Published Sep 24, 2007Over his storied career, Vic Chesnutt has worked with artistic luminaries, yet no collaboration has yielded results as powerful as his Constellation Records debut, North Star Deserter, which warranted working with strangers in Montreal and trusting the vision of Jem Cohen, a filmmaker turned record producer. Raised in Georgia, Chesnutt was in a car accident in 1983 and has been a paraplegic since his late teens. His Southern perspective and punk-infused folk spirit first garnered attention on 1990s Little, produced by R.E.M.s Michael Stipe. Chesnutt has subsequently collaborated with Lambchop, Bill Frisell, Emmylou Harris, and even Billy Bob Thornton for a small role in the Oscar-winning film, Sling Blade.
Mainstream flirtations aside, Chesnutt is a peripheral figure whose latest record includes contributions from Constellation artists Thee Silver Mt. Zion & Tra-La-La Band, members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, as well as Fugazis Guy Picciotto. With Cohen in charge, North Star Deserter is a stunning gathering, fostering relationships that Chesnutt has longed for.
"Jem really wanted to introduce me to this Montreal contingent and make a record with these guys because he just thought we would hit it off and he was totally right; we did, Chesnutt says. "It was a very warm, open group of people and I felt an intellectual kinship with them almost immediately. It was almost too good to be true. I love Constellation Records; I love a lot of their bands and their approach to music they put out. Its very heavy, from folkie to noisy, cinematic, and evocative, so its a dream to be on Constellation.
When asked to discuss virtually anything about North Star Deserter, Chesnutt quickly credits everything to Jem Cohen. Friends for 20 years, Chesnutt and Cohen were thrilled to finally work together and it was Cohen who saw the inherent connection between the players involved. "Jem had ideas about how he wanted this to be very representative of two halves of my musical personality the kind of stripped down, acoustic, raw things and then the distortion, Chesnutt explains. "He also knows all of the musicians on this album very well, the kind of texture each person would bring, and he cast them for each song.
Acclaimed for long form works such as the Fugazi documentary Instrument and shorter films about the Ex and Cat Power, Cohen is passionate about his work but views his role here modestly. "I think that most really fine musicians have a core and then they need to try other things, Cohen explains. "They take twists and turns and sometimes, somebody else might be useful to remind them that their core thing is still vital and really powerful and doesnt always need to be pushed away from. Its not only Vics early records versus his later records because live and on demos, Vic would always return to that core. But in the studio he really got, I think, away from the core.
In capturing Chesnutt on the masterful North Star Deserter, Cohen oversaw an organic, creative process, while applying his own working methods in Montreals Hotel2Tango studio. "Jem even sat right beside me when I was singing some of these songs and hed tell me, Yeah, I dont like the way youre singing that, Chesnutt recalls fondly. "He said, Youre forgetting what you do the best, yknow? Youre trying to over-sing or something like that, he would tell me. So, it was very much like a director telling an actor, Pull it in or that kind of thing, and I really enjoyed it. I think the result is one of the most focused and realised records Ive ever made.