INTERVIEW: Carl Chesna

Hi Carl, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?  

I’ve been great!  And busy…  This summer on the Jersey Shore was pretty triumphant – and then there was my band’s album release – Prayer to the Black Madonna – on top of everything else going on around us.  Plus, I was front row at Elvis Costello a couple of nights ago right here on the Asbury Park boardwalk so how can you beat that???

Can you talk to us more about your song “Ghost of New Hope”?

The song “Ghost of New Hope” was written while living in the East Village (NYC), right after my first EP came out and I was wondering “what’s next?”  Julia Kent of “Rasputina” helped a lot by scoring the cello part shortly after I wrote it–a task I was certainly not up to at that juncture of my writing career and it really takes the song to another level!

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

It was while I was visiting the town of New Hope, Pennsylvania, for the first time and I took a walk from the B&B I was staying at — about a mile outside of downtown.  I was also finishing up my degree at Pace University at the time, so I was feeling a bit scholarly (this is the only song I’ll ever write with references to Shakespeare) and introspective –and it was a quiet walk into town, which felt a bit suburban and a bit colonial simultaneously. Suddenly I felt as if i’d been there before –on that walk – in that place – hearing those sounds – smelling the fallen leaves and the smoke from nearby chimneys…  the stone walls… the stream and the mill…  I guess it really reminded me a lot of where I was born:  Sleepy Hollow.  I had a nice dinner on the Delaware River after visiting what would become my second favorite bookstore in the world, and then walked back to my room at the inn and wrote “Ghost of New Hope.”

Any plans to release a video for the track?

The next videos on my schedule include “Wintertime Greys” and then possibly “Don’t Talk to Me” –but you never know.  If it involves taking a gang of us out to New Hope for a couple days then I would say definitely yes!

The single comes off your new album Prayer To The Black Madonna – what’s the story behind the title?

Today’s war on women reminds me of the propaganda surrounding the Bush/Reagan-era war on drugs. I look at the misogynistic nature of our society and the world in general and it sickens me.  And so while it may seem incredibly timely and relevant during this era of #MeToo, I actually conceived the concept for this album in the late 90’s. The fight attached to the women’s movement has been ongoing since day one –way before race, religion or sexuality. It was Eve who picked the apple. Men never had a glass ceiling to break. (White) men could always vote, be clergy, have power, make decisions for everyone and everything—generally speaking. This was not true for the women folk and the world isn’t much different today.  So while “Prayer to the Black Madonna” is not a religious record per se, it is informed by a dysfunctional catholic upbringing and I try to include a bunch of songs that touch upon iconic women throughout religious history. Today I wear a medal of the Black Madonna around my neck on a sterling silver beaded chain that I bought in Salem, Mass.  The Black Madonna, which essentially is an artist’s rendering of Mary & Jesus, represents moving through dark times and into a place of reconciliation and empowerment.  I read a book about it and it really spoke to me and had a profound impact.  So that’s the story in a round about way!

How REM and John Mellencamp has influence your writing?

That’s a tough one.  I mean, they do as much as people like Elvis Costello or bands like the Jefferson Airplane do. Mostly I learn by listening I guess, but I also like to try and keep it simple and from the heart.  But then I think I’m also drawn to the moodiness of early REM.  My writing process tends to commence with an idea that pops into my head or comes to me in a dream – and then I usually hash it out on my guitar.  I like to write songs that are fun to play as well as to hear.  We play into the grooves on stage and in rehearsal – my bandmates and I – finding the little sweet spots and making them count.  I imagine that’s true for folks like John and Mike!  I never even realized who my influences were really, until I listened to the final result and was like, “wow, this reminds me of such and such…”

Do you tend to take a different approach when you are collaborating with someone else rather than in your own?

Absolutely, because there’s a back and forth that doesn’t exist when working alone.  When I’m by myself the best I can do is walk away from a song for a spell and then revisit after clearing my head.  There’s no one to bounce ideas off of.  The discussion that comes into play when collaborating can be very rewarding –I’ve worked a lot with David Cooper and we collaborate really well in the studio.  Things happen that would never happen without others’ input.  I also think back to some of the best songs I’ve ever co-written with a fellow by the name of Mike Gallello up in the Hudson Valley (NY).  One day I’d like to pick a handful of them and record them with him…  That would be fantastic!

What role does Sleepy Hollow play in your music?

One of my very first bands in high school was called “Alfred and the Hitchcocks.” I remember playing the annual “Hollowstock” jam and almost getting busted by the principal for smoking weed on the front steps.  It’s being from Sleepy Hollow that has probably drawn me to places rich in dark history and folklore. That was my attraction to Asbury Park I suppose – with its similarities to Coney Island, NY, which is not very far from Sleepy Hollow.  In this part of the country we are surrounded by both early American history (which doesn’t go so deep after visiting places in Europe and Asia) and more modern developments since we’re so close to NYC.  So the whole region plays a role, really…  For instance, as a teenager, while working at Rye Playland, I wrote a song that appears on the new record about the Greek Goddess “Demeter” and her daughter “Persephone.” This was way before Al Gore  invented the internet, so I actually had to call my friend Helen to drive a couple miles out —because I couldn’t remember Demeter’s name, but knew there was a bar named after her that we passed every morning on the school bus. The bar was Demeter’s Tavern and the song is “Wintertime Greys.” At this time I was listening to Suzanne Vega’s new cassette “Solitude Standing” that I bought off another kid who gave out quarters at Playland after he bought it but only liked the song “Luka” and nothing else. There I learned what a “case quarter” was and also made friends with a woman who would light herself on fire and high dive into a shallow water pool right by me every shift. She was older but flirted with me, sort of like when Steve Martin befriended circus starlet “Patty” in the movie “The Jerk.”  I told her I was in a band and she told me she’d co-written “Round and Round,” the hit song by RATT. She didn’t get writing credit, but was paid in cocaine. I guess that’s the role Sleepy Hollow plays. Location, location, location. The stories all depend upon where you’re at.

Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

Mostly from personal experience, but also from cinema, the news, and books.  Travel is big for me… I take a lot from visiting places far away and getting lost in their histories.  It’s a wonder I failed Social Studies three years in a row since I’ve developed such an interest in it – but I truly believe it was because the class was right after lunch break and I was generally in no position to pay attention.

Any plans to hit the road?

Yes – I am planning on a tour across Canada come springtime and then maybe an east coast tour in the summer.  West coast next fall if money allows!

What else is happening next in Carl Chesna’s world?

I’m headed to Ireland for a week this month to do some travel and writing!  I’m going to visit an ancient jail, a Viking Settlement, and visit the place where the Titanic embarked on its maiden and final voyage.  Erin Go Bragh!


About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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