Pianist/vocalist Kelley Hunt speaks in an unhurried, no-pretenses manner, as if she's chatting with the girls down at the beauty shop. The personality of this native of Lawrence, Kansas, shines through tasty and sweet--and so does her music, which constitutes the freshest slant on classic R&B and boogie that you're likely to hear these days. She's a tough woman who makes a hip and burly sound.
"About five years ago I decided that whatever I was going to write or perform, it was going to be straight from the soul," she says. "I wasn't going to try to be anybody else. And that's kind of spooky. It's like you're standing out there going, `Yep. Here I am. This is it.' You open yourself up for a lot of criticism. But I feel better this way than to try and be somebody I'm not. And you know, at this point, that's a real comfortable thing for me."
This comment isn't a boast; it's a fact. Hunt may not have a following the size of, say, Melissa Etheridge, but she's already succeeded at defining her musical style and identity. She has taken control of her life in what she calls "a very Ms. magazine way."
Hunt's completely individual approach can be heard on her self-titled CD, issued this past summer on 88 Records, a small Lawrence-based label. The disc's cover art leaves a lot to be desired--it features Hunt, clad in a black dress, standing in the middle of a wheat field raising her arms as if testifying to the heavens. But the original songs inside this jewel box are wonderful, and they reflect higher production values than most indie releases. The platter was recorded in Los Angeles, with Mike Finnigan (best known as the longtime keyboardist for Crosby, Stills and Nash) producing. Finnigan also handled the Hammond B-3 organ during the sessions and is responsible for putting together a band filled with top-notch players. Among them: the Crusaders' Wilton Felder on tenor saxophone, Bonnie Raitt sideman Johnnie Lee Schell and Miles Joseph (who's toured with Aretha Franklin) on guitar, bassist Reggie McBride and percussionist Mark Williams, the son of super-conductor/composer John Williams.
The CD is so impressive that several major-label reps are now courting Hunt. It's about time: Hunt, now in her late thirties, has been paying her dues for nearly a quarter of a century. She credits her discovery to "being in the right spot at the right time." The spot was Lawrence, the time was the late Eighties, and the key to her future was her piano, which Finnigan borrowed for a gig.
"At the time, I was the only one in town who had one like the kind he needed," Hunt recalls. "My first thought was, `Oh, God, Mike Finnigan is going to play my piano. There will be good vibes all over it.' So I met him just briefly. But I was real bold, and I took him this little tape of me that I had. Looking back on it now, that was pretty crazy. It was just me singing--you know, piano and voice. Unbeknownst to me, he kept that tape and he listened to it. And a few years later, when my manager called him about me, he remembered who I was, and he even knew all the songs on it and everything. I was elated. I was stunned."
This upbeat development struck shortly after Hunt's marriage had fallen apart. "We had performed together for fifteen years," she says about her ex-husband. "We'd been together as a couple for fifteen years, too. But we just had different ideas on what we each wanted, and lots of stuff happened in there. And I realized I was going to be on my own. But in a way, it was a real good thing, because it kind of made me get my priorities together and made me realize that now is the time. Now it's my chance to go for it."
Finnigan's interest in her work gave Hunt the opportunity to record. But just prior to Hunt's departure for L.A., her working band broke up and her best friend, Susan Edwards Adderton, died of breast cancer. Hunt was devastated, but she didn't let these troubles stand in her way. The completed album is dedicated to Adderton, as well as to Mary Burke Norton, whom Hunt calls her first "serious" piano teacher.
Upon her return to Kansas, Hunt assembled a new touring group: guitarist Dan Bliss and drummer Pat Tomek, both of whom were part of the Kansas City music scene, and bassist Al Berman, who also serves as Hunt's manager. For her upcoming Colorado appearance, Finnigan is also scheduled to appear, and Hunt's modesty is such that she makes him seem like the star of the show. This is clearly not the case: Hunt will be in the spotlight, while her so-called discoverer has been cast in a supporting role. That's appropriate, since Hunt is more than capable of carrying the date on her own. Both literally and figuratively, she's not in Kansas anymore.
Live, Hunt is uncategorizable: She may work in some of the same genres as Raitt or Ruth Brown, but she manages not to ape them or anyone else. She's not sure how she manages to pull off this feat or even how to describe her music. "Oh, gosh," she hesitates, "I kind of see it as that old style of rocking rhythm and blues. And it's a little bit of a combination of some other things. I'm a huge R&B and soul fan. I think kind of through osmosis, that creeps in. And I think there's gospel, too--traditional, Southern-black gospel. And a little bit of almost like folk stuff, although that's probably the smallest element to it."
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For her lyrics, Hunt is influenced only by her own feelings. Consequently, many of her songs are imbued with an exploratory, touching tone that's extremely androgynous--meaning that both men and women can relate to them. Hunt's both pleased and surprised that she's developed a large following among women. Likewise, she's proud that her male fans tend to appreciate her because of her music and not simply because she's "a chick singer."
"The audience that usually comes out to see me is really diverse in age, race, sex and any kind of orientation," she continues. "I think that says something about how I present myself. I have to do what works for me. I had a comment not too long ago from a young woman during one of our breaks. I had noticed her standing by the stage all during the first set. And when I was walking into the dressing room, she talked to me for just a minute. She said, `I just wanted to tell you how nice it is to see a woman being strong.' Now, that was nice. It wasn't anything sexual, and it wasn't like I was this big symbol or anything. It was just a simple statement. But I do it my own way--and that meant something to her. What she said really felt important to me and showed me that people really do pay attention to what you do and just how it can affect somebody. I didn't realize it before. But it does."
The Kelley Hunt Band, with Mike Finnigan. 9 p.m. Saturday, November 19, Herman's Hideaway, 1578 South Broadway, 778-9916.