In 2007, when his third studio album was nearing completion, soul-rock singer-songwriter Van Hunt relocated from his longtime home in Atlanta to Los Angeles, where the Morehouse College alum figured he’d be more likely to advance his career in the music industry. “I also had a relationship that I wanted to pursue,” Hunt says, munching an egg-on-bagel sandwich last week at a Studio City café. Two years later, “Here I am, and the relationship has done much better than the career.”
A black guitar hero given to psychedelic musings on the metaphysics of desire, Hunt has never been any record company’s idea of an easy sell. “People at major labels think everyone wants to be a pop star,” says his manager, Randy Jackson (yep, the American Idol judge). “But Van’s a real career artist, and his artistry isn’t based on a hit single.” Even so, by the time he landed in L.A., Hunt felt confident that the two albums he’d released through Capitol Records earlier this decade — an eponymous debut in 2004 and On the Jungle Floor in 2006 — had held up his end of the deal with the company, garnering loads of critical acclaim and, in the case of his first, a Grammy nomination for Best Urban/Alternative Performance.
So it came as quite an unpleasant surprise, says Hunt, when executives at Blue Note — the venerable jazz label that took over Hunt’s Capitol contract after some corporate restructuring by the two labels’ parent company, EMI — decided early last year not to release Popular, the disc he finished once he was settled here. “It was probably so devastating that I haven’t really addressed the feeling,” Hunt says of the decision, which took place after Blue Note had already sent out advance CDs to media and radio types. “I remember I was in San Francisco, and as soon as I found out, I went to my favorite pizza place, ate some pizza and just tried to forget about it.”
You can understand Hunt’s devastation (if not his coping mechanism): An appealingly trippy fusion of funk grooves, punk guitar and soul vocals that still makes room for the occasional future-folk slow jam, Popular is a left-field stunner, the kind of record many a Target shopper might’ve been hoping to find after plunking down $11.98 for Prince’s recent LOtUSFLOW3R set. (“She could fill an hourglass with sex appeal” is one of several lines particularly worthy of the Purple One.) And now it sits collecting dust in EMI’s vault, awaiting the day, says Hunt, when he makes it big as a musician (or as anything else), at which point he reckons the company will finally put it out in the hopes of making a quick buck. “I asked them if I could buy back the masters, but they wanted twice as much as they put into it,” he adds. “I told ’em I couldn’t afford it and we left it at that.”
A Blue Note spokesperson declined to comment on the matter beyond saying that Hunt and the label “mutually agreed to part ways,” an opinion the singer doesn’t exactly share. “I think they were afraid,” he says. “They didn’t think they were gonna do well with sales, which is laughable coming from a jazz label. Norah Jones is the only one who’s ever sold any records over there!” (According to Nielsen SoundScan, Van Hunt has sold 158,000 copies, while On the Jungle Floor has sold 58,000 — far from blockbuster numbers, to be sure, but respectable by the label’s non-Norah standards.)
Former Capitol president Andy Slater, who oversaw the making of Hunt’s first two albums before he was dismissed during the EMI shakeup, acknowledges the challenge in marketing records as eclectic (and demographically diffuse) as Hunt’s. But he also says, “Van is one of the big disappointments for me. It’s such a shame that no one in the next [Capitol] regime saw the talent I saw in him and took it to the place it needed to go.”
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These days Hunt has only himself to count on in that regard: Last week he issued a slyly titled rarities compilation, Use in Case of Emergency, through his Web site, and he’s currently at work on a new studio set that he plans to release the same way later this year. (True to genre-flitting form, Hunt says the fresh material pairs West African rhythms with classical European melodies.) The singer makes no bones about the challenges of running his own business in the Internet era. “To be honest, I didn’t even know what a widget was,” he says. “I’ve had to learn a lot.”
Still, total autonomy — even of the nickel-and-dime variety — seems like a good fit for Hunt, whom Jungle Floor producer Bill Bottrell remembers showing up for work “really hoping and wanting to do everything by himself.” The singer, Bottrell says, “has this thick shell of overdeveloped defiance. But then so do some of our greatest musicians.”
Van Hunt plays Zanzibar in Santa Monica on May 15 and May 22. 1301 Fifth St., Santa Monica. (310) 451-2221 or www.zanzibarlive.com.