James Hunter’s voice is best described by adjectives that have been tried on for size and worn: weathered, seasoned, vintage, hoary, experienced. When Hunter performed songs off his latest record, Hold On!, at a listening party in the intimate confines of Daptone Records’s studio back in December, he was the personification of these descriptors, as were the lines he sang. The jacket he wore, striking and (fittingly) hunter green, was clearly cut from the cloth of yesteryear; his throat was unkind to his high notes when it came time for the belt in “(Baby) Hold on,” but that only made them all the more enjoyable and accessible to hear. The gathering felt familial, in that it was less of a Big Deal Listening Party and more of an excuse for Brooklyn’s soul-mining label to serve up some homemade fudge and have some friends over to listen to one of their latest signees. Hunter was the entertainment for the evening, but he was just as much a party guest as he was the piece de resistance, the axis upon which the swirls of conversation and applause spun. His songs may sound familiar, but absolutely nothing in Hunter’s orbit could be classified as tired.
Gabe Roth, Daptone’s co-founder and the producer of Hold On!, can back this up. When it comes to modern soul, Roth is a de-facto, tastemaking force: He spends a hefty chunk of his time working on other Daptone releases when he isn’t writing, playing, recording and touring with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings—or hosting listening parties in the blue velvet-clad main room of Daptone’s studio—and he’s been a fan of Hunter’s before the English soul man wound up on his label. Hunter made his solo debut in 1996 with ...Believe What I Say, which casually features guest vocals from none other than Van Morrison, who Hunter had toured with for various bouts in the years prior. (Hunter on their relationship: “I did some vocals on his record; he would reciprocate as an act of revenge.”) His major American breakthrough occurred a decade later with 2006’s People Gonna Talk, which scored him a Grammy nomination and a swath of new fans stateside. People Gonna Talk caught Roth’s attention, and he produced Minute by Minute, Hunter’s 2013 album; though the record was released through Concord, Hunter’s label at the time, Daptone distributed the vinyl rendering of it.
“It wasn’t really supposed to be involved with Daptone at all, but everyone at Daptone was really sweating the record,” says Roth of Minute by Minute. “From there, we decided to work on his next record, but there was a question as to who that record was going to be for. There were a couple of other labels who were interested. No matter who it was for I still wanted to produce it. He agreed, and we did it. It wasn’t an easy record to make, but it was a natural, fast record, the way records are supposed to go down.”
That marked the beginning of Hunter’s relationship with Daptone, and it lead to an organic partnership that comes to a brilliant head on Hold On! For Hunter, there was no other choice: his future, for this record, at least, was to lie in the hands of Daptone, and specifically the able ones of Roth. “I knew they liked what we did, but based on having worked on them before,” he says, making the the transatlantic call from Brighton. “I knew that there wasn’t another producer that was going to be good enough for us after Gabe Roth. I thought, ‘Sonically, I’m not taking a step down from this—this is as good as we’ve ever got—and I’m not going to backtrack.’ They were testing the waters by having us do support slots for them and everything, and they showed an interest, but every opportunity I would try to bully Gabe into signing us.”
After they charted the course for People Gonna Talk’s follow-up, Hunter flew to Riverside, California, where Roth turned an old, high-ceilinged apartment in a building that’s previously served as both a YMCA and Scientology center into the studio that birthed Hold On! For Roth, the process with Hunter was different than his approach to working with the Dap-Kings and other Daptone acts: Hunter brought the songs to him written and ready to record, with little more to do than the odd arrangement and instrumental finesse. The result is a bombastic listen that dips and swells with songs made for dancing, be they blood-pumping, brassy and pointed numbers like “If That Don’t Tell You” or “Free Your Mind (If You Still Got Time)” or syrupy love notes made for long embraces (“Something’s Calling;” “This Is Where We Come In”). Hunter’s voice, in all its gravely glory, is the reliable constant throughout: he lets it crack in “(Baby) Hold On” and enjoys a velvety ebb on the slow-burners. It’s timeless in that Hunter’s stylistic preferences took shape in a bygone era, but for him, the vibe doesn’t hold the record back. If anything, he unapologetically acknowledges that great voices came before him and made it possible for him to get people turned on to soul in the manner in which he got turned on to soul.
“I’m not exactly updating old sounds,” he says. “I am in complete retro denial, but I have to put me hand up to the fact that the style is derivative. A lot of throwback-style artists, they can sound a bit generic, like their songs are a composite of various soul standards that you’ve heard before. I think we’ve managed to side-step that, because I tend to approach it not like a museum piece, but just as if it were real music. The lyrics are a genuine reflection of what I think about stuff, you know. So really, if you put it on a different musical backdrop, it wouldn’t be any less contemporary than anything else. It’s the musical backdrop that sort of throws some sort of archaic style.”
That backdrop is suited for the studio at Daptone, the 100 Club, the red-walled Oxford Street haven Hunter prefers in London, or any of the venues he hits on tour. While the ‘60s vibes of Hold On! take Hunter’s music back to a time-honored place, the fact that his imperfections are embraced and broadcast in his current tracks further anchors it in the present. The rasp of his swagger is confident, flawed and fantastic, and that’s something that only improves with age.
Watch James Hunter perform ”(Baby) Hold On” at the Paste Studio in New York in the player below, and check out the rest of his session here.