Those who believe that an artist should make his art only when he really has something to express — and not when his gallery has a slot in its exhibition schedule or when it’s been a certain number of years since the last album — should be cheered by the example of Cody Chesnutt.
In the late ’90s, Chesnutt, a singer, songwriter and guitarist, was part of the Los Angeles band the Crosswalk. The group made an EP, signed with the well-connected Hollywood Records and was then cut loose from the label before it even had a chance to put out its debut album. The album, “Venus Loves a Melody,” was never released, and Chesnutt retreated to his studio, a lo-fi facility dubbed the Sonic Promiseland and located in Chesnutt’s own bedroom, to find solace.
“I didn’t even realize I was making a record,” Chesnutt said. “It was just me in the bedroom recording to maintain my sanity, keep my head clear. I treated it like a sonic diary, just putting it down every day.”
The result was the double album “The Headphone Masterpiece,” and even aside from the title, it was something of a brilliant statement. Beginning with a base of vintage and modern soul styles, Chesnutt added elements of folk, rock, pop and hip-hop to create an album that didn’t suffer much from its modest production values. Chesnutt couldn’t find a label for the album — almost everyone he spoke with suggested re-recording it, an idea that Chesnutt insisted went against the essence of the project — so he released it himself. He found fans in Rolling Stone magazine, which called “The Headphone Masterpiece” “remarkably intimate stream-of-consciousness musings on love, money and responsibility,” and in the band the Roots, who covered Chesnutt’s song “The Seed” on their 2002 album “Phrenology.”
The album gave Chesnutt a boost toward music-industry recognition. He toured with Erykah Badu and the Roots, made his way briefly onto the album sales charts and appeared in the music documentary “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.”
“It was the first time people paid any attention to my music,” Chesnutt said from a hotel room in Seattle. “Before that, people in the music circles knew about me; I did a song for a Tupac movie. But that was the first time with any public appreciation.”
Instead of capitalizing on his moment, Chesnutt waited for creative inspiration to strike again. And waited and waited some more. His mind was hardly empty.
“Music was still around in my head. Ideas were always around,” he said.
But Chesnutt was soaking up the new world around him, which included him becoming a father and exactly what that meant. More than a decade went by with no new music released from Chesnutt, a hiatus that he says was not frustrating at all.
“In essence, it was me really getting to know this new life experience, being a father. I had to let all these experiences internalize, re-inform me,” Chesnutt said, who is in his mid-40s. “I poured so much into ‘The Headphone Masterpiece.’ I had to refill everything I ever thought of. I had to live life again and get more comfortable. I didn’t want to force anything. I didn’t have a label commitment, so I could really take my time.”
In October, with the release of “Landing on a Hundred,” listeners finally learned what Chesnutt had been up to. Fans who might have hoped for another bedroom recording akin to “The Headphone Masterpiece” might have been disappointed, but those seeking another unique musical expression were pleased. Recorded in proper studios in Memphis, Tenn.; Florida; and Germany, “Landing on a Hundred” featured a long list of musicians and string and horn sections.
“‘The Headphone Masterpiece’ was a once-in-a -ifetime, organic experience,” said Chesnutt, who makes his Aspen debut tonight at Belly Up. “That was the most logical step, to let that one represent where I was at the time. I was still growing; there was still a lot of mid-20s-type of energy and self-discovery. I couldn’t compete with that.”
By comparison, “Landing on a Hundred” sounds grown-up and mature but with a similar sense of an artist reaching for his own voice and addressing the world that is right around him. Songs like “Where Is All the Money Going” and “Til I Met Thee” have a groove, but it’s one that seems personal and intimate.
“More than anything, I learned you have to be honest with yourself in anything,” Chesnutt said. “The most useful things are projected from that — being patient, being a better listener. The material is all around us, everywhere. But first you have to be comfortable with yourself. Then you can be receptive.”
Adjusting to the role of parent has been a priority — apparently more important than recording an album but also tied up with the music he has made on “Landing on a Hundred.”
“I watched my newborn son and tuned in to that,” Chesnutt said. “I had to pay attention to that purity, and it transformed me.”
Chesnutt was raised in Atlanta surrounded by a steady diet of ’60s and ’70s soul. But there were other influences — The Beatles, Bach and odder ones. His parents had a fondness for Helen Reddy, and an uncle returned from a stint in the military with a love for Kiss. Chesnutt gravitated toward the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” album and witnessed the birth of hip-hop — the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was released when he was in sixth grade.
Chesnutt’s father managed a popular party band that played top-40 tunes, and when Chesnutt was 14, he was allowed to play a three-song set — Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” — as the opening act. Chesnutt showed an interest in writing his own material from the time he was 10 but didn’t get serious about creating original songs till he picked up a guitar in his early 20s.
“I always loved lyrics and a certain cadence,” he said. “I remember my aunt telling me I had a way with words. I had a desire to say things in a poetic way. Then I picked up the guitar and saw how those two things came together.”
Chesnutt is still writing songs — perhaps not as quickly as others do or as fans might like. But he is happy moving at his own pace. He says he wouldn’t necessarily be upset if another decade went by between albums.
“It wouldn’t be a disappointment,” he said. “I believe in being obedient to what the inspiration is saying. You’ve got to feel it. This last experience showed me the process has to take a natural course.
“But the next album — it’s not going to take that long.”