Interview: Cody ChesnuTT

Sharon O'Connell

By Sharon O'Connell

on 10.30.12 in Interviews

Ten years is an eternity in the music business. So it might seem that any artist that chooses to reintroduce himself a decade on, with an album that sounds radically different from the one that made his name, is either reckless or delusional. But singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Cody ChesnuTT is neither. He’s simply intent on letting his career play out in its own time, no hustle and no hype.

The Atlanta, Georgia, native first made a splash back in 2002 with his debut LP, The Headphone Masterpiece. Entirely home-recorded, it was a raw, sprawling, lo-fi mix of contemporary hip-hop, ’60s psychedelic pop and ’70s soul and R&B that had many proclaiming ChesnuTT “the new Prince.” A reworking by The Roots of his track “The Seed” that same year blasted him further into the cult stratosphere, but then – 2010′s “Black Skin No Value” EP aside – silence.

Now, he’s back with Landing On A Hundred, an uplifting set of brass-blasted, socially conscious R&B and retro soul songs cast in the mould of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Al Green, that apply a little socio-political topspin to ChesnuTT’s personal tales.

eMusic’s Sharon O’Connell caught up with ChesnuTT to talk about being a father and keeping his faith.

What have you been doing for the past decade?

I was just trying to get some life under my belt, really. I have two children now – nine and three – and getting to know my older son first was a whole new experience. I wanted to get a better understanding of what that whole process was about, and really take it in, without missing any of those special moments.

Were you worried about being totally forgotten, after all these years?

I wanted to challenge the notion that you have to put your family aside to go out there and remain musically relevant. I believe if the material is strong enough and there’s a sincere component to it, then it will find its place again within the audience, so that’s the approach I took. I just wanted to live – although I didn’t know it was going to take 10 years! But my son’s first day at school was more important than being off somewhere, banging away on a guitar.

Landing On A Hundred has a classic, ’70s soul vibe – why were you drawn to that?

When you listen to those old-school records, they feel a certain way, and it’s that feeling that enables you to digest the lyrical content. I wanted to recreate that feeling so that as a listener, you’re in that space and can focus on what’s happening lyrically and sonically. I think that’s why people still go back and buy those records, even if they’re in their 20s and 30s – because of the comfort they provide. They fall around you like an old garment.

Why did you opt to record the rhythm section and horns at Royal Studios in Memphis?

Really, we were just looking for the studio that had the best rates for analog tape! But when we walked into the place, we were all just overwhelmed by it, and it kind of centered everybody. Everybody aligned themselves with the vibe in the room and just went for it. The engineer was Boo Mitchell, son of Willie Mitchell, who produced and arranged all those classic soul guys. There’s an old radio mic with the number nine written on it – it’s the one Al Green always used, so it’s on “Let’s Stay Together” and “Love and Happiness” – so it was highly complimentary of Boo to even think that my voice was worth capturing in that way. It was very inspiring.

What was your main aim in making Landing On A Hundred?

I wanted to make something that transcended religion and ideology. I wanted a record that just said, “This is humanity” and was open enough so that it resonated with me.

Was the process cathartic, or were you simply creating characters?

All of it was cathartic. And a strong percentage of it is autobiographical. I didn’t feel compelled to make people think that I was the same guy from The Headphone Masterpiece. I was in the frame of mind where I thought I could really speak about all the things that are important to me now, so the songs have a coherency. I was looking for something that fed me in a genuine way again and so I had to sort out real issues – things that I lived every day – and find a way to bring that to the songs.

The subject matter of “Everybody’s Brother” is quite heavy. How autobiographical is it?

I have never smoked crack in my life, but I have two uncles who have been battling with it for more than a decade. That’s why I titled it “Everybody’s Brother,” because everybody can relate to one of these characters, or may know somebody who has had that experience. I’ve seen people swindle and be dishonest, in my community and elsewhere. The womanizing? That is me – hands down. I’m not proud of it, and I hurt too many people in the process. But it was my own selfishness and clouded thinking at the time.

What’s with the soldier’s helmet you wear onstage?

At this point in time, I’m fighting for things that are really important to me, so it’s symbolic of a soldier, fighting on the frontline. Fighting for light in a dark space…