You're beautiful, US tells James...

... that's Hunter, not Blunt. He's a busker who used to live in a field, but he's about to conquer the American charts
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The Independent Culture

Two years ago James Hunter was busking in London, mixing with crack addicts and taking on labouring jobs. At the age of 41, the rhythm and blues guitarist's dreams of a music career seemed dead.

Today, Hunter will discover where his new album will chart in the United States amid predictions that he will eclipse the efforts of other stars who have tried - and failed - to conquer America. He has received glowing reviews from The New York Times and Boston Globe, and last Wednesday appeared on NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

His voice has been compared to that of James Brown and Sam Cooke, while Van Morrison - whom Hunter has played with - has described him as "one of the best voices, and best kept secrets, in British R'n'B and soul".

He is riding a wave of British singer-songwriters taking the US by storm. James Blunt became the first Briton in nine years to reach number one in the US Billboard charts last month and KT Tunstall, winner of best female artist at last month's Brits, is also riding high in the charts.

It has been an unexpected rise for Hunter, now 43, who grew up in a caravan in an onion field outside Colchester. He has spent the past 20 years playing his brand of rhythm and blues in clubs in London. During the 1990s he was introduced to Van Morrison and toured with him as a backing singer. But until now, Hunter has never had a breakthrough.

Hunter is remarkably sanguine. "If I had got very well known 20 years ago I would have had to spend the next 20 years trying to live it down. My writing has come along a lot since then and my singing is better as well. I have always been on the edge of something happening. I never had that feeling of 'oh, it's all behind me'."

But two years ago it seemed it was. "I went through a particularly skint time. I was forced to do labouring jobs through an agency. It was terrible. I discovered that busking was better. The hours were more sociable; the pay was better and the crack addicts were far better company."

Everything changed for Hunter when his long-time friend Steve Erdman and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guise, set up a record company in 2003. Erdman had first spotted Hunter when he was busking in Camden some 20 years ago. "The sole purpose of the company was getting me recorded," Hunter said. "It was extraordinarily nice of them."

Once the album was recorded, Hunter's next problem was distribution. "Most people's objection was that I was in my 40s," Hunter said. "There was nothing I could really do about that." Eventually, Rounder Records, a large independent label in the United States, decided they liked what they heard.

Hunter has spent the past three months playing clubs in New York and promoting the album, People Gonna Talk, which has reached No 13 in the chart. He will spend a further three months touring the US before returning to Britain for a nationwide tour in July. People Gonna Talk will also be released here.

"I have never been that anxious about my standing in the music pecking order, but it is all getting quite high profile now," he said.

Top of the Pops: How James (Blunt) won the West

The former public schoolboy and army captain James Blunt is the first Briton in nine years to have a number one single in the United States.

His album, 'Back to Bedlam', has spent 22 weeks in the US charts, peaking at number five. It has sold six million copies worldwide, and spent nine weeks at number one in the UK.

Blunt's success has not met with universal acclaim. When Paul Weller was asked whether he would perform with Blunt at this year's Brit awards, the former Jam frontman replied: "I would rather eat my own shit."