What Happens When Vic Chesnutt Is 'Left To His Own Devices'?

Folky singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt says the first step in making his new album, "Left to his own Devices," was to start sorting through a big box of hundreds of cassettes carrying songs, song ideas,

Folky singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt says the first step in making his new album, "Left to his Own Devices," was to start sorting through a big box of hundreds of cassettes carrying songs, song ideas, and song fragments, some of which date back 10-12 years.

As he began listening to the various "work tapes," Chesnutt says he was a little bewildered by some of the things he heard. "I remember recording [the song] 'In Amongst the Millions' on my four-track. I liked it, but I couldn't understand any of the words I was singing on it. I just didn't know what the hell was going on," he quips.

Many of the other songs on the just-released "Left to his own Devices," Chesnutt's first album for New York-based indie label spinART, contain various samples, some of which he recorded off the radio. They too were a bit mystifying. "A lot of times, I was just sitting there thinking, 'God, when did I do that? How did I make that noise? I can't remember.'"

While there are a few new songs on the album, the balance of the record comes from four-track recordings Chesnutt made at home in the early 1990s, about the time the record-buying public was being introduced to the wheelchair-bound, Athens, Ga.-based artist.

After recently having a home studio built, 36-year-old Chesnutt -- confined to a wheelchair since breaking his neck in a 1983 drunk driving accident -- thought it important to start sifting through the big box of tapes, which contain songs recorded simply on a boom box and others captured on hand-held recorders and four and eight-track machines. But he says he didn't necessarily intend to make an album out of the material. "I thought, 'I should maybe listen through these and see if I need to burn them on a CD before they start deteriorating.' I really didn't think anything would be worth a crap on there.

"But, then, something about it made me want to work on it and do it. It was just a fun project for me to work on as an engineer, and also because it gave me an opportunity to relive my past a little bit."

Whereas Chesnutt has been backed by a few longtime friends on many of his early albums -- Lambchop on one and fellow Athens act Widespread Panic on another -- only his bass player and wife of 11 years, Tina, joins him on "Left to his own Devices." Tina plays bass, lead guitar, and sings back-up vocals on two tracks, while Chesnutt sings and plays keyboards, guitars, bass, and drums on most of the album. He also produced, mixed, and mastered the disc.

More so than any of Chesnutt's previous eight albums, "Left to his own Devices" gives the artist's fans an intimate glimpse of his personal life and insight into the process through which his songs come to fruition. As the album title suggests, these are some of the songs and sounds Chesnutt comes up with at home -- without the aid of a band, producer, or big, fancy studio. "I wanted this record to be kind of a reflection of what I do on my own, for my own amusement," he says. "These are my own little obsessions... This is kinda what I do [when] left to my own devices."

The album's artwork and liner notes are meant to reflect this, he says. The CD's booklet contains old black and white photos of an elderly Athens squash farmer standing amongst and holding a few of his rather large, crook-necked cushaws.

"I found these photos [dated 1948] in an abandoned house years ago," Chesnutt explains. "They were, to me, symbolic of this record. Here's a guy who grew a bunch of these cushaws in his yard. And this was kind of how I felt about what I was doing at home. I was growing squash. Ya know, 'This is what I do,' [the farmer] seems to be saying. 'I grow squash. This is what I do.'"

Those five words -- "This is what I do" -- are printed along the spine of the CD and also form the last line in a group of liner notes that Chesnutt says are just that -- notes, notes to himself. Two pages of the album's booklet are devoted to scores of five-to-10-word phrases. One passage reads: "...on a toilet in the Roosevelt Hotel, wearing a wet sweater and smelling so like a dog, in a splendid sunny Florida room, while expecting the worst..." Each phrase is a potential song lyric, he says. "I'm always writing these kind of little phrases. They're all completely non-cohesive. And, together, they're like an outpouring of snapshots. It's like a little photo album of my imagination, really. Polaroids of my imagination. I put 'em on there to remind me that I gotta write a different song with every line in there."

Chesnutt won't tour to support the album, as he is busy with two separate projects. Currently, he is working on a collection of songs based on and inspired by the life of Josiah Meigs, the first president of the University of Georgia. Chesnutt, a former student at the Athens-based university, is writing the songs for a joint performance by himself and California-based puppeteer Janie Geiser. The performance is to be held in June at the Culture Club in New York, he says, adding that he's not yet sure if these songs will be made into an album.

In addition, Chesnutt says the second album by Brute -- his side project with Widespread Panic -- is about half-finished. The album will probably be released early next year, he says. Capricorn released Brute's debut, "Nine High a Pallet," in 1995. Chesnutt says he's not sure which label will issue the new album.

SpinART GM/owner Jeff Price -- whose 10 year-old label has released albums from Frank Black, John Doe, Apples in Stereo, and many others -- jumped at the chance to issue "Left to his own Devices." Price says he's been trying for several years to secure a Chesnutt album through entertainment attorney Josh Greir, who counts both spinART and Chesnutt as clients. "Vic makes beautiful music. And I know that sounds cheesy, but I don't know how to put it across in another way," he says. "He just makes beautiful music that means something to me, music that I love and respect."


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