[REDEMPTION SONGS] âI used to smoke crack back in the day.â
That blunt admission is how Cody Chesnutt begins "Everybody's Brother," a song from last year's Landing on a Hundred, his first full-length album in a decade. You'd be forgiven for thinking he's talking about himself, especially after listening to the record. Much of it is autobiographical, and plays like a man confessing to—and atoning for—past sins. But on that particular tune, written from the perspective of an addict and swindler turned Sunday-school teacher, the Atlanta-born soul singer drew from the struggles of those around him—his friends, family and the black community in general—to make a universal statement about redemption.
Hearing Chesnutt talk about his time away from the music industry, though, you'd think he did spend the past 10 years in detox. In actuality, he was in rural Tallahassee, Fla., raising a family and finding God.
"Being outside the metropolis, outside the urban environment, it cleanses you," says Chesnutt, 44, over the phone, the voice of his young daughter in the background. "I didn't think it would take 10 years, but it was the perfect amount of time for that to happen."
Indeed, on Landing on a Hundred, Chesnutt sounds like a changed man—to the point that the person performing on his last album is almost unrecognizable. In 2000, after getting put through the major-label ringer with his former band, the Crosswalk, Chesnutt holed up inside his manager's house in Los Angeles with a four-track, a guitar and a drum machine, and emerged with The Headphone Masterpiece, a 36-track burst of unfiltered creative madness. At turns raunchy and righteous, skipping from rap to R&B to cocksure rock 'n' roll, the album—which he self-released—is compellingly manic. Rolling Stone gave it four out of five stars; Vibe called it "the greatest rock album you've never heard." He jammed with the Strokes on MTV, and gave the Roots their biggest hit when the hip-hop group covered his song "The Seed," with Chesnutt's velvet vocals singing the hook.
Then, just as his career seemed to be peaking, he disappeared.
"As a man and as an artist, I wanted to grow," Chesnutt says. "And if I was going to grow, I had to start from the core, which is the spirit of the person. I opened myself up to that evolution."
Even as he retreated from the business, Chesnutt never walked away from music. He kept writing—including a full set of material he only performed live, then abandoned—until, a few years ago, he felt he had the right songs to make another record. Landing on a Hundred documents Chesnutt's period of "cleansing." "'Til I Met Thee," the leadoff track, is his "road to Damascus story," about how the birth of his son saved him from the wretch he used to be; on "That's Still Mama," Chesnutt sounds like he's chastising his younger self for the misogyny that pocks The Headphone Masterpiece. And in contrast to that album's ultra-lo-fi aesthetic, Hundred features a bright, classic soul sound. "That music is what I grew up on, and I love the feeling of it," he says. "I wanted to bring that feeling, but have a 21st-century conversation."
Chesnutt says he's already formulating ideas for a follow-up. It won't happen immediately, but he offers one assurance: "It definitely won't be 10 years."
SEE IT: Cody Chesnutt plays Star Theater, 13 NW 6th Ave., with Radiation City, on Friday, Feb. 1. 9 pm. $18. 21+.