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Though Vic Chesnutt’s lyrics embrace the world’s grotesques, drunks, and miscreants in blunt terms, he has always snuck lofty, poetic yearnings into his songs, fashioning a vocabulary from equal parts bite and eloquence. Perhaps that’s why he discovered such chemistry with Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and members of Montreal’s icy-epic orchestral-rock band A Silver Mt. Zion on 2007’s North Star Deserter. That first collaboration happened at the behest of filmmaker and Chesnutt admirer Jem Cohen, but the players had an even better feel for each other when they re-grouped to record Chesnutt’s recent At The Cut. Though a D.C. punk veteran and a Canadian post-rock band seem like a strange fit for a country- and folk-based songwriter, At The Cut doesn’t really alter Chesnutt’s sound so much as open up its extremes, from blurry childhood moments to introspective bloodlettings that even Chesnutt considers “shockingly” personal. Before heading out on his second tour with the Picciotto-Zion crew, Chesnutt spoke with The A.V. Club about turning songwriting into therapy and getting screwed into playing solo-acoustic tracks.
The A.V. Club: There’s a strong contrast on this album between songs like “Coward,” which are full-on bleak, and songs like “Chinaberry Tree,” which are very intimate and seem to draw on your childhood memories.
Vic Chesnutt: Well, a lot of my work is kind of a re-thinking of my childhood. “Granny,” I dreamed that song in its entirety, exactly as it is. I was looking up at my Grandma, standing at the kitchen sink, and obviously I was looking at her from the perspective of a child. And I was crying, bawling in the dream, and I was singing this song to her. And I woke up and I was crying, just bawling my eyes out, and I suddenly realized, “Whoa, that was a great song.” I reached over and got a pad and a pen and I wrote down the whole song, but I couldn’t remember the first two verses. But anyway, it’s straight from the subconscious, obviously about my granny, who I grew up with, about my childhood, a beautiful kind of recollection.
AVC: Well, re-examining childhood is a big part of therapy and psychoanalysis—do you see your work as anything like that?
VC: I very much do. My songs are very much a kind of psychoanalysis. I am very introspective in my songs, and I am working through, always.
AVC: Back on your album Drunk, on the song “When I Ran Off And Left Her,” some of the lyrics were about not keeping appointments with a psychiatrist. Did you not embrace that in your songwriting early on?
VC: Well, that song is specific. That is about real-life events. I was going to the psychiatrist, because I’d gone through these suicide attempts, but I couldn’t go. I didn’t like taking anti-depressants, but I was saying in this song, “Maybe I should’ve stayed,” because now I’ve just freaked out.
AVC: The liner notes say that Guy Picciotto did most of the arranging and producing. What do you like about working with him?
VC: God, he’s got amazing energy, and a lot of concentration as far as producing. He has the ability to work through to a decision, and he’s great at that. He’s one of the funniest guys in the world, ever, and sweet as can be. Full of ideas. And an amazing breadth of rock ’n’ roll knowledge. Working with him in the studio is really, really incredible. He’s always fresh, always wanting to work with fresh ideas and stuff like that, and very melodic in his thinking, power-oriented, noisy in his thinking. It’s just a joy.
This record was produced by everyone. We all had ideas, nobody was in charge, nobody was calling the shots. It was really very democratic. Everybody put in a lot of work on it—ideas, arrangements, mixing, everything. But Guy was the one who, at the end, was saying, “Everybody listen to these mixes,” getting us down to business and cracking the whip. And somebody had to do that, and somebody had to carry a lot of weight with listening to the mixes over and over again and making sure the master was right, and all these kind of things, you know what I mean? Guy followed it through to the end when I started to lose the will to live. I am Captain Waffle. I cannot make a decision.
AVC: Several songs are just you and acoustic guitar.
AVC: Why unfortunately?
VC: I’m just kidding. “When The Bottom Fell Out” was a song that I played solo as an encore once or twice when we were on tour. And they all liked it, so they were like, “You’ve gotta do that song.” It already had this precedent of me doing it solo, just because I pulled it out of my ass and did it as an encore. I’d just written it before that tour, so it was still fresh. And then there was so much atmospherics going on with that take, just the way my guitar sounded, and the dogs barking, that we decided to keep it solo—when I was fully expecting to put some shit on it. Actually, I wanted Guy to play E-bow and Jessica Moss to play violin on it together, but they both said, “Hell no. I am not playing on this.” So I got screwed, basically.
AVC: In an interview last year, you referred to the song “Flirted With You All My Life” as “O, Death.” Did you change the title just to make the twist of the song more effective?
VC: Right. I really didn’t know what to call it. I didn’t want to call it “O, Death,” because that’s the whole part of the song, is the twist, that’s the whole purpose of the song. It’s another song totally straight out of my life, and it’s totally personal for me. It was hard for me to sing the first time I was singing it to everybody, because I was getting choked up, it was that personal. This is like going to the therapist for me. It’s the song of a suicide’s realization that he wants to live, this song. It is a love song in many ways. This guy, me—I mean it’s totally personal, but you don’t have to think of it that way—I’m in love with death in many ways, and I see its “sweet relief,” so then it’s the realization when I say, wow, I want to live. It’s my other friends dying and my mom dying and things like that that makes me think, dang, you know, I want to live, I’m not ready to kill myself yet.
AVC: Most of the songs on this album are emotionally heavy to that degree, but it seems like you meant for that one to be the climax.
VC: It’s a very personal album. It’s shockingly so. I didn’t realize it was gonna be that way. A lot of my songs are very personal, always, but this one felt like a memoir. I almost called it Hallucinated Memoir. “Granny” is a hallucinated memoir. It’s straight-up symbolism for my life, in many ways.
AVC: You’ve got songs here that approach emotion in a very direct way, but sometimes you try to get at it by way of these simple details, like the scene in “Concord Country Jubilee.”
VC: That’s the funny thing about this album. Each song is very different in content and really in intent. I didn’t expect that. I wanted to make a carbon copy of North Star Deserter, which is a very dark record, but At The Cut ended up being something else. It’s very dark, but it’s uplifting in a strange kind of way.
AVC: “It Is What It Is” starts out by talking about Quasimoto and Caliban and people who are considered freaks our outcasts—
VC: Freaks! Yes.
AVC: And then it builds up into sounding a little more optimistic or accepting.
VC: This is total straight-up me. This is total therapy shit. Obviously people can understand, maybe, how I draw comparisons between myself and Quasimoto and Caliban. Even a kind of reference to The Metamorphosis. You can see all those comparisons. I am one of the most profane things out there in my real life, it’s true.