Hell on wheels

Vic Chesnutt is wheelchair-bound and sings about suicide. But Michael Stipe from REM thinks his songs are 'as funny as music gets'. Ben Thompson talks to him
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The Independent Culture
THE PARCHED Southern voice manages not to betray a smile as it sings "A chip on the shoulder usually means there is wood up above". Welcome to the warped and winsome world of Georgia songwriter Vic Chesnutt, where words dance like puppets on nylon guitar-strings and every harmony embraces an aphorism. He might have a name better suited to a children's entertainer, but Chesnutt's songs are made of adult stuff. Suicide, loneliness and various shades of individual inadequacy are his stock-in-trade. But even his darkest moments are lit with mordant wit: he is the opposite of those singer-songwriters whose attempts to lay bare their emotions make you wish they'd put on a bathrobe.

The two facts which everyone who knows anything about Chesnutt is already in possession of are that he is a friend of REM's Michael Stipe and that he gets about in a wheelchair, having broken his neck in a drunken car- smash at the age of 18. Both tend to give a misleading impression. A Stipe recommendation is the US equivalent of the glad-hand from Morrissey - a kiss of instant career-death. And the knowledge that Chesnutt developed his distinctive guitar style by playing with a pick superglued to a plaster cast suggests that his career is a straightforward saga of nobility against the odds.

Impish charmer that he is, Chesnutt would probably be the first to admit that he actually has a self-destructive streak as wide as the Mississippi, and often seems engaged in a heroic struggle to make life even more difficult for himself than it already is. And that's just on his good nights. At his first London appearance, supporting Kristin Hersh early last year, he was so drunk he nearly rolled off the stage. I meet him in the midst of what he ruefully describes as an "era of sobriety", a hangover from a mishap referred to on the sleeve of his fine current album Is the Actor Happy? (Texas Hotel) as "The Zurich Incident", wherein he overdosed in that chilly Swiss city - "I burnt away a whole big evil section of my brain" - and was in a coma for a week.

The delight he takes in everyday language - in conversation as well as absurd lyrical snippets like "even her freakish nipples were akimbo" - is such that it is initially hard to understand how this man could ever get that low. As the photographer leaves, Chesnutt says "Cheers", picking up an English affectation into which his interviewer had inadvertently lapsed a few minutes earlier, and breaks into a demonic cackle. What's wrong with "cheers"? "I like it, but it just sounds stupid coming out of my mouth." The same sense of manifest enjoyment prevails in the precision of his writing - "Betty Lonely lives in a duplex of stucco ... Betty Lonely, she will always think in Spanish". Maybe you need to get depressed to get this much joy out of words.

Despite their clarity of expression, Chesnutt's songs seem to inspire a different response in everyone who hears them. "Sometimes people say what they think I mean and it's a hundred times better than what I actually meant," he smiles. "So then I say, 'Yes, how true, I'm flattered that you could see my genius'." Chesnutt has a happy knack of shifting scenes straight out of life and into song. "I like snap-shots," he says. There's no want of imagination here either, though. On his captivating debut album, Little, there's a macabre but very funny song about a skating accident which has the heart-warming pay-off line "Look at the lake, not even the ducks are risking it".

The Chesnutt career has taken a rapid but serpentine course in this country. The first of his albums to become available here, the aptly titled Drunk, was released in Britain early last year. But this querulous and nervy album, recorded in 1993 in the aftermath of a big but mercifully short- lived bust-up with his wife Tina (who plays bass in his band), was in fact Vic's third record. Its two jollier predecessors Little and West of Rome followed, rather confusingly, a couple of months later. Only with the release of Is the Actor Happy? earlier this year were British listeners brought up to date with where Vic's head was at.

His most recent album being his most polished, Chesnutt is currently suffering what he terms a "now-you've-made-a good-record" backlash. He is contemptuous of those who complain about his increasingly tuneful singing - " 'They should have just put him in the studio and let him get drunk and play shitty, we like that'." Happily, the new, slick Vic has not lost the sense of privacy and enchantment best captured on Little's lovely setting of Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning", in which the percussion track is the cracking of pecan nuts.

Was he always out of step with the world? "I was definitely weird at school ... I was into being weird: I wore it like a badge. I didn't want those people to like me." Chesnutt was 16 when his parents bought him his first guitar, to cheer him up after John Lennon had been shot. And his musical education, once he'd left home for the bright lights of Georgia's Athens, was divided between "folk-rock buddies" and "punk-rock buddies". These two groups had to be kept out of each other's way, "otherwise it was scary, you'd have to get in there with a stick and pry them apart".

Chesnutt's songs might be seen as a partial reconciliation of punk spirit with folk traditions. Their obvious literary qualities bring two big myths into play, the writerly South (Vic has made several attempts at a novel, but "they were awful") and the alleged link between creativity and alcohol. "I don't think they're linked at all," Chesnutt says firmly. "Some people like to drink and I just happen to be one of those people - it's a pain in the ass."

When he last toured, in May, his unaccustomed sobriety made no noticeable difference to the puckishness of his stage demeanour. A beautiful, subtle ballad called "The Doubting Woman" was punctuated by the gentle clump of Vic Chesnutt head-butting the microphone. Does he enjoy confounding people's expectations? "Yes I do," he says smiling. "It might be evil, but it's fun."

! Vic Chesnutt plays the Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, SE1 (0171 928 8800) on 25 July, then tours for two weeks.