Thursday, November 17, 2011

Interview: Rock The Cause Discusses "Minnesota Remembers Vic Chesnutt" Tribute LP

Minnesota Remembers Vic Chesnutt is a new memorial tribute album that features an impressive turnout or artists, each performing Vic Chesnutt classics. Contributors include Dan Wilson, Haley Bonar, Trampled by Turles' Dave Simonett, Charlie Parr, Ben Weaver, Wendy Lewis, JoAnna James, Alpha Consumer, Luke Redfield and more. Minnesota nonprofit organization Rock the Cause just released the compilation on its own label on November 8, 2011, in partnership with The Orchard.

Rock the Cause will donate proceeds from the album and release show to Lifeworks Services to directly benefit innovative programs for people with disabilities. Proceeds will also benefit Sweet Relief to provide financial assistance to all types of career musicians who are struggling to make ends meet while facing illness, disability, or age-related problems. For more information, please visit

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to interview Scott Herold, CEO and founder of Rock The Cause, and Luke Redfield, who was the executive producer and was responsible for the song and artist selections for the album. Both Scott and Luke were very enthusiastic about sharing the album's story, and each generously donated a lot of their time to participating in this interview.

This is a feature I was very honored and excited to be a part of, and one that I hope brings Vic's music, and the music of those who graciously pay him tribute to him, to a wider audience. I hope that you all enjoy learning the story behind Minnesota Remembers Vic Chesnutt, and I strongly urge you all to check out and pick up a copy of album.

First, can you discuss Vic Chesnutt's impact on the Minnesota music scene?

Scott: The Minnesota music scene is unique to the rest of world. It is the one place where Americana, Hip Hop, Folk and Punk live harmoniously together. We prefer song writers over singers. Paul Westerberg, Bob Dylan, Dan Wilson, Gary Louris, Atmosphere, Prince these are our icons. Vic was friends with just about anyone who mattered musically in Minnesota. Danny Murphy of Soul Asylum told the audience at Vic’s debut gig in Minnesota to “Shut up and listen.” Vic would make cameo appearances at SXSW with Minnesota artists like Gary Louris and Minnesota wannabe’s like Jeff Tweedy. Vic was a staple at the Turf Club in Saint Paul. People would pack the room to see him play live. The legendary Peter Jespersen, who discovered and managed The Replacements, was very good friends with Vic Chesnutt, and released a few of his albums on the New West Records label. It seems almost every Minnesotan I have encountered making this record from Indie Rockers to studio engineers all have a Vic Chesnutt story. Vic was in some ways as Minnesotan as Bob Mould. I think it was his incredible songwriting talent and fierce independent spirit that Minnesotans can not get enough of. We are delicate but tough people. 

Luke: Although he was a Georgia native, Vic was a staple in the Minnesota scene, touring regularly through the Twin Cities, often performing at the Turf Club in St. Paul. I've heard he was close with the Jayhawks and some other MPLS bands who rose to prominence in the last decade. Ben Weaver, who appears on the album, was a personal friend of Vic's. The turnout for the album alone should speak to Vic's impact on Minnesota and the world. Dan Wilson is one of the most sought-after songwriters in the industry right now, and Haley Bonar, Charlie Parr, David Simonett (Trampled by Turtles), Andrew Broder and Wendy Lewis all have legions of fans. 

Can you describe the impact of his passing on the community? 

Scott: Vic’s passing was a shock to us here in the Great Northwest. Minnesota Public Radio broke the news for many of us. In some ways I think fans new it was coming. Vic was not in good shape. One of his final shows in Minneapolis, at the Cedar Cultural Center, if you speak with the staff, they will tell you he was in a lot of pain. Everyone here who knew Vic personally, or had only met him briefly, miss Vic very much. You can hear it in there stories. 

Luke: The impact of Vic's passing was felt right away. The first reaction was shock, and then it was like "Let's celebrate this guy's catalog of incredible songwriting," some songs of which I think rank right up there with anything Dylan or Townes Van Zandt ever wrote. He deserves to have a much bigger fan base, and hopefully this album will help introduce his work to future generations.

To get more personal and into your own motivation and passions behind composing this album, I'd like to ask you about your own impressions of Vic Chesnutt's work. 

First, when did you first learn of him and his work? Which recording caught your attention? Can you discuss seeing him perform live?

Scott: I first heard of Vic Chesnutt in the early 90’s. I had a friend who would play Vic Chesnutt songs on acoustic guitar at gatherings and parties. He played “Rabbit Box” for me one day. I remember thinking what a great song it was! I asked him and he replied “That’s Vic Chesnutt!” Sometime later my friend took his own life. Drugs and alcohol were involved. Vic’s music has always been etched in my memory for that reason.

Luke: My first encounter with Vic's music was at a record store about 7 or 8 years ago. "Ghetto Bells" was spinning in a listening station and the album cover intrigued me, so I checked it out. There's just something about a dude with crutches wearing a crown, leaning against a trailer, singing about gnats and volcanoes in a really cerebral-yet-abstract way. My initial impression of Vic was that he took the best parts of folk and underground hip hop and made his own genre, because his vocabulary reminded me of Aesop Rock or some obscure poet "trying to prop up the heavens with a fresh flat pencil." I really, really dug it so I digested a lot of his back catalog and it helped expand my mind to be less judgmental and less self-conscious of my own songwriting process. There is a very special vulnerability in Vic's work which I find beautiful. The best emcees have that quality too. Eyedea, Sage Francis, Sole...the best lyricists are not afraid to say anything, so long as it's true. I grew up listening to straightforward folk -- Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, etc. -- and I thought Vic's stuff transcended, yet payed homage to them, to in some eery sort of way. 

Unfortunately, I never saw Vic live, though I've been blown away and put to tears by many of his youtube performances. I was, however, in Austin during his final performance. I had seen a Vic Chesnutt show listed in the Chronicle (Austin's alt-weekly) and marked my calendar, but for some reason, I didn't go. Sure do regret that now. I guess the moral is is that if there's a band or artist you've never seen live and really want to, GO SEE THEM!

I never met Vic personally, though I experienced him through his music. Great artists resonate through their art and Vic was one such artist. I feel he was a kindred spirit -- super quirky and weird, while also very down to earth. Human in every sense of the word. He did so much with the hand he was dealt.   

What is your favorite and most lasting Vic Chesnutt recording(s) and/ or live show experience and/ or personal experience?

Luke: 'Ghetto Bells' still rings true to me, but that's such a subjective answer because it's the first album that I heard of his. He had been releasing for many years prior, though I'm kind of a young pup who didn't get into music 'til the early 2000s. I've since went back and listened to most everything he's done, and would say 'West of Rome' is probably my favorite collection of songs, but production-wise, his last two albums are pristine. Covering his song "Sponge" and being a part of this MN Remembers project is going to be a lasting memory.

How and when did the ideas for the album first emerge? And what was the idea, goal, and intentions behind the album? 

Luke: The idea for the album came on December 26th, 2009, the morning after Vic passed away. I was shocked and saddened by his passing and just started listening to a bunch of his albums, especially the last two, which were cut with Guy Piciotto and GY!BE. 

When I heard that Vic's wife and family inherited his $75K medical debt, I thought it'd be appropriate to do a fundraiser record for them. The proceeds ended up going to various charities, including Sweet Relief, who had done some Vic stuff in the past. Overall, the main motives were to raise awareness of Vic's music, commemorate his songwriting, and donate the funds to a noble cause.

Scott: Mike Boeser of Grain Belt Records came approached me at the Saint Paul Winter Carnival in January 2011. It was 20 below zero weather. We were at an outdoor beer festival. There is nothing like thousands of Minnesotans full of beer, in the streets of Saint Paul, in the dead of winter half frozen and drunk. Mike Boeser at that time had planned to release the record. Mike told me he had a compilation in the works and needed the charitable hook up. He wanted Rock the Cause to help out. It was spring when I got an e-mail from Mike that said “Vic Chesnutt Project”. Attached to the e-mail was an MP3 of Dan Wilson covering “Soft Picasso.” I e-mailed Mike and asked what he needed and how we could help. At first Mike had a lot of questions about what could be done with the charitable donations and who we could give the proceeds to. Originally the idea was to give money to Vic’s estate. The estate would not get back to anyone. As a 501c3 we can not pay individuals. We have to pay other nonprofits. There was no Chesnutt fund set up to pay. We could not find one. I suggested to Mike that we donate money to organizations that help improve the lives of people with disabilities or who are suffering from addictions. 

Over the course of our discussions it became apparent that Rock the Cause should be the releasing label. Mike Boeser called me one day and said “I spoke with The Orchard in New York. They are giving you an incredible distribution deal! Rock the Cause is in the record business.” This took me be surprise. I called a meeting of our Board of Directors. I played the Minnesota Remembers Vic Chesnutt record to them. We took at a look at our internal resources and decided it was the right thing for Rock the Cause. Before entering the nonprofit world I spent almost 15 years calling on some of the biggest entertainment companies in the world like Ingram, B&N, and Anderson etc. I had a good idea of what we were getting into. 

We set out to raise awareness support for the incredible things that people with disabilities can do, when we focus on ability. We wanted people to understand that musicians bring so much to our lives. Often times they struggle to make a living. If they become ill or age in a youth centric industry it is hard to keep a career going. Music is such a huge part of our lives! This is upside down and out of balance. Who better than Vic Chesnutt to be the torch leading the crusade?! Somehow I set here writing this and I can see Vic in his chair laughing and saying “Write that! Don’t let me down.”


Was anyone close to Vic Chesnutt involved in the project?

Scott: Vic’s family was not involved in the record. We made numerous attempts to reach them through Bug Music and personal communication. Bug Music gave us their blessing so we decided to move forward in a way that would honor Vic’s music by supporting organizations like Sweet Relief Musicians Fund and Lifeworks Services. Vic’s fans came out of the wood work to help out. From radio stations like 89.3 The Current to mastering engineers, and CD manufacturers who all knew Vic. Though his immediate family was not involved, Vic’s extended family has shown over whelming support.  

How did the process get started and build momentum?

Luke: I sent invites to about 20-25 musician friends and 90% of them immediately said "YES, we're in." I contacted engineer Chad Weis and he kindly donated studio time for us to all go record our Chesnutt covers. Minneapolis stalwarts Tom Herbers (Honeydogs, Low, The Jayhawks, Soul Asylum), Tom Garneau (Prince), Brent Sigmeth (The Bad Plus) and Mike Whitney helped record and mix the songs, for which we the artists are eternally grateful. We could've never done it without them.

Scott: For me it was like this: Rock the Cause had to go back out and relicense all tracks with the artists. You have to understand this record was recorded almost 3 years ago. Many of the artists thought the record would never see the light of day. I had to go back out and explain that it was going to be released and what the money was going for. I think right up to the day I posted a picture of the physical CD on Facebook most people involved still did not believe it was actually happening. I think even some of the local press was skeptical that it would get released. It was not anything Rock the Cause had done; it was just that this record was the stuff of local legend. No one ever believed it was coming. I remember one agent advising me to wait a year, as we would not get through the static of 4th quarter releases, we did and we are. I knew in my heart it was time for the world to hear this record. Katie Daisy already had the album art done and the music was recorded. We would have been foolish not to release it.   

How did you decide on which artists to ask to be involved?

Luke: I asked artists that I knew and liked in the folk/rock/country communities to contribute. Word of the project spread and I had artists coming to me asking to get on the album. I figured the more the merrier, but then it got to be tricky. We had a few people back out at the last minute because of scheduling conflicts, which turned out to be ok, because we would've had to look at a double-album if there were any more songs. There is mad potential for a volume 2.

How did the artist selection and song selections come together?

Luke: Songs were available on a first dibs basis. It was pretty loose. You could claim and cover whichever song you wanted. If two artists wanted the same song, I gave it to the artist who requested first. Surprisingly, there were very few songs requested more than once. I think that speaks to Vic's broad catalog. You could ask 10 people what their favorite song is and get 10 different answers. In a day of over-produced pop junk, that's very refreshing. Vic was always about creativity over consumption. 

Was there an artist(s) that you knew just HAD TO be involved?

Luke: Yes. All the artists on this album are indispensable. If you listen to it from track 1 to 17, there isn't a dull moment. Everyone rises to the occasion, which is incredible considering the limited studio time some of us were given. I literally had an hour to record my take. It was a true assembly-line style recording operation and the results speak to the uncanny talent of the Minnesota music scene. I think given the roots genre, Charlie Parr, Haley Bonar, and Ben Weaver really serve this compilation well. They were definitely must-haves on the album. Obviously, there are some big names like Dan Wilson and David Simonett, along with under-the-radar talents like Alpha Consumer, JoAnna James and Brad Senne who deserve to be heard by a wider audience, so it's a great assortment of national and local acts who compliment each other perfectly. 

Scott: We knew we needed Dan Wilson. The man is an incredible musical talent from Minneapolis. He is a Grammy award winning songwriter. His work with Adele, Semisonic, The Dixie Chicks, and Mike Doughty has tremendous respect in the industry. Dan gave a Brian Wilson treatment to the song that makes it an instant pop classic. Dan could have released “Soft Picasso” on his own and scored a hit for himself. He donated the track to the record. He and his management were great to work with. We are so fortunate to have Dan Wilson on this record.

What was most surprising to you about putting this album together?

Luke: Super tough question here. It has been such a circus getting this album released that I'm still in shock that it's actually happening. There were months where I didn't know if it'd ever see the light of day. Most surprising is just the journey that it went on after it was fully recorded. But it wouldn't have been this good had I tried releasing it last year without the help of Mike Boeser and Rock the Cause. So all in good time…Vic has taught me patience in some far-out cosmic way.

Scott: For a few years now I have had a dream of Rock the Cause Records label that helps fans to connect with artists and community. That dream is a reality. This is not a one off. We have more records planned. What a way to get started celebrating the music of Vic Chesnutt and impacting causes close to his heart. We may be the only nonprofit record label out there…tax status wise!

Most exciting? 

Luke: The whole process has been crazy. The recording sessions were super exciting, and after about a 16-moth lull, Mike Boeser of Grain Belt Records helped recruit Rock the Cause to release the album. The fact that the album is now officially released is the most exciting part to this all. 

Scott: The response from fans. Complete strangers e-mail me Vic stories. If I am wearing my Rock the Cause T-shirt people stop me on the street to talk about Vic Chesnutt. It is amazing how many lives he touched!

How would you say that this compilation fits into Vic's discography and living memory of the man and his work?

Scott: This record is not made by stadium acts or artists who make the front page of Billboard. It is made by independent artists who love Vic’s music. Through their interpretations of his songs they solidify the fact that he was one of the greatest songwriters of our time. Look at the story behind this record! It went from a group of local artists inspired to help the legacy of an artist they loved, to almost not being released, to being released, on a nonprofit label, raising money for things that meant something to Vic Chesnutt! Look at what Vic did with his life! He is still shaking it up! From the grave he is pushing the envelope of humor, heartbreak, and what is possible.

Luke: I think it's interesting how each artist is interpreted differently by different people. Vic certainly reached a wide demographic for a cult hero. He's a guy that everyone has heard of, yet not many people know his music that well. I'm not sure how this stands up to his discography because it's obviously its own thing, but I think it serves him justice and the hope is that'll encourage people to listen to his discography.     

Can you tell readers about Rock The Cause and the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund? 

Scott: Rock the Cause is 501c3 organization. Our mission is to build communities through the power of music. We empower people to discover causes where they can make an impact. We do this through the power of music. Many nonprofits struggle to engage today’s generation on its own social terms. We do it consistently. Since we are a nonprofit our ability to gather the support needed to get a record like Minnesota Remembers Vic Chesnutt done is greater than a standard label. Our mission is causes and music. We do not have to choose where we put our marketing dollars because some shareholder says so. We are about community. Empowering music fans is the horse we bet on daily. Our ROI is a better world to live in.

We knew what we wanted to accomplish when the record came to us. We had the infrastructure built. The proceeds from this record being donated to the causes are higher than industry standards at 100% of the net proceeds. The Orchard is giving us an 85/15 on the net because we are a charity. Rock the Cause will keep 20%. We are a community organization. We work hard. We deserve to keep our lights on. The music and nonprofit world needs us.

The rest of the money is donated evenly between Lifeworks Services innovative programs for people with disabilities, and Sweet Relief Musicians fund to support musicians who are disabled, ageing or need help making ends meet.

That is awesome. In addition to purchasing the album, are there other ways readers, fans, and supporters can contribute?

Scott: It is our desire that music fans from all over the world will be inspired to support these two organizations in what ever way the can whether through volunteering, making a donation, or buying this record.

Fans can visit to learn more on how they can join our movement of musicians and music fans who believe that music can change the world.

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