In September of 1999, venerable Athens, Georgia singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt talked with Travis Nichols about Jeff Mangum and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” 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 third part of the interview. Part four will appear tomorrow.
Travis Nichols: You’ve said that you write best when you’re distracted, or when writing the song isn’t the only thing you have to get done. Is that part of the reason you collaborate? So you’ll have somebody to distract you and then say, “No, it’s done. Stop fucking with it.”
Vic Chesnutt: Well, the thing I like about collaboration is that it’s constantly putting up walls. When you’re working with someone else you’re building off of what they build. When I’m by myself writing it’s all building off of what I do. With collaboration, it’s fun improvising and tacking on to what somebody else has done. There are new possibilities. That’s what I like about collaborating.
TN: Do you usually swap tapes beforehand? Do you give somebody like Lambchop or Widespread your songs before you get together, or do you usually just get together and see what happens?
VC: Well, with Lambchop I wrote all those songs, and with Panic I wrote all those songs, too. I’d just give ’em to those guys, and they’d play ‘em. I’ve written with some other people like Kelly Keneipp, and he’d have some chords written out, and I’d just make up a melody and write the words, which is great fun for me. It’s very exciting. And when I wrote with Jeff we did kind of the same thing. Me and Jeff was a little different, though. He had a melody in chords and no words, so I just put in words to his melody.
TN: Are you talking about Jeff Mangum?
TN: When did you guys get together?
VC: Just recently.
TN: Really? Has it gone pretty well so far?
VC: Yeah, it’s going great. Another thing I did with Jeff that was pretty cool was he came over and played this song he wrote, and he was asking if I could maybe help him put a part on there or something, but when he played it I was like, “Fuck, that sounds like a whole song to me.” I told him to leave it.
He talked about what he was thinking about when he wrote it, and I wasn’t thinking about collaborating on that aspect. We were working on this other song, too, but then like a couple days later something shook down that kind of had to do with what he was singing about, so that was kind of cool.
TN: So you wrote an answer song to Jeff’s song?
VC: Yeah a little answer song. Exactly. That was pretty neat. I don’t do that very often. We haven’t recorded anything yet, though. So far he just sings a song, and I tape it, and then I try to put some words to it. Also, I gave him some songs, some lyrics for him to put music to. It’s been great working with him. We’re going to try and do a little story.
TN: Dire a song cycle?
VC: Yeah, I think we’re going to start working on a song cycle story. I think we’re headed in a certain direction with the story, and it’ll be interesting to see where it goes. Basically it’s just characters, you know; it’s all characters.
TN: Are you guys interested in the same sort of music?
VC: Umm, well we haven’t really talked about what we listen to or anything. We haven’t talked about that at all, actually. You know, hardly ever is it like me and whoever I’m working with are like, “Hey let’s write a song like him,” or whatever.
TN: When you were a teenager and you were writing songs, was there ever a songwriter or somebody like that whom you emulated?
VC: Well, sound-wise I liked Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and The Velvet Underground. And I liked certain Beatles songs. I really liked some of their lyrics a lot. Lyrics to songs like “Hey Bulldog” and “Cry Baby Cry” were huge influences en me. “In the Court of the Crimson King,” too, for some reason. Lyrically, that was really high on my list. I’d listen to Bob Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” a lot. I was really into that lyrically.
Leonard Cohen, I mean, almost anything he did I liked, even though some of it was goofy as hell. You know, half of his songs I have to laugh at cause he’s so horny and it just cracks me up. But even in those songs, there’s always a line where you go, “God! That’s great!” A lot of times I’ll feel like that guy in that movie Amadeus, that other guy, the other composer. Sometimes I feel like him, you know, with Leonard Cohen. I’m like, “What a fucking little freak asshole he is. What a goofy bastard Canadian freak,” but then, you know, he wrote some great songs. Same with Dylan, you know. How did he do that? He’s such a dick and an idiot. He’s basically an idiot, you know. But those were the songs I was really taken by. That’s where my imagination was drawn to. That’s when I started finding my own voice, when I started hearing these songs.
I grew up on country music, and for some reason, I just could never get it going on. I could never write like “The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia,” or something. I just always was twisting it so it went somewhere weird. I always wanted to write “The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia” that kind of song. I think I’d be happier if I could write just that over and over and over and over.
TN: Do you think so?
VC: Yeah, I’d be happy if I could do that. Just an endless stream of “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” But for some reason I get my jollies out of going in a different way.
TN: Even though you said songs didn’t have a whole lot of mystery to them when you were a kid because your grandfather played, did you still have heroes as a kid who were songwriters?
VC: When I was a little kid I really liked Herb Alpert, because I played trumpet. I really liked trumpet players like Louis Armstrong and Herb Alpert and even Doc Severenson, ’cause, man, he could hit the high notes. So I was super into those guys, and like I said I was super into these story songs. The ones that really got me were the ones that had stuff going on like dogs dying. I didn’t like the ones that were just mushy, you know, cause, “eww that’s mushy.” I liked the ones where people were dying. “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” “The Night Chicago Died,” story songs like that.
TN: It seems that country songs have always had more of a capacity for that kind of tragedy and comedy combination that other genres just don’t have, and in your songs there’s the same sort of mixing of wit and sadness. What function do you feel this humor has in your songs?
VC: The humor is important in my songs and in my songwriting because I have a tendency… I like to push a song towards the morose and then jerk it back. I think it has a lot to do with my schizophrenic nature—just my personality, where even in the darkest of days there’s goofy. I see the goofy in everything. I can’t help it. I have this split thing. I always see a couple of sides. It’s a curse. It makes me wishy-washy. So I always feel like even in the dark songs, when I’m feeling dark I’m not going to say no to the goofy if it presents itself. I’m even going to go search for it.
TN: It takes a definite narrative talent to pull something like that off where the song doesn’t sound just completely ridiculous…
VC: Well, ridiculous is a thing that I don’t say no to either. I think this is one of the things that makes my songwriting important to some people. I’m not afraid to be goofy in a way. I’m not afraid to be ridiculous in away. I say things that are preposterous sometimes. I make people say, “What the?! Why?! Why would he do that?” I’m kind of fearless that way.