Analogue Music | Cody Chesnutt

Cody Chesnutt

By Matt Conner

Cody Chesnutt serves the work, first and foremost. It's his inflexible principle. It anchors his creativity and informs his songcraft—specifically to never force it. It explains the resonance of albums years after their release. It might also explain why Chesnutt remains underappreciated.

Chesnutt first fell in love with classic R&B artists as a child and remains fervently devoted to the style and substance of cultural icons like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. The spirit (and spirituality) of those songwriters inhabits Chesnutt's own music, centered compositions rooted in personal experiences and emotions. As a listener, you see his world, feel his world, join his world. The songs offer tours of his own experience, all in the hopes that we can all better understand each other. 

Chesnutt's latest album, My Love Divine Degree, comes five years after his last release. He's not on any timeline, nor is he out to meet any supposed demands upon the music. It's that inflexibility again. Beauty takes time. For those willing to wait, MLDD is another important album from Chesnutt, a personal, even vulnerable study of the artist and his troubled world. 

As we welcome Cody Chesnutt back, we recently sat down with him to discuss My Love Divine Degree and his ongoing commitment to study himself, again and again.

Analogue: There's a vulnerability on this album I find so inviting, and yet that's really a calling card of yours. Do you ever wrestle with letting people in?

Cody: Quite naturally, it’s always interesting, exposing your vulnerability, but that comes with the territory, you know? It's something I find very healing. I know that we all want to get a little deeper within ourselve. That’s one of the most humane things you can do is to share your vulnerability with other people, so I’ve come to accept that. But ultimately it’s quite liberating, too, once you let it go out and let it fly. I always enjoy that part of the process as well, just to see how it’s going to connect with other people. 

Analogue: What hopes did you have? Are there certain ways in which you’re hoping that My Love Divine Degree connects with people? 

Cody: Yeah I just want it to find people wherever they live. My whole aim always in any work that I do is that it just finds people in its own time in an authentic way. I would say that’s it in a nutshell—that it finds people, you know, in a stage where it’s real to them.  I don’t have any other expectations besides that, because as a music lover myself, I want music to speak to me wherever I am in my life at that point in time. 

Analogue: You've described this album as medicinal for you. Is that what you hear back from people about what the music is also for them? 

Cody: Yeah, that’s one of the beautiful things about talking about the connection of it. When I play it out, their feedback or the exchange that happens is exactly a direct reflection of that description—of it being medicinal. People speak about how they found it to be healing or to how it opened them up. They say how in the global climate that we’re living in right now, it’s good to have a vibration like this—that it’s good to have a concept that speaks to them the way that one does.

I truly believe in being guided spiritually, by the gift and by the craft of songwriting. I just allow things to happen.

Analogue: What was the last album that was that for you?

Cody: It’s always the classics that did it for me, like Songs in the Key of Life or something like that. I still go to those albums. They just seem to have it all for me, just the whole package. Their Lyrical content, spirituality, and humanitarian worldview—all of these things—are behind my body of work. 

Analogue: You seem to have a great relationship with vulnerability. When you were first making music, was it harder to be vulnerable? 

Cody: Yeah, I never really gave it thought. I would say it definitely came naturally, but speaking to understanding the value of it, only now do I truly understand the value of it and how it just allows you as a spirit, as a soul, to actually grow. As we said earlier, it just frees up so much of you from within, and that this is one of the most powerful links between human interaction. We all recognize that and find it appealing to some degree in any relationship. So the artist and listener relationship is very special and I think being vulnerable is one of the key elements that makes that as strong as it is. 

Analogue: Does that ever alter your approach to what you put out there? 

Cody: I’m speaking to myself first in these songs, because you observe things and they affect you on an emotional level. I think, as with all artists, you’re definitely dealing with yourself first. I’m always of the mindset that we speak about what’s truly touching me, what’s truly moving me, and whatever it is, whatever is offering me in return, let me share that with other people. Because I know that I’m not the only one that’s thinking about certain things, experiencing certain things, or emotionally responding in the way that I’m doing. I know I’m not alone in that, so at that point, I’m just sharing the goodness of what it’s doing for me. 

Analogue: The goodness of what the song is doing for you?

Cody: Yeah, the goodness of the song and what it is doing. The goodness of the exercise, in general, is really what it is. It’s a spiritual exercise, talking about these things, and trying to make some sense of it, when you can. Once that touches me the way that I like to be touched, then I just offer it to others to experience in their own way. 

Analogue: You talk like the songwriting process is very organic, so how intentional are you about your approach? When you deal with some social issues or even personal ones, is it a matter of sitting down to work through how you feel?

Cody: It’s never, "Let me sit down and write a song about this." It’s never that approach for me. It’s just the blessing that I’ve been given to be able to communicate through song. It’s a given that I’m going to communicate something about life through my music, which I feel like is my purpose, truly, in life to be a vessel using song to communicate to other human beings.

It all comes down to what moves me emotionally. Take the song "Bullets in the Streets and Blood." I didn’t say "Let me sit down and write a song." I heard about the typical story here in the states a few summers ago—I think it was in Chicago, actually. But you just hear so much of this, and then I’m in a hotel room in London, and the song just came out. It was clear. "This is what I need to address right now. This is what I’m feeling right now." Then it just comes. 

For me, if I said I’m going to sit down and write a song about this, it may come off as being a bit pretentious, but I truly believe in being guided spiritually, by the gift and by the craft of songwriting. I just allow things to happen. You have to let things flow. So I just allow myself to be open to retrieve whatever it is that I need to communicate in relation to whatever the issue is. That’s normally the approach. It just comes.

Analogue: So songwriting is a spiritual exercise then.

Cody: It is, absolutely. 

Analogue: Has it always been that way for you?

Cody: Yes, absolutely. From the beginning. That’s how I came into music, you know? My family was a very musical family, and great appreciators of music, and the spiritual element was always in relation to everything coming up. Given the full range of what was available, that was always the center, that was the core of it all. I had an understanding of just how deeply music could move you.

As I got older, I began to hear artists. Stevie Wonder was the first artist that I really noticed using the gift to address things head-on. I'd heard "What's Going On?" in my earlier days during early childhood around the house. It wasn’t until my late 20s and 30s that I really understood the depth of the record and the genius of him addressing complex issues, yet he presented them in a way that was accessible. There was a spiritual or higher frequency all around it. Those albums helped shape my understanding of just how spiritual the art form is, or how spiritual music is, and how you can communicate through it. My Love Divine Degree is me as a student of those works, offering whatever I can in the time that I’m living right now. 

Analogue: Is it safe to assume that you’ll always consider yourself a student?

Cody: Oh absolutely. I mean, you never stop learning, right? I’m constantly a student of life, and that’s what My Love Divine Degree is. It’s like you’re constantly studying yourself. You’re constantly studying who you are as a human being. You never stop that. I read an amazing quote once, where a sage was talking to a young man. I’m paraphrasing it, but in essence, he told the young man "Study yourself, and after you’re done studying yourself, study yourself again." That is where we are right now. That’s what this body of work is about—really studying ourselves—so as an end result, we are quite aware of our actions and the choices we’re making.

Analogue: I love that quote.

Cody: I did too, because it keeps you focused. 

Analogue: That’s a beautiful way of looking at artistic work. I study myself for this gap of time, and then I do it all over again.

Cody: Exactly. You know, it’s a never-ending process. I think that’s what the journey’s about. That’s the discipline of it.