Arts Desk

Cody ChesnuTT Loves Performing for D.C.’s Black Audiences, but Says Soul Music’s in a Rut

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Cody ChesnuTT is a much different musician than he was 12 years ago when, on 2002's The Headphone Masterpiece, the soul singer garnered attention by simply not giving a damn. Check out the 12-second track "Brother with an Ego" if you don't believe me. The album's lo-fi, bare-bones aesthetic charmed the Roots into remixing one of its songs, "The Seed," for their fifth studio album, Phrenology.

On ChesnuTT's 2013 album, Landing on a Hundred, he brought the same honesty of Masterpiece to adult topics—sustaining love in a marriage, finding God, and moving past some rough stuff. "I used to smoke crack back in the day," ChesnuTT sings on "Everybody's Brother." "I used to gamble rent money and lose."

ChesnuTT will play a show at the Howard Theatre this Sunday. I spoke with him about his creative evolution, playing for a majority black crowd in D.C., and how soul music lost its spirit.

What was the driving force behind Landing on a Hundred?

I wanted to touch on the things I experienced in life and the things I saw other people experiencing as well. It was about not running from the growth as our culture would have us, but embracing growing, maturing, and being aware of things on the ground that really matter.

The album touched on some adult topics. Is that what you were shooting for?

Absolutely, man. Absolutely. Landing on a Hundred is the grown-ups' album—at least I consider it be, because I felt I'd grown a bit since my last work. I wanted the music to really reflect that sincerely. I wanted it to sound like a 42-year-old man having a conversation through a musical experience, not a 42-year-old cat trying to sound 20. It touches on all the real-life experiences I've gone through, so that's exactly what the mindset was. I really wanted it to be an adult album from an adult perspective. An album that you could grow into and with, but not grow out of. Something that you could always revisit and still find something that will resonate with you as an adult.

How have fans reacted to the album?

They tell me that it got them through a lot of real-life issues. I was in the U.K. a few weeks ago at a show in Manchester. I'm at the merch table, signing autographs and taking photos, and this guy comes up, pulls me to the side and said, "I just wanna let you know that this album got me through my mother's passing. She passed last year, and this is the only record I listened to for a while and it got me through." And when I hear stuff like that, it makes the emotional investment worthwhile. I make the music that I wanna hear first, but I do hope that it goes out to touch other people. Overall, the reception has been amazing. People have allowed the record to become a part of the soundtrack of their lives. It's a very important thing when the music becomes a part of the everyday fabric.

Was the album therapeutic for you to create?

Absolutely. I needed it. I was trying to grow as a person, so writing these songs allowed me to discuss everything that was within me. I didn't want to cover it up and sweep it under the rug. I really poured my heart and soul into it so it would minister to me first before it ministered to other people. I wanted to be able to bring a lot of information, so I could really put my soul into it.

Describe the evolution of your sound from The Headphone Masterpiece to now.

I think two things are very noticeable: The Headphone Masterpiece is very lo-fi; with Landing on a Hundred, I wanted to record it in high fidelity so that everyone would have access to it. Not everybody digs the lo-fi aesthetic, you know; that's just for certain people. I wanted to make sure the music was accessible across the board. But the one thing that stays consistent is my desire to fuse different pictures and colors to represent the emotion I'm feeling in the song, the chord production or whatever the lyric is. That's always a constant. The musicality has grown as well. On this album, you hear a lot more horn arrangements.

How do you feel about current soul music?

Ah, man [laughs]. Well, there's a lot happening in the underground. A lot of people are beginning to dig and find things that aren't as accessible. But what's happening on the mainstream, I just don't feel a lot of it. That's the biggest thing, I wanna feel whatever it is, and if I can't feel it, I tend to not give it any time. I think soul music as a whole should definitely line up with the spirit of what came before us, because that's what makes it last. That's what makes generation after generation wanna hear Motown and all these other records, because of the spirit in it.

We can discuss many subject matters, but there's a certain spirit that has to be there in order for it to really connect on a deeper level. Lyrically, I'd like to see the conversation go to another level. We've been in a rut for a while. It seemed like it crept on us in the late '80s, early '90s. Soul music began to sound cookie-cutterish and lose that thing. It happened fast, but then again, it didn't. It was a steady decline but it feels like it happened so quick. I look at groups like Parliament, as funky as it was, you still felt the spirit of it, ya know?

What's the significance of performing in D.C.?

There's a huge African-American community there, and I rarely get a chance to play for African-American communities. I like D.C. Normally, the faces [I play for] are predominately white. To come to a city such as D.C. means that more black people are exposed to what it is I'm doing. It means something to me for my community to experience my art. The love that I receive in D.C., the love of art in D.C., all those things are really appealing, and I enjoy it every time I experience it.

ChesnuTT plays Sunday at Howard Theatre. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20-$25. 620 T St. NW. (202) 803-2899. www.thehowardtheatre.com.

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