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Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009

Cory Chisel’s Modern Gospel

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Perhaps as a result of trying to launch a music career from unassuming Appleton, Wis., where the pool of available backing players isn't especially deep, roots-rock singer Cory Chisel prefers to record his albums with a revolving door of outsourced talent.

"It's always a long process of finding out who those people will be," Chisel explains. "I want to make music with people who really expand my mind, people whose own work I'm really freaking out about. Obviously, that means reaching out to people who have no idea who I am, and that's a really chaotic way to make music."

With a "the worst they can do is say no" mentality, Chisel secured something of a dream backing band for his upcoming album, Death Won't Send a Letter. In addition to singer/keyboardist Adriel Harris, the only constant in Chisel's band, The Wandering Sons, Chisel was supported by the bulk of The Raconteurs—Patrick Keeler, "Little Jack" Lawrence and Brendan Benson—as well as My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel.

"There's always this problem of feeling self-conscious playing rough demos of songs for people you admire this much," Chisel says. "It's uncomfortable. It's like taking off all your clothes in front of somebody and telling them you're the type of person you think they'd like to make love to."

Chisel says the recording sessions felt natural, though, and he struck up a quick rapport with the players, including Benson, with whom he co-wrote the album's lead single, "Born Again."

"I wasn't even sure what Brendan and I were going to do together," Chisel explains. "I had admired his songs for a while, and one night we had dinner and talked about everything from gardening to you name it. It turns out we're both fans of wine, so we drank some, and it wasn't long until the guitars came out.

"I showed him a half-finished song that he got excited about and quickly had a bunch of ideas for," Chisel continues. "Before I even had a chance to ask him if he wanted to work on it with me, he was already halfway finished with it."

The backing players add breezy, electric accents to an unhurried album that plays like a full-band re-imagining of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. Chisel's voice also recalls Springsteen, though Chisel's is more controlled and softer around the edges. His singing bears the stamp of the gospel music he was raised on by his dad, a Baptist minister.

"I think my music has a lot in common with original gospel music, before the Evangelical whoring-out of that term," Chisel says. "When I use the term 'gospel,' it has nothing to do with the Lord. I mean music that's urgent, music that's born of necessity. A lot of those sentiments evolved into early blues music and punk."

A lot of people are banking on Chisel's modern gospel album. It's his first full-length for Black Seal records, a division of Sony that also shelters Albert Hammond Jr. and Audrye Sessions, and it's being given the full promotional push. The Baptism-themed video with Benson and Keeler for "Born Again" was filmed in advance of the album's Sept. 29 release date (it'll be out in Wisconsin on Sept. 8), and on Oct. 9 Chisel will perform on Jimmy Fallon's show, then at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 10.

"I try to stay out of the promotional end of music as much as I can, but I think there are people riding on this album doing well, being that I spent some of their money on it," Chisel says. "I can definitely spend money when it's somebody else's."