Cody Chesnutt couldn't be more sincere.
It's a typically hot July night in Hollywood, and he's onstage at the Knitting Factory, halfway through "Up in the Treehouse," a honey-sweet love song from his massive double-album debut, The Headphone Masterpiece. "Dream dream, that's all I dooo," goes the lyric. "Dream dream about me and yooou . . ." It's the kind of song you can come at sincerely or ironically, with no viable middle ground, and Chesnutt's plainly chosen the former tack. "Give it up for love!" he urges the audience after the song is over, and when a too-cool industry crowd hesitates, he admonishes them. "You can do better than that for love!"
Chesnutt is a true believer, a faithful apostle of the power of love and God and rock and roll to heal and inspire and impassion. Three years ago, he recorded a 36-song opus and began handing out copies. Ishmael Butler, late of the hip-hop trio Digable Planets, heard Masterpiece and liked it, then passed it on to a journalist friend, who passed it on to ?uestlove of the Roots. From there, as Chesnutt puts it, "it snowballed." Pretty soon, the Roots were covering Chesnutt's "The Seed," Rolling Stone was raving about him, and then so were The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Entertainment Weekly. Shortly thereafter, Cody Chesnutt -- still flat broke, still living in a rented house in North Hollywood with five roommates -- was a music-world It boy; never mind the fact that he had yet to actually release a single note of music.
Indeed, the story of Headphone Masterpiece is as unlikely as it is inspirational. Feeling burned after the acrimonious breakup of his previous band, Chesnutt retreated to his bedroom, which just happens to contain a makeshift recording studio -- the Sonic Promiseland, he calls it. There he wrote and recorded what amounts to an aural journal, using one microphone and a roomful of instruments, nearly all of which he played by himself. He recorded in the daytime and through the night, often alone, using his big toe to power up the tape machine. He saw God one night -- "The light just touched me," he says -- and he kept right on recording.
When he emerged from his bedroom, Cody Chesnutt became a proselyte for Cody Chesnutt. He brought tapes of the Masterpiece with him to house parties and hijacked the stereo systems, forcing revelers to listen to all 100 minutes. He cruised San Fernando Valley malls, handing out his phone number to total strangers and inviting them back to his bedroom to hear his music. "This is random people!" he says, laughing at the memory. "Some people were like 'Who is this nut?' But a lot of times, people would come by."
What those folks heard was a sprawling, raggedy, beautiful mess of an album. The three dozen tracks range in style from '60s and '70s soul and funk to '80s rock and R&B, and throughout, Chesnutt's thin falsetto strains and cracks and is frequently off-key. When he's good, he sounds like Curtis Mayfield -- and when he's not, his voice stretches almost to the point of vanishing. "A lot of those vocals, I would be doing it at four, five in the morning," Chesnutt explains. "And because my roommates were sleeping, I was being quiet, and it brought about a certain tone, a certain dynamic that I wasn't even thinking about at the time. I was just thinking, 'Okay, let me keep it down, because Phillip's got to get up at six in the morning.'"
But if utter rawness is the most obvious weakness of The Headphone Masterpiece, it's also the album's greatest strength. For 36 songs, Chesnutt boasts and begs and evinces a touching vulnerability ("Man, something is killing me/My women, my guitars/I've been living hard/My breakdown is on the way"). He ruminates on the very things that made rock and roll rock and roll -- things like sex and God and love and money -- sometimes all of them in a single song.
"It's a sonic diary," the 34-year-old Chesnutt says of the album, which was finally released this past October on Ready Set Go!, the microlabel run by Chesnutt's cousin/manager/housemate, Donray Von. "That's all it is. 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."
Invariably, Chesnutt gets asked when, exactly, he's going to cut down The Headphone Masterpiece and refurbish it for one of the many major labels he and Von say they've been calling. The answer 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: It wouldn't be the same. And anyway, as Chesnutt sees it, The Headphone Masterpiece is about much, much more than production values.
"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, they gotta know that they can create -- own -- music and ideas. And ideas and inventions are what the economic base is. So this is my seed.
"I'm a believer," Chesnutt goes on. "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. 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.