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INTERVIEW: Cody ChesnuTT
Neil Macdonald , March 18th, 2013 11:18

In advance of his sold out set at Bush Hall tonight, we talk to the soul musician about his excellent second album, Landing On A Hundred, fatherhood and recording in Al Green's studio

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In these end-of-album-days, the commodification of music has, if anything, drawn more attention to full-length releases than would have recently been bestowed upon them, an extra significance lent to them aside the knowledge that an album is a considerable commitment for a label and an artist to spend time upon. With time itself moving faster than ever, the pressure to write and rush-release a digital hit (usually perched atop a pile of steaming remixes) is ever present in 2013 and thus the album, especially one un-backed by label marketing, is becoming something of an antiquated novelty.

In the ten years that have passed since the release of Cody ChesnuTT's 2002 debut, The Headphone Masterpiece, there isn't much in music that has gone unchanged. The speed with which artists spin through the revolving door of taste, the money labels will spend on recording and the amount of promotion afforded to non-chart artists have all been altered unrecognisably, and so it isn't often we find an individual prepared to make music on his own terms - and to take his time about it.

Landing On A Hundred, ChesnuTT's Kickstarter-funded second record released last year, is an album at least ten years in the making, taking in industry shake-ups, ChesnuTT's hit single with The Roots, 'The Seed (2.0)' and fatherhood on the way. Have a watch of the video for his new single ''Til I Met Thee', released today via Vibration Vineyard/One Little Indian Records below:

Lazily (and inaccurately) described elsewhere as 'neo-soul', this is perfect, timeless soul music from the mind of a talent that truly understands the history and the preciousness of the genre. Recorded in Royal Studios in Memphis with a ten-piece band, this is the realest, rawest album of soul music in a long time.

It's been a decade since your last album. What have you been doing?

Cody ChesnuTT: It was really a matter of just living life, you know? I became a father, and had two children, so that's quite a change in my life, quite a shift. But it was a shift that I was ready to embrace. I really wanted to get to know what fatherhood was all about and get to know my children. I just took my time and waited for the music to come to me in this new environment. I felt myself heading towards a transition after The Headphone Masterpiece was released. I'd had that material for about two and a half years before the rest of the world heard it, so I was ready to write the next record anyway. I felt like my life was beginning to evolve, and I wanted to embrace that growth and allow myself to gain from the new perspective, and it just happened to take ten years! One day at a time.

Are you conscious of how fatherhood has changed your songwriting?

CC: Absolutely. I wanted to change. I wanted to grow. I became even more conscious of the language I was using, the directions of the songs, and the content and the meaning of the songs became more of a focus for me.

More of a responsibility?

CC: Yeah, exactly. Learning and knowing that I definitely had to be more responsible with the things that I was putting out in the universe, the things that I would offer to people's consciousness. Understanding that lyrics and music play a major part in other people's lives and in the way that they think. In that regard I wanted to offer the healthiest thing possible because I do that for my children, and I felt that if I do that for my children, I should do that for everyone.

There's a track on the new album, 'Everybody's Brother', where I think you're writing in character. Is writing in character similar to writing a song for somebody else?

CC: That's possible, because it's all based on imagination. Even if everything is autobiographical, I still try and be as present, in the moment, and in the voice of that person and in the subject matter as possible. It's a song that is a mix up of my own personal experience and me giving a voice to real life conditions and real life issues. A lot of it is me and a lot of it is observation of community, of family members. The opening line ("I used to smoke crack back in the day, I used to gamble rent money and lose") is directly referring to my family experience, uncles who have fought with addiction for twenty years. I've seen how that destroys families, and has brought so much weight on the community itself. So for those who have made it through, I celebrate their triumph, and for those who have not made it through I wanted to plant a seed of hope. But all of those different characters, the gambler, the guy that cheats on his woman - and that was me - the guy that fights against accepting accountability for actions, all those things I have experienced personally. But I also wanted to give voice to the other things that other people are dealing with as well, and put them on the winning side.

Why did you use Kickstarter to release your album, rather than just go with a label?

CC: I was interested in getting some label support for this album, to get as much an audience as possible, but I think in the current climate of music right now, a lot of people are just thinking about the bottom line, and are not really interested in the material or the content. We got to the point where we were ready to license the record through One Little Indian and Polydor. It's my label and distributor, but I have an agreement with them.

How long was it between you working at the Death Row label and The Headphone Masterpiece coming out?

CC: I probably wrote for Death Row for, in total, six months. I have a cousin that was in a group there. Death Row wanted a version of Boyz II Men, you know - four guys singing R&B - and my cousin told Suge Knight that I was a songwriter, and he heard some of the ideas that I'd been working on, and he liked them. He flew me out and I began to work on that project for three or four months.

What were they called?

CC: The group was called Six Feet Deep. The gimmick was that all the guys were over six feet tall. So yeah, I wrote for them for a while. Then a month or two after I'd finished writing for them Tupac was killed, and Suge wanted a tribute album, and he was also doing a movie. I wrote a song for the tribute album, but it didn't make the cut. Death Row did a soundtrack for the movie Gridlock'd [1997 film starring Tupac] so they took the song that I wrote for the tribute album and put it on the Gridlock'd soundtrack. The Headphone Masterpiece came out maybe a year and a half after that.

Did you ever think it would come out on Death Row?

CC: Oh no, that was never an option. I was there strictly as a songwriter-for-hire. I was never signed to Death Row Records.

How did you come to work with The Roots?

CC: They heard my first album when it was still underground, before it had officially been released. Questlove was riding with a mutual acquaintance of ours and she was playing a copy she had been given, and he asked her who it was. She wouldn't tell him, because they had a kind of competition between them, about who could discover music first. I think she stopped to get some fuel for the car, so he kinda peeped over and found out who it was. Then they had someone from their team reach out to us. I was a bit apprehensive at first, because I'd just had my own bout with a major record label and I was a bit jaded and bitter as far as doing anything with any label. But my cousin convinced me that it would be advantageous. It was a smart business move, and creatively it worked, because they're real musicians and they love real music. It brought huge exposure to myself, all over the planet, so I give thanks for that.

You recorded your new record at Al Green's studio in Memphis. How important was that to you?

CC: It was extremely important once we got there. In the beginning it was just another option on the table for analogue recording, because we wanted to record it on two-inch tape. The producer, Patrice Bart-Williams, lives in Cologne, Germany, but he flew to the States to record the record with us. We were trying to find the most affordable rates out of places in Miami, Atlanta, New York and Memphis. Memphis had the best rates for what we wanted to do. Once we got there we were totally blown away when we walked into the room, realising that this was the place where all those classics were recorded, and that we were about to use the same space. Not much has changed in there. Everybody was blown away, and that comes across in the performances on the album for sure.

How much do you think soul music has changed since that studio was first used?

CC: The musical talent is still good; I don't think it's what it used to be, but it's coming back around now. People are still very talented vocally, but I think the main element of soul music, that makes the soul music that we all love, the main thing that's missing is the spirit that went in those old records. You'd have an element of the church and black experience in those records that you don't get a lot of today. I think that is why those classic records feel the way that they do. You would feel the spirit of the church, you would feel the spirit of the economical and political climate. All those things, you could feel in that music. Today a lot of that has taken a back seat to a superficial lifestyle.

Would you say people are lazy when it comes to making music right now?

CC: I wouldn't say "lazy", but it just takes a certain amount of awareness of yourself and of your environment, I believe, in order to make the kind of music that Curtis Mayfield made, or the music that Stevie Wonder made. An awareness in the music then, we don't have enough of today. You have some people doing it but there isn't enough of it. That's why it doesn't feel the way those classics feel. The awareness is not as keen as it should be. Or maybe people just feel the pressure of the labels, who think no-one's really interested. They'll be taking the Berry Gordy route, the way he felt about What's Goin' On, saying: "People don't want to hear that, just talk about shopping, and the bedroom, and the club. Just stay focused on that".

These days artists usually come out with one big track, and just throw an album around that. Do you think the art of the album is in a bit of a lull right now?

CC: Yeah. We're suffering now from the formula. As you say, they just get the lead-off track and throw a lot of fillers around it. But consumers are really smart just now, and that's why people just buy a lot of singles. They're beginning to understand now that they're being taken advantage of. They're not being given a real quality album through and through, and they're responding by just buying the songs they like now. Like anything else man, you stick with a formula for so long that the product begins to suffer, or the artform begins to suffer. I think that's what's been happening for the last decade.

JPinkman
Mar 20, 2013 10:48am

Excellent interview, as always. Love the new album too.

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Grimm
Mar 20, 2013 11:04am

i like the new album, too. he's touring france extensively, but no love for germany or the netherlands?

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Vaughan
Mar 20, 2013 2:46pm

I found Landing on a Hundred a bit of a slow burner after the instant chaotic appeal of The Headphone Masterpiece, but it really has grown on me massively. Saw him at Bush Hall the other night. Tremendous act, with a superb tight band. He talked a bit about the music and came across as the grounded, intelligent and thoughtful person he does in this interview.

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