Democrat Photo by Jeanne Sager
NORTH BRANCHS ONLY recording label owners Steven Erdman, left, and Kimberly Guise, right sit with their first and only artist, James Hunter. Hunter and Erdman have a friendship thats spanned nearly two decades.
Yes, North Branch
Has a Record Label!
By Jeanne Sager
NORTH BRANCH February 21, 2006 All you have to do is hear it.
Once they hear it, they dig it, said Steven Erdman.
Erdman is one half of the founding team behind GO Records, a record label started two years ago with the sole purpose of recording James Hunter.
Hunter, a British national and dear friend of Erdmans, is a man Van Morrison has called one of the best voices, and best-kept secrets, in British R&B and soul.
Check him out!"
Two years ago, Erdman and fiancee Kimberly Guise packed up their lives and moved to North Branch.
They were looking to simplify and cut their costs after quitting their jobs and borrowing money to start GO Records when they discovered an ad on Craigslist for a rental house in North Branch.
I thought we were going up the Hudson, Guise recalled. We were driving, and I realized, I dont know where this place is!
They found the house and fell in love.
It was a very spontaneous decision, she added. We rented the place, we gave Pete the check.
Later the couple purchased the house, giving up their apartments in New York City for country living.
I hate to say it was to lower the cost of our overhead, but certainly it allowed us to put more of our money into production and advertising, Guise said.
North Branch completely opened my head about what living is all about, Erdman added. Theres a uniqueness to that place that I havent been able to find in any urban place Ive ever lived.
It was a place that helped the couple get their dreams off the ground.
Erdman discovered James Hunter 18 years ago on a trip to London.
Raised on Long Island, Erdman discovered classic R&B as a child.
Hes developed eclectic tastes in music, but he always finds his way back to the true artists of soul.
I knew when I was a kid that Sam Cooke would be something Id love for the rest of my life, he recalled.
Seventies pop music was cool, he said, but it was a passing fancy.
Cooke, Al Green, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding . . . they have a magic touch.
James has been able to tap into that, Erdman said. Hes made music thats able to transcend the complete and utter hideousness of todays popular music.
Hunter was going by the Cockney-influenced name of Howlin Wilf when Erdman found him busking on the streets of London in the late 1980s.
Erdman heard about this guy, Howlin Wilf, with an incredible sound, and he stumbled on him playing in the street completely by accident.
When I saw this guy, I was astounded, he recalled. I thought I knew everything about music . . . this guys not faking it, he really plays ... like the real R&B cats.
He became an instant fan and eventually a friend.
And before leaving London, with just a few dollars left in his pocket, Erdman had a fateful meeting for both of them.
He was headed to a place called Spud You Like in Holland Park to buy a potato.
Of all things, who do I see walking into a newsstand but Van Morrison, he recalled. I waited outside, and when he walked out, I kind of accosted him.
I said, in fact, Ive been seeing this band you should go see.
Almost two decades later, Van Morrisons quote has helped Erdman and Guise launch Hunters career on this side of the pond.
With the help of some funding from Guises former boss, Jonathan Otto, they started GO Records two years ago and helped Hunter record a demo.
The songs were all written by Hunter, songs he said are something he can finally be proud of.
I think Im quite glad it didnt happen 20 years ago, he said of the pairing with GO. I really feel like Im writing properly now.
Asked what he thought of the offer to fly across the ocean and live in the middle of Sullivan County, Hunter laughed.
I was delighted, he said. On a less literal level, I was more or less in the middle of nowhere anyway!
Hunter moved in with Guise and Erdman while the couple began marketing his music.
They got their big break at South by Southwest, a major music convention.
Matt Hanks of ShoreFire Media was giving a talk about public relations, and he mentioned work hed done for Norah Jones that peaked Erdmans interest.
Erdmans musical background is as diverse as his tastes.
While working for Nickelodeon, the sometime illustrator and animator was writing jingles and developing characters.
He came up with a character called the Human Lard Dog for Nick, a character he said was abandoned because it scared the kids.
But Erdman wasnt done with Lard Dog he formed his own band, Lard Dog and the Band of Shy, and began performing in New York City.
He worked with a lot of different talent, and at one point Norah Jones was singing backup in the Band of Shy.
When Erdman told Hanks that hed worked with Jones, he got his attention.
Hanks, who is always having CDs thrown at him, listened to Hunters demo and started working with GO.
Eventually, Hanks connected Guise and Erdman with Rounder Records, a well-respected label thats put out big names like Alison Krauss and Union Station and George Thoroughgood and the Destroyers.
They ended up being really excited, but also you could see that they really got it, Erdman explained.
Next up was recording.
At Hunters request, they contacted Liam Watson, best known for producing the White Stripes Grammy-winning album Elephant.
Watsons Toe Rag Studios features all vintage analog equipment, the only way to capture the authentic 50s R&B sound that Hunter was looking for.
Two years after Erdman and Guise put their lives on hold, even put their impending wedding on hold, Hunters album is ready to drop.
Theyve put together an album Guise has listened to 1,000 times.
The fact that Im not sick of it is proof either that Im insane and possessed, she said with a laugh, or that it will stand the test of time.
The 14-track People Gonna Talk will be released across the United States on March 7 by GO and Rounder.
To hype the release, Hunter will appear on National Public Radios (NPR) All Things Considered sometime during the week of March 5 and the Late Show with Conan OBrien on March 8.
Hell appear on NPRs WPXNs World Cafe on March 9 (he was featured as the World Cafe Next artist earlier this month).
But Sullivan County listeners will get the first crack at the up and coming star.
Hunter will perform in his second fundraiser for WJFF (folks who attended his concert at the Hills in Callicoon Center in the fall of 2004 were among the first to hear him on this side of the pond) on March 4 at the Nutshell in Lake Huntington.
Doors open at 8 p.m. and the funds raised will go to WJFF.
The local public radio station was the first to air his music, and theyve promoted him from the start, Erdman said.
Hunter said hes appreciated their support, and hes eager to help them out.
Theyve been very hospitable to me since I first came, he explained. It can be argued I was discovered there.
WJFF got it, Guise said, and they hope the rest of the world does too.
Hes an incredible songwriter and singer, she said. If you make something thats really quality, over time itll be appreciated.
We granted him the freedom to do everything musically with his record that he wanted to do.
The result, she said, is truly timeless.
For more information, visit www.jameshuntermusic.com.
Meet the Man
Behind the Music
By Jeanne Sager
NORTH BRANCH February 21, 2006 So who is James Hunter?
The man Van Morrison called one of Britain and R&Bs best-kept secrets sat down during a pancake breakfast at the Callicoon Center Firehouse to tell the Democrat about his upcoming album release and his upcoming performance in Sullivan County.
Raised in Colchester, England, Hunter said his first brush with performing came in his pre-teen years.
Me brother got a guitar for his 15th birthday, Hunter related with his decidedly English speech patterns. He sort of grudgingly showed me a couple of chords.
But it was three years later, when Hunter was 14 in the old days of 1976, that he started to play in earnest.
He took his cues from American music Ray Charles, Otis Redding.
I did have this sort of thing, I always liked this sort of black side of rock and roll, he recalled. The Little Richards and the like.
He grooved to rhythm and blues, but he wanted to avoid falling into the trap of listening to teddy boy music.
You could legitimize it by calling it blues, Hunter said with a laugh.
He and some of his mates formed a band and began playing in clubs and on the streets of London.
Thats where he was discovered by Steven Erdman.
Erdman was on holiday in England, and he was blown away by Hunters voice and timing.
Smooth and soulful, the singing voice is another James Hunter.
His speech has the rhythms of his simple English upbringing.
His voice is one part Sam Cooke, one part Ray Charles and all James Hunter.
Thanks in part to his American musical heroes, Hunter sings without an accent.
Its a defense mechanism, he said with a laugh, in order to not completely clear the area where I was singing!
I do envy Van Morrison, he said. With that Belfast accent . . . he can sort of sing the way he talks.
In the almost 20 years since Erdman and Hunter became mates, Hunter has toured with Morrison, sung with John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and Georgie Fame.
Hes featured on Morrisons live album, A Night in San Francisco, and the studio recording of Days Like This.
Hunter has put out two albums of his own, one in England and another on the German Ruf Records.
Thanks to Erdman, hes now in the United States, spending part of his time at Erdman and fiancee Kimberly Guises home in North Branch.
He blagged us a few gigs in New York, Hunter said of Erdman.
That gave him the opportunity to play a supporting role for the legendary Bo Diddley.
When Erdman and Guise learned hed yet to be picked up in America, they made it happen.
We were mates, but it turned into sort of a business relationship, Hunter said.
The couple started GO Records at their new home in North Branch and invited Hunter stateside.
He showed up in the middle of nowhere and found a quiet place to prepare for stardom (and hes fallen in love with poking around at Peters Auction Barn in Jeffersonville!).
He calls his first recording in the United States timely.
I think Im quite glad it didnt happen 20 years ago, he said. I really feel like Im writing properly now.
The 14-track album was written entirely by Hunter.
He mixes modern ska riffs on the title track, People Gonna Talk, with the classically soulful love song Mollena, an ode to a girlfriend Hunter jokes got him in a lot of trouble on an electronic press kit shot in and around Callicoon and North Branch.
The clever and quick No Smoke Without Fire has a spicy Latin groove, but All Through Cryin says it all.
Hunter has arrived, and people are gonna talk.
Want to see Hunter?
Hell be performing Feb. 24 at Mo Pitkins in New York City, and hell be returning to Sullivan County for a WJFF fundraiser at the Nutshell in Lake Huntington on March 4.
The station has supported Hunter since giving him a chance for a warm-up gig a year and a half ago at the Hills in Callicoon Center and airing his music on the radio, the first in the country to do so.
For more information, visit www.jameshuntermusic.com.
People Gonna Talk will be released by GO Records and Rounder Records on March 7.