In 2002, Atlanta native Cody Chesnutt sang, “Man, something is killin’ me . . . My break- down is on the way.” But he didn’t break down- he broke through. The Roots remade his bare- bones track “The Seed,” renamed “The Seed 2.0,” and Chesnutt’s bedroom- recorded, 36-track album The Headphone Master- piece (Ready Set Go) made ripples in soul and indie- rock circles.
Then he walked away, and stayed gone, for a de- cade. So it’s no surprise that on sophomore ef- fort Landing On a Hun- dred, which Chesnutt self-released Oct. 30, he sounds older and wiser. He sounds better, too.
Fame may have beck- oned in 2002, but Chesnutt had other priori- ties: a son in 2003, and a daughter six years later. “I’d never had kids before, and they demand a lot of attention and patience if you want to do it right,” he says. “I got to see the first steps, to teach my son how to ride a bicy- cle-things I would’ve missed if I was touring.”
With the birth of his son, Chesnutt left his home in Los Angeles for Tallahassee, Fla., and he and his wife settled into a rural part of town. He kept writing, and played occasional dates. But to his fans, he’d disappeared.
“I wanted songs to come to me in a very hon- est way,” Chesnutt says. “I knew that if I got some life under my belt, eventually the songs would reflect where I was living, what I was thinking about.”
By 2010, the songs had come. And the new in- spiration from his kids had changed everything. Where the sprawling Headphone Masterpiece found a solo Chesnutt re- cording super lo-fi R&B and hip-hop tracks about “a dick full of blood and a wide open heart to lean on,” as he sang on “My Women, My Guitars,” his new material focused only on the latter.
“My kids purified me. I don’t use profanity around my children, so I should be consistent in my art as well,” he says. “I can’t play Headphone Masterpiece for my kids in its entirety. But I love that we can sit around and listen to these songs together.”
The songs, though, called for a fuller sound than his previous one- mic treatment. Chesnutt scoured Tallahassee’s Florida State University, Florida A&M and local churches for jazz musi- cians; secured time in Memphis’ Royal Stu- dios, where Al Green, Ike & Tina Turner and Solomon Burke all cut re- cords; and walked “right into that spirit, and ac- tually felt its presence,” Chesnutt says. “We all realized we were part of something bigger than us, so we tried to perform to the standard set by peo- ple there before us.” The band did just that. Land- ing On a Hundred is a col- lection of 12 vintage R&B blasts, ranging from fu- rious James Brown funk (“I’ve Been Life”) to laid- back, effortlessly sexy Al Green soul (“What Kind of Cool [Will We Think of Next])” and powerful party songs (“Scroll Call” could’ve been the B-side to “Superstitious”).
That the last $22,000 for the record’s mixing, promotion and release was raised through Kickstarter makes sense. Chesnutt wrote the album as a relatable work for, he says, “any- one who wants to evolve into something better than the last decade.”
In the Sunday-gos- pel tune “Everybody’s Brother,” he sings, “I used to smoke crack back in the day. I used to gamble rent moneyandlose…now I’m teaching kids in Sun- day school. And I’m not turning back.” It’s Ches- nutt’s forward progression that he wants to share, along with enough gui- tar and brass blowouts to keep people dancing. “Hopefully, this’ll be the soundtrack for healthier perspectives,” he says. “Music should serve the community. There’s so much darkness right now. I just wanted to contribute some light.”