I have Cody ChesnuTT on the line. And he’s lovely. You can tell that straight away. Very polite. I can tell that because he uses my name right back to me. He says, “I’m doing great, Simon, I’m doing really good” (when I ask him how he’s doing). And he says things like “the thing is, Simon…” throughout our brief, happy chat.
Cody ChesnuTT made an incredible album called The Headphone Masterpiece. It was a staggering, audacious big-serve record; a double. A double that groaned and sprawled with three-dozen songs across its two discs – so full to bursting with ideas. And from the profound to the profane ChesnuTT, often sounding like he had exhausted himself doing the demos and chasing off the demons and so bugger that final spit-polish, was almost constantly at war with himself to juggle the sexual and the spiritual.
“The Headphone Masterpiece was a very personal record; very personal”, says ChesnuTT. He talks about it in past tense; as past tensions. It’s gone now. The record is still about and he claims to be proud of it – as well he should. But for his current tour – including his first visit to New Zealand in nearly a decade – he’ll not be revisiting the album.
“It’s very important for people to know that”, Cody calmly states. There’s even a chuckle when I suggest some audiences might be a bit mad to not hear The Seed and Can We Teach Each Other.
It seems ChesnuTT has taught himself a whole new set of slick-sounding songs and sounds so for what anyone might miss from Headphone Masterpiece, they’ll find a lot to like in new album, Landing On A Hundred. That’s the message from Cody.
“The new record’s been out a year now; nearly. And it’s been going well. It’s taken a while, a slow-build, but it’s finding its momentum. It’s been really great getting out and playing the shows. And that’s been the word-of-mouth about the album”.
I suggest that in some cases – and this will surely be the way for New Zealand audiences – a large part of the crowd are turning up to hear Headphone songs, unaware of Landing perhaps. But they are sold on the new songs as they’re hearing them live.
“You know, Simon that is exactly it. That is almost exactly what’s happened. Although, as I say, now there’s a momentum building, so people are certainly becoming aware of the album – and we’ve got people at the shows that know the songs”.
Where the message was once about sexy bitches that he fucked with his big black penis, now he’s concerned about where the money comes from and where the money is going, he’s a family man now and sings of faith and faithfulness, of the recession – there are still the dichotomies and the dualities (because “we’re human beings, we’re walking contradictions, writing is a way of trying to make sense of what we do, of reflecting life”) and there is an incredible punch to the music now; it backs the lyrical weight. Stabs of funk and soul frame that natural-born gospel voice and it’s as if he has a direct line in with the masters.
That’s Still Mama is the best song Curtis Mayfield never wrote.
Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Donny Hathaway, Otis Redding, Curtis, they’re all in there, aren’t they?
“Well thank you Simon, and yes. These are the people I learned from, when I was searching for ways to say something about complex issues but in a beautiful way these are the names – and all those classic records – that kept coming back to me. You take a record like Songs In The Key Of Life by Stevie and, oh my god, that record is just so inspiring. I loved that record as an eight year old but it was only when I returned to it as a songwriter that I began to understand just how broad it is; how much ground he covers. It’s very inspiring. Such a wonderful record”.
Landing On A Hundred is a man reborn. After The Headphone Masterpiece found an audience, largely on the back of The Roots’ recasting of The Seed (as The Seed 2.0 with Cody guesting on lead vocals) there were sporadic live appearances, there was talk – for a long time – of a follow-up. And then there was nothing. Nothing for a long time.
“I took time out”, ChesnuTT explains, not sounding sheepish, sounding clear and level-headed and calm and soulful. “I became a father and that is really where my energy has been – that’s where it’s gone to, that was the focus”.
And as a father who is also a musician when the time came to re-record he needed some songs that his children could sing. They weren’t going to find them on The Headphone Masterpiece, right?
“That’s true, Simon”. And here ChesnuTT has a big break to laugh. “Actually, there are one or two songs on that record that are okay and one of my kids is really interested in one of the songs now, looking at learning it, singing along. So that’s a big thrill. But yes, you’re right, it’s important to me that my music reflects my life and I’ve moved on from where I was when I made that first record – this new record is a more honest depiction and reflection of my life now. In fact I wrote this record to reflect the last decade of my life, in a way it’s all in there. Where I’ve got to, where I was, how I’ve arrived at where I am now, happy, content”.
Landing On A Hundred was recorded in Memphis with a kick-ass 10-piece band. But New Zealand won’t get the full effect of the horns and all the show-stopping tricks. Sadly.
“No, it’s just too much to tour with everyone – I wish we could. I wish! But I’m bringing a really great rhythm section with me, the rhythm section that played on the record and we’re pretty road-tight now, we’ve got everything locked down. And it’s sounding good. Really good. Stripped back but still everything you need”.
He remembers “a happy show and a lovely crowd” last time he played New Zealand, a show in Auckland in 2004.
And he’s excited to be returning, sure that “you’ll like what we do. We’re really keen to be there, to play our music for you – and the show’s been getting a good response. It’s a great show. I’m really proud of the album and to be doing this”.