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On ‘Beautiful Bones,’ Kelley Hunt taps into the roots of her passion for writing and performing

06/02/2014 4:52 PM

The title track to Kelley Hunt’s new recording, “The Beautiful Bones,” is an alliteration that alludes to her musical foundations.

“There are a lot of layers to that title,” Hunt told The Star recently, “and one of them is about me getting down to the bones that make up my influences as a writer, a singer and a piano player.”

“Bones,” Hunt’s sixth studio album, is a collection of songs that taps into and honors those many stylistic influences, she said. And in the process of honoring those traditions and expressing them with people she is familiar and comfortable with, Hunt discovered something within herself.

“It wasn’t something technical; it was emotional,” she said. “And it has changed the way I perform.”

That transformation began with the recording of the 12 songs on “Bones,” which, more than any of her previous records, honors the music she has always loved.

“I was very mindful of paying respect to some of the music I grew up with,” she said, “the styles that are present in my psyche: old-school funk and soul, that kind of roots/R&B Memphis-style soul and there are gospel references. I was very mindful of all that on this record.”

Hunt, a Kansas City native who lives in Lawrence, performs Saturday at the Granada. The show is a benefit for Just Food, a Douglas County food bank.

Hunt co-produced “Bones” with her husband and manager, Al Berman, at Sixteen Ton Studios in Nashville. To help capture the vibe she was looking for, she enlisted familiar faces to assist her: drummer Bryan Owings, who played on two previous recordings, “Gravity Loves You” and “Mercy”; Hammond B3 player Mark Jordan, who played on the same two recordings and has toured with Hunt; and bassist Tim Marks, who played on “Gravity.”

“Another thing I made a priority is who I was going to surround myself with,” she said. “The studio itself and the engineer at the board — those were important, but even more important were the musicians. That can make or break the studio experience. They’re with you for an extended time, so you want to make sure what they do is a good match for what you’re going for.”

What she was going for on “Bones” was an organic sound that captured the essence and intimacy of her live performances, a strength for someone who has been performing professionally since the 1980s.

“I record live as much as possible,” she said. “That has been my M.O. from the get-go. It allows me to feel the music. I’m so comfortable with live performance. I’ve been doing it for such a long time. My energy level is heightened. … A lot of cool things just happen spontaneously. That’s how I like it.

“When I listen to a record, I like to feel like it’s an intimate experience with the artist, like I might even be in the room with them. I want people to hear when someone takes a breath or the sound from a fretboard on the guitar. It may not be perfect, but it’s real.”

Several tracks on “Bones” include horns arranged by Mitch Reilly, and three include background vocals by the McCrary Sisters — Regina, Alfreda and Ann — daughters of Sam McCrary, founder of the gospel troupe the Fairfield Four.

Lyrically, “Bones” is filled with themes of salvation, redemption and hope, though there’s also a strident political message in the rollicking and effervescent “I’ve Got a Good Feeling.” Hunt said any overlapping lyrical themes that emerged were not by design.

“Honestly, I think that many times as songwriters we aren’t aware of what’s happening,” she said. “There’s this stream of things going on, and it all kind of happens naturally. But it became apparent as we picked material that some of the lyrics fit together well or had a commonality, thematically.

“It’s hard not to fold some of your own experiences into your lyrics so you can speak authentically about something, but it’s rare that I’m describing a specific, personal story. A lot of songs I love from other songwriters tell a universal story you can relate to yourself.”

Though “Bones” taps into the familiar sounds and styles that influenced her own music and though she recorded it mostly with musicians who are also friends, Hunt said the process became revelatory and changed the way she sings. And the catalyst, she said, was Berman and their co-production work.

“Al and I have different strengths when it comes to co-producing,” she said. “We’ve done so much work together we’re pretty much on the same page, but he also has my back.”

On the track “Release and Be Free,” however, they weren’t on the same page.

“But it became a challenge for me to quit thinking so much and give myself over to the emotional performance,” she said. “I felt like I’d nailed the vocals, but Al said, ‘You’re not quite there. I think you’ve got more. That might fly for some people, but you have more.’

“I thought I had it. I thought I was ‘there.’ But you know what? I wasn’t. And I didn’t recognize it. And he did. And then I quit thinking about it and I allowed myself to get ‘there,’ to that place I needed to be. And a light bulb went on. And now I’m able to translate that to live performances.

“I’d been there before or close to it. But now I have a much better feel for it and understanding of it. I heard it the first time I listened to the record. And I’m really happy about it.’

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com.

Saturday

Kelley Hunt will perform outside the Granada theater, 1028 Massachusetts St. in Lawrence, starting at 7 p.m. Saturday. The show is a benefit for Just Food, a Douglas County food bank. Advance tickets are $20 at www.thegranada.com. It’s an all-ages show.

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