Man out of time: Hunter's forays into '60s soul were initially inspired by hearing Paul Weller and Elvis Costello mine the same terrain.
Blue Eyed Treble
London's James Hunter resurrects the '60s soul sound
By Paul Davis
There are not many people who make records that sound like James Hunter's--at least there haven't been since the late '60s. With songwriting and production that would sound more at home on an old Motown 45 than on a CD or iPod, Hunter's soulful croon seems to belong to a man out of time, or at least a man who refuses to acknowledge that fashion has passed by the music he loves. Hunter is an old-school rhythm & blues soul singer, the type that is rarely found in a time when R&B is associated with click tracks and superproducers, and has very little resemblance to anything that could be mistaken for soul music. Contemporary R&B is associated with overproduced vocal histrionics, but Hunter digs much deeper, paying tribute to the heyday of Jackie Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Sam Cooke.
A working-class Londoner, Hunter became inspired by the sounds of '60s soul music in the early '80s, when New Wave mods like the Jam's Paul Weller and Elvis Costello were spearheading a revival of classic '60s soul sides. During this revival Hunter found his musical calling.
"A mate of mine played me some old stuff, a mate I worked with on the railway who had this collection of old R&B singles," Hunter explains. "A lot of the stuff was being reissued back in the '80s, so I got into it by that. I had a single of Jackie Wilson, and I think that may have been the one that got me into doing it."
In the two decades since, Hunter has risen to prominence in the London soul underground by remaining close to the '60s R&B template, a formula that has garnered him the admiration of Van Morrison. But for those who have grown accustomed to Hunter's straight-ahead soul, the reggae and ska tinges on his latest record, People Gonna Talk, may come as a surprise.
To Hunter, it's an obvious progression. "[Reggae has] always had an underground following [in London], a lot of people are into that vibe, so I fell into it to a certain degree. I lived in East London for quite a while, and the thrift shops down there, if you caught them on a lucky day, you might find some great stuff."
A man of few words, Hunter prefers not to delve too deeply into his creative process, describing his move toward reggae as, "It's stuff I listen to, so that's how it comes out, the way I play it. ... My writing just took that kind of turn."
Though Hunter's reputation remained mostly on the other side of the ocean, in recent years the United States has been catching on to what Europe has known for two decades. After touring the nation in the past with Morrison, Hunter has stepped out on his own current 29-city run, including a couple of nights with Etta James. Though some might feel trepidation bringing their British blue-eyed rhythm & blues to the place where the form was born, Hunter maintains that the stateside response has been no different than in England.
"I've got more people now because of the interest that's jumped up over here," he says. "I'd say it's just a matter of scale--there's more people over here, so more people are into it, but the actual response is no different."
Though his music bears the stamp of soul and reggae records from the '60s, and often sounds like lost demos discovered in the Stax or Motown vaults, Hunter bristles at any suggestion that he's a throwback, preserving the sounds of an era long past. In fact, Hunter refuses to let his music be filed away in a retro box, insisting that his music is firmly rooted in the present.
"To me it's fairly modern," he says. "It sounds like where my head is at--I'm currently doing it, so for me it does sound modern. I've never quite understood what people are talking about when they say it sounds like an old thing. I think personally that people are going back to the old school. All we're doing is reproducing the sounds of people performing onstage, and I thought that's what people have always been doing."
James Hunter performs Friday, Nov. 3, at 9:30pm at Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $13 advance/$15 door. (831.479.1854; www.moesalley.com.)
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