CODY CHESNUTT’S album, ‘Landing On A Hundred’, is fast becoming a word-of-mouth hit album with the LP’s opening cut, the testifying and righteous ‘Till I Met Thee, shaping up to become one of 2012’s genuine soul anthems. SJF recently caught up with the Atlanta-born singer/songwriter to find out more about his challenging work; but first we wanted to know about his musical roots and influences back home in Atlanta…..
I was born in 1968 in Atlanta and growing up in the 70s and 80s the music was still classic soul and funk. I can still hear Cameo booming out everywhere. But I liked all kinds of music –especially well-written pop but my family played everything from Motown to Parliament to Burt Bacharach. My father was also a big blues fan and he was particularly fond of Bobby Bland. Then by the 80s I was really getting into Michael Jackson and all his classic hits and albums. The whole Atlanta neo-soul thing hadn’t kicked off by then and anyway I was thinking of getting away.
Yes… you moved on out to Los Angeles. When was that and why did you go?
I moved to LA in the mid 90s. I just wanted to follow my musical dream…. just like so many others. I was just going in musical circles in Atlanta and I wanted to see if I could make things happen in the dream factory that is LA.
In LA you were in band called The Crosswalk… what were they like and why didn’t it happen with them?
The band was a self-contained four piece and we kind of mixed soul with indie rock and pop. We were trying to create something a little different. We did get signed to a label – Hollywood Records (a subsidiary of Disney, actually) but they didn’t really know what to do with us. We didn’t fit any of their pigeon holes and we were hard to market… so they just dropped us!
Your first solo album was ‘The Headphone Masterpiece’ –how did that come about?
After The Crosswalk broke up I had a desire to stop myself going insane. I knew I needed to keep this whole music thing going. I had lots and lots of ideas and needed to keep my head strong… keep the dream alive, if you like. I still had all the band’s equipment and instruments so I started to record myself…. on an old cassette deck actually. The music was burning inside me… I just couldn’t give up.
The album was espoused by the soul underground but didn’t get much further… how do you explain that?
Hard to explain really. I guess it was because the mainstream couldn’t process the sound quality – the fidelity of the actual recording. Like I said it was recorded on an old tape deck and you could hear all the machine sounds and so on. But, I think you know, The Roots went on to take one of the songs for their ‘Phrenology’ album and that helped raise my profile a little.
Then a period at home…. did that help you refocus your ideas?
Well I became a father in 2003 and I wanted to help out. Having a child and learning to be a father was all I wanted to do. I just needed to get some real life under my belt… and, you know, I never realized how hard being a good father and partner really is. You could say I became a housefather…. and it kept me grounded and focused. I now have two children – aged 9 and 3 and I’m so proud so say that I was there all the time helping to bring them up.
Now the new album… why did you decide to record it in Memphis and more specifically at the Royal Studios… what was it like using equipment that people like Al Green, Ann Peebles and Willie Mitchell had used?
Simple really. It’s hard to believe, but the Royal Studios offered the best recording rates and Memphis isn’t that far from my current home in North Florida. And yes, when I realized where we were going to cut the album I was very, very excited and when we walked into the place you could literally feel the atmosphere. Everything from the 60s and 70s was still in place and the owner and recording engineer Boo Mitchell (son of the legendary Willie Mitchell) took the time out to show us around. He showed us all the booths, the analogue equipment – even the old wooden Coca Cola box that Al Green used to stand on while singing. You know there was so much history and energy in that room. For the first half hour we just stood in awe… and to use the same microphone that Al Green had used for ‘Let’s Stay Together’ and ‘Love and Happiness’… well!
What was the motivation behind the album?
There are many things behind the album – but mainly I wanted to address some of the things that are currently troubling society and communities –national and local – and I wanted to express my ideas in the spirit of the music of the 60s and 70s.
So, are you politically active and/or a campaigner in any way?
No, not really but I am aware of all sorts of issues that impact on communities – be they international or local, and I just want to express my feelings about those things. You could say that I’m trying to shed a light onto some of the issues that currently affect society. I’m really for what serves people best – we need healthy communities –healthy in all ways. Politicians, well, they make big speeches and offer all kinds of promises but they rarely deliver. They’re like a circus coming out of the box and people get frustrated.
Would you say, then, that your work offers an optimistic or pessimistic view of society?
Oh, completely optimistic. The hope is there in the songs for us all to go forward and to move on.
One of the standouts on the album is the opener ‘Till I Met Thee’ – what kind of sound were you hoping for there and is the song about spiritual redemption or release through secular love?
I was trying to create something punchy but warm… you know the punch you feel in your chest when loving warmth hits you…. it’s uplifting. Secular or spiritual? Well, I guess I was trying to bring both elements together… get to the centre of real feeling. I wanted people to feel something larger and moving in that tune.
Redemption, a theme central to that song, also seems to be a recurring theme on the album…. is that a reflection on your own life… have you been “saved”?
Yes, I’ve been saved, absolutely… and what saved me was having children. The experience of having children saved me. It allowed me to be reborn…a spiritual resurrection if you would.
Another great song on the set is ‘Chips Down’ … what’s that one all about?
That particular song addresses many issues – but it’s chiefly about how we’ve allowed man made inventions and gadgets to take over our lives. In doing that we’ve lost something and need to get it back. Those gadgets are supposed to help but they bring stress, health problems and encourage a kind of social detachment. We need to get back to our humanity… lead simple lives. You know take time out to sit on a beach or under a tree and think humanly.
What do you hope to achieve with the album?
Just to get people to find something in it to help them find themselves again… let them live again and move on with their humanity in the best possible way.
… And what about the future?
That’s a hard one to call, especially with young children around. In truth I don’t think too much about the future. I try to live one day at a time. I just want a creative and healthy life with my family and hopefully continue to contribute to community life with my music.
CODY CHESNUTT’S ‘Landing On A Hundred’ is out now on 1 Little Indian Records. Go to our ‘reviews’ section for an in-depth look at the album.