After disappearing from the music scene to prioritize a family life, Cody ChesnuTT returns with a new album and a new outlook on spirituality.
“With the children, I realize that I had to be consistent with what I was teaching at home. I had begun to change within myself so I could affect my children the best."
One might expect to hear those words from someone looking back on a reckless youth. Someone who finally decided to grow up and clean up his act. A middle manager somewhere, maybe, with a house in the ‘burbs and a sudden penchant for gardening.
But not from a former indie music darling.
A decade ago, one would have thought Cody ChesnuTT wold have been a full-fledged pop phenomenon by now. He had just released his debut CD, a sprawling collection of riffs, ruminations and a couple of fully fleshed-out pop nuggets called The Headphone Masterpiece. Most of the buzz came from the album’s genesis: he recorded it in his bedroom on a four-track and released it independently. Word got out, and he became that rarest of things: a black indie musician, making music rooted in black pop styles, who got love from the rock critic community.
There was a lot to like about Headphone Masterpiece, and not just because it contained 36 selections across two discs. At the time, black pop music was approaching a transitional moment and neo-soul, seen as its breath of fresh air just a few short years prior, was losing its edge. ChesnuTT’s songs contained humor, bite, and more than a decent hook or two, qualities on short supply back then from artists and producers not named Timbaland. The album gained further juice when the Roots took one of its most fully realized tunes, gave it some major-label production values and rechristened it “The Seed 2.0”, with ChesnuTT on board, garnering a minor hit (with ChesnuTT touring with the band to perform that song through 2003-04).
One would have thought we’d only heard the beginning of ChesnuTT at that point. The typical trajectory would have involved getting signed by a label, with money to record and promote a new CD that sounded kinda like the previous one, and then he’d be on his way. Instead he followed up Headphone Masterpiece with… nothing. Well, it was something. It just wasn’t music.
Actually, it was a knotty little thing called life. To be specific, fatherhood.
ChesnuTT dropped out of sight as quickly as he’d popped into it, devoting his energy to raising his two children. But music never left the equation; it simply took a backseat to those more immediate priorities. Now it’s his time as a musician again, with his new CD Landing on a Hundred and a European tour to follow.
Those expecting Headphone Masterpiece 2.0 will be sorely disappointed. Gone are the quirky ditties, profane lyrical content, and lo-fi sound. In their place are full songs done by a live band, lyrics about making sense of life and the state of the world, and at its heart, a man at peace with both his art and his life. And who bears an uncanny vocal resemblance to Marvin Gaye.
ChesnuTT, 43, comes by the latter honestly. “Motown was part of my life ever since I can remember," he said by phone from Tallahassee, FL, where he’s lived since 2003. “It was on constantly in the house – Marvin, Stevie. I got into the complexity of it later."
Tallahassee was where he attended junior college and Florida A&M University. His planned studies changed when, he said, “the music thing started calling me and I got totally distracted."
That music thing took him to Atlanta for a few years, then out to Los Angeles for a stretch, and finally to recording Headphone Masterpiece. But on the heels of the cd’s release, ChesnuTT became a father, and everything changed.
He returned to Tallahassee to be with his son, and left the music world completely behind. “I personally felt like it was time to move in a different direction," he said, “and evolve as a man and as an artist. I took the opportunity when it came to me. There was no turning back. Life just happened. It was a conscious decision to do what I did."
And with that, ChesnuTT settled into his life’s new rhythm. In addition to parenthood, he spent a lot of time reading, involved in his community, and with his church. But even then, music wasn’t all that far away.
He started checking out the Tallahassee music scene, and immediately noticed how tight-knit it was, with all the best players in town regularly working with each other. In time, ChesnuTT found himself writing songs and conceiving beats again. But as a result of his new life and priorities, the songs were a world apart from his earlier work.
“It was a natural transition," he explained, “reflecting how I’m living day in and day out. Family, community, those things became important, they found their way into my lyrics. I wanted the songs to represent the real day that I’m living, the real day other people are living."
That feeling wasn’t coming from the black pop of the aughts, music ChesnuTT describes as “out of whack, out of balance. There’s only so much of that you can take, I just feel at some point, enough is enough."
He then returned to the conscious R&B of his youth, searching for clues. “I would listen to it…what’s making these songs last?” The answer for him was that “it has to have that real heartfelt love at the core of it, a real spirit, a spirit from God."
Landing on a Hundred is the result of all that -- his life transition, his new artistic focus, and the communal spirit of the Tallahassee musicians who became his new band -- coming together. Suitably, the very making of Landing was informed by that old-school vibe. Its basic tracks were recorded in April 2011 in Memphis, in the very studio where Al Green recorded his classic hits (“You walk into a moment in history," ChesnuTT said of the experience. “It really took you to a place”).
Its sense of center and its debt to the classic ‘70s sound ring out from the opening notes of the lead track, “’Till I Met Thee”. Just as that song pays tribute to a higher love, the rest of the cd deals with issues and emotions more substantial than most current pop attempts to touch. It’s hard to note many songs nowadays stepping back from the endless, unquestioning chase for what’s new and hot, but that’s what ChesnuTT does on “What Kind of Cool (Will We Think of Next)". He also talks about the current state of the material world in “Under the Spell of the Handout” and the self-explanatory “Where Is All the Money Going?” As opposed to sex-drenched makeout numbers, he offers the advice, “Love Is More Than a Wedding Day”.
But this isn’t nostalgia for its own sake, or any form of it at all. There’s not only a musical richness in its fluid, updated post-funk sound that was barely a notion on the bare-boned Headphone Masterpiece, there’s also a palpable urgency in ChesnuTT’s voice and his intentions for Landing’s reception. He described the new music as “addressing modern things but also things that are kind of timeless. All these things are still on the table. It had to have a certain spirit."
Given all that -- the content of the lyrics and the vibe of the music -- “It’s very important,” he stressed, “that this [cd] gets to black people.”
First, however, is getting it into the marketplace. The only similarity between Landing and Headphone Masterpiece is ChesnuTT’s insistence on doing for self. Landing is also self-produced and self-released; ChesnuTT had a successful Kickstarter earlier this year to garner additional support. He’s working to secure licensing agreements in worldwide territories and expand the distribution channel, while still maintaining ownership. “The main thing is still trying to maximize the work as a business, and still have creative control and flexibility," he explained.
As far as the musical difference between then and now, ChesnuTT is not ashamed of Headphone Masterpiece. He simply sees it as music from a different point in his life. He hopes his audience can appreciate the person and artist he was before, but also, as he put it, “embrace the evolution and transition” he’s made since then. While the name on the cover might be the same, he asserted with no small amount of peace and contentment, “Spiritually it is not the same guy. My mind and spirit are in a different place."