Thinking outside the box has always been Van Hunt’s approach to music. The multi-instrumentalist has spent much of his adult life as a producer/songwriter working with artists like John Legend and Jermaine Dupri. The 41 year-old Dayton, Ohio native and lifetime musician decided to add singing to his repertoire a decade ago and is now pursuing a solo career of his own. His already impressive resume (He won a Grammy in 2007 and famously wrote Dionne Farris’ 1997 hit “Hopeless” from the Love Jones Soundtrack) has freed him to express his vision to the world through genre-bending music (Thelonious Monk meets Prince) that’s too innovative to categorize. In this BET.com exclusive Van Hunt talks about crafting music that casts a wide net for listeners, and being a fan of upcoming artists, (Odd Future, The Weeknd) who do the same.
BET.com: How did you transition from being a producer/songwriter to becoming a singer?
Van Hunt: Out of necessity. Because I realized that if I was going to get the song out of my head and get them on tape the way I heard them, I was gonna have to not only produce and write the songs, I was gon’ have to sing them, too.
How did you go about developing your singing skills?
That was the most difficult part of being a musician. For some people, it really does come naturally. For me, it does not. So now I work really hard, I’ve taken lessons and through sheer practice and trail and error, I’ve gotten better and better. I’ve only been comfortable as a singer the last year.
Early in your career, you did some work with prominent Atlanta artists like Jermaine Dupri and TLC, how did you end up down there?
My mom forced me to go to college in Atlanta. I went to Morehouse… I wound up studying English and lasted a year. And for most of that year I was in the piano room…. Morehouse had a really good jazz club. I wasn’t in the jazz club, but they would often walk by and hear my music playing. And I was by no means a good pianist, but they would come in and help me out, tell me what I was doing. It got me into things that they were into like Bee-Bop, John Coltrane. I really liked Thelonious Monk and that’s really what I was into.
What were you trying to accomplish with your newest album, What Were You Hoping For?
I was just expressing myself and I wanted to go beyond the perception people had of me as sort of a neo-soul, R&B singer… The main thing I wanted to get across is to show I was capable of a lot of different music.
Your sound draws from many influences to create a truly unique experience. New artists like Frank Ocean and The Weeknd are also pushing boundaries by blending genres.
I’m not familiar with Frank Ocean, but I know they’re kind of all in the same kind of new crew of rebellious R&B hip hop. I really like The Weeknd. I like the Odd Future stuff, too. I like the Earl Sweatshirt tracks. I like his wit. But I do like the Weeknd, particularly the music with the vocals in kind of a high-pitched Marvin Gaye— and it’s kind of raw in the lyrical approach.
Much like The Weeknd, your music is very hard to categorize, is there a specific audience or age group that you aim for?
My music is geared towards everybody and you can see it when you come to the shows. There are all kinds of races in the audience. And all kinds of ages.
What’s the most surprising face you’ve ever seen in the audience at one of your shows?
In Seattle, there was an Asian couple that must have been 70 years old. Back when I decided that I was gonna start putting records together for myself, I always imagined that I would have the kind of success that Prince had. Because I knew my music had a broad appeal like his does still.
Some of your lyrics deal with heavy issues while others are more light-hearted and melody driven. When writing, are you more focused on the message or the melody?
Every now and then something about religion, I may try to make some kind of statement. Or outspoken issues… Sometimes I throw in a little line about that. But in general, I’m trying to create storylines with songs that are kind of whimsical or funny, no matter what it’s talking about. Whether you’re talking about being broke as hell, or arguing with your girl every night, I like to say it with a smile. I think every situation deserves a laugh.
Do you have an ultimate goal that you want to accomplish with your music?
I’ve achieved the ultimate goal. I think that’s why I’m fulfilled. I make a living expressing myself. It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s not like I have an ultimate goal of being rich, because I don’t. I just want to put the music that I make in front of as many people as possible. And so, you know, every record works towards that. So I’m happy, probably more happy than most guys you will ever meet.
(Photo: Van Hunt)