In September of 1999, venerable Athens, Georgia singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt talked with Travis Nichols about big hair and Valium. It was rainy and a little bit cold, but they sat on Vic’s porch and stayed dry.
The transcript of their conversation originally appeared in Flagpole Magazine in October of that year. This is the second part of the interview. Parts three, four and five will appear this week.
Travis Nichols: Being the verbal person that you have been since you were a kid, when did you decide that being a songwriter was the best outlet for your verbal interests?
Vic Chesnutt: Well, I started writing songs as a youngster, but I didn’t really have anything to say. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized songs were a special place to say things. Before, it was just like candy—ear candy. Until I got to be a teenager. When I was a kid I wrote songs like love songs and stuff
TN: I read that the first song you wrote was a song about God. That sounds like you had something to say.
VC: Yeah, that’s true. It was called “God.” That’s the first song I can remember writing.
TN: How old were you?
VC: I don’t know, probably third grade or second grade. I didn’t play any instruments then, I just wrote the words down and sang ‘em to a melody. Later, I started playing trumpet, and then I would write words and write out the notes on paper. Then I got a ukulele and started playing, and then I got a guitar. When I was 14, I got the ukulele, and when I was 15, I got a guitar.
TN: Why a ukulele?
VC: ‘Cause it was cheap in the Sears catalogue, and I ordered, it and they delivered it to me, and it came with a book with a bunch of songs and how to play chords.
TN: No big interest in Russian folk songs or anything like that?
VC: Mmm, no. [Laughs] Tasty. Tasty.
TN: Just asking. Your grandfather wrote songs, and your grandmother wrote lyrics, right? How did that effect haw you looked at songwriting?
VC: Well I think it punctured the bubble of mystery around it for me. I knew it was something you do. My granddaddy wrote songs for my grandmother on their anniversary, so I knew it was something you could just sit around and do. It wasn’t a freaky thing, and there wasn’t any great mystery attached to it. I knew you could have fun and write songs, so I did that all the time. Writing songs about stupid things like my dogs and fishing trips, my mom and dad if I was pissed off at ‘em. It was easy. I’d just write a little song called, “You Suck.” [Laughs].
I’m really thankful for that sense that songs were easy, I think. I liked what songs did. They could make you all sad, you know. A song about a dog dying would make me all sad. I always liked the music even before I knew they were saying something.
TN: Did you ever think you would become a poet or a writer instead of a musician?
VC: I never thought about writing anything else really, and . . . [A large van drives by.] Goddamn. She had some big hair.
TN: I didn’t see her.
VC: She got a WNGC sticker, too. [Laughs.]
Yeah, but I never thought about writing anything else, really. Especially after I started writing my songs. Around 16, I think, when they started to turn into what I write now. When I started writing songs with the same basic kind of premise that my songs have now.
TN: Which is what?
VC: Well, I don’t know. They weren’t love songs like other people write, or political songs like Phil Ochs. They did have something in common with Phil Ochs, perhaps. But, I was super into Leonard Cohen when I was 16. Big time. I wrote poems too, but mostly everything was for songs. I didn’t read any poetry at that time.
When I was in my 20s, I thought maybe I’d try and write some other stuff. I wrote poetry a lot when I was 18 and 19, and that’s how I thought I was going to go for a long time. I was studying English in school, and I thought, “Well, I’ll write poetry,” because I did it all the time, and it was very interesting. I still wrote songs, but they were two separate things. For one I was thinking about singing, and for the other I wasn’t thinking about singing. They came out two different ways.
I still write both. And you know, I’ll write a little short story now and then. I don’t spend a lot of time doing it but every now and then I do write ‘em. Mostly during the times when I’m writing songs.
TN: Do they just sit up there on your computer or do you give them to friends?
VC: No, they just stay there. I don’t let anybody see ‘em. Not even Tina. Maybe someday I will, but not now.
TN: Do you still see it that way, where you’ve got the poet voice and the songwriter voice as two separate things?
VC: Well, now they are a lot closer together, I think. I don’t know. They share a lot in common. In fact sometimes I’ll put my poems to music.
TN: Do you feel like you have a lot more room to be playful in a song than you do in a poem?
VC: Well, yeah somewhat.
TN: Just because it’s naturally more of a performance?
VC: Exactly. Right. Yes. A lot of times when I’m writing poetry it’s even more—which is probably hard to believe—it’s even more self indulgent than my songs. More cryptic and more encoded.
TN: That would be maybe what the good conversationalists who can’t write songs are thinking. They’re more on the spot. They think that a song, like a poem maybe, is a sacred form that can’t be played with.
VC: That’s what people do. That’s the way they feel about songs. You know, they think that it’s a sacred form. But I don’t think that way. I don’t do that. I’ve written so many songs over the years that anything goes, pretty much. I’ve written every kind of song. Also, I’ve written a lot of good songs over the years, you know, and that kind of frees me up sometimes, ’cause now I’m like, “fuck it,” you know, “fuck it. ” I’ve written these heavy suicidal songs, and now I wanna write something different.
Also, I’ve got this backlog of a lot of songs that haven’t been recorded, and that frees me up when I’m actually goofing around and writing songs. Sometimes that’s bad, though. Like the last couple of songs that I’ve written are just as stupid as they come.
TN: What do you mean?
VC: I mean stupid. It’s like I’m saying, “Let me rub your rascal.” That kind of thing, you know. Just stupid.
TN: I don’t know. That could be worked into something pretty nicely.
VC: Well, it’s just goofing around.
TN: Since you’ve got that padding, though, the pressure’s off to some degree?
VC: Right. But then internal pressures start getting into you. You spend a couple of months writing shitty, and then you’re like, “Goddamn it, I can’t write songs anymore! I’m so depressed! My brain’s gone! I’m burnt out!”
TN: So do you sit down and write most every day?
VC: Yeah, I do.
TN: Do you have a set time, like in the morning or something?
VC: Yeah, I do a lot in the morning. I do a lot during the day, when I should be taking care of business.
TN: So it’s still kind of a distraction for you?
VC: Yeah. It’s like a Valium for me. It’s good for me to do that when I get all crazy. It’s good. I can just write and float off into my own little world.