“Lord I’m not turning back.”
from Everybody’s Brother
It doesn't usually happen this way. Soul geniuses that succumb to the extremes of artistic acclaim, namely drug addiction & shagging groupies, don’t usually live to see the seeds of their loins grow to be young men & women - whether the Lord has their back or not.
But bedroom slop-god turned devout family man, Cody Chesnutt may have ensured he gets to do just that, by opting for a new way of life and lyrical expression, right on time to deliver another classic with his new album Landing On A Hundred.
Following the graphic and explicitly honest, 36 song epic The Headphone Masterpiece - with the lyrics from his own song Somebody’s Parent still ringing in his ears: “Oh honey forgive me for being the dick that I’ve been to the children and you” - Chesnutt stripped off his leather vines, resisted his main vices (substance abuse and womanizing) and washed his mouth out with soap and water. Moving his family from Los Angeles to Florida, Chesnutt the artist – not including the brilliant, disgustingly under promoted BlackSkin No Value EP and the odd internet freebie – has seldom been heard in the decade since his groundbreaking debut. So why return now?
“The next wave of consciousness is going to need a soundtrack and I really want to be a part of that.” Explains Chesnutt, who’s speaking from his home, situated several cornfields away from Florida capital Tallahassee. His welcoming & friendly tone, suggests he might have left the trademark Vietnam Vet combat helmet on the hat stand.
“I think soul is the unique music that can bring balance to all the chaos that’s in the air right now,” says Chesnutt, whose Black Skin No Value EP, albeit on a smaller budget, had already suggested the new, overtly soulful direction. Two of the standout songs from the Black Skin No Value EP, (the stunning, confessional Everybody’s Brother and proto-funk of Where Is All The Money Going?) have been reworked for Landing On A Hundred, at the suggestion of album producer Patrice Bart-Williams (as a hit-making artist under the name Patrice, he’s on first name terms with the whole of Germany).
“I see Black Skin as a bridge from Headphone Masterpiece to Landing On A Hundred. As a person, I was in a different headspace, different spirit when I made The Headphone Masterpiece but I still wanted this record to be as accurate in terms of how I’m living today and who I am as a forty-two year old man.”
Chesnutt was so determined to sprinkle Landing On A Hundred with authentic soul magic that he led his nine piece band of musicians, mostly plucked from the local neighbourhood church, to the hallowed halls of Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studio’s in Memphis, where Al Green & OV Wright once created Hi-Records classics.
“As Cody’s producer I told him ‘you need to let me drive (to Memphis)’” explains Patrice, “’it’s a long journey, so you need to rest up’ but he was like ‘no, no … hey Patrice, don’t worry, I got it.’”
Once the red light was on Chesnutt’s Les Paul no longer aped the riffs of Chuck Berry’s ding-a-ling, instead laying down wholesome funk brothers hopscotch funk licks. The vocals too, charming as they were naïve, concerned more with feel over pitching the perfect note on The Headphone Masterpiece, have been replaced by a more considered, ‘school of gospel’ strive for perfection with Landing On A Hundred.
“The album starts with Till I Met Thee, which is my Road to Damascus,” says Chesnutt “going from The Headphone Masterpiece to The Roots (who included Chesnutt’s The Seed 2.0 on their mahoosive Phrenology set) and my personal transition as a man. How I came to the country, searching for the next phase of what my life would be, to being a father. It’s extremely demanding to be a parent, and I just wanted to be that — I just wanted to be there, and I knew that there was really no alternative and it wasn’t even a second thought. It was like, ‘Okay, this is the most important thing.’ You’re never going to experience these days again, so you really need to try to be there as much as you can. So I really just walked away from a lot of what was going on in the industry, what was expected of me as an artist. So I could be there for my kid. That part of the human experience I could never get back if I was out on the road for two hundred dates and constantly in and out of studios all night long.”
Did the heavy guitar sound on Headphone Masterpiece - the slop and rock influences - conflict with the soulful intention for Landing On A Hundred?
“There is no Upstarts in a Blowout approach, but there are guitar licks. Till I Met Thee is all guitar lick, it’s a very Motown-esque riff, which I didn’t think about until I started listening back to the song and I was like, ‘Wow, this has got early Jackson 5 elements to it.’ The way those rhythms would cut through a song like I Want You Back. It fits right in the pocket. I think the Motown body of work was a huge influence on this album; Donny Hathaway and all the soul greats are definitely spiritually present in this record.”
“He refuses to sing those old songs,” adds Patrice, “even though most people ask for them, he’s taking a stand on how he wants to be perceived with his new music.”
Chesnutt took a stand on how he wanted to be perceived with the old stuff as well. Reportedly turning down a million dollar major label contract to ensure the integrity of his music was intact. Even with a sure-fire winner like Looks Good In Leather (used most recently in an Axe deodorant advert) on the sampler, the majors still wanted to get their fingers and thumbs into the pie.
“After the debacle that was The Crosswalk (*a band Chesnutt fronted in the late 90’s, named after the pelican crossing from Abbey Road) and my being dropped from Hollywood Records having put in all that time into recording the unreleased Venus Loves A Melody record , I became bitter and jaded and didn’t want to be let down so heavily again. So yes, the independent route was definitely more appealing, and it turned out to be a great move, because I didn’t realize at the time the new direction music promotion was heading in. So then when The Headphone Masterpiece was ready my management (cousin Donray) and I felt like we really had something special and that with the right backing we could take it a little further. So yeah, the numbers offered did get that high (a million dollars). But they wanted us to change the album and re-record it. We didn’t want to change the (lo-fi) recording experience, because that would have killed the story. I think a lot of the appeal of Headphone Masterpiece is that it was recorded in the bedroom, and the whole headache and spontaneous approach is what really touched a lot of people. So there was much more to it than just getting signed.”
Landing On A Hundred, released via One Little Indian in the UK, may not have a Parental Advisory sticker but that doesn’t mean Chesnutt’s pulling his punches. First single That’s StillMama brilliantly retrieves the percussive funky soul from the clutches of hip hop and has Uncle Chesnutt bollocking his nephew, for disrespecting his mother. “Once a baby/you couldn’t clean your backside” he sings to the sheepish nitwit.
But the most personal song for Chesnutt concerns his missus; mum to his two children.
“I’ve been married seventeen years, and Love Is More Than a Wedding Day talks about the real love that transcends all the shallow things on the surface of a wedding ceremony. Anyone that’s been with their partner for a long time can attest to the day-in day-out work that it takes to maintain a relationship. It’s just much bigger than everything that whole ceremony is supposed to represent. The song actually brought me to tears a couple of times on the playback in the studio when we were listening to the initial track. Because I wrote it on acoustic guitar, and to see it all come to fruition with the strings and the whole nine just touched me to my core. I always play the music for my wife who’s not in the industry so has an uncluttered opinion and she really liked that one.”
So what did the wife make of some of the more risqué moments on The Headphone Masterpiece? Songs such as My Women, My Guitars and Bitch I’m Broke (which includes the lyric ‘I got a big black dick and that’s all you’re gonna get …. bitch I’m broke’).
“Yeeehh,” Cody laughs “she kinda looked at me with a crazy look in her eye and said ‘I don’t know about that one.’ I told her I just wanted to capture the spontaneity of the imagination in the psyche.”
“She was like, ‘Okay…’ It was a little awkward.”
Despite the consequences, the honesty in Chesnutt’s art comes first. Indeed that’s what the title means, its hip hop for not telling porkies. “In the vernacular of hip-hop, when somebody says ‘keeping it one hundred’ that’s another way of saying ‘keeping it real.’ So this experience, this body of work is an instance of me landing on something that’s truthful … landing on a truth.”
Originally written April 2012, coming to a Manifesto Magazine near you