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A family affair 

Faith and reality guide Cody ChesnuTT

The current poster boy for black rock in America is a 33-year-old Atlanta native now based in Los Angeles. His name is Cody ChesnuTT, and he and his signature blue floppy fedora, white scarf and toothpick have appeared in videos by the Strokes and the Roots. ChesnuTT even joined the Roots in a new version of his song, "The Seed," for the hip-hop group's latest release, Phrenology.

"The Seed" is from ChesnuTT's 36-song magnum opus, The Headphone Masterpiece, which has received unanimous -- if qualified -- praise, losing points for being presumptuous, selfish and occasionally offensive. But within the first few minutes of a 90-minute phone interview, any assessments of ChesnuTT as egotistical and misogynistic seem unfounded and overrun with misinterpretation.

And indeed, a quick scan of The Headphone Masterpiece -- released on Ready Set Go!, a label established by his cousin -- reveals exactly where he's coming from. On its back cover is a picture of about 40 family members taken outside his grandmother's home on James P. Brawley Drive, just minutes away from the Georgia Dome. ChesnuTT was born in this house. And though his family relocated to Decatur when he was a teenager, he remained a fixture on the Westside, frequently visiting his grandmother and childhood friends. That tight-knit blood network profoundly influenced ChesnuTT's evolution as a musician.

"I started out a singer," he says. "I had a family that was a musical institution within itself. I was taught everything about the most beautiful music in the world -- why string arrangements feel the way that they do, the dynamics of them, and how they are supposed to affect you. At 14, you want to sing all the stuff you hear on the radio, all the bubblegum pop. But my dad was like, 'Hey, you need to sing the old standards.'"

ChesnuTT's impetus to make his own music came, oddly enough, with his exposure to grunge -- specifically, Nirvana's Nevermind. Back then, ChesnuTT was a songwriter but not a functional guitarist. Then he met local musician Jeffrey Butts, who fronted the band Shock Lobo at the time.

"I was a guitar player that didn't know how to write any songs, and he was a songwriter who didn't know how to play guitar," Butts recalls. "I guess I showed him a lick or two, and he's done what he's done with it. And his study of songs was much more fascinating and in-depth than mine."

After relocating to L.A., ChesnuTT ditched his birth name, Antonious Thomas, and found himself fronting The Crosswalk, a band good enough to get a deal with Hollywood Records.

Butts remembers ChesnuTT's first near-brush with stardom: "The songs were pretty much undeniable. The songs were [like] any Foo Fighters, Nirvana-ish song that could be banged on the radio again and again and again. [The label] just didn't have the faith. They were like, 'Oh, but he's black.' They dropped him before the record even came out."

Confused by the lack of corporate support, ChesnuTT withdrew into his family and his faith, which reinvigorated him and replenished his creativity. "It spelled itself out," he says of The Headphone Masterpiece, which he recorded in his humble L.A. bedroom studio, aka the Sonic Promiseland. "Really, I was just a vessel and just a tool. It wrote itself. About five or six months of just making music is really all it was. At the end of that point in my life, I had this body of work and this name and this experience to reflect upon."

For The Headphone Masterpiece, ChesnuTT drew on everything -- absolutely everything -- for material. "The Seed" explains his urge to pull away from others to create. "Eric Burdon" was inspired by a TV special on Burdon and the Animals. And "Bitch I'm Broke" portrays the ugly side of the life around him.

"I've been there when I had an uncle who beat on his woman. I've heard another one of my uncles come into the house and tell my grandmother, 'I just killed a man,'" says ChesnuTT. "You've got all this stuff you are soaking up, so it's like squeezing a sponge out onto a four-track."

It seems that whatever ChesnuTT has asked for thus far, he's received. And he gives his assurance that whatever he asks for next, "it will speak to what it's supposed to be."

music@creativeloafing.com

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