As an artist whose career began with crafting lyrics such as “Kan iemand dalk ‘n god bel / En vir hom sê ons het hom nie meer nodig nie?” for the iconic and controversial Afrikaans rock band, Fokofpolisiekar, Hunter Kennedy has established himself as one of the most revered songwriters in South African rock and pop music through his knack for eloquently expressing and interrogating the overarching feeling of existential dread felt by most people of his generation.
WORDS: Dan Charles
PHOTOGRAPHY: Jaco S Venter
Hunter is no stranger to aggressively confronting existentialism in his songs while interrogating the more pessimistic notions of spirituality and purpose. After writing with and for some of the most celebrated frontmen in the country (Fokofpolisiekar, Francois Van Coke, Die Heuwels Fantasties, aKING) for more than half of his life, Hunter is currently in the process of recording and releasing his debut album as a solo artist.
Despite being known as a prominent Afrikaans lyricist, the album will consist of songs that Hunter has been writing over the past few years in English that he did not know what to do with before deciding to release them on his own accord. Although hearing Hunter’s lyrics in English may seem unfamiliar to most of his following, his insight into existential quandary found in much of his previous work is still as clear and consistent as ever.
Hunter’s debut single, “Parasite”, is a ‘90s influenced hip-hop inflected alt-rock song that neatly packages all of Hunter’s strongest qualities as a songwriter in just under three minutes.
“Parasite” manages to marry the slick and accessible song production of Hunter’s work with acts such as Die Heuwels Fantasties along with the lyrical angst and provocation of early Fokofpolisiekar. Although “Parasite” carries Hunter’s signature disdain for organised religion, the crux of the song is an examination of Hunter himself:
“My greatest fear is to be a burden. As humans, we don’t really fit into the circle of life, yet we don’t act like guests, we act like spoiled brats. I have had a fascination with spirituality from a young age, leading me to join a somewhat cultish-Christian Evangelical church in my teens, and subsequently leaving the church when things stopped making sense to me. It’s funny to me that most religions promote good behaviour, altruism and kindness yet somehow - through dogma, doctrine and tribalism - it tends to, in my view, have the opposite effect. No matter what your creed, I think it’s common sense to at least try and be kind. I guess “Parasite” is a personal oath to try and be a better earthling (not exactly sure what that means yet) and God, strike me down if I become a pestilence instead of a contribution!”
Embarking on a solo project this late into an already well-established career is incredibly exciting! What made you decide to start releasing these songs now?
It is exciting! Also very stressful. I am turning forty this year and, by all measures, it is a terrible age to start a solo career. The songs are also all in English (which seems a bit counterintuitive since I’ve mostly worked with Afrikaans artists). So, I mean, the odds are stacked against me and I guess that makes it perfect. These songs started cropping up a few years ago. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them, but with the help of my friends’ support, I decided to just release it on my own. I don’t really have a solid plan or expectation, but there is more coming out and I am excited for people to hear it. Can’t let the songs just die in the dark corners of someone’s hard drive. They are also maybe a bit too weird for other people to perform, so I’ll just do it myself! I have started singing a bit more and featuring on other artists’ tracks over the last couple of years. I think I was building up the confidence to try it out all on my ace. But it isn’t really all on my own! I am receiving so much help and guidance from my fellow artists and friends that it doesn’t really feel like I am doing it alone. Fred Den Hartog (producer), Dolf Willemse (producer), Johnny De Ridder (producer), Pierre Greeff (vocalist, manager), Francois Van Coke (solo artist), Valkie Van Coke (bassist, manager) Jaco Snake Venter (drummer and director), Heinrich Laubscher (director), Heno Van Halen (bassist, vocalist) to name but a few! I just take the heat if it fails. Which is fine.
I always find it interesting to see established artists, whose work we’ve seen mature and refine over time, return back to the roots of where their journeys began. Hearing an alt-rock/pop-punk-inspired song written in English from you is almost reminiscent of your early band New World Inside. Did you find yourself reflecting on that stage of your career while you were writing this song? What would a younger Hunter Kennedy think of a song like “Parasite”?
Whoa! Interesting thought. I think he would think I’m fat! But yeah, I think I would’ve dug it? Although at that stage I was JUST listening to Pop-Punk. But “Parasite” reminds me a bit of the earlier, 90’s stuff I used to listen to; Beck’s “Loser” and Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper”. So yeah, I think I would’ve dug it. I did not really reflect on that time, to be honest. I think I blocked it out.
As someone who has written for some of the most prominent singers in contemporary Afrikaans music, how does it feel to sing your own songs and have them be re-leased under your own name?
It is scary! In a band, the focus is not on the individual, and when you write for someone else, the job is done when the song is done. This exercise has given me a little insight into the emotional fortitude a solo artist must possess to traverse the unforgiving landscape which is the music industry. But except for the fear of failure, it is quite exhilarating. There is definitely a euphoria associated with release day. It felt like my birthday! I don’t expect the same kind of reception for the rest of my releases, as it could be chalked up to curiosity, but I could get used to this.
Apart from the obvious difference in language, what separates the songs from this upcoming album from songs that you would have written for any of your other bands? Was there a notable difference in process?
Mmm… I think the subject matter is a lot more personal. It’s just my inner monologue rambling. These songs started on acoustic guitar. I haven’t written like that for a while. Also, I am free to genrehop as much as I want, and I encourage the producers to go a bit wilder than usual! My brand hasn’t really been established and I would like to go weirder and weirder.
In the press release that you sent through, you said that you started writing these songs a few years ago. Were these songs written prepandemic? If so, did the period of forced isolation and the general halt of the music industry affect your writing in any way?
Yeah, there are about 8 songs at the moment in different phases of production. About half of them were written prepandemic. The pandemic conditions actually gave me some time to focus on this project. In a way, I guess the idle time the forced lockdown afforded me is to thank for this endeavour.
Were you surprised to discover that the songs that you were writing were coming out in English as opposed to your wellrevered brand of progressive Afrikaans lyricism? Have you noticed a consistency of themes within these songs?
Yes, I was surprised as there was no vehicle to release them through. No point, really. I mean it felt quite futile, but the lyrics and music kept coming out, so I went with it. I thought maybe this is a divine nudge. Yeah, I think the themes are similar. It is a culmination of all the things I spend my time thinking about. Death, ancient civilisations, substance abuse, the nature of reality, my constant existential crisis. I wonder sometimes whether English-speaking folk would find my syntax strange, but it’s all good.
The decision to work on a series of songs written in English for your debut solo al-bum is an
interesting one. Was this decision partially made to distinguish yourself from the bands that you’re so closely affiliated with or was this simply an opportunity to express yourself using a vernacular that people aren’t used to hearing you use within your music? Do you think that there might be a bit of backlash from some of your loyal Afrikaans-speaking fanbase?
I understand that it is a little counterintuitive for me to release an English language album. I feel like an acoustic kind of Afrikaans poetry thing would probably be the most expected. There are always gonna be haters. God bless them. But to tell you the truth I don’t expect a backlash. I feel it is too insignificant to really get angered by something like this. And the Afrikaans bands are still carrying on. It is incidental, but I also feel that another Afrikaans project from me might just be more of the same thing. So, I am grateful for being able to get a chance to express myself in a different arena.
Were there any artists or albums in particular that you were listening to while you were writing these songs that may have helped inform this new phase of your career?
Most definitely! One of my favourite comedians Tim Heidecker released a solo project during lockdown and I was really inspired by his song “Nothing”. I feel we share the same attitude towards the big questions. I listened to “Glow On” by Turnstile which I feel might impact my creative decisions on the next album. I listen to a lot of genres. Harry Belafonte, Slayer, Sadé, Queen, Run The Jewels, Hall & Oates, Propagandhi. It’s a fun mess inside my head.
We seem to be in the midst of a resurgence of rock and punk-inspired music within the culture at the moment, which may just be the sonic repercussion of the violent and turbulent times that we currently live in. As one of the most esteemed veterans of such genres in this country, what is your take on this current shift? Do you find it inspiring in any way? Does this mean that the world needs more of the likes of Hunter Kennedy than ever before?
I listened to The Offspring’s “Smash” recently and I have to say I felt like that kind of energy is coming back. I like music to be cathartic. I think there is a need for that, yes. There is always a need for that. Grunge, in my mind, was a reaction to the squeaky clean pop of the ‘80s and a festering unease with the suburban dream. Whether I am the one for you, I doubt it. You probably won’t like it.
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