In September of 1999, venerable Athens, Georgia singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt talked with Travis Nichols about poetry and eating bunnies. 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 first part of the five part interview–the remaining sections will appear next week.
Vic Chesnutt: Are you okay, are you cold out here?
Travis Nichols: No, I’m fine. I’m actually kind of hot from walking here.
VC: Because if you got all soaking wet, we can go upstairs. It’s warmer upstairs.
TN: Thanks, I’m really fine.
TN: I guess I’ll just go ahead and get to the meat.
VC: Yeah, do that.
TN: Well, for you how does a song differ from straight conversation or something like a short story as a form of communication?
VC: Well… it’s, um, it’s funny about that. It’s different from conversation, because for me I’m alone when I do it. I’m by myself most of the time when I write songs. When I do work with other people we’re not talking. We’re not chronicling conversation and writing that down; we’re talking about ideas or stories or something like that, so it’s not like a normal conversation.
It’s also funny because I know a lot of people who write songs, and when you hear them talk they’re brilliant, but then their songs suck, and you think why? They’re such brilliant conversationalists why can’t they write decent songs? I don’t know the answer to why they sometimes can’t do that. They ask me for advice sometimes, and I say, “Goddamn, just tape yourself at a party and sing that, cause that’s brilliant.” But then when they get down to writing songs they get in this tense way, and they think, “Oh, I’ve got to say something brilliant.”
There’s a lot of pressure on songwriters sometimes to make each song they write have power or be the greatest song ever written or something. And that was the way I was when I first started writing songs a long time ago. When I was a kid, you know, I wanted to do that. I wanted every song to be brilliant. I’d write love songs, ’cause that’s all I knew, and it was a heavy responsibility. Now I just try and spew it out.
It doesn’t come from where conversation comes from, I don’t think. It has a lot more hocus pocus. It’s like alchemy in a lot of ways. You know, in a laboratory, pouring this and that and seeing what color it turns and going from there. There’s a lot of research involved in my case. Research and development.
TN: How do you mean?
VC: Reading and studying my environment, things like that. It’s always an investigative process to start to get the songs to shake down in my case. When my songs shake down, it’s when I’ve made the discovery. I’ve been investigating for a week or two, trying to find out exactly what it is that makes whatever I’m trying to get at pop. What it is when I see the old lady, when I see her walking by, what she tells me. What pops about it, you know? So that’s why it’s like research and development.
TN: So it’s got that scientific aspect and also this magic?
VC: Yeah, there’s a lot of hocus pocus. You know, magicians don’t just throw it out there. There’s a lot of human nature involved. Science, optics and anthropological research, you know. Studying what makes people do what they do. And I do that. I study that. I’m not saying that for every little song that I do I spend weeks on end researching. I do a lot of like I said before spewing, but it all comes from somewhere.
It’s like I’ve got this little pouch, and I’m stuffing things in it and then it swells and sometimes it spews and pops and things come out. A lot of times I’ve got to go searching through it, picking through it and adding to it for long periods of time ’till there’s enough there to hold up.
TN: After you’ve been working a while and you finally get the moment right, do you just leave it, or do you do a lot of revision afterwards?
VC: I always revise. Because the way I write songs is very condensed. I don’t use very many words most of the time. I don’t write, like, “Tangled Up In Blue” all the time where it’s reams and reams of crap. I mean, I love that song, but my stuff is all boiled down. Every little word is very important.
There’s a lot of times when I’m writing a song and it’s going really good. I got a whole verse. It’s pretty easy. And then it’s down to this one syllable. I’m sitting there for hours saying, “I can’t figure out the exact right word. There’s only one word that will fit here, but what is that word?”
TN: What do you usually do then? Do you just sit and stew on it?
VC: I sit there, and I stew on it, and then a lot of times what’ll happen is then it’ll just come to me. That word. Later in the day or later in the year, at a later date, and I’ll just go, “Oh yeah, that’s the word.” I’m not very good about, you know, thesaurus looking or anything like that. I am a dictionary-aholic, though.
TN: Really? What dictionary do you use?
VC: Well, I’ve been using the same dictionary for a long time now. It was one my granny had. A Random House dictionary, a big fat paperback. She always used it when she did crossword puzzles, and then when she died, I got that dictionary, and I’ve used it ever since. A lot of times when I’m writing songs I won’t know what the word is. I’ll be like, “Where did that word come from? What is that?” and I’ll know what it means, but I’m like, “How did I know what that means?” and I’ll look it up and I’ll be like, “Well, how do you spell it?” I’m very verbal. Always, for some reason I’ve been fascinated by language. Though I don’t have a huge vocabulary at my beck and call, but I have a strange memory for words.
TN: That fascination comes out in your songs in the words that you use and also the names you’ll list in songs.
VC: Yeah, I’m into historical personalities as a touchstone to reality.
TN: Like in the song “Wrong Piano” you list people like Bob Guccionne and Rupert Murdoch in the context of mistakes, and it works really well. Is there always a method behind a list like that, or sometimes do you just like the way the name sounds so you just throw it in there?
VC: Well, most of the time they’re there for a certain reason, you know, like I said, like a touchstone or a springboard from reality into the sort of dreamland or whatever.
TN: When you use symbols or more abstract images are you ever afraid you’ll lose the listener?
VC: I’m super into symbols. I use them in just about every song, and I guess I don’t expect the listeners to really follow all the way. The songs are coded, and there’s no way for the listener to break the code sometimes except just to let it sink in, and then later it will bubble up kind of like an artesian well. That’s more how I expect the listener to take it.
[A squirrel above Vic's truck drops an acorn onto the hood.]
I hate squirrels.
TN: Yeah, they’re evil little rodents. I’ve got an uncle who just sits out on his porch lobbing clods of dirt at them and the rabbits that try and get into his garden.
VC: I hate squirrels. I like rabbits, but luckily I don’t have to fight them here in town. But if they were getting into my garden, I’d be sitting out there all night shootin’ em. I liked ‘em a lot when I was kid. We had a garden, you know. I’d catch ‘em every night in my rabbit box, and then I’d kill ‘em in the morning and freeze ‘em before school.
TN: Did you do anything with them?
VC: We ate ‘em. It’s good. Wild rabbits are kind of strong tasting. It’s dark meat.
TN: Were they like jack rabbits with the big haunches and everything?
VC: No. They were little bunnies.
TN: You ate little bunnies as a kid?
VC: Yeah, little bunnies. Wild bunnies.