Crown Vic: Singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt gets his collaboration on
by Andrew Clayman
“My songwriting process is a very lonely one,” says Vic Chesnutt, Athens, Ga.’s resident, lo-fi folk legend. “It’s just me locked in a room and in my own little bubble. So it’s quite good for my heart to join in some sort of collaborative process for the recording itself.”
In the past, Chesnutt’s therapeutic recording sessions have seen him swapping brain cells with the likes of fellow Athenian Michael Stipe (1990’s Little), Nashville chamber-country collective Lambchop (1998’s The Salesman and Bernadette), and studio icons Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks (2005’s Ghetto Bells). In each case, Chesnutt’s absorbingly earnest but offbeat folk tales have held the foreground in the midst of his heavyweight collaborators. It’s a trend that continues on his latest
release, North Star Deserter, which pairs the acoustic balladeer with some unlikely cohorts in the form of Montreal post-rockers A Silver Mt. Zion (AKA Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band).
“It was the producer Jem Cohen’s idea to bring in the musicians he brought in,” says Chesnutt, referring to the full cast of Silver Mt. Zion, as well as members from Fugazi and Godspeed You Black Emperor. “(Cohen) wanted to get me up to Montreal to record at Hotel2Tango with all those guys. And I’ve known Jem for 20 years—I’m a big fan of his. I’m a big fan of Godspeed, Silver Mt. Zion, and Fugazi, as well, so I was very excited about working with all of them. Unfortunately, I can’t take
credit for actually coming up with the idea.” One thing Chesnutt will take some credit for is understanding the subtleties of collaborative art, even when the down-to-earth Georgian is working with a roomful of Quebecois dramatists.
“The thing is, because I am this singer-songwriter guy—and not a band—it lends itself really well to collaboration,” he explains. “I think I have an ear for which one of my songs will go with certain bands. I have a good feeling for that kind of thing.
“This session (for North Star Deserter) wasn’t particularly different or unique from my other sessions. I wrote the songs and we presented them to the band, and we just kind of recorded it, you know, live in the studio—which is how I like to do it. It was a very organic process, quite a bit of fun, and quite a life nurturing experience, really.”
As a testament to Chesnutt’s craft and flexibility, North Star Deserter sounds as intimate and personal as the lo-fi recordings that earned him his cult following in the early ’90s. Somehow, a sense of continuity comes through the intermittent laces of strings, choral accompaniment, and electric guitar feedback on the album—which, incidentally, includes songs written across a span of more than 20 years.
“A lot of the songs on this record are really old,” Chesnutt says. “The first song, ‘Warm,’ I wrote in 1985. So it’s really old. But then there was another song, ‘Marathon,’ that I wrote the day before the session started. I played it in the studio, and everybody said, ‘Ah, let’s record it!’ So we did.”
According to Chesnutt, this blending of dusty, old songs and sparkling new ones is par for the course when he cuts a record, which helps explain why each successive album has managed to maintain such a great balance in its sensibilities. Some songs just have a longer gestation period than others, and for a prolific songwriter like Chesnutt, there’s a pretty massive archive of tunes to work from.
“(Songwriting) is a very natural thing for me,” he says. “I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid. And it’s a nervous habit. I do it all the time; I take notes all the time, I think about it all the time. It’s just something I do. It’s part of my personality.”
Chesnutt, now 42, has been relegated to a wheelchair since losing the use of his legs in a car accident at the age of 18. The music he’s written since stands alone without the context of such adversity, but the quality of his character is hard to ignore. Even after a couple decades of critical admiration, Chesnutt only seems stymied when asked to set his modesty aside and promote his own show.
“Well, I’m a unique songwriter,” he says. “I have my own vision of the world.” There’s a long pause. “And I’m not a great self-promoter, that’s for damn sure.”
Article Source: Metro Pulse