Vic Chesnutt RIP – A Recent Quietus Interview

It was with sadness that we learned that this time the rumours were true and that Vic Chesnutt had died on Xmas Day. Wyndham Wallace talked to him a few months ago, this feature was the result

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Constellation Records tribute. Kristin Hersh tribute and donations to Vic’s family.

Vic Chesnutt: the skinny dude in a wheelchair with the spindly voice, right? The paraplegic folk singer Michael Stipe liked, yeah? Put out a few records that people wrote about in the nineties, didn’t he? Yeah, that’s the guy. You nailed it. Stick that new CD of his into your stereo — if you can be bothered — and listen to him ramble again: a barely plucked nylon-string guitar, a thin reedy vocal bemoaning the fact that its owner is a coward, a little baroque violin and cello wavering in the background . . .

But hang on. What the fuck is this? After only a hundred seconds Chesnutt’s increasingly desperate voice is giving way to what sounds like a Glenn Branca concerto, drums exploding like roadside bombs, and what seemed at first like a song of self-pity has transmogrified into a roar of fury and frustration. Three minutes in and Chesnutt’s vocals are threatening to tear his throat out as guitars rage around him, feedback leaking from the speakers, drums struck so heavily their skins burst.

Reach for the CD sleeve: some of these names sound familiar. Efrim Menuck? Wasn’t he that fella in Godspeed You! Black Emperor? And aren’t some of these other folk in Silver Mount Zion with him? And who’s that? Guy Picciotto? The dude from Fugazi? I thought Vic Chesnutt was a folk singer? Isn’t he a folk singer?

“That’s where I come from,” he agrees on the phone from his home in Athens, Georgia, early one September morning. “My songs are pretty standard folk-song chords and everything. And I feel that it’s folk rock, nothing really fancy or anything like that. My grandad taught me how to play guitar. His mom taught him how to play guitar. My grandma and my mom wrote lyrics for my grandad’s folk songs and for other songs. I’m a folk-song dude, you know?”

But Vic Chesnutt’s At The Cut is no ordinary folk record. Its roots may be tangled up in that heritage, and it’s far from afraid of stripping things right back to porch-song simplicity, but this is not the Vic Chesnutt the media wrote about so glowingly in the mid 90s, seduced by his raggedy voice, his hard-luck story and his authentic southern country background. Of course, you probably never heard those records: Little (1990), West Of Rome (1991), Drunk (1993) and Is The Actor Happy? (1995) never quite sold in their millions, despite the endorsement of Michael Stipe, who produced the first two. But perhaps you heard his Capitol debut, About To Choke (1996), in the wake of the second Sweet Relief charity project, which saw the diverse likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Madonna, Victoria Williams and Mary Margaret O’Hara cover his songs. Although since he was dropped shortly afterwards, it seems not many records crossed the counter that time either. But given the nature of the coverage these records received, you’d be forgiven for having a few reasons to doubt Chesnutt ever fled the folk nest.

Chesnutt, however, is a contrary, often stubborn figure, permanently restless, constantly seeking new challenges. There’s always been way more to him than the apparently frail paraplegic the media embraced for a few years. In 1995 and again in 2002 he collaborated with jam band Widespread Panic under the name brute, and in 1998 he hooked up with Lambchop for the lusher sounds of The Salesman And Bernadette. But the media began to move on. By the time Chesnutt recorded Ghetto Bells in 2005, with guests including Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks, it probably passed you by. His 2008 collaboration with Elf Power, Dark Developments, was no doubt thought of as “specialist interest”. And though At The Cut is his second album with the likes of Menuck and Picciotto (they were initially brought together by filmmaker Jem Cohen to create music for his movie Empires Of Tin, and Cohen ending up co-producing the resulting record, 2007’s North Star Deserter) mainstream media outlets have stopped listening.

“It’s my fault,” Chesnutt groans. “If it was just me and an acoustic guitar I’d be playing at the folk festivals and that would be a lot easier for people. It’s my fault for wanting to explore everything. I never knew what I wanted to be. I wanted distortion, I didn’t want distortion. I wanted slick, I wanted rough. I wanted sparse, I wanted dense. It feels natural to me.”

But these things don’t fit with the image of the vulnerable figure in the wheelchair we were first introduced to. And so other, fresher, less confusing faces got the features while Chesnutt continued to battle on, testing himself with each new record. It’s been to the benefit of those still listening, however. At The Cut represents the moment in his career when people should sit up, blink repeatedly, and reassess what they’ve previously ignored: Vic Chesnutt is a vital, singular force who demands your attention. Hearing it for the first time, you realise why so many musicians flock to him, although At The Cut is far more than a musician’s record. It’s one of the most honest, literate, shocking, tender and challenging records of the year. Listen to the noble grandeur of ‘Chinaberry Tree’, with its guitar lines tracing fiery circles round Chesnutt’s passionate delivery; the quasi-industrial post-rock of ‘Philip Guston’; the heart of darkness within ‘Chain’; the impossibly romantic but ultimately startling ‘Flirted With You All My Life’, which unravels from its premise as a love song into what he calls “a break-up song with death”; the Nina Simone soul of ‘We Hovered With Short Wings’; the closing, poignant ‘Granny’. This is the sound of a masterpiece waiting for recognition.

It was made by a man who, over the course of a long conversation, veers dramatically between self-loathing and justifiable confidence, despair and wonder. Given his situation, it’s perhaps understandable. Crippled by a car accident at the age of 18, he found solace in music after being confined to a wheelchair due to partial paralysis. He’s since been championed by some of the world’s biggest stars – from the aforementioned Stipe to Danger Mouse, who employed him on the ill-fated Dark Night Of The Soul collaboration with Sparklehorse – and yet still struggles to make a living. He’s met Johnny Cash and acted with Billy Bob Thornton in the underrated Sling Blade, but he’s also been called an idiot by Allen Ginsberg and has attempted suicide on more than one occasion.

Chesnutt himself offers the best illustration of the contradictions within his life: “Michael Stipe has told others – he never told me this but he’s told everyone else – that he recorded that first album because he wanted to capture my songs before I died or killed myself.”

So call his life tragic and he’ll agree.

“No doubt about it! Take a look at my career: it’s a struggle. It’s not like I’m on top of the charts or anything. I’m also really jaded because I’ve been doing it for 20 years. It’s a grind out there on tour. Worrying about paying the bills… it’s a grind. It corrupts… It diminishes the joy that you can get out of music sometimes.”

To make matters harder, he handles his own business these days, although as he puts it, “I mismanage it. I’m one of these unprofessional types. I am the biggest fuck-up in the music business. I have done everything to ruin every step along the way. I suck at business!”

In ‘It Is What It Is’, he refers to himself as “like an invisible man directing traffic”.

“That’s probably my number one comedic line of all time,” he chuckles.

People’s image of him has no doubt coloured their perception of his music, and while it may have brought some towards him, lured by the back story, it’s clearly worked against him too, as he concedes in no uncertain terms.

“Most people – 99 per cent of the population – are going to hear my music and they’re going to know that I’m in a wheelchair, paraplegic, you know, or if they see me singing my songs, it’s too heavy, you know? They can’t deal. They’re like, ‘This is the last shit on earth I wanna listen to. I just can’t stand this.

This is bumming me out and this is not what I want.’”

But remind him that he’s living countless people’s fantasies – touring the world, working with battalions of revered musicians – and he’ll interrupt you swiftly and enthusiastically.

“It also feels a triumph, you know? It’s a thrill. I am living the indie rock & roll dream, there’s no doubt about it! I love it. It may sound pathetic to some people but there’s nothing to me more thrilling than being on stage with Efrim and Guy and everyone else. And giving Van Dyke Parks a copy of my lyrics to scrutinise before we do a take and have him comment on my lyrics… I mean, to me that’s thrilling!”

There are a lot of thrills in Chesnutt’s life, no doubt one of the reasons people are so willing to work with him.

“The Lambchop thing we did together, that was an incredible experience to record. It was just the best. I’ve never done anything like it. And this new collaboration has been amazingly life-enriching. It kind of brought the colour back to my cheeks. It’s a shot in the arm playing with these guys. It’s what I call a supergroup, there’s no doubt about it. And they give me confidence.”

Such optimism rarely lasts for long. Happy enough to declare early on during the conversation that, “I will do this forever now: anybody that wants to play with me, I’ll be glad to do it,” he reverts to pouring scorn on his work within minutes. “I don’t know what these people see in me. I think I suck. I never thought my songs were appropriate for other people.”

He’s wrong. The proof is perhaps in the fact that At The Cut is one of three albums he’s releasing in the latter half of this year, including an album recorded with Jonathan Richman.

“I’ve known Jonathan for almost 20 years,” he explains, “and he’s taken me on tour with him many times, and it has been completely life-changing. It’s nice to have Jonathan Richman as a rock & roll mentor! It’s just incredible! He wanted to make a record with me [because,] he said, ‘Your records never really sound like you do live. When you’re live, there’s a lot of space and you fuck up a lot, and I really like that.’ And so he wanted to record in a more improvisational way. So we came up there for four days and we recorded with his drummer, and Jonathan stood in the room, not playing, sometimes doing tai chi right in front of me while I’m doing a take, and we recorded a bunch of songs, like, 30 songs, in a couple of days, and Jonathon produced it and played guitar and harmonium on it. It’s called Skitter On Take-Off. Like a duck skittering across a pond before it takes flight.”

Chesnutt denies with typical modesty that he’s unusually productive. Calculating how many songs he’s written, he estimates around 1,000. “But, you know, 800 of them, 900 of them, suck! They were like rehearsals. I write a lot of bad songs that never see the light of day just for the exercise. I’m always thinking about it, though. I’m always mulling it over.”

Skitter On Take-Off was recorded almost immediately after At The Cut, confirming this as an undeniably fruitful period of his life.

“When I came back from Montreal after recording At The Cut,” he elaborates, “I had a week before I was going to record with Jonathan, and I was so inspired by these guys in Montreal that I wrote 16 songs when I got home. It was so exciting. It was just pouring out of me!”

And so it seems it has been for much of the last few years, given that City Slang have also just released his soundtrack to a German film, Mitte Ende August (“Sometime In August”) by the well-respected Berlin based director and writer Sebastian Schipper.

“When I first got the movie I was in Paris, and I watched it on my computer and I was blown away. I just thought it was beautiful, absolutely beautiful. I was completely inspired. It made me want to write.”

While Chesnutt’s skeletal incidental music suits the gently touching nature of the film, it’s his reinterpretation of a 2001 pop classic that’s most immediate.

“When he told me that a Kylie Minogue song was kinda like the theme, I was, like, ‘Fuck!’” he laughs. “But then when I heard ‘Come Into My World’ for the first time – he sent me an mp3 of it, I’d never really thought of any of her songs before, I’d heard them in the grocery store and shit, you know? – as soon as I heard that song I realised, ‘It’s in E minor! I can do this!’ I was thrilled. It was the kernel of inspiration for the whole movie, almost. And I am so proud of that cover. I was so inspired. It’s so beautiful at the end. I was just so thrilled. And I think it’s a great movie.”

It’s almost certainly that sense of excitement that not only keeps Chesnutt going but ensures his music remains so invigorating that other musicians continue to flock to him. Yet not everyone has been so impressed: a meeting with Allen Ginsberg after they found themselves performing at the same LA club in the early 1990s didn’t go quite to plan.

“He’d read in the LA Times about me,” Chesnutt recalls, “and he knew my story. And he said, ‘You broke your neck in a drunk-driving car wreck.’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘And your new album’s called Drunk, right?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘And you recorded it when you were completely drunk?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘You’re an idiot!’ And I was like, ‘Wow, he’s messing on me for being drunk, for breaking my neck!’”

He pauses for a moment before continuing.

“And as it turns out, yes: I was an idiot.”

It’s excruciating to hear him once again dismiss himself in such a way, but typically Chesnutt spins it round once more.

“But I got to meet Allen Ginsberg face to face and have a 15-minute chat with him! Basically, these are medals of honour! I think he’s really amazing. There’s no one better could have called me an idiot.”

As he wraps up the interview, Chesnutt again laughs, as he has done with the same regularity that he’s paused and sighed throughout the interview.

“Wow,” he cackles at the news that the call has lasted over an hour, “I didn’t feel stupid like I usually do.”

He hasn’t sounded stupid once. The only people orbiting Chesnutt’s world who can be considered stupid are those who’ve written him off and who’ll let At The Cut pass them by. Cowardly though he may claim to be, “The courage of the coward,” as he sings in the opening lines of the album, quoting Frank Norris’s 1899 book McTeague, “(is) greater than all others…”

Vic Chesnutt took his own life on 25 December 2009, three months after this interview

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