James Hunter Delves Into '60s Soul On his new album, The Hard Way, the British singer and guitarist delves deep into old-fashioned soul and R&B, channeling the influence and spirit of Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.
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James Hunter Delves Into '60s Soul

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James Hunter Delves Into '60s Soul

James Hunter Delves Into '60s Soul

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James Hunter is a singer and guitarist. He and his band have released a new CD called "The Hard Way." Hunter also wrote all the songs on the recording, but when you play the first cut you would swear you heard it once before, a long time ago.

(Soundbite of song "The Hard Way")

Mr. JAMES HUNTER: (Singing) You have to learn the hard way. What everybody know. You know I hate to be one. To say I told you so, yeah. You took the hard way. You took the hard way. The hardest way to go.

HANSEN: Now to me, it sounds like an old Sam Cooke song. And as you listen through to the CD, you can be convinced you're hearing Jackie Wilson or Van Morrison. I don't know much about James Hunter. He's British and was nominated for a Grammy Award for his first record, "People Gonna Talk," but that's about all I know. So we've caught up with him in Austin, Texas. He's on tour and he joins us. Welcome to the program, James.

Mr. JAMES HUNTER (Singer/Songwriter): Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: I want to get an idea of how old you are without asking how old you are. So I'm going to ask you another one - another question instead. Were you introduced to soul music and R&B on radio, lacquer, vinyl, tape, disc or computer file?

Mr. HUNTER: That would date me, wouldn't it? It was an Edison Wax cylinder, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Oh, no.

Mr. HUNTER: Yes. I borrowed it from my nephew.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: And if I believe that, there's bridge that you want to sell me, right? No, it was...

Mr. HUNTER: That's right.

HANSEN: Yeah, but tell - it was 78s, was is not?

Mr. HUNTER: It was, yes. They weren't mine. No, they were borrowed permanently from an aged grandparent, and that's what started me off on stuff like this, I think.

HANSEN: What attracted you to the music itself?

Mr. HUNTER: I think it was just a bit simpler and more direct, you know, because 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.

HANSEN: I'd love to talk about one of the tunes on the album, and that's...

Mr. HUNTER: Sure, yeah.

HANSEN: "Don't Do Me No Favors."

(Soundbite of song "Don't Do Me No Favors")

Mr. HUNTER: (Singing) You know I fell on hot tub(ph). Bad luck fell on me. When our payday fell on Friday. That's a distant memory. But don't you do me no favors. Where just you love me, live and learn.

HANSEN: There's a story behind this, right?

Mr. HUNTER: It was an instance of someone lending me money or giving to me or whatever, and I have mixed feelings about accepting it and that's what is a kind of ambiguity about, you know, the sentiments in the song. It's kind of a resentment at being the recipient of charity and a sort of slight doubt of being worthy of it, you know, that kind of thing.

There's another song called "Tell Her," which first, it's advice to someone else how to conduct their love life, and then halfway through the third verse suddenly change its mind.

(Soundbite of song "Tell Her")

Mr. HUNTER: (Singing) Don't be afraid, she turn me down. Just take the time to look around. And you'll soon discover that there's other petals on the shore...

Mr. HUNTER: He says, effectively, don't run after a girl or a bus. There'll be another one along in a minute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUNTER: It might be senility creeping in early. I'm not sure.

HANSEN: Well, senility is not creeping into your voice. You have a beautiful voice, wonderful voice.

Mr. HUNTER: Thank you.

HANSEN: When did you or someone else recognize that fact?

Mr. HUNTER: Well, I first started attempting it around 1980, and you know, I didn't get to many catcalls, you know, in response to it. But I think it might have been sort of early '20s, people started saying, blimey, you sound like such and such. I only really started liking what sound I was producing by the time I was in my thirties, I think. I'm a very slow developer.

HANSEN: Well, it takes a while for a voice to develop, and sometimes it takes a while for songs to have meaning. I mean, if you were listening to the work of Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and people like that - writing your own songs, it takes a while for those seeds to be planted and grow.

Mr. HUNTER: As writers, you know, there are people like Sam Cooke who certainly had a concept, you know. It's funny that all those artists that we tend to put in the same category are all different qualities. And, you know, in a literary sense, Sam Cooke was one of the few that really was a writer, and of course, you know, I mean, when I was growing up, I've got different stuff to say from what he has. I have to write from a more general perspective because I could never have written something like "A Change is Gonna Come," you know, because that really is a black man's song. It would have been - sound a bit phony for me to try and write something with that exact point of view, you know.

HANSEN: Yeah. You grew up in Colchester, Essex?

Mr. HUNTER: Yeah, that's right. So, you know - so there wasn't much of that going on there.

HANSEN: Yeah. But I loved what you said in one interview I read. It wasn't quite like growing up in Alabama, but in my part of England, anywhere south of Watford would be considered Alabama.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUNTER: Exactly. Yes, that's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUNTER: Yeah. Well, so you've got the Mason-Dixon line. We got the Watford Gap.

HANSEN: You find yourself going back to that rich soil of your youth for inspiration for your songs?

Mr. HUNTER: I do go back to Colchester to get my laundry done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Oh, but come on, you write about old girlfriends or - you know, things like that?

Mr. HUNTER: Well, yes, half the album, isn't it, really?

HANSEN: Really? Is Corrina(ph) an old girlfriend?

Mr. HUNTER: Yeah, she's not that old. But yeah - she was - yeah, they're real names but fictitious stories, you know. I think they're the opposite of what most novelists do. You know, they protect the guilty with pseudonyms but I do real names but I just sort of make the whole story up. So I probably have a few court cases coming up soon.

HANSEN: Well, you're a smart man to put a tune named after a girlfriend and a tune, "Jacqueline," named after your wife on the same CD.

Mr. HUNTER: Absolutely, yeah. That gave me no end of trouble. But - well, I thought she deserved it. That's the only one that's actually a true story, that one, you know. We've been married for a year and a half now.

HANSEN: Was it a surprise for her? Did you tell her you were doing it?

Mr. HUNTER: No, I didn't tell her. She jokingly used to say, why do you keep writing songs about other girls all the time, you know. So, but - you know, I - we - I wrote it and we recorded it. And I didn't tell her until we - until we released it, you know. I just threw a copy on the table.

(Soundbite of song "Jacqueline")

Mr. HUNTER: (Singing) Looking back on days gone by before I saw you smile. Ain't no one who's ever going take me to the aisle. Jacqueline, Jacqueline. Hooh, wee, Jacqueline. Now, I can't be still, baby, do you say you will. I - I - I remember hoping I can make it on my own. And now my eyes wide open going make yourself at home. Jacqueline. Oh, wee, Jacqueline. Now I can't be still, baby do you say you will.

Mr. HUNTER: I had two reasons for sort of keeping it from her, is one that I thought it would be a nice surprise. And the other one was that if she heard it and thought it sucked, she wouldn't be able to do anything about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: What kind of response are you getting here for your music? How's the American tour going?

Mr. HUNTER: Well, they seem to be taking it quite well. I haven't heard - had storms of protests of me plagiarizing their music. And so, yeah, it's being quite favorable.

HANSEN: James Hunter, you have arrived, huh?

Mr. HUNTER: Blimey, looks like it, doesn't it? Yeah.

HANSEN: James Hunter. He joined us from the studios of KUT in Austin, Texas. His new recording on the Hear music label is called "The Hard Way," and he's currently touring the United States with his band. Thanks so much. Good luck to you.

Mr. HUNTER: Thank you, Liane.

(Soundbite of song "Jacqueline")

Mr. HUNTER: (Singing) Baby, got about the treasure. I said I'm too fine. Remember one that I never, never. Should have never been kind. You better know I'm coming, now when I get there, I ain't going nowhere...

HANSEN: Later this week, James Hunter plays three shows in Colorado and then it's off to Minnesota. You can hear a full James Hunter concert at the music section of our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of song "Jacqueline")

Mr. HUNTER: (Singing) You had to know I'm coming tomorrow. Now when I get there I ain't going nowhere, no. Hmm, when I, when I, when I get there I ain't going nowhere

HANSEN: This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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