True Believer 

Cody Chesnutt's lo-fi album is a raggedy, sprawling, beautiful mess. Think he cares?

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"It's a sonic diary," Chesnutt says of the album, finally released in October on Ready Set Go!, the microlabel run by Chesnutt's cousin/manager/housemate, Donray Von. "It's all about 'Okay, this is where I was at this point in time.' And it shows the dirt, the afflictions, the iniquities, everything. So it's a story, about a man being absorbed by his vanity and the world. I haven't gotten all the dirt out of my heart, because every man still sins in his heart. But I can look back now and it's like 'Wow, look how preoccupied with this I was,' or 'Look where I was with that.'"

Invariably, Chesnutt gets asked when he's going to cut The Headphone Masterpiece down and refurbish it for one of the many major labels he and his Ready Set Go! teammates say have been calling. The answer, according to the 34-year-old songwriter, is never. Cleaning it up, he says, would be like taking an old journal full of crossed-out sentences and doodled-in margins and typing it all up for publication. It wouldn't be the same thing.

All of which reinforces the impression of Cody Chesnutt as a man with an overwhelming sense of purpose, a marked sense of anointment, and no small measure of ego. He's almost irrationally confident in his still-nascent abilities, a songwriter so sure of himself that he's happy to invite you into his bedroom -- quite literally, actually, if you happen to be walking past the right food court at the right time -- to hear him think and feel and reach and, occasionally, completely fuck up, because he knows that at least that means you're listening.

Chesnutt's Knitting Factory show is warm and relaxed, and he engages the crowd with a sense of grace and fraternity. He pauses at the show's opening to offer handshakes to those in the front. "Where's your wife?" he asks one old friend. "Come closer," he beckons to listeners hanging back.

It's a striking transformation, a remarkable maturity of ability gained in the span of about a year. A summer earlier, not long after finishing Masterpiece, Chesnutt played his first solo gig, across town at Silver Lake's Spaceland, and came off spring-tight, like a man trying his damnedest to persuade his audience he was a bona fide rock star -- the second coming of Prince, even. Now, onstage in Hollywood, Chesnutt is a rock star, in demeanor and charisma if not worldwide recognition, and if it's still too early to compare him to Prince, well, that hasn't stopped his admirers.

It's not just his charisma, or even his music, that has the attention of rock insiders. The New York Times called Chesnutt the "undisputed aesthetic leader" of a new black rock movement, one that includes San Francisco's Martin Luther and Cherrywine's Ishmael Butler, to say nothing of hip-hop stars like Mos Def and Lauryn Hill and Outkast's Andre 3000, all of whom have picked up guitars of late in an effort to expand their musical vocabulary.

"Brothers are realizing, 'This is a part of our history,'" Chesnutt says. "[Black people] have a strong foundation in American roots music, and so we're taking that and bringing it back. I mean, you've got some black cats that still don't know Jimi Hendrix' music. How sad is that?"

For Chesnutt, though, even that movement is mere prelude to something bigger -- something embodied, naturally, in The Headphone Masterpiece.

"This one record, to me, is a springboard for economic growth, spiritual advancement, everything," he says, casting aside even a facade of modesty. "Because when people see this happening, especially in my culture, in my community, they gotta know that they can create -- even own -- music and ideas. And ideas and inventions are what the economic base is. So this is my seed.

"I'm a believer," says Chesnutt, as if that weren't patently obvious at this point in the conversation. "And that's the most important thing you can be. Because we're talking about going up against a system. I mean, I've got music coming out of my bedroom, not some two-, three-million-dollar facility up in Hollywood. And for some reason, people have responded to this thing like, 'Well, I feel this, and I don't need some record company to shove it down my throat and tell me that I need to feel it.' So maybe me making a little crappy record in my bedroom will inspire the guy who's cleaning toilets to say 'Hey, I've got an idea that I want to put out there and stick with and see where it gets me.'

"It's that simple. We're talking about people, man. We're talking about inspiration." He makes perfect eye contact, his smile genuine, his expression 100 percent earnest. Cody Chesnutt couldn't be more sincere.


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