Published Sep 29, 2009A resident of Athens, Georgia, Vic Chesnutt's ability to overcome a severe disability and write his wondrous songs has been an inspiration to legions of fans and musicians over the past 20 years. He's composed critically acclaimed records, collaborated with the likes of Michael Stipe, Lambchop, Bill Frisell, Emmylou Harris, and most recently, Elf Power and Jonathan Richman. In 2007, after urging from his friend, filmmaker Jem Cohen, Chesnutt released a remarkable record called North Star Deserter on Constellation Records and toured the world with members of A Silver Mt. Zion and Fugazi. The core band recently joined him again, this time without Cohen's guidance, to create another astounding album with At the Cut, which was released on September 22.
Vic, when you arrived in Montreal to make North Star Deserter, I got the impression that it was a feeling-out process for both yourself and this incredible group of collaborators. You've toured the world with most of them now; how has familiarity affected you and this Montreal contingent of yours?
Well, it's changed everything about our relationship. When I made North Star Deserter, I didn't know any of these guys except Guy [Picciotto] from Fugazi. Through touring, familiarity, and actually jamming, we had this rock'n'roll rapport that really helped us record this album. There was no producer, unlike the North Star Deserter record; nobody was in charge. We just relied on our knowledge of each other and how we play, to organically develop the songs. I've often described being on tour together as being like going to war together. You have this familiarity, this rapport, that's impossible to get another way I think.
It's an unbreakable bond, so to speak.
It's an unbreakable bond (chuckles). I mean sometimes, it does break. Rock'n'roll bonds break all the time. But it matures the relationship in many ways and gives wisdom to the improvisation.
I think that comes across in comparing the two records. That familiarity seems to have sharpened your instincts for what you each might do.
Right, well I wanted to make a carbon copy of North Star Deserter; that was my intention when we went in to make this album. It did not happen at all; it's a totally different album. I think the main reason for that is because of our familiarity. The rest of the musicians understood the subtleties of my music and they were very quick to join in on this sort of stuff.
I understand that you actually played all of these songs through on your own once for all of the people involved in At the Cut. Why did you do that and what was the experience like?
It was horrible. I was so nervous and scared and embarrassed. But the reason I did it was because we needed to pick which songs to do. Simple as that. Unlike the last record where Jem Cohen picked all the songs. That didn't happen on this record.
So, even with all this newfound familiarity, you were very nervous to do that?
Especially because of that; I respect them all so much. Some of these songs are very new and so I didn't have the perspective on them that I sometimes do. I had no idea if they were good or not. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to make this record live up to North Star Deserter, which was a very dynamic thing. So, it was mostly internal pressure that made me a wreck on play-through. But it was funny; everyone agreed on every song so it was very easy. Some songs, they'd be like, "No, no. Wait, that one, yes ― we're keeping it." And I'd be like, "I dunno about that one," and they'd say "We're keeping it!"
I guess it's good that they were being assertive. You say some of the songs were new. I also understand that some of them are, what, 25 years old? 13 years old?
That's true. It was the same thing with North Start Deserter.
What makes you stow these songs away? Because when I hear them, they all seem like instant classics. Like if someone heard them, they'd have to tell you "That's an amazing song." Why hang on to them like this?
It's funny; I'm not real sure. I don't know why they don't fit on other records. "Concord Country Jubilee" was written in 1985.
Right. That's kinda crazy.
Yeah, it's crazy. I don't know why that song never made it on. I've always loved it but it just never made the cut.
And now it's made At the Cut!
Now it's made At the Cut, and it became an instant "Vic Chesnutt classic." It's crazy, the arrangement that we did and the whole thing. It's just incredible.
It's very interesting that you'd sit on these songs so long and then, they finally come out almost fully formed. A few takes and the live version are caught on this record.
Very much so, it's the completely live version. It's also funny that they can't tell that it's that old. I was, I dunno, 21 years old when I wrote the song and now I'm 44. Yet, it still sits well with the songs that are brand new that I wrote the day before the session or whatever.
It is strange. You mentioned that you wanted to make a carbon copy of the last record. How would you compare the sound and thematic tone of this album with North Star Deserter?
Well, tone-wise it's very similar in many ways. It's still kind of a dark record but to me, it's more eclectic. Every song has its own kind of statement. North Star Deserter had a lot of kinda same-y stuff going on. It was good; I love that album but it had an arrangement thing going for it. With At the Cut, each song is very different and had its own treatment. I think that has a lot to do with the way we produced it. Everyone had ideas, unlike the last record, where Jem Cohen was basically saying "You do this on this." This was everybody having their own two cents. And sometimes it was very frustrating for me. I was like, "No, this isn't working, this isn't working. Something's not right," and I couldn't put my finger on it. I couldn't figure out or articulate what wasn't right and it was frustrating.
But did you come to trust the other folks' opinions?
Oh yeah, I mean I trusted their opinion. Sometimes, the instant we would start arranging a song, somebody would come up with an idea and it'd be like, "Oh yeah, that's a genius idea. That's perfect."
That's the beauty of collaboration I suppose.
Yeah, very much so. The arrangements are very much a collaborative effort; everything about it is collaborative. Everybody on the album had opinions and a very strong influence on the outcome.
Vic, the last time we spoke, you expressed a great love for Constellation Records and the community it's immersed in. Since then, you seem to have been terribly productive as a songwriter, working with others and making more records. Are you feeling particularly inspired to work these days?
I am. It's funny because I went to record At the Cut in December. We recorded for a couple of weeks really ― ten days, something like that. And the moment I got home, I knew that in a week I was going to record a new album with Jonathan Richman producing. And I wrote 15 songs in that week from the moment I got home from Montreal.
I was so inspired by the whole experience. Just the personal experience with these people ― they inspire me. Really, my heart and brain completely open up when I'm around these people.
What is it about them Vic? What is it about them that does that for you?
I'm not sure. They're incredible musicians, that much is true. Unlike a lot of other musicians that I've played with in my life, they're very different and they're always improving. I mean, Thierry [Amar] the bass player, he's always rehearsing and practicing and improving. I can tell that his contrabass playing is better now than it was on the first album. That's incredible to me; that people continue to improve at that level, when they're at this high level already. That inspires me. The way that they approach the music is very different than the kinda slacker, bohemian world that I kinda come from in Athens. They're loving and smart people. They're very giving and that inspires me personally, y'know what I mean?
Yeah, I do. It's obviously inspired you to write. Has it inspired your work ethic per se?
Yes it very much has. Jonathan Richman was one of the first people that I noticed at his age ― I mean I've known him for 20 years now ― always rehearsing, always practicing. That inspired me and these guys are the same way. There's also something political that goes on that's very inspiring to me. It makes me want to be a deeper thinker or my songs to be deep, y'know? (Chuckles) I know that seems kinda funny, but it's true. I wrote 15 songs in a week when I got home from there!
Has that ever happened before?
Um, I think so. It was extraordinary though. It really was. Even at the time it was going on, I was like, "Whoa." And I emailed everybody and talked to them on the phone before I went up to record with Jonathan and I was like, "Man, I wish I coulda hung out with you guys for a week before we made this record. I'm sure I woulda got some different songs."
How did making those records with Elf Power and Jonathan Richman compare to these Montreal albums?
Well, the Elf Power record was a kinda slow process. We recorded two songs a night over many months. It was very different that way. We just got together in my attic ― we recorded it at my house ― and I played a song and we started jamming on it. It was slower and a whittled thing. We'd play a song like 20 times, working on the arrangements, doing one or two songs a night. It was very much a crafted kind of thing. The Constellation records, we didn't have that luxury to play the songs over and over again.
That was because you weren't at home? You were in Montreal and there to work?
Right, right. The Elf Power record had much more of a party atmosphere too; it wasn't quite as serious an affair. I'm not saying that we were all serious with the Constellation records because there was a great deal of laughter there too. It wasn't all stoic; there were lots of smiles around the whole time. But we weren't quite as high as when we made the Elf Power record. That was insane; absolutely insane.
Okay, I see.
Now, the Jonathan Richman record was even different than those. I had all these brand new songs and I went to San Francisco ― Jonathan had me come out there ― and it's pretty stripped down. His drummer would join me and it was all live in the studio. Some times Jonathan would join me on harmonium or guitar. It was very quickly done. We didn't we play these songs over and over like I did with Elf Power and there was no deliberation like on the Constellation records. No deliberation; it was all very quick.
And you thrive in either space? Improvisation or, as you say, the fully crafted writing approach?
I like both; I see the advantage of doing it both ways. I couldn't do the instant records like this one with Jonathan Richman, I couldn't do that all the time. And yet, most of my records are made live in the studio. When I'm recording at home, I spend a lot of time going over things and overdubbing, trying out different parts ― I spend a lot of time doing that and it's very much in my nature. Sometimes, during the Constellation records, I would get frustrated because I'm less of a perfectionist in many ways, than the some of the Constellation family are. Y'know, I'm a songwriter and I'm always ready to move on and do another song, know what I mean? And that's a problem. Sometimes, I know that I was pushing to just leave it and move on during this At the Cut session and, if people had listened to me, it would've been a mistake! I'd be like "This isn't working, we need to move on." And yet, the results we got from buckling down and going over it for hours more was the right move.
It sounds like it's really a mutually beneficial relationship with these folks.
I hope so because I love their music, I love them as people, and I love their politics. It's meant a lot to me; it's like a shot in the arm for me. It's been a great ego booster playing with all these people and it's good because I often think I suck. I get depressed and I dunno what I'm doing in this world. So, playing music with these people really makes me think, "Wow, I'm doing something very worthwhile."
Well, that's excellent. Finally Vic, I'm wondering what your plans are from here. It seems like these Constellation records capture you in such a pure, vibrant, and starkly open place. Do you see these collaborations continuing in the future?
I sure hope so. I think the next record will be even better than At the Cut. Next time, I'm gonna spend a week there writing songs before we make the record! That's what I'm gonna do! (laughs)
Just sorta immersed in the spirit of the people.
Exactly, exactly. It means a lot to me. It really does mean a lot to me.
Do you have any particular releases or tour plans coming up soon? I haven't heard this Jonathan Richman record yet.
It's not out yet. I'm not sure when it's coming out. It was supposed to come out before At the Cut but it didn't. It's called Skitter on Take-Off.
Oh, okay. And what label is that on?
It's on Vapour. They were recorded a week and a half apart and a lot of the songs were totally inspired by my Montreal experience.
So they're companion pieces in a way?
They are to me. They're very, very different beasts. Skitter on Take-Off is very rough. Some of the songs had never been sung out-loud before; they were just theories in my head before the tape was rolling and Jonathan said, "Play something!"
And you just trusted his instincts there?
Well, it's nice to see you working so many different people. One of the things I've come across in speaking with your collaborators is that you're a really open performer and that's refreshing to them.
(Laughs) That's good to know. I mean, I do feel open and some times I can tell that I do have a unique musical philosophy in some ways. I can tell, in that the spirit of my music is unique some times to other musicians.
It seems like you walk a line between risk and trust in these sorts of relationships and it seems to be working out really well.