Sweet Songs From The South
Vic Chesnutt’s songs don’t get played much on mainstream radio, and his face won’t be on MTV anytime soon — but his radio-friendly, photogenic superstar-peers contend that he’s one of the best songwriters in the country. In 1996, fans such as Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M, and Madonna came out of the woodwork to pay tribute to Americana’s crown prince with their contributions to Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation — the Songs of Vic Chesnutt. Just what is so endearing about his songs, you might wonder? Chesnutt, like his old friend Michael Stipe (who “discovered” the singer amidst the musically-fertile scene/town of 1985 Athens, GA) has the innate ability to put the listener – emotionally and imaginatively – smack-dab in the middle of a great story. In his new CD, Silver Lake (New West Records), Chesnutt captures a 15-year-old’s disillustionment in the aftermath of first love (“Band Camp”), lyrically presents the unique sadness of a eunuch (“Mighty Sultan”) and reflects the fears of an injured young man who has grown accustomed to the sterile-but-safe environment of his hospital ward (“Fa La La”). In terms of sheer poignancy — and in the circumstance of a folk singer’s creations fleshed out by a full band, Silver Lake is perhaps the best of its kind since Billy Bragg’s 1991 non-political, Athens-influenced gem, Don’t Try This At Home.
But the comparisons to Bragg and Stipe stop there, for Chesnutt is about as original a songwriter to be found, a man whose front-porch, barrel-aged voice — a true voice of the South — sings with a subtle power and, alternately, a sublime, gentle vulnerability that rivets his listeners to their seats. Recorded with producer Mark Howard and a band of studio aces in a hilltop mansion in LA’s Silver Lake district, this disc’s music matches the beauty of Chesnutt’s lyrics — hardly a small feat. Fuzzy guitars, reverberating 12-string, nimble bass, and compellingly inventive percussion pop up here and there, sometimes intermingling with organ and the occasional woodwind (!); the complex, gorgeous arrangements and production would make the likes of Mitchell Froom and Todd Rundgren envious. Like many storytellers, Chesnutt speaks very succinctly and sparingly in casual conversation, as if saving his best words for night-time. When I spoke to the songwriter — via erratic cell phone — as he and his touring band crossed the plains of Indiana, Chesnutt allowed a brief insight into his fascinating life and incredible work.
I’ve heard that you’re a big fan of Van Dyke Parks. With its fantastic arrangements, is Silver Lake your Pet Sounds?
I wouldn’t say that. This is more like… my Abbey Road. The orchestration and sound has a lot to do with Mark Howard and an amazing keyboard player (Michael Warren). My Pet Sounds is yet to come.
For the uninitiated, what sets this record apart from the last ten?
For me, it was different this time around. I went out of town to record, with strangers I didn’t know — a bunch of LA pros. It was really fun for me. These guys play in very controlled studio environments, most of the time. I wanted them to be free to give a lot to this record, to have fun and help arrange it. It was important for me to have that happen.
I’ve read that you recorded the “old-school way” — two songs a day. Sounds like a lot of fun, a regular songwriting camp in a mansion.
It was a great place to record. Next door was Sarah MacLachlan recording her new record in one little room — she had a piano and ProTools in there. In another part of the mansion, Fiona Apple was writing songs for her new record. So it was like band camp.
Speaking of “Band Camp,” is that a story from your youth?
Well, I was in marching band in high school, so I did go to band camp. Unfortunately, as a freshman I did not have a relationship with a crazy, hot senior. So, the rest of it was fictionalized, though it is based on my life, a little bit.
The song captures that certain magic or energy that some have in school, only to lose it shortly afterwards.
Right, exactly. After you graduate, maybe the real world hits you. You can’t be a crazy drunk or freak all of your life — maybe.
What inspired you to write “Sultan So Mighty”?
You know, I’m not real sure. There’s a couple of things that led me to that song. I’d been fascinated by the Castrati. In the 19th century, they would take exceptional singers from the boy choir, and castrate ’em so they would always sing with a boyish voice. I heard a recording of one of those guys — the last Castrati — and I was touched by the beauty of his voice. I was also touched by the fact that, when he was a boy, people imposed their will over him, changed his life. He never grew up to be a man. I got to thinkin’ about other eunuchs; and then I got to thinkin’ about how it would be interesting to explore a eunuch’s subversive relationship with a harem.
One could correlate the message to the sort of relationship a gay man might have with a woman.
Right, a certain intimacy that the Sultan will never know.
I gather from your songs that you have some insecurities.
Oh, yeah, I’m wracked by ’em.
Yet you have everyone telling you that you’re the best thing since sliced bread.
Well, it doesn’t exactly balance it out, but it helps tip the scales a little bit, when people tell me that. When people tell me that my songs helped them through a difficult time… I really like that. It’s like a vitamin.
Do you enjoy touring? Do you have time to observe your surroundings while you’re on the road?
I do. I love being on the road… I get a lot from traveling and touring. A lot of that comes into my writing later.
Observe anything interesting lately?
There was something to think about just yesterday. I was fascinated by this waitress — a sort of tawdry, 55-year-old gal. Got me to thinking of a story. She was a little rough-lookin’ — missin’ a few teeth; probably smoked the state of North Carolina’s worth of cigarettes in her day.
Does the subject of lost opportunities, of the ‘road not taken,’ intrigue you most?
I’m fascinated by success and failure — and everything in between. There’s fascinating aspects of everything in life.
You’re been such a prolific songwriter. Are you ever afraid that the well will run dry?
No. I demo’ed about 60 songs — out of over 100 — for this record, and I narrowed it down to about 18; we recorded 14 of those songs.
At what point in your career did you begin to realize the possibilities, the big picture of your life?
I never have.
Some even smaller talk followed — we discussed how much Athens had grown since the mid-80s, the new Waylon Jennings tribute CD…and then we said our goodbyes. Chesnutt went back to gazing out of the window at the horses and other livestock dotting the highway-bordering pastureland; and I settled back in my chair to listen to his disc for the fourth time that day.
This interview originally appeared in the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle