Van Hunt’s guitar-laden rock ’n’ soul riffs have earned critical raves and drawn comparisons to greats like Prince.
But for all the laurels he’s received for his self-titled 2004 debut and this year’s follow-up, “On The Jungle Floor,” the one thing the 29-year-old singer-songwriter hasn’t achieved is commercial success.
Appearances on shows such as “Late Night With David Letterman” and plenty of buzz have yet to help Hunt break through on urban radio, where hip-hop and slick R&B dominate, or on today’s heavily formatted pop stations.
Yet Van Hunt refuses to accept the idea that his music may be too esoteric or abstract to appeal to a mass audience.
“I do think they can be hits — they just need to be played,” Hunt says of his songs. “I sit down and I write and I make sure that it follows the code of Songwriting Craft 101. I’ve got hits ... I need DJs.”
There’s not a hint of arrogance as the Atlanta-based musician’s attitude — just a cool confidence. Hunt isn’t worried about whether folks will finally catch on to his sound — he’s just biding his time until it happens.
With a little help from an ‘Idol’ judge“Anything that is different for long enough, it becomes legitimate, so I think by the third record, we’ll establish the name as a brand and people will get into it,” says Hunt, wearing his signature head scarf, over an eel sushi lunch at an upscale Manhattan restaurant.
“I always knew I was an artist, and even more importantly, a star,” Hunt declares.
And he’s got the backing of a man who’s helped create the biggest star-making machine of the last few years on his side — “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson.
Given that he’s become famous for advising wannabe pop stars how to fashion their voice for ultimate mass appeal, Jackson’s link to Hunt might seem a bit peculiar. But Jackson has been his manager going back almost a decade, when Hunt was a Morehouse dropout looking to make his mark as a songwriter and producer.
“I just fell in love with songwriting and his commitment to himself as an artist,” says Jackson, who describes Hunt’s sound as “if you put Neil Young, Sly Stone, Al Green in a blender.”
At the beginning of his career, Hunt’s sound was being performed by others. His breakthrough was the song “Hopeless,” which he penned for Dionne Farris for the soundtrack of the 1997 movie “Love Jones.” Later, he would produce other artists, including Raphael Saadiq.
‘His big ship is on its way in’Though he was succeeding as a songwriter and producer, it took some convincing from Jackson and others to put himself in the spotlight. His reluctance to become a performer was mixed with the fear of not being good enough and a good measure of laziness.
“I knew that there was a lot of work I needed, as far as vocally,” he says with a nonchalance that marks his persona. “To try and learn how to be a singer, a really good guitar player, a really good pianist, it’s always lagged a bit behind learning to be the best songwriter I could possibly be because songwriting comes naturally to me. I have to push myself to practice singing ... I just felt, if I couldn’t do it as well as Stevie [Wonder] or Sly [Stone], what’s the point?”
But in Hunt, Jackson saw promise that one day he could become as great as those legends.
“I think that his big ship is on its way in,” Jackson says. “It’s going to come in at any second.”
Jackson isn’t the only one who feels that way. None other than Prince gave Hunt his royal blessing, and even invited him to his purple palace in Hollywood to perform.
“He said he really liked what he heard, thought my band was funky — it was about all the encouragement I needed to keep going,” says Hunt.
There are still the occasional frustrations. During a recent tour with soul singers Anthony Hamilton and Heather Headley, Hunt at times was out of his element; the crowd skewed older and came to hear the silky, old-school soul of the headliners. At times, Hunt would placate the audience by playing some of his smoother soul songs; at other times, he and his band would just rock out onstage, oblivious to who was watching.
But it’s nights like a recent gig at a Manhattan club that really inspire Hunt. The sold-out crowd sang along to every song he played, radio hit or not.
“I just want to express to y’all how great it is to be in a room where people appreciate what you do,” said Hunt as the audience roared.