In 2003, soul singer Cody ChesnuTT was on the fast track to fame.
After he’d toiled as a songwriter for Death Row Records and his group the Crosswalk had been dropped by its label, The Roots released a new version of ChestnuTT’s “The Seed” on its seminal album, “Phrenology.” (The song came from his acclaimed self-recorded solo debut, “The Headphone Masterpiece.”)
The track was a hit. ChestnuTT, an Atlanta native, toured the country and was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award. But instead of recording an anticipated followup album, he took a step back.
“I decided I’d seen everything I needed to see on that side of the rock ’n’ roll fantasy,” he explains, calling from Tallahassee, Fla. “My first son was born in 2003. I wanted to work on my faith and try to understand my choices. I moved to a small town 50 minutes away from the city to clear myself and get purified. My children aided in that.”
ChesnuTT, who plays Visulite Theatre on Tuesday, didn’t go into hiding. He released a live album and EP, and appeared in “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” before testing new material on the road in 2009. Audiences connected with the new songs, which he then recorded with a 10-piece band at Royal Studios in Memphis – a decidedly different experience from recording “The Headphone Masterpiece” on a 4-track cassette recorder in his bedroom studio.
“Landing on a Hundred” – ChesnuTT’s first full-length album in a decade – demonstrates the sort of thoughtful maturity and self-awareness it takes to leave behind fame for faith and family. It’s also an incredibly uplifting record, big on storytelling and gorgeous arrangements that touch on not only soul, but gospel, world music, doo-wop, Motown, easy listening and rock ’n’ roll.
ChesnuTT was inspired by “great, grand albums from the ’60s and ’70s.”
“I’ve always been a huge fan of lush production. I wanted to bring those elements that moved me to this body of work. I made certain attempts on my first record to do it with limited resources,” he says. “On this album I wanted to stretch out as much as I could. I’ve always heard a lot of music in my songs. There are some things I left out. I wanted to do a couple orchestral things that I wasn’t able to, but what we did worked well and helped the emotion.”
The album hits on African pride (“I’ve Been Life”), commitment (“Love Is More Than a Wedding Day”), making art for the right reasons (“What Kind of Cool…”), family, acceptance, respect and staying the course through characters that struggle and overcome.
“That positivity and that outlook – that is definitely one of the main objectives,” he says. “Especially in a moment like this. At the same time I’m saying, ‘It’s OK to grow.’ When you look at what dominates the mainstream, you feel like you’re in a state of arrested development. You keep running away from becoming 38 years old, and you have a certain frame of mind. Pop culture makes (aging) less appealing.”
ChesnuTT, now in his 40s, adds: “It’s OK to speak from where you are in life. I don’t want to pretend I’m 22. I am a grown man, and I’d like to share that in my art and not come out with this superficial, pretentious, forever-young type of narrative.”
Courtney's blog: cltsoundbites.blogspot.com
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