Cory Chisel & Adriel Denae / The Tchotchkes Present: Dave Sills
By practically any standard, Cory Chisel is a success. He has recorded two critically acclaimed albums, 2009s Death Wont Send A Letter and 2012s Old Believers, with his band The Wandering Sons. He has toured the world with his friend and collaborator, Norah Jones. He has recorded with Rosanne Cash, and received a Grammy nomination for penning the title track to Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowells 2015 album, The Traveling Kind. In 2013, Chisel helped to create a free music festival, Mile Of Music, in his hometown of Appleton, Wis., that now attracts 60,000 fans and hosts around 900 concerts per year.
On paper, Chisels career is thriving. But in Chisels own heart, he felt a sense of emptiness.
It never felt like we were existing anywhere, Chisel says. We were always on the way to something.
Two years ago, Chisel decided he needed to change his life. Burned out by a cynical music industry and the non-stop grind of the road, he left his life as a performer and songwriter in Nashville and returned to Appleton with his partner and band mate Adriel Denae. They were both seeking a home where life felt a little less transitory.
The concept was very simple: We needed a place where we could put ourselves together, Chisel says. This was something Chisels long time mentor took notice of and quietly and somewhat subversively put a plan in motion to solve. Ellen Kort was the Poet Laureate of Wisconsin and someone Chisel first met when he was 8. They were immediate kindred spirits that shared a love or art, a love of words and love for their small corner of Wisconsin and a mutual bewilderment for a place just outside of town- a huge old monastery situated on 12 acres of riverfront property.
Kort, a trusted adviser to the organization that oversaw this property made a recommendation to the board shortly before her death at age 79. That they make Chisel the Steward of the property and task him with revitalizing the place. The day after Korts passing, he was invited out to the property and without warning, handed the keys.
As if exiting a national hub for the music business wasnt radical enough, Chisel also decided to take on his most ambitious project to date renovating a 30,000-square-foot monastery in Appleton and converting it into a refuge for artists to work and create. Leveraging the connections with local civic and business leaders that he forged with Mile Of Music, Chisel envisions his latest endeavor as an oasis away from a money-obsessed mainstream.
Youre gauged in one or two ways you either or not selling, Chisel says with a trace of disgust. And you start to take on that identity. You start getting introduced to other peoples rules for what success is. In contrast, Chisel now feels that hes living in a well of creativity. The activity brought to The Refuge and its subsequent transformation has been radical.
In one room a new Netflix series is being developed. Theres a new album being made in the chapel, he says. If youre the sort of a person who needs a Steinway, I start making phone calls and try to produce a Steinway.
Somehow in the midst of all this hard work and big dreams, Chisel and Denae found time to make a new record, Tell Me True, Chisels first LP in five years. While Chisels previous work is derived from rock, soul, and gospel traditions, Tell Me True is a stark folk record, because at the end of exploring my many personalities these sounds are the roots of my creative spark, Chisel states.
Tell Me True is very much informed by the simplicity of Chisels new life in Appleton, where he and Denae are raising their 3-year-old son. (The need to not wake the baby also influenced Tell Me Trues soulfully hushed sound.) For Chisel, the process of writing Tell Me True required getting back in touch with his original creative impulses. He decided to stop caring what a record producer or label executive might like, and focus instead on what stirred his own soul. The albums beautiful first single, Songbird, was a turning point.
I wasnt trying to impress any listeners. I was trying to record something that people might never even hear or ever care about. Its really beautiful to get back in touch with that voice, Chisel says softly. The songs that have really carried me through my career, it wasnt rock n roll bombast. At best, Im a very flawed person trying to live in an authentic way, so why not just be?
With Tell Me True, Chisel has finally released a new record for the first time in too long. But more importantly, he has recovered a vital part of himself.
I dont think I ever felt satisfied in any one place like I do today.
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