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Performance/Q&A: Cody Chesnutt

Cody Chesnutt believes in taking his time.

He earned widespread critical praise for his first album, the lo-fi, double disc “The Headphone Masterpiece” in 2002, when Chesnutt also lent his voice to the Roots’ “The Seed 2.0”--a remake of a track featured on “Masterpiece.” Then, well … not much happened for a while.

Short of an EP release in 2010, Chesnutt mostly vanished from the musical map. A marriage, two children and a decade later, he released his full-length follow-up, the livelier “Landing on a Hundred,” in late 2012.

Before his recent show at Martyrs’, the Atlanta native sat down to discuss where he’s been, fixing household problems through song and his history with, of all people, Suge Knight.

“Landing on A Hundred” is your first official album in 10 years. Is the person that recorded this album the same person that recorded “The Headphone Masterpiece?”

Well, I have two children now, and that’s changed the whole game for me. Not only that, but as a man I wanted to give myself time to grow so that I could also let my artistry grow, and my family is very instrumental in the growth process.  I wanted the music to reflect who I am now, as opposed to trying to lean on something that’s popular or convenient. I wanted to take my time as a writer. I mean, 10 years wasn’t planned [laughs]. I was just trying to absorb as much information and observe new life experiences.

Raising kids is a big part of that, right? I mean, you had to have points where you were like, “Record a song? I don’t even know what day it is.”

Right! All my energy was focused on what that deal was all about: fatherhood and family.
You’ve studied the history of black music. You even went down to Memphis and recorded using the same microphone Al Green used to use. You’re involved with the present-day music scene. From your perspective as a newer father, what do you think is the future of black music?

I think a sense of history has been lost in the music. A lot of music that dominates the airwaves now, personally I don’t feel it. It doesn’t resonate in my soul. You just hear catchphrases and sounds. I think we’ve gotten too far from that.  As we know though, things go in cycles. I feel we’re going to start demanding more.  I think we’re getting back to the point where we’ll dig a little deeper and reintroduce the past elements.
Who are you currently listening to?
Not a lot, to be honest. I appreciated what Frank Ocean does as a writer; he’s got a lot of potential. I think Cee-Lo is a great writer. I’m mostly into the classics.
I get that vibe from your album. Look at the song “Love is More Than a Wedding Day.” By the way, what did you wife think about that one?
She loved it. She cried when I played it for her. I mean, I wrote it to fix a little issue in our household. Communication had broken down one week, and so I wrote that as a way to bring us back together. It’s my favorite song on the album.

Do you use singing as a way to get out of trouble around the house? You forget to take out the trash and she gets mad, so you say, “I know I didn’t take out that trash baby, but hold on, I wrote you this song…”

[Laughs] Nah. It definitely comes in handy trying to keep the peace around the house though.
What kind of music are you playing for your kids?
I play them the whole gamut. Some jazz, some soul, spirituals, a little rock-and-roll. When my son is in the car with his mother, he catches a little bit of the contemporary pop music. They love music.
You used to write some things for Death Row Records, right?
Well, my cousin and some friends were in a group called Six Feet Deep. They would always come to me for mentoring. I’d practice with them and get them tight on their harmonies. Somehow, they met [co-founder/CEO] Suge Knight and they parlayed that meeting into a trip out to Los Angeles, and he told them about my writing. About midnight one night, Suge called me, told me he liked the material and then flew me out to work. We did about five to seven songs, and that evolved into Suge wanting me to write for a Tupac tribute album, which never ended up happening. The song I did ended up on the [1997 Tupac/Tim Roth vehicle] “Gridlock’d.”
Speaking of … rap music is known for being a look into the lives of people in bad situations and neighborhoods. In fact, some of the best music ever has come out of turmoil and unrest. Chicago is going through a tough time right now, and I wanted to know, you being a person who creates soulful music, do you have any advice for artists on these streets right now?

You have to continue to focus on truth. Make music that digs deeper. A lot of music [from the streets] today is superficial. Artists have to come from the heart to establish a dialogue the way Curtis Mayfield and Stevie [Wonder] did. People just have to open themselves up and be in tuned with the conditions and the spirit of those conditions.

We waited ten years for you to release a new album. Do you think we’re ever going to get a new record from D’Angelo?

Man, it’s a process. Nobody knows what that brother’s going through. At the end of the day, he’s a bona fide talent, and there shouldn’t be a time limit on what he has to offer. Whatever he brings to the table, people are going to feel it. Whatever he creates is going to be the music that saved his life. It’ll stand up on it’s own. Let the man do what he needs to do. Just be patient. [smiles]

erwilkins@tribune.com,  @ernestwilkins

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