The story has all the ingredients of show business mythology: Fusing rock, soul, hip-hop and R&B, an unknown artist releases an invigorating debut LP, an urban/indie calling card that challenges notions of popular music. On the cusp of breaking big, the edgy artist vanishes, never to be heard from again. Until now.
If the tale seems too mythic to be true, that's because it is. Talking from his Tallahassee home, singer/songwriter Cody Chesnutt ponders the mythos that's sprung up around the 10-year gap between the release of his 2002 solo debut, The Headphone Masterpiece, and his 2012 follow-up LP, Landing on a Hundred.
"It's interesting how people create legends out of their own desire to keeps things going." Chesnutt notes that he never really disappeared after 2002. He continued to compose and play, albeit sporadically. "At the end of the day, it's not about my story; it's all about the music, how it has touched people so much that they continue to talk about it."
Chesnutt made conversation-starting music long before his first solo album, a lo-fi, genre-jumping double LP, ambitious and audacious enough to include "masterpiece" in its title.
Moving from his native Atlanta to Los Angeles in the '90s, Chesnutt wrote and produced R&B songs, while focusing primarily on his experimental funk outfit Crosswalk. A deal was inked with Hollywood Records and a Crosswalk album was recorded, but the label dropped the group without releasing the disc. This career reversal set the stage for Chesnutt's ear-opening Headphone Masterpiece, a home-recorded, 36-track embarrassment of riches.
"I just had a lot in me at the time," Chesnutt says, explaining the sprawl of his all-over-the-map debut. "The songs came together in an organic way, and I had planned to focus [the material] and find a direction." Yet the best direction proved to be no direction. "I found myself really enjoying the range of it all, and I just decided, 'This is me.'" Touching a chord with its down-to-earth eclecticism and raw storytelling, Headphone appealed to everyone from soul lovers to indie rockers, eventually landing in the hands of The Roots' Questlove.
Chesnutt appeared on "The Seed 2.0," The Roots' cover of his own cut "The Seed," and a high-profile career beckoned. Then Chesnutt dropped off the planet.
"Just life," Chesnutt replies when asked what happened. "I became a father in 2003, and that's the biggest thing in my life. [Fatherhood] opened a whole universe. I had to allow myself to go through my own changes to be available to this new person in my life."
As it changed his life, parenthood also transformed Chesnutt's songwriting. "It purified my thought process. If I'm trying to offer my child my best, then I should offer everyone my best. I want to bring content to the stage that is consistent with what I teach at home." Such devotion to intent and impact took 10 long years, yet Chesnutt doesn't regret the passage of a decade. "I'm glad I took my time and took things as they come, because it gave me the material and maturity I needed for my next album."
That album, Landing on a Hundred, merges contemporary grit with classic, horn-driven soul. "It's about trying to marry the energy and composition of now with the feel of the great records of the '60s and '70s, because there's a spirit in those songs that feeds the soul endlessly."
In retrospect, Hundred must have been fated to find the spirit Chesnutt was seeking. Searching for a facility with the best analog gear, Chesnutt landed on Royal Studios in Memphis, where Al Green cut masterpieces like "Let's Stay Together."
"The energy of that room is really powerful. Everyone was in awe and really quiet for the first 15 minutes. You could truly feel that this is where it has to happen." And happen it did. Chesnutt's current LP evokes James Brown's primal grooves along with The Crusaders' celebration of all that's holy in everyday occurrences.
"It means intentions," Chesnutt explains of the album's title. "Keep it real. Don't water it down." Just like his legendary debut, the current LP is a collision of classic and contemporary, a badly needed dose of reality. "There's so much superficial content out there that people are hungry for something genuine. That's what Landing on a Hundred means to me. It's just being as sincere as you can."