Tuesday, November 15

Folk-Punk Chesnutt Spins On Music

Vic Chesnutt claims he would need to release somewhere around four albums a year to truly satisfy his songwriting jones. He says he's always either at the piano, with the guitar or whittling down lyrics. The 41-year-old has even taken to recording songs on his computer while in transit from one tour stop to the next.

"It's something that I've been doing since I was a kid . . . at any time I'm dying to put out a new record," Chesnutt said over the phone from Minnesota, where he just wrapped up a stint with Jonathan Richman the night before. "I realize, though, that's just not the way things work."

Chesnutt is a Southern-reared folk punk with a wicked wit and profound vision.

There's a stoic - almost didactic - quality to his music, which flows through a variety of channels. He's just as at home delivering moody stripped-down numbers that sound like they were recorded on a four-track in a bedroom as he is playing with a string and horn section.

His most recent effort, March's "Ghetto Bells," features jazz icon Bill Frisell helming guitar duties and multi-instrumentalist Van Dyke Parks on everything from accordion to piano.

"With that record, I really went into the studio with the mind-set of just trying to be a player in the band," said Chesnutt, who's been in a wheelchair since a car accident paralyzed him when he was 18. "When you're with musicians as good as those guys, you just want to let them do whatever they feel is best for the song."

However, at the heart of all of his songwriting - grandiose arrangement or sparse - is a sense of melancholy and introspection. Though he says he's often been accused of being a stream-of-consciousness writer, nothing could be further from the truth.

Ever the craftsman, Chesnutt admits he pores over songs time and time again until he feels the lyrics convey exactly what he wants. He says his rural upbringing plays a large part in the imagery behind his phrasing, but inspiration can strike from anywhere.

Whether it be one line that he's trying to build around or a specific topic he wants to touch upon, his songs are weighty and below the surface. The listeners might completely miss his point upon first listen, but that's part of the fun.

"In a short song, you've only got so many words to work with, so I try to make sure that every single one of them is loaded," he said. "The goal is to make the songs dense enough to last forever. . . . There's got to be some kind of hidden second meaning that might not be apparent until it's been heard on several occasions."

Chesnutt will play solo during his upcoming Southern California appearances at the request of tourmate, mercurial songbird Rickie Lee Jones.

"I love playing solo; it's a completely different experience to playing a band," he said. "It doesn't matter to me if I've recorded the songs with a complete arrangement, they all started off with just me."


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