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It's a typically hot July night in Hollywood, and he's onstage at the Knitting Factory, halfway through "Up in the Treehouse," a honey-sweet love song from his double-album debut, The Headphone Masterpiece. "Dream, dream, that's all I dooo," goes the lyric. "Dream, dream, about me and yooou ..." It's the kind of song you can come at sincerely or ironically, with no viable middle ground, and Chesnutt has plainly chosen the former. "Give it up for love!" he urges the audience after the song is over, and when the too-cool industry crowd hesitates, he admonishes them. "You can do better than that for love!"
Cody Chesnutt is a true believer, a faithful apostle of the power of love and God and rock & roll to heal and inspire and impassion. His is a goofy but impenetrable sincerity, and it may just be the primary reason for his success. That success, in brief: For less money than you spent on your car, Cody Chesnutt recorded a 36-song opus last year and began handing out copies. Ishmael Butler, late of the hip-hop trio Digable Planets and now playing guitar with the Seattle-based Cherrywine, heard Masterpiece and liked it, then passed it on to a journalist friend, who passed it to ?uestlove of the Roots ("Beck meets Tracy Chapman on acid," summarized ?uest ). From there, "it snowballed," Chesnutt says. "Everybody just kind of picked up on it after that." Pretty soon the Roots were covering Chesnutt's "The Seed," and pretty soon Rolling Stone was raving about him, calling the disc "a little bit White Album, a little bit Dirty Mind." The New Yorker began knocking at his door, and the New York Times, and MTV2. Pretty soon, Cody Chesnutt -- still flat broke, still living in a rented house in North Hollywood with five roommates -- was a music-world "it" boy, never mind the fact that he had yet to officially release a single note of music.
And if you take him at his word, none of this came as a surprise.
"You know, the way God has blessed me already just allowed me to realize what was going on," he says, sitting poolside in his back yard while housemates, neighbors and friends splash around behind him. "I just took it as another blessing. Like, 'OK, well, this is how he said it would happen, so I see it unfolding right before my eyes.' I knew that if I just stayed true to what I was doing, it'd get out there; it'd reach the people it's supposed to."
Chesnutt's pre-Masterpiece back story reads like a B-movie cliché. Leaving his social-worker wife to hold things down in their native Atlanta, the songwriter chased his star out to Los Angeles in 1996, "a black man with a guitar on my back." And nothing in his wallet, as he remembers it. Before long, he hooked up with a band -- they called themselves the Crosswalk, and they played basic Britpop, with Chesnutt singing lead in a faux-British accent.
The Crosswalk signed with Hollywood Records and recorded an album, but because of label politics, lousy music or just bad juju (depending on who's telling the story), Venus Loves a Melody never saw the light of day. The band dissolved, and Chesnutt's bandmates moved on ("like rats fleeing a sinking ship," as he diplomatically puts it on his Web site).
What happened next won Chesnutt reams of advance press. Distraught but determined, he retreated to a makeshift recording studio in his bedroom. For three months, he wrote and recorded what amounted to an aural journal using one microphone, a four-track system and a roomful of instruments, nearly all of which he played himself. He recorded in the daytime and through the night, whisper-singing into the mic to keep from waking his roommates. He recorded by himself, using his big toe to power up the tape machine. He saw God one night -- "the light just touched me," he says, "and I felt the presence of God, his angels, his love and his freedom" -- and he kept right on recording. And when he emerged, he had a Headphone Masterpiece on his hands, 36 tracks' worth of music spread over two discs.
Chesnutt then became a proselyte for Cody Chesnutt. He brought tapes of Masterpiece with him to house parties and hijacked the stereo systems, forcing partygoers to listen to all 100 minutes of it, then forcing them to listen again. He cruised San Fernando Valley malls, handing out his phone number to total strangers and inviting them back to his bedroom to hear his music. "Random people!" he says, laughing at the memory. "Some people were, like, 'Who is this nut?' But a lot of times, people would come by. It was, like, 'OK, I'm just gonna play this for people. This is my music -- come to my house!'"
What they heard, those trusting souls who took him up on his offer, was a sprawling, raggedy, beautiful mess of an album. The three dozen tracks range in style from '60s and '70s soul and funk to '80s rock and R&B, from acoustic folk to first-wave British invasion to pure poppy confection. Some songs end in less than a minute; others last nearly six. They disappear midstream and reappear almost as suddenly. Throughout, Chesnutt's voice strains and cracks, and he sings in a thin falsetto that's occasionally beautiful and frequently off-key. When he's good, he sounds like a Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye for the modern age -- and when he's not, his voice stretches almost to the point of vanishing. "A lot of those vocals, I would be doing it at four, five in the morning," he explains, "and because my roommates were sleeping, I was being quiet, and it brought about a certain tone, a certain dynamic that I wasn't even thinking about at the time. I was just thinking, 'OK, let me keep it down because Phillip's got to get up at six in the morning.'"