Soul Under the Chestnutt Tree

Cody Chestnutt makes original Contemporary Soul with a hint of yesterme, yesteryou, yesterday


he music industry has a long and checkered history of using a certain mount of hyperbole to sell its product. And yet, as Bear Bryant noted and Muhammad Ali reiterated, it ain’t bragging if it’s true.

More than a decade ago, Cody ChesnuTT sequestered himself in the bedroom studio he dubbed The Sonic Promiseland, writing songs and making sounds with absolutely no intention of ever allowing the results of his sonic experiments loose in the wider world. The songs he crafted were lo-fi to a fault, but their stylistic diversity and undeniable ingenuity also made them completely irresistible. Stretched over a perfectly excessive two-disc span, ChesnuTT decided his work needed to be heard, christening the collection The Headphone Masterpiece. 

“I didn’t realize I was making Headphone Masterpiece, I was just writing songs depending on the mood I was in that day,” ChesnuTT says. “I began to assemble all these tracks and concepts that I’d been working on for six months, and I really started digging the flow. I experimented with the order because I felt like it was some type of story, a real profound listening experience. I didn’t set out to do it.”

Even critics who weren’t convinced of the title’s claim recognized ChesnuTT’s boundless musical gifts and knew that the follow-up to The Headphone Masterpiece would very likely live up to its predecessor’s boast. They just couldn’t have predicted that the Neo Soul/R&B brilliance of Landing on a Hundred would take 10 years.

Originally from Atlanta, ChesnuTT moved to Los Angeles and hooked up with Death Row Records as a writer/producer before forming his own band, The Crosswalk. Its 1997 EP, 1535, attracted the attention of Hollywood Records but the label dropped the band before the release of its still-in-the-vault full-length and the band dissolved. That’s when ChesnuTT retreated to his bedroom and began working on The Headphone Masterpiece.

“I would have people come over and I would play it to see what their reaction was, and people really dug it,” ChesnuTT says. “And that was when Pop music was beginning to be what it is now. People were so over the mainstream and they wanted an alternative listening experience and The Headphone Masterpiece, in my opinion, fell perfectly right on time.”

When ChesnuTT shopped the album to labels, the response seemed almost universal. Everyone wanted him to re-record the album in a proper studio and edit it down to a single disc. He resolutely refused and wound up releasing the full double disc set himself.

“What made the recording so valuable was capturing a moment,” ChesnuTT says with a laugh. “All of the great albums capture a moment in time. And I felt I had done that. I captured an experience I couldn’t capture in a studio. I was making music completely uninhibited with no structure in mind and it was really for the love of it. There are all kinds of mistakes in it, according to convention, the way I use compression and all the other things were off the chart. I felt I had captured something sonically unique and that was part of the charm and if we had gone into the studio we would have killed that part of the story.”

ChesnuTT sold a Masterpiece sampler at shows, and one made its way into the hands of The Roots’ Questlove. He heard it from journalist dream hampton, with whom he had a friendly competition to find new, independent artists and snuck a peek at the disc in her purse when she wouldn’t tell him the name of the artist.

Within months, The Roots recorded their version of ChesnuTT’s “The Seed” for their album Phrenology, with ChesnuTT sitting in. In the wake of that exposure, ChesnuTT was nominated for the coveted Shortlist Music Prize, appeared in the documentary Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and wrote and performed what he announced would be his sophomore album, The Live Release. It too wound up on the shelf, but not because it wasn’t a worthy successor to his debut.

“(The Headphone Masterpiece) taught me it was about writing and documenting the music as you feel it,” ChesnuTT says. “I knew the next project had to be another documentation of where I am in my life. And I knew I could never follow that up. And it had to be honest. The Live Release was literally a live release so it was just an artistic exercise.” 

In 2010, ChesnuTT released the Black Skin No Value EP, featuring a pair of songs intended for his next album, and last year he finally released Landing on a Hundred, the payoff to The Headphone Masterpiece and quite possibly his Neo Soul magnum opus.

“Sonically they’re completely different, and the tone of the subject matter is another major difference,” ChesnuTT says. “The spirit is a little clearer and not as all over the place, a bit more focused. Musically I wanted to stretch it out more. Those great Motown records had those beautiful string arrangements and things I really wanted to explore myself. It was always part of my DNA so I was hoping I could get it out, but with original thoughts of my own and not just mimic that vibe or sound.”

Recorded partially at Royal Studios in Memphis. Tenn., where Al Green produced some of his greatest work, and featuring songs that deal with hard social, political, cultural, racial and personal truths, Landing on a Hundred is a marvel of contemporary originality and influential reverence. It’s little surprise that Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye’s names are so often cited in reviews of Landing on a Hundred.

“Those are the mountaintops,” ChesnuTT says with a laugh. “It is completely humbling, for sure.”

When ChesnuTT takes the Washington Park stage at MidPoint, he’ll be mindful that he’s ultimately sharing that stage with Shuggie Otis, a legendary but too often under-recognized musical master.

“I had a chance to meet him a couple months ago at the North Sea Jazz Festival at Rotterdam,” ChesnuTT says. “It’s going to be great to share that moment with a legend and such a well respected writer and artist.” 

CODY CHESNUTT plays the MidPoint Music Festival’s Washington Park Main Stage 7:15 p.m. Thursday.

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