James Hunter burst onto the scene a few years back with his late-’50s/early-’60s small-combo rhythm-and-blues sound, helped by the soul revival that Amy Winehouse and others were then precipitating. He was another overnight sensation who had actually been a working musician in his native England for 20 years before finally enjoying some wider success.
His 2006 breakthrough record, “People Gonna Talk,” was followed in short order by “The Hard Way” in 2008. But his latest — “Minute By Minute,” out next week — has been five years in coming.
When asked about that lag, the singer isn’t quite sure how to account for it. “It’s difficult to explain why, but a lot of different things were just getting in the way of it. It just took me that long to write the stuff,” he says, reached by phone at his Brighton, England, home. “The work started to slow down, and it was a bit of a difficult time on that last one, because there were a lot of different struggles we were all having.” (One of those struggles was the illness and death of Hunter’s wife in 2011.)
Once he finally had his material, Hunter began looking for a producer to record with. In particular, he says, he was looking to get a punchier, more aggressive sound, something he felt was lacking on his previous releases. He ended up working with Gabriel Roth, a man famous for a relentlessly old-school approach to making music who, in a multitude of ways (most visibly as band leader of Sharon Jones’ Dap-Kings and co-owner of Daptone Records) has been in the middle of the soul resurgence that Hunter rode in on.
It seemed like a natural fit to Hunter; somebody suggested Roth, “and it sounded right to me.” So he and his band came stateside to make the record (not at Roth’s House of Soul recording studio in Brooklyn, however, but at a place in Riverside, Calif., where, as it happens, Roth grew up). To hear Hunter tell it, the producer had some major remodeling on his hands before the recording could begin. “Gabe had to repair a lot of stuff. In the first week, before we got there, he was supposed to be testing the acoustics and that sort of thing, but he had to spend the whole week fixing holes in the roof, cleaning out guano and stuff.” Concludes the singer with a laugh, “all of those elements might have contributed to the sound, for all I know!”
Hunter is pleased with how things went. “It was quite a good match between him and us. He got the sound that we’d always wanted to get hold of. He knew how to do it; he’s got his techniques as a producer, and he’s got a good way with musicians as well.” That sound started with him and the band, Hunter notes: “the stuff we were writing and arranging was funkier” (not in stylistic, but sonic terms). So “it’s partly down to us, and a big part down to what Gabe was doing.”
For his part, Roth agrees with Hunter’s assessment. “Sometimes we disagreed about what direction to take something, but [James] was very clear about when he knew where he was going and exactly what he wanted, and when he didn’t,” Roth said in a statement. “On some of the tunes I really worked with him creatively to find an arrangement and a sound. On others, I could step back and just listen to what he was saying, and help him get the sound from his head onto the tape.”
Hunter points to the results in songs such as “Let the Monkey Ride.” It is, he says, his “absolute favorite” song on the record, precisely because it has that sound and vibe that he had never quite managed to get. The song, he observes, is “dead romantic,” but it still has an edge to it, an effect that Hunter says he is always striving for when writing those sorts of songs. “I don’t like really soft music; the sound always has to have a bit of an edge.”
When asked to characterize his music and the nature of its relation to the bygone R&B acts that influenced him, Hunter says he tries to vest his music with “the spirit of that old stuff. The spirit is much more important than the actual authenticity or getting the sound right.” That makes it more evocation than re-creation, in his view.
Then he points to something else. “We add a sort of downward-looking, dour English perspective to it,” he observes with a chuckle. “There’s a slight English sourness that America can appreciate but doesn’t produce itself. So I take my own vibe to what I do, and my own perspectives, and my own temperament. That peculiarly English temperament informs the music in a different way.”