December 25, 2009 UPDATE: After much confusion about his condition, the official word is that Vic Chesnutt has passed away. It’s incredibly tragic, frustrating news. My deepest condolences to his family, friends, and devoted fans.
December 24, 2009: In a day full of unbelievable shock, Vic Chesnutt has apparently slipped out of his coma and passed away. He was 45 years old.
Rumors suggest that Chesnutt attempted suicide, fell into a coma, and has now finally passed away. I’m still numb from the news and wish the best for his family and friends, as they deal with this devastating loss. I had the good fortune of speaking with Vic on two occasions over the past couple of years. The last was on September 1, 2009. We aired the interview on the Mich Vish show, I transcribed it for a q&a for Exclaim! magazine, and wrote a profile on Vic for the current issue of Signal to Noise. I’ve yet to see the final print edition but I’ll paste the version I submitted below.
I can’t really express how sad Vic’s passing makes me. Again, I send my best to his friends and family.
By Vish Khanna
Like others who’ve worked closely with Vic Chesnutt, Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto cannot say enough about the respected songwriter from Athens, Georgia. “Vic’s one of the most funny and profane people I’ve ever been around,” he exclaims. “You can’t imagine the things that come out of his mouth on the road; it’s really high-spirited and funny when we’re in the van. And I felt like Fugazi had a hard ethic about touring; Vic completely eclipses everyone I’ve ever been around, period. He’s tough, he’s about playing the show, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. The man’s in a wheelchair and he works hard as shit. He’s fucking gigging and writing constantly—the man lives music. And as a person, he’s the sweetest, most generous ever.”
Indeed, Chesnutt’s ability to overcome a severe disability and write his wondrous songs has inspired legions of fans and musicians over the past 20 years. He’s composed critically-acclaimed records, collaborating with the likes of Lambchop, Bill Frisell, Emmylou Harris, and more recently, Elf Power and Jonathan Richman. After urging from his friend, filmmaker Jem Cohen, Chesnutt visited Montreal’s Hotel2Tango studio in 2007 and made a rejuvenating record called North Star Deserter. Upon its release on Constellation Records, he toured the world with Picciotto and members of Silver Mt. Zion. The core group recently reconvened to create another astounding album borne of structure and improvisation in At the Cut.
“I wanted to make a carbon copy of North Star Deserter; that was my intention when we went in to make this album,” Chesnutt reveals. “It didn’t happen at all; it’s a totally different album. I think the main reason for that is because of our familiarity. The rest of the musicians understood the subtleties of my music and were very quick to join in on this sort of stuff.”
In order to determine what material best suited this collaboration, Chesnutt did something unusual. He arrived at the Hotel and, with his band and studio staff gathered around, proceeded to play through unreleased segments of his songbook, all on his lonesome.
“It was horrible,” Chesnutt recalls. “I was so nervous and scared and embarrassed. But the reason I did it was because we needed to pick which songs to do; simple as that. Some of these songs are very new and so I didn’t have the perspective that I sometimes do. I had no idea if they were good or not. But it was funny; everyone agreed on every song so it was very easy. Some songs, they’d be like, ‘No, no. Wait, that one, yes—we’re keeping it.’ And I’d be like, “I dunno about that one,’ and they’d say ‘We’re keeping it!’
“Vic is hilarious in that he always thinks he’s wrong,” Hotel engineer Howard Bilerman chuckles. “He’ll come in with an opinion and say, ‘I love it, but I’m always wrong.’ Or, everyone will like something and he’ll be like, ‘I don’t like it, but I’m always wrong.’ I assumed that this new record would be all new songs and, sure enough, ‘Vic, when’d you write that song?’ ‘Oh, 13 years ago.’ It’s like, ‘What?!’ ‘How does a gem not come to life until now?’ So he’s incredibly prolific and he just has this huge backlog of stuff he’s never recorded and he’s pretty amazing that way.”
In some respects, At the Cut is superior to its predecessor. While North Star Deserter possessed a stupefying intensity, the new record is equally vibrant but somewhat more dynamic. “I think the first record maybe had a bit more of people stepping on each others toes musically, so there was more of a cacophony,” Bilerman agrees. “Whereas this one, people made choices to say, ‘Well, this song doesn’t need me.’”
“I don’t know if it’s a product of the songs that Vic brought in this time, but this stuff sounds more like some country-rock record made in the mid-70s or something,” suggests Silver Mt. Zion guitarist, Efrim Menuck. “That was sort of surprising to all of us—that we were making those sorts of sounds with our instruments but the songs lent themselves to that treatment. We were all keenly aware of it and kind of making fun of ourselves, while that was happening.”
Chesnutt’s work in Montreal thus far has happened quickly, over relatively short recording sessions. The sudden creative spark this process requires has energized Chesnutt immensely, and he seems committed to continued collaboration. “I knew I was going to record a new album with Jonathan Richman producing and I wrote 15 songs in that week from the moment I got home from Montreal,” he says proudly. “I was so inspired by the whole experience—really, my heart and brain completely open up when I’m around these people.”