CHICAGO — Van Hunt, who is back with a terrific new album, is trying to be philosophical about one of the worst periods of his life. In 2008, the acclaimed Grammy-winning singer-songwriter was preparing to release his third studio album, Popular, when it was shelved by his label at the time, Blue Note.
"It didn't have much to do with me or any particular person at the label," he says. "It was about what they thought I represented as an artist and what they thought they represented as a label. It didn't make financial sense to them.
"I tried to make a record that they would like, but they didn't think it was commercially viable. I could chase my tail forever with that. Maybe doing something a little softer, moodier, would've been better suited for them. Rather than what I gave them, which was an edgy, funk kind of rock record."
Hunt was once seen as a rising star who had notched a 2006 Grammy Award. He started out in the late '90s writing songs for middle-tier R&B artists Dionne Farris, Joi, Cree Summer and Rahsaan Patterson, and then he released his self-titled debut album in 2004. It presented him as a neo-soul craftsman with a knack for the sly hook. He grew bolder with each release, blurring genres on Popular. That album still hasn't been officially released, although it's hardly esoteric. It just doesn't fit snuggly into any one genre.
"I write songs with melodies, which have sold for decades," Hunt says. "It shouldn't be that difficult."
After the initial shock wore off, Hunt slowly regrouped. He started an all-piano record, he finished a book of short stories, and he kept writing new songs. Hunt says it was good for him to be associated with the major-label system, in that its marketing dollars helped build his career. But now he's glad to be freed of its restrictions.
"The first two major-label records, I did what I wanted to do," he says. "It wasn't a problem until after I finished my part. They didn't understand I was an artist, a capable artist. When you're the money dealing with the talent, you need to let that talent develop; your job is to figure out how to sell it.
"Good, well-defined, well-honed art is not a foreign language. You can sell it to people. You just have to move your ego out of the way, clear out the unfinished fantasies you have about being an artist yourself, and just sell it. To put money behind something you don't like or that doesn't move culture is actually more difficult."
He went into recording a new album with a sense that all restrictions were off, that for the first time he had a chance to express himself freely without having to wonder whether the people entrusted with marketing his work would "get it" or even like it.
"I really wasn't sure what it would wind up being sonically," he says. "I love Bach cello suites, I love punk music, I love old blues, Negro spiritual quartets, Muddy Waters' You Need Love. There is a simplicity but also a bite that connects all that music, from the growl in the cello to the timbre in Muddy's voice. I wanted simple music, but with bite, over which I could lay my lyrical shenanigans."
He ended up with What Were You Hoping For?, an album that touches on funk, punk, blues, soul, psychedelia, glam-rock, even country, and makes it feel innate, organic. It came about after a long period of soul-searching.
"People need to ask themselves tough questions: Do I really want to be in this relationship? Do I really like who I am? What is wrong with my life? And how can I fix it? That is the foundation of a happy person," Hunt says. "I can truly say I'm really happy now, and it has nothing to do with my career or money. I'm comfortable in my own skin. I was right about who I was in all this. Everyone else was just guessing. Part of that is my own fault. I love the output I had. I had full confidence. But I wasn't quite confident that it could be sold or understood by the people I was in business with."