True Believer

Cody Chesnutt's lo-fi album is a raggedy, sprawling, beautiful mess. Think he cares?

Dec 11, 2002 at 4:00 am
Cody Chesnutt couldn't be more sincere.

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.'"

But if its utter rawness is the most obvious weakness of The Headphone Masterpiece, it's also the album's greatest strength. For 36 songs, Chesnutt boasts and begs, evinces a touching vulnerability ("Man, something is killing me/My women, my guitars/I've been living hard/My breakdown is on the way") and a shocking, if satirical, misogyny: "I got a hard dick with a curve and that's all you deserve," he spits on "Bitch, I'm Broke." (No, seriously.) He ruminates on the very things that made rock & roll rock & roll, things such as sex and God and love and money, and on one song, "Boylife in America," he actually tackles most of that stuff right in the chorus. "All I want is pussy," he sings, "give me some religion/A brand-new Cadillac/And a winning lotto ticket."

"It's a sonic diary," Chesnutt says of the album, finally released in October on Ready Set Go!, the microlabel run by Chesnutt's cousin/manager/housemate Donray Von. "It's all about 'OK, this is where I was at this point in time.' And it shows the dirt, the afflictions, the iniquities, everything. So it's a story about a man being absorbed by his vanity and the world. I haven't gotten all the dirt out of my heart, because every man still sins in his heart. But I can look back now and it's, like, 'Wow, look how preoccupied with this I was,' or 'Look where I was with that.'"

Invariably Chesnutt gets asked when he's going to cut The Headphone Masterpiece down and refurbish it for one of the many major labels he and his Ready Set Go! teammates say have been calling. The answer, according to the 34-year-old songwriter, is never. Cleaning it up, he says, would be like taking an old journal full of crossed-out sentences and doodled-in margins and typing it up for publication. It wouldn't be the same thing.

All of this reinforces the impression of Cody Chesnutt as a man with an overwhelming sense of purpose, a marked sense of anointment and no small measure of ego. He's almost irrationally confident in his still-nascent abilities, a songwriter so sure of himself that he's happy to invite you into his bedroom -- quite literally, actually, if you happen to be walking past the right food court at the right time -- to hear him think and feel and reach and, occasionally, completely fuck up, because he knows that at least that means you're listening.

It's not just his charisma, or even his music, that has the attention of rock insiders. The New York Times called Chesnutt the "undisputed aesthetic leader" of a new black rock movement, one that includes San Francisco's Martin Luther and Cherrywine's Butler, to say nothing of hip-hop stars Mos Def and Lauryn Hill and Outkast's Andre 3000, all of whom have picked up guitars of late in an effort to expand their musical vocabulary.

"Brothers are realizing, 'This is a part of our history,'" Chesnutt says. "[Black people] have a strong foundation in American roots music, and so we're taking that and bringing it back. I mean, you've got some black cats that still don't know Jimi Hendrix's music. How sad is that?"

For Chesnutt, though, even that movement is mere prelude to something bigger -- something embodied, naturally, in The Headphone Masterpiece.

"This one record, to me, is a springboard for economic growth, spiritual advancement, everything," he says, casting aside even a façade of modesty, "because when people see this happening, especially in my culture, in my community, they gotta know that they can create -- even own -- music and ideas. And ideas and inventions are what the economic base is. So this is my seed.

"I'm a believer," Chesnutt says. "And that's the most important thing you can be, because we're talking about going up against a system. I mean, I've got music coming out of my bedroom, not some $2 million or $3 million facility up in Hollywood. And for some reason, people have responded to this thing, like, 'Well, I feel this, and I don't need some record company to shove it down my throat and tell me that I need to feel it.' So maybe me making a little crappy record in my bedroom will inspire the guy who's cleaning toilets to say, 'Hey, I've got an idea that I want to put out there and stick with and see where it gets me.'

"It's that simple. We're talking about people, man. We're talking about inspiration." He makes perfect eye contact, his smile genuine, his expression 100 percent earnest. Cody Chesnutt couldn't be more sincere.