Cody ChestnuTT: On the frontline

By Lydia Jenkin

A melting pot of experiences has brought soul singer Cody ChesnuTT to where he is today. He talks to Lydia Jenkin.

Cody ChesnuTT in his signature helmet.
Cody ChesnuTT in his signature helmet.

Cody ChesnuTT is a soul chameleon, who went from toiling away in the early 90s R&B scene in Atlanta, before moving to LA to work in new band the Crosswalk.

In 2002, he fired up a dusty four-track cassette recorder in his bedroom, collected various instruments, and created The Headphone Masterpiece, a double album that combined his love of gospel, R&B, rock, punk and, of course, classic soul. The Roots heard his single The Seed, loved it, re-recorded it (with ChesnuTT), made a great video, and turned it into a mainstream hit.

Then he appeared in Dave Chappelle's Block Party, right around the same time The Headphone Masterpiece was nominated for the Shortlist prize, and it seemed as though ChesnuTT's star was on the rise.

But instead, he dropped off the radar. After years of a rock 'n' roll lifestyle rife with womanising and crack addiction, he decided to get his life back together, move home to Tallahassee in Florida, reconcile with his wife, and become a family man. Ten years later, he's released his second album, and is ready to share his songs of honesty and personal experience with the world.

"I knew I needed to get some more experience, and go out and live a little, because I poured so much into my first project, that I really had run out of anything to talk about.

"So I embraced fatherhood, and really got to understand what that was about. I wanted [the album] to feel close to everyday situations, and everyday life, and that's the direction I thought my music should be going in, looking at real everyday issues, and not so much the superficial things that often dominate pop culture."

The 12 songs on Landing on a Hundred, which is a reference to a colloquialism about telling the whole truth, are a mixture of ChesnuTT's stories, along with others he has picked up from his family, friends, and community, with evocative titles such as Love is More Than a Wedding Day, and Everybody's Brother.

"The past few years have really taught me how to get better at listening, and how to be more observant, and I wanted to bring the back room conversations to the forefront, all the things that people discuss when they're having thoughtful, quiet conversations. That's where I got a lot of my ideas."

ChesnuTT has been touring the songs with his 10-piece band (all musicians from Tallahassee) since 2010, "ironing out the kinks, and also to find the spontaneous things that happen, that you don't think about when you're rehearsing". But ChesnuTT also attributes part of the album's charm to their recording experience at Royal Studios in Memphis - the sonic birthplace of artists such as Al Green, Buddy Guy, and Ike and Tina Turner.

"Initially the studio wasn't on our radar. We were looking for the best rates for analogue recording, and we were looking in Miami, Atlanta and New York. But then our producer suggested we check out this place in Memphis, and it turned out they had the best rates.

"Once we got there of course, we felt like it was definitely the perfect decision. There's so much history and vibe.

"Everybody just walked into the studio and soaked all of it up, and internalised it, and brought that spirit and energy to our own work."

The blue military helmet which has come to be something of a personal symbol for ChesnuTT also came about with a similar degree of serendipity.

"I've always had an eye for second-hand things, military pieces, and thought that the imagery was interesting to play with. And one day I saw the hat in an army surplus store, and for some reason I was drawn to it. So I bought it, and started to wear it round the house, and play my songs in it. My daughter fell in love with it, and it all just sort of made sense.

"It was about redefining what a soldier could be, it became symbolic of a soldier of song, being on the frontline for things that I really care about, you know, contributing to life instead of taking life. Plus it was very light, and it fit, so I just ran with it."

Who: Cody ChestnuTT
What: Latest album Landing on a Hundred
Where and when: Performing in Auckland at the Tuning Fork on Tuesday, October 22.

- NZ Herald

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