Vic Chesnutt belongs to a pantheon of the most unique and gifted songwriters that has emerged in the modern era of rock/pop/folk. For nearly 20 years, his channeling of Southern Gothic storytelling, along with a gift for vignettes and lyrical imagery, has won him a collection of devout fans. Vic is getting ready to release At The Cut, his second collaboration in three years with Silver Mt. Zion and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. Fans of the previous collaboration, North Star Deserter, will find the new album just as thrilling, if not more so. Vic sat down with AD over the phone to discuss why he returned to working with these collaborators, the challenges of the collaborative process, the “heavy” nature of his recent work and how the words “pimento cheese” can generate vastly different responses from an audience. Check out AD’s exclusive download of the album track “Philip Guston” following the interview.
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Aquarium Drunkard: The new record has you reuniting with the members of Silver Mt. Zion and Guy Picciotto of Fugazi. This is the same group that you worked with for your North Star Deserter record in 2007, but coming back to collaborations isn’t something you’ve done very often in your career. What made you want to come back to this group?
Vic Chesnutt: Well, it’s a dream, for so many reasons. Playing with these guys live, for one thing, is one of the most incredible experiences, musically, I’ve ever had. The power is like a locomotive or something. The decible volume alone is like riding on a jet, a soaring jet or something. So, getting to play with them, any time I could, is a real goal of mine.
AD: A version of that group went out on the road with you for North Star Deserter. Is that going to happen on touring for this album as well?
VC: Yeah, I hope so. We’re going to tour. We have a tour set up through Canada and all through the States in November and December.
AD: Yeah, I believe you’re coming here to North Carolina, to Wilmington, on Halloween.
VC: That’s crazy. That’s the worst day ever to play. [laughs]
AD: You’ve done a lot of collaborations over the past few LPs, and that’s been a staple of your career since the beginning. You’re coming up on 20 years since your debut album and, at this point, is collaborating a way that makes you feel like you’re still evolving in your own art?
VC: Well, yeah. Playing with people like these guys keeps you on your toes, that’s for sure. That alone is good. This record – I could never make this record on my own. I could never do it. There are notes on there that I wouldn’t play in a million years. Textures and things that I could never do myself that I crave for my music to have. So it’s a thrill to me to play with people who can do that. Besides the fact that just being with these people is very inspiring to me. The day we got done recording this album, I came home for a week, and then I went to record another album with Jonathan Richman. And during these sessions, those guys inspired me so much, I wrote 15 new songs. Just being around these people is inspiring.
AD: I imagine there are always challenges when you sit down to combine your art with the art of others. When you first sit down, what are the biggest hurdles to combining your work?
VC: Really the hardest thing is trying to get the chords across. Because I always write the songs on guitar or piano or whatever. So, they have chords already. That’s the most challenging part. And the beat – that’s always a challenge. I’m a folk-song doer, you know? I’m a folk-song writer, so I don’t write with drums in mind necessarily. It’s always a challenge to find the right beat that propels it in a beautiful way.
AD: You don’t naturally hear a rhythm when you write the song? Do you tend to rely on others to bring that to the song?
VC: Well, I tap my foot when I’m playing it. That’s about it. That’s the beat I’m thinking of when I’m writing. And the beat of my heart. I’m not thinking about drums usually when I’m constructing these things. And that’s the thing – I’ve written a song at home and it’s me and a guitar. And then I show up in a collaborative setting and everybody figures out the chords and they bring their own thing to it. Every now and then I say, “Do this.” And sometimes I have a beat – I tap out a beat. “I think it kinda goes like this..” [makes the sound of a beat] Something like that, you know.
AD: The new record obviously shares a sound with North Star Deserter, but there are times it seems to share lyrical themes as well. Was working with this particular sound inspiring to you lyrically in a way? Do you feel that the two records are linked lyrically?
VC: Yeah, the two records, lyrically, have a lot in common. They’re both kind of heavy records. Not a lot of goofing around on these – a little bit of goofing around. This is kind of like my A game. These are my most important songs that I’m putting on these records. Sometimes you record songs in a collaborative setting because it’s a great groove or something’s going on here. It’s fun to play and it’s not necessarily my lyrical A game. Maybe it’s just a crowd-pleaser or something like that. But these two records are lyrically the top of my craft.
AD: Some of the initial stuff I’ve read about the album talked about it having themes of death and memory and things along those lines. One of the songs that stuck out to me the most was “Flirted With You All My Life,” which seemed so incredibly personal in that it seems to make references to your accident when you were 18 and things like that. Heavy songs typically are more personal, but do you ever make a conscious effort for songs to be more personal?
VC: Well, this song just kind of happened. It is very personal. During run-through, when I was showing it to everyone, in the first couple of takes, I had tears in my eyes. It was very emotional to me. I’d never sung this song out – it was only on paper. But when I sing it out loud, it was very emotional for me and very personal. I wanted to write a song about a suicidal person. It’s about me – I have suicidal tendencies. So it’s about a suicide who wanted to live.
AD: The song does, lyrically, migrate from the line about “I flirted with you all my life / I even kissed you once or twice..”
VC: It’s about being a suicide. I’ve attempted suicide a couple of times and I think about things such as that. They have a kind of love/hate relationship with death. I do, in some ways. That’s what I say in the song – “tease me with your sweet relief.” The song is about realizing that I don’t want to die. I want to live.
AD: That song, leading towards the closing song on the record, “Granny,” even though it initially seems like a reflection on particular vignettes about your grandmother, but within that it seems like an appropriate bookend to the conclusion that the narrator draws at the end of “Flirted With You All My Life” when he decides he wants to live.
VC: Right. They’re both very, very personal songs. “Granny,” that song, I dreamed it in its entirety. That’s never happened to me before. I was in a hotel room. I was recording with the Cowboy Junkies – we were doing Trinity Revisited – and was in Toronto. I was dead asleep. I was dreaming – and was looking up at my Granny, singing this song, and was crying my eyes out. I woke up and I was crying – tears were all over, everywhere. I realized, wow, this is a great song. So I grabbed the little hotel stationery pad and pen and wrote down the lyrics exactly as I dreamed them and then grabbed my guitar and figured out what chords they were. It’s the best song I’ve ever wrote. It’s just so heavy and funny at the same time. It’s so personal to me. It’s hard for me to even sing, it’s so personal.
My Granny, she grew up in my house. She’s my dad’s mom and she lived with me when I was growing up, took care of me, so it’s very personal. She used to always say – it’s true, my grandpa did die just before I was born so she always said I was the love of her life and the beat of her heart because I came into her life right as her husband died. It was a heavy dream, man. Very heavy. And it’s a beautiful song. It was a real gift – that my subconscious could just give me this great gift. It’s incredible.
AD: I like that the song has a bit of humor to it. There’s something inherently funny about hearing the words “pimento cheese” in a song. I’m not sure why.
VC: It’s funny, because I’ve played this song in different places in front of different audiences. I’ve only played it five times. I played it in Montreal and there was dead silence, tears everywhere. I played it at Mountain Stage in West Virginia and they laughed at those first few verses so much and then they were dead silent. It works on so many levels, that song.
AD: You talk about some of these songs being tough to play – and I’m sure you’ve had songs like that in the past. Does the feeling ever change after playing them a lot over time?
VC: Oh, yeah. I get used to it. But it sneaks up on me sometimes. I’ve broken down singing songs before on stage. I was at the Bowery Ballroom, maybe last year, with Elf Power. I played a song that I wrote with John Seawright – he’s my friend who is in [“Flirted with You All My Life“] – “when you touched a friend of mine / I thought I would lose my mind” – this is my friend, John Seawright, he was a poet in Athens. We wrote a song together and his brother lives in New York – a great painter named Sam Seawright – he asked me to do that song for an encore. So, while I was playing this song I kind of broke down and started crying. It happens. It’s emotional. I like to do emotional songs. It’s what I do. I like to harness that. There’s a welling up of energy.
AD: Does that carry over to the rest of the band when you’re playing?
VC: Oh, yeah, you can really tell. Some nights when we’re not feeling it – I’m not feeling it, they’re not feeling it – that’s the only difference some nights. When I am feeling it, man, even if they’re not having a good night, they feel it. It’s very contagious, that kind of energy on stage. Very contagious. words/ j neas