No less than Van Morrison has sung his praises. He's been featured in the New York Times, No Depression and New York Post, and his album's received good reviews from U.S. News & World Report, Rolling Stone and a host of newspapers.
But none of this prepares one for James Hunter's People Gonna Talk. The songwriting, the plucking violins and the album's warm analog tone can easily fool the listener. People Gonna Talk was recorded at Toe Rag Studios in London, which is 100 percent old school, from the analog recording equipment to the single room with the classic AKG mics known as C-12s. To duplicate the classic sounds of '50s and '60s R&B, Hunter and his band played live without headphones.
Hunter has two things in common with Joss Stone. One is they're both British and Caucasian despite what their singing voices might lead you to believe. The other is they share the same agent in Ron Kaplan, who told Pollstar he's drawn to rootsy music and unique artists such as Los Lonely Boys, Madeleine Peyroux, Stone, Hunter and an upcoming artist named Ryan Shaw.
Hunter is a "new artist," playing clubs and festivals, but he and his band have a 20-year backstory. At one time, they were managed by Boz Borrer, who would become Morrissey's guitar player.
They've also had some help with agencies in Germany and Norway, and Hunter has toured as part of Morrison's band and is still invited on stage at Van's gigs. But it wasn't until this year that Hunter became known in the U.S.
"This tour has been extended since January," he told Pollstar. "I've gone home a couple of times. I've had two weeks with my girlfriend and they weren't consecutive. I've been to the States a couple, three times before but never for any substantial period of time."
If it wasn't for an old friend from New York named Steve Erdman, Hunter might still be known only in England. Erdman visited London about 20 years ago when he ran into Hunter busking, had a conversation with him and went to a couple of the shows.
"He actually arranged in 1989 a short trip. We supported Bo Diddley. He's always tried to get things happening for us and he met Kimberly Guise, who was a partner in a software company," Hunter recalled.
In fact, Guise fell in love with Hunter so much that she has taken on management duties. She also fell in love with Erdman, and they married two days before talking to Pollstar.
"We were kind of stunned that somebody with such remarkable talent had not gotten the recognition he deserved, especially here in the United States," Guise said. "We formed [Go Records] exclusively to record James Hunter. We had no prior experience in the music industry. We're huge believers. We've put everything we have into this business, quit our jobs and everything. At the risk of sounding naive, I think James has the potential of being huge."
Hunter had two CDs to his credit that never saw the light of day in the U.S., she said.
"Early on, we sent some packages out to some really big management companies who responded favorably to the record, but the challenge for James starting out in America was he's 43 years old and he had absolutely no following, so it was going to require somebody starting from scratch with this guy. By default, Stephen and I have been managing James all year."
Guise bought some Pollstar directories to book the early gigs, she said.
"Thank God we've got Ron Kaplan now. He saved the day. I think doing the booking ourselves was the hardest part at the beginning."
At last year's South By Southwest, Erdman and Guise handed a five-song demo to Ken Irwin, known as one of the three "Rounder Founders" of Rounder Records. He gave it to the label's Scott Billington, who got in contact with Erdman and Guise, and a distribution deal was hammered out. The couple also handed a copy of the CD to publicist Matt Hanks, who was on a SXSW panel. Hanks is publicist for Joss Stone and Los Lonely Boys, which meant Kaplan eventually got a copy of the CD.
"I handle him worldwide so we'll be working him in Europe a lot," Kaplan said. "We're trying to set a tour in March/April and to just continue to get him in front of as large of crowds as possible. But James is still a discovery to be made and every time people hear him, the reaction is quite impressive."
Rounder does not have the deep pockets of major labels when it comes to tour support, so Go Records has been funding Hunter's tour. The couple has also helped recruit musicians for Hunter's U.S. band (his English counterparts have been with him for 20 years).
"When James came over here, we did not have the financial depth to that point to have him live separately, so he lived with Stephen and I [in New York] for five months, which is an interesting way to launch somebody's career," Guise said.
"We went to the show in Chicago last night and I think it's one of the most rewarding parts of this business. I never anticipated it, but when people go to see James Hunter, they have such a good time and they leave so happy. I get e-mails thanking us for bringing James Hunter here because it tends to be an over-35 crowd and people feel it's the most fun they've had in years."