In 2003, then-breaking artist Cody ChesnuTT moved from Atlanta to Tallahassee and receded from the spotlight. He and his wife were expecting their first child, and he realized that he could no longer act the arrogant virtuoso that he once was — even though his debut, The Headphone Masterpiece, was starting to gain attention. “I really wanted to open myself up to a completely different life,” ChesnuTT says. “I had been really preoccupied with just doing music, in my own space, being selfish in that way. It was about me, me, me.”
Masterpiece was 36 sketches of songs that ChesnuTT refused to flesh out or censor; he flitted from genre to genre, as he cast out one reference to his dick after another in his four-track recordings. ChesnuTT’s most talked-about song — at least, before the Roots revamped “The Seed” — was “Bitch, I’m Broke.” Now 10 years later, ChesnuTT answers to the expectations he created via Masterpiece with the far more succinct Landing on a Hundred, out last week.
The golden-voiced ChesnuTT, now 43, was inspired by Billie Holiday and Sam Cooke, though he sounds much like Marvin Gaye. He leads a 10-piece band through these blues, soul and ragtime-inspired critiques, though whether he’s asking more of himself (his triumphant love letter “That’s Still Mama”) or others (the bouncy, handclap-driven “Where Is All the Money Going”), he sounds humbled throughout — as in the moment Landing starts, when he sings, “I was a dead man/ I was asleep.”
ChesnuTT spoke with Hive during his recent trip to Paris about the books and music that informed Landing, recording inside Al Green’s studio and his two kids.
How does it feel to release your first record in 10 years?
Well, it feel fantastic. There wasn’t a specific amount of time set aside for the release. We didn’t plan on taking this long, but I knew I wanted to have a body of work that really reflected where I was in my life. I have two children now, so with that comes a whole different world, and I really took it day by day. I didn’t want to force the process or chase after anything, out of fear of being gone too long. I just wanted to capture music that felt real and relevant to me, and it just happened to take 10 years.
Did you face pressure from anyone in the industry to come out with music sooner?
It wasn’t overwhelming pressure. It was mostly just conversation with peers: “You missed an opportunity, man,” or, “You could be out doing this.” It wasn’t in my heart to be out there at that time. I was really that cool and content with where I was. I was cool with getting to know my son; I was cool with getting to know me and what fatherhood is all about, a new experience that the music business couldn’t compare to.
I’ll tell you a great story: I was in London to do a pretty big show, and for some reason I felt like I had to call home and talk to my wife about something. But when I called, she was in the hospital for her blood pressure. My wife has always been very fragile come pregnancy, so she was in the hospital, and doctors said they may have had to deliver the baby that night. Instantly I told my manager, “Book my flight.” The show was that night, but my wife is about to have this kid, and I will never witness the birth of my son again. That mentality prepared me to make that kind of commitment and toughen up early on, when people really started saying, “Oh, you should get out there.” I was committed to getting to know my child, and not just be a stranger coming back home from the road for a couple days. [Fatherhood] is a huge demand, but a beautiful one if you’re open to it.
What are your kids like?
My son, he’s like me in a lot of ways. He’s open-hearted, very trusting, very hyper — non-stop energy. My daughter, she’s a bit more on the bossy side. She’s very assertive in a lot of ways; she’s bossing me around in the house. They’re both very loving kids, and they’re both very creative. My daughter is a pretty talented visual artist. She was working on some kind of drawing one day, and my son said, “Oh, you’re going to be an artist,” and she seemed to respond to that. Now, she’s always creating something and showing it to him. My son plays guitar — well, he doesn’t play guitar, but he likes to play a few chords.
You grew up in a music-loving family, right?
I was completely surrounded by music, wherever I was. My uncles still are extremely passionate about music, and they took me under their wing at a very early age — like, five or six — and just sat me down when they played their records. I remember watching them point to their favorite part and say, “Oh, listen to this.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but they were teaching me to how to respond, or what to to look for in the listening experience. I find myself now doing exactly what they do. I gotta feel the music. So if I finish a song and it doesn’t make me feel a certain way, then I feel like I’ve fallen short of the mark.
When talking about Landing on a Hundred, you’ve brought up Billie Holiday and Sam Cooke. How does their music make you feel?
I discovered Billie Holiday late in life. My uncle gave me like five CDs of hers, which I’ve unfortunately misplaced somewhere. I always heard of her when I was younger, but some things you just really can’t connect with or understand until you live a little. What I learned from her is, you have to really tap into the purest part of your heart in order to be able to communicate by song. That’s why she resonated with a lot of people: You felt the story, you felt the characters, and the way she used her voice caused you to move along with each inflection. She took you up, she took you down, she took you sideways.
“There’s a general feeling all over the planet, a transition happening globally, and there’s a desire — even though the mainstream is dominated by disposable pop — for something more substantial.”
There are very few people who can deliver a song like Sam Cooke and have that finesse in his delivery and lyrics. He would take a lyric, and bend it, and twist it, and lay it in your lap like such a way — like,”Yeah, of course. It couldn’t have been any other way.” I don’t think he gets enough credit for being a good songwriter. Most people say, “Sam Cooke — oh my gosh, he is an amazing vocalist,” but he was also a prolific songwriter. I learned from him that you can touch on complex issues and still make them accessible.
How would you sum up what you’ve done and learned over the past decade?
I would read passionately through a lot of books, because I never really read a lot. I was interested in the ideas and thoughts, and I was trying to find a common thread in all that I read. It always came back to what’s possible with the mind and how to apply those possibilities. One of the great quotes that stuck with me, from [Ralph Waldo Emerson's] Representative Men, stated the universe arranges itself anew to each person. Being out in the country, I had a lot of time to stand out in the forest, which I would do often to just strip myself of ego, the world and everything. I would think about that quote a lot while taking in what was in front of me, trees and whatnot, and think about arranging what’s before you, in the way that fits your own reality. That give me the confidence to move forward with what I was doing. I didn’t have to succumb to any demand or pressure; I can arrange this life and reality, and it was okay to make that arrangement.
I definitely thought that if I was going to grow as a human or artist, I had to be open. I don’t have any issues with being 43 and talking about things that are relevant to me right now, and at 43, I have no desire to be in a state of arrested development or appeal to a certain demographic.
In 2006, you released an EP and said that Landing on a Hundred would come out later that year. Why the delay?
Well, I think you may be talking The Live Release that came out around 2006. I was never interested in making a record out of that; I was actually releasing it live and playing it as a one-man show, as something I needed to get off my chest. It was transition work, trying to get to Landing on a Hundred. Landing on a Hundred took about five years. In that latter part of 2006, ideas started coming. I would be mowing the lawn, or washing dishes, or just listening to a conversation, and then lyrics or certain melodies would come. Some things came faster than others, but I just really took my time with it. I really wanted [the album] to line up with the times, so I approached it with a lot of patience. I feel like right now was the perfect time for it. There’s a general feeling all over the planet, a transition happening globally, and there’s a desire — even though the mainstream is dominated by disposable pop — for something more substantial.
Why the studio treatment and the backing band?
Simply, I wanted to expand upon the album’s ideas. I hear a lot of music in my head, and I really wanted to get that out. Like I was saying before, my uncles are huge fans of all the great music with lush production and orchestration, strings and horns, and I grew up to love that kind of work as well. I wanted this body of work to have different embellishments and colors, and I just couldn’t get that all on a four-track or my eight-track. Now, my writing process has not changed –to me, it’s still about the song, microphone, guitar and something to document it — but I just wanted to dress the song in a way that I imagined it and give it some more color and energy.
What was it like to record in Royal Studios?
It was great. It wasn’t intentional; we were looking for the most affordable studio with analog tape, because I wanted to record this with the warmth and punch that you get from using tape rather than digital. So one of the producers I worked with, Patrice, flew over from Cologne, Germany and tried to find the best studio for the buck. It just so happened, Memphis had the best rates compared to New York and Atlanta.
When everyone first got there, we went to the Lorraine Motel [home of the National Civil Rights Museum, where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated]. I thought it would be great to bring the guys there, just to put us in the right perspective, spiritually, for the record. Then we went to Royal Studios. It’s a very small building, very unassuming, and it literally felt as if we were walking into history. Everybody seemed to be taken aback by it, because this is the place where the great records were made, the ones we grew up with as children — and all of a sudden, we had busted right into the place where it was done.
So everybody took that energy and spirit in the place and transferred it to the performance of Landing on a Hundred. We used a lot of the exact same recording gear that was used on all the great soul classics that came out of there. We knew we were a part of history, and we wanted to have a performance that would be representative of the records that were produced there before ours.
It’s crazy that you used even a lot of the same equipment.
A lot of these groups had recorded with [owner] Willie Mitchell; he was the the man who recorded Al Green. He’s no longer with us — he passed a few years ago — but his son, Boo Mitchell, is running the studio now. He told us a lot of history about the studio, and he showed us — have you ever heard the song “Love and Happiness”? The very beginning — we listened to it again, and there were some foot taps; [Al Green] was counting off the song, and Boo showed us exactly where Al was when he did that. There was a special microphone Al would use all the time, an old RCA microphone with the number nine written on it, which is the microphone that he used for “Love and Happiness” and “Let’s Stay Together.” [Boo] thought enough of my voice to bring the microphone out and let me sing on it, and everyone was blown seeing that, the microphone.
Landing on a Hundred is out now on Vibration Vineyard.