Vic Chesnutt’s silver lining: songwriter peaking with best work yet

By Mark Guarino

Songwriter Vic Chesnutt is a magnet for Leonard Cohen comparisons. Like Cohen, the iconic songwriter and practicing Buddhist, Chesnutt writes psychologically rich songs that are deceptively simple. Like Cohen, he’s also a poet and words are crucial.

And his songs don’t fit any niche. His newest album, “Silver Lake” (East West), includes songs about a eunuch, a romance between two kids in the school band, the metaphysical connection between beauty and tragedy in nature, and the ending song about enjoying being alive. When asked why he wrote the last song, Chesnutt replies simply, “it cheered me up.”

Chesnutt says his new album also contains hidden messages and references to fellow songwriters Victoria Williams and Lucinda Williams, both friends and fellow Southerners. He is mentioned in the same circles as them both, but is not as well known. Although a charity album for Sweet Relief, an organization offering financial help for musicians, featured Chesnutt songs covered by superstars like Madonna, the Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage and R.E.M., Chesnutt still lives a relatively low-key life. He rarely tours and when he does collaborate with other musicians, it’s more likely with cult bands like the Nashville ensemble Lambchop than Madonna.

“I took (“Sweet Relief”) pretty much in stride. It didn’t give me a big head. If Madonna was actually recording one of my songs for her record though, it would have made me a rich man,” he said.

Chesnutt was born in Florida but raised in Georgia. He came from a musical family, but one with warped professional goals. “My grandmother always wanted to write lyrics for country people to record so she could get rich,” he said. His grandfather wrote songs and his mother, poetry. He started writing his own songs when he was a teenager but what came out were “stupid happy pop songs,” he said and they never went anywhere.

When he was 18, he was involved in a car accident that injured his spiral chord so badly he is confined to a wheelchair for life. Chesnutt, 38, said that rather than mourn his loss, he considered himself “lucky” because it helped him find his artistic vision. He devoured modern poetry for the first time in his life. It provided the sharp focus his songwriting needed because, as he says, he “started feeling the art feeling.” In other words, the happy songs were through.

“I didn’t want to write love songs or whatever,” he said. “I guess I’m a cynical (expletive). Nothing is ever rosy in my world. I can do funny and sad at the same time. I felt like I had a knack for it. I realized I was double jointed.”

Chesnutt recorded his debut two years after his accident and has been prolific ever since. His early success is due to Michael Stipe, the R.E.M. vocalist and Chesnutt’s neighbor in Athens, Ga., who championed his songs and produced his first two albums. His work has grown from solo introspection to loud garage rock (one album was a collaboration with Southern jam band Widespread Panic) to the whimsical soul pop of his latest album. While other songwriters frequently mine misery for the sake of a good three-minute heartbreaker, not many do it with the depth of Chesnutt’s vulnerability, fine attention to detail and acerbic wit.

Every song, it seems, has at least one joke to break the tension. “Stay Inside,” a new song that defends his isolating nature, includes a title sung in a chorus by a cheery community choir. For “Girls Say,” Chesnutt dissects the sexes through a series of conversational phrases he playfully acts out. (“Girls say, ‘hey, careful with that’ and boys say, ‘hey, look what I can do!’”)

“Silver Lake” was recorded in the hipster L.A. neighborhood of the same name. Recording took place in the same 1920s mansion with the same producer (Mark Howard) and some of the same songwriters of Lucinda Williams’ recent album “World Without Tears” (Lost Highway). Still living in Athens with his wife of 12 years, Chesnutt went to L.A. with “no vision how the sound was going to be.” He said he originally wanted to “make a pompous orchestra record” but Howard, a protégé of ambient auteur Daniel Lanois, convinced him to go into a more organic rock direction. It is a distinctly warm sounding record that was recorded entirely live. Howard pushed Chesnutt’s singing, telling him to hit the high Smokey Robinson falsetto of “Sultan, So Mighty,” and he wasn’t afraid to incorporate African instrumentation and chanting.

Back at home, Chesnutt says he working on new songs but is “not that disciplined” although he jots something down in his workbook daily.

“I’m still working towards my potential,” he said. “I’m still working towards it with fingers in the clay every day.”

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