James Hunter's songs channel the spirit of Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.
Courtesy of James Hunter
Courtesy of James Hunter
On his new album, The Hard Way, British singer and guitarist James Hunter delves deep into retro-sounding soul and R&B, creating songs that sound like they could have been played a long time ago.
Channeling the influence, and perhaps even some of the spirit, of old songs by Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Van Morrison, Hunter found success (and a Grammy nomination) with his 2006 album People Gonna Talk. While on tour in Austin, Texas, Hunter recently spoke to Weekend Edition Sunday's Liane Hansen about his music and how he came to discover his love for soul.
Hunter says it was his "permanently borrowed" grandparents' collection of 78s that first started him off on discovering the music of the past. He says he was attracted to it, in part, because "it was a bit simpler and more direct. When I was starting to grow up, I think what was prevalent — at least what my brother was listening to — was what was laughingly called progressive rock, and that's when I decided that my tastes were rather more retrogressive."
Permeating the songs is Hunter's distinctive, smoky voice, which he says he didn't find until his 30s. His songwriting, Hunter says, took him longer to master. He turned to not only the music but also the lyrics of artists such as Cooke.
"As writers, there are people like Sam Cooke, who certainly had a concept," Hunter says. "In a literary sense, Sam Cooke was one of the few that really was a writer. Of course, when I was growing up, I got different stuff to say from what he has — I have to write from a more general perspective. I could never have written 'A Change Is Gonna Come,' because that really is a black man's song. It would sound a bit phony for me to try to write something with that exact point of view."
As with Cooke's work, Hunter's songs are often inspired by his youth: They pull from relationships in his own life, but they aren't necessarily true stories. "They're real names, but fictitious stories," Hunter says. "I think they're the opposite of what most novelists do. They protect the guilty with pseudonyms, but I do real names but make the whole story up. I'll probably have a few court cases coming up."
Three discs into his career, James Hunter released his 2006 album People Gonna Talk to an international audience, earning a Grammy nomination in the process. Having opened for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Etta James, and Van Morrison, Hunter has come a long way from his beginnings on a London street corner two decades ago. Click the link above to hear Hunter perform a concert from WXPN and World Café Live.
In his new album, The Hard Way, Hunter delves even deeper into soul, fusing his smoky voice with the sounds of surf music. With nods to American soul legends such as Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, Hunter maintains a sense of nostalgia, while infusing his sound with modern style and distinctive technique.