Over the phone from Tallahassee, Cody ChesnuTT murmurs an elongated "hmm" over the line's crackle, listening as I offer my opinion ("advice," says he) over whether or not it would be worth his while to sell music exclusively through the Internet. He listens carefully, mentally taking notes and murmuring "hmm," the same noise he offers when considering my questions.
It's rare that an interview with an artist begins to feel like an actual conversation; there's usually the nagging sense that you must return to your subscribed roles following a brief moment of mutual coordination. With ChesnuTT, side-stepping our subscribed roles fits his newly affirmed personal philosophy where strong communication builds bridges. "A lot of times you talk to journalists and they're just doing a job," he tells me, "which is cool, but I'd much rather speak to the person."
ChesnuTT has long made a career out of this open nature, starting with his 2002 solo debut The Headphone Masterpiece. Having lived out a number of lives in the music industry—90s R&B loverman Antonious Thomas, a Death Row writer-for-hire, frontman for Anglophiliac LA rockers The Crosstalk—the then-32 year old retreated to his bedroom and recorded song after song, touching on a concept each day until he held two CDs worth of warts-and-all lo-fi genre-hopping. An earthy showcase of ChesnuTT's performative versatility and a stylistic precursor to the following decade's net-savvy info/idea-dumps, Headphone Masterpiece turned ChesnuTT into a cult entity. He shared stages with height-of-hip Julian Cascablancas, courted jam sessions with Mos Def, and was feted by everyone from dream hampton to ?uestlove (leading to The Roots remaking Masterpiece's 'The Seed' into one of that band's biggest international hits). Then, he vanished from the spotlight, later telling The Telegraph he needed to repair his marriage and take on his fatherly duties.
His follow-up, 2012's Landing on a Hundred, swerved a fan base weaned on Masterpiece's all-things-to-all people approach in favor of a taut, polished 54 minutes of organic 70s-indebted soul. ChesnuTT toured once more, hosting question-and-answer sessions and eschewing his most famous material, certainly befuddling those in the audience that came to hear "Looks Good in Leather". His sophomore effort opened up opportunities to collaborate anew, with people ranging from house DJs to reggae-pop toasters via Idris Elba compilations. My Heart Divine Love, currently slated for release in early 2017, continues this spirit of collaboration, with sessions conducted at Raphael Saadiq's Hollywood studio and by pitching ChesnuTT's classic soul leanings against the production of Kanye West and Common associate Twilite Tone.
On the album's first single, "Bullets in the Street and Blood," ChesnuTT builds on the haunted atmosphere of last year's album-less "Experiment Number One," an instantaneous-sounding protest song with atonal elements. His voice lightly echoes around a loose, organic full band before warping around 808 pulsations and dub-style reverb drops. Unlike the pointed simplicity of "Experiment Number One"'s message (pleads of "please don't choke nobody else"), "Bullets" pleads for the next generation, evoking plague-like imagery to paint pained family portraits of those affected by violence. "It's gonna break us all down," ChesnuTT sings over shuddering hi-hats, sounding resigned to witness more and more violence.
And yet, even at the music's darkest, there remains hope with a group chant at the song's close: "We cast away / up up and away we go!" Up up and away: He believes this sad stage in his country can still garner hope, a hope so strong that the future can be airborne. We spoke earlier this year during the mixing process for My Love Divine Degree—before we learned the names Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Terence Crutcher among countless others—but his message feels as appropriate now as it did then.
Noisey: Tell me about the genesis of My Love Divine Degree.
Cody ChesnuTT: The genesis of MLDD comes from a book a girlfriend gave me called The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, which gives different accounts of Christ's teachings and travels. One of the stories is about love divine and how it can be applied, and that stuck with me in my heart. The general premise is that we rise above our own selfish needs and offer a higher love that everyone can benefit from, to win the hearts of men to better things, and that's what I'd love to do with my music and my art.
To make it even clearer, the reason why the album is called MLDD is that after Jesus overcame a certain trial in this particular story, he was studying in Egypt to understand all the trials of mankind. One of the greater trials he had to overcome was the temptation of a woman, and after he overcame that and rose to a higher level of self-love, he was given a degree of love divine. It told me that everyone has the opportunity to attain his or her love divine. This my love divine, at least.
Obviously there's a very spiritual slant to the title and your music. Do you ever consider a separation between secular and non-secular music in the writing process?
No, because that can limit the creative process. I'm not really concerned if it's going to be spiritual and sacred, if it comes from the heart it already is. It defies those kind of limiting frameworks, if you will. And people get it—you don't have to tell people that this is a "spiritual" or "religious" record, truth is truth and we've all been told that truth defends itself.
Some of your post-Landing On A Hundred material sounded more desperate and pained than usual, particularly "Experiment Number One."
I want to ask: How did "Experiment Number One" speak to you?
People all over the planet are sick and tired of the same destructive dysfunction generation after generation.
You mentioned in an interview a few years back that you were "exploring the final frontier of humanity." "Experiment Number One" sounded as though the question weighed heavy on your mind, like perhaps in regards to recent injustices, you were wondering about this final frontier.
Right right right, exactly.
Was the idea of a final frontier something that stuck with you?
Oh, absolutely. We're getting to the highest form of ourselves when we're not dealing with these same social ills, generation after generation. At some point it has to evolve. For centuries, we've been talking about the height of humanity and what we can accomplish with that. It seems to me that's still the mark to reach for so we don't have to worry about injustice. If we secure that form of humanity, then quite naturally everything will go in line. There's a certain line of it that happens when you recognize your own humanity, then you value the humanity that gathers around you.
The way you view this is very eternal, but there's no coincidence that you're going to release an album with concerns for the current moment.
That's the thing. My friend and I talk about this all the time. It seems like humanity is fertile for seeds of ideas like this. People all over the planet are sick and tired of the same destructive dysfunction generation after generation, and the vibrations in this music right now seems divine in time, in my opinion.
So how do you see getting that message out? Is there a plan beyond releasing the music and touring?
Well, the way I see it is simple: one divine heart at a time.
Your personal growth had substantially changed between Headphone Masterpiece and Landing. Have there been any big personal changes coming up to this album?
I don't know if there's a quote-unquote major change, it's really for me just an ongoing process. If anything changed, I would say my capacity to be a better listener and a better communicator for whatever I'm interpreting or receiving.
I'm trying to just trim the fat, get straight to the heart of the matter. I can write a song in 45 seconds, so it doesn't matter to me how long the composition is. It's really about did I get it out? Did I communicate a complete thought? That's always been an exercise for me. I've taken into consideration how fast communication is moving globally, so I've included that in the writing process because everyone's fighting for attention. You have to get in, get out, and be as succinct as possible and make sure that each message is a clear thought. That is the key now with offering an alternative to what's out now, to have a clear cut message and be clear about it. Can you nail it in 15 seconds? I figured if a certain brand can mobilize a person into spending after 15 seconds, I can be just as tactful with what I'm offering. All of that becomes part of the process.
"Bullets in the Streets and Blood," that needs to be out, like, yesterday. It's something that we're experiencing all over the planet. This nightmare, like, are you kidding me? Every day? Turning on the news and seeing that somebody's been shot, whether it's Chicago or Syria, it doesn't matter, it's the same thing. It's very important just to have that vibration out 'cause bullets in the streets and blood is going to break us all down. There's no benefit. We should learn that by now. We should know that isn't the answer by this point.
What's the relationship between you and Twilite Tone?
We both met in a Kanye session in 2014. It started from a conversation with Bilal, who was working with 88 Keys at the time. Bilal gave me 88 Keys' number, so I rang and he said that Kanye was interested in speaking about working together. We came together on the phone and went from there. We had to get the scheduling together but eventually got together in Wisconsin, of all places, at what's his name's studio… Bon Iver? Yeah, it was a beautiful space. There was quite a few artists—a huge artistic retreat. We were there and just hit it off. Even there the creative energy was effortless; we really clicked. We worked for three or four days together, but after that, we realized that we did have a natural vibe together, so I reached out once we got home.
What he brings to this experience is a sense of groove as a DJ, knowing what moves the room, having that natural intuition. I thought it was the perfect merge with what I do melodically and rhythmically, and we were able to feed off each other to the point where we almost finish off each other's sentences—creatively. If I played something, Anthony would get on the drum machine and go for it and it would work. We knew that we had something special and just kept building on it. That's what Tone was contributing, an amazing knowledge of sound and groove to the project. Philosophically and spiritually, we're compatible, so all those things made us the perfect match.
Are you aware of what's happened to those sessions from Wisconsin?
I don't know what's going on with that music. I know for a fact that we probably worked on four to six different concepts that felt really strong. They'll probably pop up on a project here or there, I dunno, but what we did felt good at the time. Y'know, Justin Vernon brought a lot of beautiful textures to some of the ideas. That was the cool thing. Some people would have melodies, and then Kanye would come and make a contribution on whatever his thoughts were. It's normally just me, so when you see other people's creative process and see them involved like that, it's an amazing experience. And it produced this relationship between Tone and myself. Hopefully we hear that music some day.
I interpret what feels real to me in the universe and use that as ammunition in the creative process.
Has there been anything recent musically that's inspired you?
Right now? There's a vibration now that's more open to space in the music, things moving about in the music. It's always been something I've been a fan of. So, I interpret what feels real to me in the universe and use that as ammunition in the creative process. I kinda stay in my own head [chuckles], but I peek out sometimes.
I just got turned onto Anderson.Paak—very soulful cat. I really dig what he's doing sonically. He's very talented. All the different colors that he's using. And that's the thing with music, the textures and colors are really rich and expanding now, so it's really interesting to see where it is right now. God knows where it's going next, but I love the colors and textures that are floating about right now, which shows you that people are open to a different type of feeling. Something that's warm and the music pulls you into a deeper meditation so to speak. Whenever I use or listen to music with lots of reverb, it gives you the feeling of meditation, and MLDD is definitely an intense meditation piece.
Do you hear from people that Headphone Masterpiece would fit especially well into the current climate?
Oh, all the time. Is that how you feel?
I have a mixed opinion on it, but it feels important that it came out pre-internet. I think that's pretty important for the album to become the cult success that it was.
But in terms of the timing of it, the spirit of it—if it were released today would it be of its time now?
It would probably fit in more, because as far as my recollection, at the time it felt like a lot of music. Now, it's easier to have an info dump from an artist. You're someone that obviously thinks deeply about the traditional album format, is there ever that urge to just drop a bunch of new material online?
I'm open to that. That's where I'm at right now, looking at the most innovative means of getting the music out. I've been watching and paying attention to how a lot of artists do it. That's part of what I'm meditating on now, how should we approach this particular album? We have to find a happy medium.
I'm still excited about sharing this music that's coming to me, even after over 20 years making music. Especially now that I feel I am on purpose with the gift of music. As we spoke earlier, music is a spiritual experience, that's the origin of it. Commodifying it has derailed it quite a bit, but it is my desire to align it with the original aim, which is to communicate at a higher spiritual realm and offer the most positive experience I can. An eternal idea, if you will.
A divine experience?
There you go, Daniel. That's the whole thing—through these experiences, I too can obtain my love divine degree. If you're in a psychology class, everyone is going to walk away with something different but still have their degree in psychology. Everyone has different ways that they're going to apply that knowledge, but they have that experience to draw upon, and that's how I feel about MLDD. Once people hear this body of work and sit with it, then they too will ask what their love divine degree is. For me it's timely in terms of where life is right now. It's a conversation piece, for sure.
All photos by Barron Claiborne, courtesy of Cody ChesnuTT
Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy is ready for love divine advanced study. Follow him on Twitter.