When James Hunter stays at a hotel (and he's always staying at a hotel), he checks in under an assumed name. It's a classic celeb maneuver, a way to shake off fans, paparazzi and press.
But alas, that's not why the British soul singer does it.
"I'm hiding from my creditors," Hunter says with a raspy laugh. He's on the phone from yet another tour stop, in Vancouver, British Columbia. He jokes that he can't even "afford to trash a hotel room anymore."
Looking like James Bond but singing like Sam Cooke, the constantly touring 45-year-old is part of this weekend's Tampa Bay Blues Fest at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg. And when he takes the stage Friday evening, he will carry with him the well-worn tag of the Next Big Thing. If only hype could pay the bills.
Despite Van Morrison calling him one of the best-kept secrets in music and his 2006 album, People Gonna Talk, being nominated for a Grammy, Hunter remains a cash-strapped cult fave, a spellbinding talent with a small but passionate following.
"I've pretty much been impoverished for the past two decades," says a chuckling Hunter, who has opened for Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Boz Scaggs, and was part of Morrison's traveling Rhythm and Blues Revue. "But being on the brink of erupting keeps me going, actually."
At this point, his almost-fame feels a bit like luggage — dinged-up Samsonite with character to spare. Not that Hunter is unaccustomed to tough times. He was raised in a trailer in the middle of an onion field and worked as a railroad laborer in Colchester, England, before music (barely) paid the bills. In the '80s, he first performed under the moniker Howlin' Wilf, and the blues riff wasn't such a stretch.
A longtime busker in the U.K., taking whatever stage will have him, Hunter is a head-turner for sure. He writes his own material, picks his own guitar and channels an assortment of soul and R&B giants: Cooke, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson and all the other regulars in his grandmother's record collection.
It's a jarring sound at first — then absolutely sublime a few seconds later.
His music is the essence of analog intimacy: cha-cha beat, soothing brush strokes, blurty horns — he might as well be a Stax star making music magic in 1960s Memphis. "I've heard I'm responsible for some engagements and some steaming groins," he says. "That's cool. The sex should be intrinsic in the music."
Hunter also manages to be an original, putting funky twists on a classic formula. His guitar playing reveals itself in manic flurries, providing edgy counterpoint to the mellow mood. He often harmonizes guitar and horn parts. And he writes songs as if they were short stories where love and longing are revealed in subtle body language, Raymond Carver with a Gibson.
"As a songwriter, I'm most inspired by people who aren't in music at all, like Billy Wilder," Hunter says. "As a screenwriter, he'd recycle a catchphrase or a joke, bringing it back later in the film in a different incarnation. Film language is quite effective. Repetition is quite effective."
With the help of loyal producer Liam Watson, who also helms the White Stripes, Hunter will release a new album, The Hard Way, on June 10. Yes, it will sound like a soul-kissed throwback, but it will also have Hunter's modern sensibility.
"You don't want to wear your influences too much on your sleeve," he says. "I certainly wouldn't deny being derivative, but I also don't want to reinvent the music because it was so good in the first place."
The most notable thing about the album might be its chief marketer. Starbucks, which has become a successful music retailer, will push The Hard Way nationwide. Could this finally be the thing that makes Hunter a household name and gets the creditors off his weary back?
He'll survive even if it isn't, says Hunter, who frogs out a sinister chuckle: "Besides, all of my heroes are people who died before they became famous anyway."
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.