“An overnight success that’s taken 20 years...”
That’s how James Hunter describes the outpouring of praise and acceptance for his 2006 album, People Gonna Talk. Issued in March 2006 on GO Records/Rounder, the Grammy-nominated People Gonna Talk was the singer/songwriter/guitarist’s first Stateside release after two decades of performing and recording in his native Britain.
In support of his album, James and his skin-tight band performed everywhere from hole-in-the-wall clubs to the Hollywood Bowl; they headlined in smaller venues and supported the likes of Aretha Franklin, Los Lonely Boys, Boz Scaggs, and Van Morrison in larger ones. The mellifluous R&B of People Gonna Talk, with its affectionate echoes of Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, became an airplay staple on some of the nation’s most influential radio stations. The Los Angeles Times praised James Hunter’s “extraordinary soul voice”; Rolling Stone called his album “a treat not to miss.”
By the year’s end, People Gonna Talk was among the Top Ten “Best Albums of 2006” as cited by Mojo, USA Today pop critic Ken Barnes, and the WFUV/New York listeners’ poll, to name a few. People Gonna Talk was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album and James himself was nominated as Best New/Emerging Artist in the annual Americana Music Awards.
No wonder James Hunter’s second U.S. album, The Hard Way was among 2008’s most eagerly anticipated new releases. In terms of both inspiration and quotation, James has taken much from the musical past—as he will be the first to admit. But it’s his own infectious sound and inventive songwriting, blessedly free of slavish mimicry or retrograde nostalgia, that today’s audiences are responding to.
James himself wrote all the songs for The Hard Way and recorded the basic tracks with his working band, just as he did on People Gonna Talk. But now the instrumental palette is richer, the arrangements more detailed, and James himself is singing with more power and nuance than ever before. “We got further into our groove,” explains the singer, “and in two opposite directions simultaneously.”
“On the one hand, the sounds got a bit more sophisticated, a bit posher. Our tenor saxophonist Damian Hand and our drummer Jonathan Lee” – both have played with Hunter for 18-odd years, some of them very odd years indeed – “did all the string arrangements and augmented the instrumentation with things like the vibraphone on ‘Tell Her’ and ‘Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.’
“The upbeat tracks, meanwhile, are more rough ‘n’ ready, a bit wilder. I feel that on the previous album, we were a mite constrained. This time ‘round, we were able to let loose a bit more.”
The Hard Way was produced, recorded, and mixed by Liam Watson at his Toe Rag Studios in Hackney, East London. James and the band worked their way through multiple complete takes right there on Toe Rag’s postage stamp-sized floor.
“We’ve been cutting the vocals live with the band and for James it really works,” notes Liam Watson. “You don’t want that kind of music to be thought about too much. You don’t want to be too careful—you want people to be on the edge.”
James adds: “We played the songs many times—this isn’t an album of first takes—but they were complete performances...Having too much leisure to take things out and put them back in, it can make you a bit complacent. The pressure of recording live was quite exciting rather than daunting.”
While gratified by the career-high sales and positive press earned by People Gonna Talk, James himself has felt a special sense of validation when praised by musicians he’d long held in high esteem. Among them was the legendary New Orleans songwriter/producer Allen Toussaint, who caught Hunter’s dynamic live show at Joe’s Pub in New York and then introduced himself backstage during the Americana Awards
To James’ amazement, Toussaint later agreed to fly to England and play on the Toe Rag sessions. His trademark acoustic piano lights up “The Hard Way” and “Believe Me Baby,” with a brilliant Professor Longhair-style solo on the latter track; Allen also played electric piano on “‘Til The End” and added his unmistakable voice to “The Hard Way.”
Of the determinedly old-school Watson/Hunter style of recording, Allen Toussaint says: “The method is superb. I would say nostalgia, but not really because everything is very much alive and wide awake...By all the instruments and the song being sung at the same time, you are playing the song and not just making a track that something is going to go on top of.”
As for the sound of The Hard Way, Allen calls it “music that you feel you know, but is very fresh today. There’s a lot of forethought in it, but it’s not a concoction of correctness, not a carbon copy of trying to do what has happened... [It’s] more of an extrapolation than an elaboration. And it’s truly, truly a joy.”
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Added by Bimbos 365 on April 25, 2012