'Every song on here was a bit of a struggle to get to the right place' An interview with James Hunter James Hunter has been making music with his band, recently officially named the James Hunter Six, for over two decades, but the inspiration for his music comes from long before that. Starring saxophones, trumpets, and drums, James Hunter's music oozes 1950s and 1960s. His soulful, emotive voice finishes the deal.
"Minute by Minute" is the most recent album by James Hunter, and the first released as the James Hunter Six. Before that, his 2008 release "The Hard Way" was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. While the two albums have a lot in common, like gritty vocals and smooth, skilled instrumentation, "Minute by Minute" is a bit funkier, maybe because it was produced by Gabriel Roth, known for his work with soul artists like Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones.
In advance of his first show in St. Louis since 2008, Hunter and I shared a few laughs over his songwriting process, growing up in England and how Essex is not like growing up in the American South.
Brian Benton: Your show in St. Louis coming up is your first time headlining here, right?
James Hunter: You're right. Last time I was here was in support of Willie Nelson at the Fox Theatre.
And that was back in 2008 so it's been a while.
How does a show in the United States differ from one at home in England?
Well, it's further away. That's maybe the main difference. But otherwise it's quite similar. We tend to get a quite similar crowd with a slightly different accent. But I don't think one tends to be wilder or more sedate, no. It's a very similar reaction really. I think people who like that sort of music, regardless of where they are, react quite similarly.
Talking to you, you have a very noticeable English accent, but it disappears when you sing? How do you think that happens?
I don't think it quite disappears, but I do pick up more of an American one when I sing. But it's just how it comes out, you know. I realized with the style of music I'm making and the way I sing, that's how my voice sounds, and it's just how my singing comes out.
Am I right that you were discovered on a street corner at an early age? Could you share that story?
Well I suppose I was, if you could say discovered. Somebody might have discovered me. I was 24 when I first started performing, so not all that young.
But the music that seems to be your primary inspiration, things from the '50s and '60s, isn't what you were probably listening to when you were first getting started?
I was attracted to that style of music all along really, more the style of music than the era. Yes, I would say I was listening to that sort of stuff from early on, that style or rhythm and blues and soul.
I read an interview where you compared growing up in Essex to growing up in the Southern United States. Can you explain what you meant by that?
I actually said it wasn't comparable! [Laughs] Everyone's got that wrong since I did that interview. I said it wasn't like being in the Southern States.
Oh, so I must have read that wrong.
I remember that quote and the point I was making was that Essex was really not like living in Alabama. I was saying that in England, my part would be considered like Alabama, but it's really not alike in terms of culture. But you're not alone. Every interviewer I've had has read that quote wrong. [Laughs]
That's funny. I also read that you don't write music for drums or horns, but you sketch out ideas and then work with your band to bring them to life? Did I get that quote right?
[Laughs] That's right, yes.
Could you walk me through what that songwriting process is like?
Some songs, I've got an arrangement before I've got a slightest clue what the thing is going to be about and that's the difficult part. And other times, I've got something that could comfortably work as a poem, just the lyrics, and I have to add a tune on to that. I tend to do all of the arrangements, I play each part, and the band works to write it with me.
Is that collaboration part of why you decided to start releasing music as the James Hunter Six instead of just James Hunter?
Right. Well, we wanted the name to sound more like a band, rather than just James Hunter. People would think I was just a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar. I suppose that's a good point that you make there, though. It was certainly to emphasize the fact that it was a collaborative effort. I wanted to be able to share the blame!
How long have you been playing with your current band?
Ages. Over 20 years.
How do you think you have changed as part of a band, or you on your own have changed as a songwriter or a performer, since when you first were getting started?
Yeah, I think I've certainly broadened the scope of what I write about, and I have been able to make the songs more interesting rather than generic. I wouldn't go so far as to say they're introspective, though. There was one way back when I was first getting started called "Same Old Nothing" and it was supposed to be a sort of Muddy Waters thing, but I was just a kid trying to do Muddy Waters and the whole tone of song came out sounding wrong.
So let's talk about your new album, which is your first one in five years. What encouraged you to make this new album?
Necessity, in one word.
Had you been working on it for a while and it just took some time to put out or did the process start more recently?
We hadn't started recording, but I'd certainly been writing for a while. And I was having a bit of a struggle with that, and I was writing a lot of stuff that I had to rework. It took quite a long time to get them all done.
Are all the songs new or are there some you had been saving for the right album?
They're all new and we're all written for this album. I have never had any reserved. You know, I'm not a terrific writer who can make a stockpile of songs. I wish I could. Every song on here was a bit of a struggle to get to the right place.
And you know, I made the point that it's been five years since the album before this one, but you tend to always have a few years between putting out albums. So should we expect new music from you in 2018 or 2020?
I think I'm just a slow writer, so maybe by then I'll learn to write quicker. And next time, we've got a couple saved from the last album so we might use some of those.
The James Hunter Six performs at the Old Rock House on Thursday, October 10.