British, are a bit at odds because I think they got preconceptions about that music, and they get a sort of – sometimes, they get the details, but they don’t get the core of it. They get all the dressing, but they don’t have the feel. It’s the groove that people mess up and what usually your British or generally your white acts who do it make up for what they lack in the slinkiness of it – the sexiness of it – like give it some attack.”
Ten years later, he’s honed his unique style and is even more articulate in explaining it. “Being real is far more valid than being authentic. Basically, the key is to write real songs about real stuff and not try to come from a perspective of 50 or 60 years ago. I just go along with what I’m feeling like. I’m almost surprised when people (call me) retro. I just see myself as a contemporary music singer. I’m only aware of differences when other people point them out to me.”
Retro singers are putting plastic seat covers on old couches. Hunter is getting down. “Yes, I do like to put a little edge into it. Three great strengths in music for me are the prettiness of the tune, and you can combine that with a spikey delivery and good grooves, and I think sometimes people think you have to be one or the other, or one of the three. My preference for earlier styles is because they are in lots of ways a bit tougher and a bit grittier.”
The secret sauce in Hunter’s music is his band. He’s had almost the same lineup since his breakout CD in 2006 led by baritone sax player Lee Badau and tenor sax player Damian Hand. Bass player Jason Wilson has been with him since 1988 while keyboardist Andrew Kinslow and drummer Jonathan Lee are relatively new. Hunter now calls the group The James Hunter Six.
“I think the thing is we’ve developed. Over the years we’ve all been together we haven’t learned to respect each other any more, but we’ve developed a musical affinity. The guys can almost read each other’s minds now. They can’t understand each other when they’re using plain speech, but musically there’s quite an empathy, particularly the horn section. We’ve had very competent musicians stand in for one of our guys when they were indisposed. It was never quite the same. They didn’t gel quite the same.
In blues, early electric guitarists like B. B. King and T Bone Walker emulated the saxophone. The two saxophone players in The James Hunter Six return the favor, becoming the centerpiece of many of the songs. I can’t think of another blues band with horn players quite as creative and unique.
“Oh, thank you,” says Hunter. “As a guitarist I favor different keys. Guitarists tend to favor different keys to sax players. They like B flats. So I try writing in sax keys sometimes ’cause with a guitarist if you can get your fingers across the frets, you can plug one chord through it. So there is no real difficulty with that, but also I do try to use them imaginatively including sometimes using the horns as part of the vocals.”
Sharon Jones and the Dapkings have the same attitude about being real vs. vs. authentic as Hunter does. He recalls some dates he played with Sharon and the band. “I was stealing their entire band including the singer bit by bit, but when she got up on stage I mean this was about five minutes. She was up with me, and I could barely keep up with her, and I thought, ‘F**k me, she’s gonna do another two hours of this.’ I was panting for breath.”
Hunter admits he launched his own campaign to sign with Sharon’s Daptone label. “We were looking for a good producer and somebody suggested Gabriel Roth from Daptone, and I had no reservations about that either. I always thought, ‘Yes, he’s definitely the one.’ I tried some unsuitable ones and, well, they suggested some unsuitable ones I rejected until they suggested Gabe and I went, ‘Well, he’s certainly gonna be the closest one to what I want.’ And when we finally did record with him for this other company I decided there and then nobody else had been or was gonna be good enough after him.”
Hunter is rather self-deprecating about his writing abilities although he’s written all of the 45 songs on his four CDs. “I call myself a thesaurus writer. What I’ll do is I make up in my mind one salient word that covers what the song is about, and then I’ll go to the thesaurus, and I’ll try and find every word that pertains to that, every word that has an association with that, and then try and find rhyme a for it. So, that’s what I do basically. That’s the nearest thing to a formula that I’ve got.”
Pulling his leg, I tell him that he’s given away all his secrets. “I have, but I’ve still got a bit of an imagination as well. I mean, all of us can cheat, but I think the better artists do tend to mystify what they do because they’re not scared of competition. I’m not saying I am one of the better ones, but I certainly want to emulate the best.”
Songwriting is not a fun chore for him, however. “Usually when it’s almost too late I start writing lots of stuff. And when there’s a looming deadline, but sometimes a song will just come to me, and that’s the ones that just occur to me. You can’t rely on just waiting for them to come.
“This Is Where We Came In” off Hold On! is one of those, and happens to be his favorite. “This is a more personal one to me because I thought it was a clever analogy, and it indulges my sort of fetish for cinema, and using me as an analogy for a relationship that’s going tits up, you know. I think the phrase cropped up, and obviously it’s a familiar one to people who’ve ever come into a film half way through, and then had to stay in to catch up from the beginning. Obviously, it’s a familiar cinema-going phrase, and it just popped into my head one day, and I thought it was just begging to have an analogy made of it. It was such a musical phrase, and it says so many things, I thought it was gonna be quite an easy one. As a matter of fact that one was quite easy to write.”
So where does this Cockney rebel get his affinity for the sound of old black soul? He told one magazine that it was his grandmother’s collection of 78s that included Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite” that set him off.
“It’s true, but when I was asked that question and when I gave that answer, I was sort of clutching at straws to see if there was a defining moment when I got into black music, and I used that as a possible one, but the fact remains there wasn’t really one. It wasn’t like a sudden light went on. I think it was a gradual realization that in any genre I do tend to prefer the music black people were making and for some reason, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It’s just that the groove and the vibe were there.”
His father happens to be Burmese, but he doesn’t feel his affinity is genetic. “I think it’s some ability as a mimic.”
There’s that self-deprecation again. Street busking got him way out in front of ever being purely a mimic. This was hard scrabble London, and he had to fight his ground. “Some of the crack heads would come up to you and say, ‘Hey, you’re on our turf.’ A lot of the beggars around there we kinda got close on a one-to-one basis, and the crack heads and so many of them were just so normal.
“There was one guy that used to sit next to us quietly and in between songs we’d have a conversation, and he’d quietly tell us he was in a half-way house. He was trying to get himself off crack, and yet his income as a beggar was staggeringly good. He knew as soon as he got weaned off crack, he wouldn’t go begging anymore. I thought that’s a shame ’cause you get better pay than most bankers. Obviously, what it was, it all went on drugs, and he was a sweetheart. He was such a nice guy, and he knew when he went straight – and I judge him by his demeanor – I’m pretty sure he made a success of it. He’s just like any bloke.
“If he’d kept up the begging habit after he gave up crack, then he would have considerable income. He was practically on a five-figure income, but not getting to spend any of it on food or shelter because of his addiction. So I said to this guy, ‘If after you kick crack, you maintain your begging occupation, you can do pretty well,’ but as he pointed out to me, he wouldn’t need to beg if he got off that.”
Hunter didn’t do badly on the street, himself. “Two days of busking would equal a week of busting me guts out shifting furniture for 40 hours a week. The people that ran the agency I worked for were just really tarry-fingered scum bags. They would just exploit you any way they could. They’re horrible, horrible people. I did get a bit of revenge ’cause I pushed in their letter box a couple of years after leaving them.”
Hunter lost his wife to cancer in 2008. “I seem to be surrounded by people who are dropping off with cancer and none of them had any bad habits, and I’ve been abusing my body for as long as I’ve know how to do it, and well, I’m not under the delusion I’m bullet proof. It’s just that it does question the wisdom of treating your body like a temple.”
Does he feel guilty that she died and he didn’t? “No, I’ve heard of survivor’s guilt. There may be a twinge of that. I haven’t questioned that, but there’s an element of something, if not guilt exactly. I’d say an awareness of life’s random injustice and how it works out in some people’s favor. How Rupert Murdock manages to live to 80. Then, some really nice people drop off a twig early. You, things like that.”
Hunter was nominated in 2006 for Best Traditional Blues Album. He lost to Ike Turner. “I think it was the nearest (caterogy) they could find that we might fit in. I mean, obviously I would have hotly disputed we were anything of the kind, but if they’d given me a Grammy for Best Country and Western, I would have taken it. It does strike me strange that there wasn’t a soul category. The thing is I wouldn’t have felt easy winning something from Ike Turner ’cause I’ve said this before, but it would have been like beating your dad at arm wrestling.”
James Hunter is a fiercely independent Cockney who plays spittingly spry soul music with a band of crackerjack musicians who sound like they’re from Uranus. But to him it’s perfectly normal. “Orson Wells used this analogy to explain his filming techniques. He told a joke about the bloke who goes to the doctor and says he gets up and brushes his teeth and vomits. He gets these headaches, and the doctor says, ‘What did you say?’ He says, ‘When I get up, I brush my teeth, and then when I vomit. I get these headaches,’ and the doctor says, ‘Do you mean you do that every morning?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, doesn’t everybody?’ As far as you know you’re normal, and that’s true to a degree with me.”
Visit James’ website at: www.jameshuntermusic.com
Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2016