By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
There's no doubting that Chesnutt has a thing for words, even by the literate standards of most singer-songwriters. After playing an in-store show at San Francisco's Amoeba Music, he picked up albums by Iris DeMent, the Minutemen, Danielle Cowle, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen--wordy folks all. "I'm obsessed with language," Chesnutt says. "The hocus-pocus of language. The cause and response they make, how certain words have powers, and certain images--when you describe an image--what kind of power it has. When I was a kid listening to rock records, Leonard Cohen, I'd be going, 'Goddamn, that's a great line.' I wanted music to kick my ass in a way. I didn't want to just shake my booty. I wanted to shake my soul."
With the exception of Dylan, the artists whose records Chesnutt picked up that day are still mainly cult artists; Chesnutt was never going to "kick major-label butt," as he half-jokingly said he'd do on one early song. "I probably sold the least amount of records in the history of Capitol," he says. That puts him in a grand tradition of half-famous folkies, a status Chesnutt is fine with. "Other songwriters were the people that liked my songs the most," he says. "So I was conditioned that these were the people who liked my songs. I was the songwriter's songwriter. I don't want to blow my own horn, but my influence on other songwriters is great. I know because they tell me it is."
His list of fans ranges from the artists on Sweet Relief II to, somewhat surprisingly, Van Dyke Parks, the creator of the 1969 masterpiece Song Cycle, which, along with the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, helped create the blueprint for modern symphonic pop. The pairing would have seemed odd pre-Bernadette, but Chesnutt croons, "I'm giving you a Van Dyke listening" on the Brill Building pop of "Mysterious Tunnel," and speaks enthusiastically about a collaboration the two are planning. "Song Cycle is a bible, a rock bible," he says. "Lyrically speaking, musically speaking--it's fantastic. He's a god to me."
For the second time in his career, Chesnutt is crawling out of the tiny shell that's the singer-songwriter ghetto--except this time he's doing it on his own terms. "I just want to write better songs," he says. "When I write better songs, more people will buy my records. They won't be able to deny it.