Athenian bearing gifts
Early UK sightings of Georgia singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt were far from propitious. Not only did the maverick Athenian come garlanded with the contemporary rock equivalent of the black spot - a glowing recommendation from Michael Stipe - but supporting Kristin Hersh in an Islington church early in 1994, resplendent in crazy Bavarian headgear, Chesnutt was so chemically imbalanced he all but rolled his wheelchair off the stage.
To muddy the waters still further, the first of Vic's albums to be released on this side of the Atlantic (the aptly-titled Drunk) was by some distance his least listenable. An "angry diversion of the moment" cranked out in the aftermath of an ugly domestic spat with wife/manager/bass-eminence Tina, this record showed little sign of the bewitching lightness of touch that characterises the rest of the man's oeuvre. Thankfully, 1995's packed Chesnutt release schedule brought Britain swiftly up to speed.
Did it bother him that his first album, took so long to get a hearing outside the US? (Vic's first album, the extraordinary parlour punk-folk landmark Little, was actually recorded in 1988.)
"I was shocked that anybody would even want to listen to it in America," Chesnutt avers modestly. "Because when I started I was completely the antithesis of everything that was going on." In what way? "I don't know, I tried my best to be quiet. Sledgehammers were the hottest thing, and I was trying to tickle their ass with a feather."
But tickling their ass with a feather is now very much the done thing, if the number of big names queuing up to have a go at Vic's songs on Sweet Relief II :The Gravity Of The Situation was anything to go by. It's hard to be sure which reflected better on Chesnutt- how many (R.E.M., Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins) tried or how few (Kristen Hersh, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Madonna and Joe Henry) succeeded.
How did he feel about being covered by Hootie and the Blowfish? "I was quite happy." A grin slides mischievously across Chesnutt's visage. "About a year ago I'd taken some acid and I wandered in and turned on MTV and they were on, and ever since then I've thought they were all right."
Is there anyone he would've turned down? "If Jewel had sung on it I probably would've committed suicide. Everyone thinks she's the greatest, but I know three hundred better singer-songwriters who still have jobs cooking biscuits."
Vic's own scent of the big time - his excellent new album About to Choke is his first for a major label (Capitol) in the US, and he comes to this interview fulminating wryly about the number of factual errors in a Rolling Stone six-page spread - has done nothing to diminish his natural perversity. Six weeks into the recording process ,he had to stop and start again, realising he had "deliberately chosen all the worst songs". Why would he have done such a thing? "I think I thought maybe if I added enough harmonies and 'oohs' and 'aahs' and psychedelic guitar riffs, they'd turn into my greatest work," Chesnutt shakes his head in disgust, "what an ass."
The lovely private music and innumerable verbal facilities ("If you remain in the rucus you will get scraped") of About To Choke testify to the happy abandonment of this crazy scheme. Did his new record company put him under any pressure to tidy up his act? "The funny thing is that with the tiny label I was on before, because there were only two of them, they wanted to have their fingers in everything. With Capitol they're like, 'We really respect you as an artist'. I'm sitting there thinking, Don't you want to sit in on a session and tell me how bad it is? (crazy voice) Please, spank me!"
He's happy for the moment then, at the home of The Beatles? "So
long as they keep those free Thelonious Monk boxed sets coming," Vic grins,
"they're all right with me."