"It's a period piece," Chesnutt says of his ninth album, recorded late last year in L.A.'s hipster suburb of Silver Lake, and released last week by New West Records.
Recalling the album photos on the Beatles' Let It Be, Silver Lake's deluxe package includes a shot of Chesnutt and the band hard at work, playing together on the sprawling epic, "Sultan, So Mighty."
Thousands of miles away, literally and aesthetically, from his locally recorded 1990 debut -- the bare-bones, Michael Stipe-produced Little -- Silver Lake is a lush collection of mature Chesnutt songs, methodically performed with a band of L.A. session veterans.
Originally planning "a little arty-farty record" with acclaimed arranger Van Dyke Parks, Chesnutt settled instead on Oh Brother, Where Are Thou? soundtrack producer T-Bone Burnett. When Burnett also became unavailable, Daniel Lanois' longtime engineer and collaborator Mark Howard took the reins.
"I wanted to make an old-timey record where the producer tells you what to do, looks at every song and says, 'This is what we want,'" Chesnutt says. "Somebody to whip me into shape and put his stamp all over it. My last [solo] record [Left to His Own Devices] I made at home, all by myself. I thought it'd be neat to let somebody else shape this one, and make it more middle-of-the-road sounding."
Of course, with Chesnutt's penchant for off-kilter subject matter and unexpected comic twists, the album, though polished, retains his knack for shambling character sketches and vivid vignettes. Each song was completed live in two or three quick takes.
Oddly, after 10 previous releases (counting two collaborations with Widespread Panic as Brute), Chesnutt says he resists his instincts, even to the point of wrenching self-doubt. "I called up Peter [Jesperson of New West Records] the day I was supposed to leave for L.A. and I said, 'I ain't comin.' I can make a live-in-the-studio record here at John Keane's."
In fact, Chesnutt's last release was just that. Brute's Co-Balt was recorded in a whirlwind two-day session at Keane's studio.
"New West wanted me to come to L.A. because Mark's worked with Dylan and U2 and all these people with Daniel, and it was gonna be recorded in a big silent-movie-era mansion and it was gonna be 'magic.' I don't need fucking Hollywood magic to make a record," Chesnutt bristles. "The magic happens when I write the songs, not when I record them."
However, minutes after declaring he would not be going to California to record, Chesnutt recanted. "Peter said, 'Trust your gut feeling,' and since my gut feeling was to not go and do it, I decided to just go and do it."
In retrospect, Chesnutt is proud of his counter-decision. "After I got there, it was great. It was like band camp," he laughs. "Sarah McLachlan was recording her new record next to my toilet and Fiona Apple was down the hall."
The studio, housed in the Paramour Mansion, is the opulent former residence of the Hollywood silent film star known as "The Sheik." Chesnutt lived there for the duration of the two-week project.
The house, situated on a sloping five-acre tract, offers a view from one window of the famed Hollywood sign, while another window overlooks downtown L.A. Recording took place in a studio with a 40-foot ceiling that had been the living room.
To complete the project in the allotted time, Chesnutt, Howard and the musicians worked diligently, just as he did with Keane and Widespread Panic. "I thought, 'I don't want to make another Brute record without Brute, especially with Mikey [Houser] just gone.'"
However, after listening to the finished product, Chesnutt says, "It's not what I wanted to do, but I'm happy with it now. Sometimes I thought Mark was too easy on me. John Keane would not have let me get away with some of the things I did. John would have gone, 'No, no, nooooo.' But Mark would go, 'Ah, it's great, fantastic.'"
However, Chesnutt says, the magic of Hollywood did captivate him -- of course, in his own twisted way. "I kept imagining movie stars fuckin' there in the roaring '20s, in that house, in those bushes. It was pretty crazy."