Of all the unlikely rock stars who emerged during the big wave of early-1990s Seattle, Chris Cornell probably seemed the least unlikely. The lead singer of Soundgarden had been cultivating his powerhouse variation on classic hard rock moves since 1984, and clearly had the presence and prowess required to reach the widest imaginable audience.
And since the band’s heyday subsided (they broke up in 1997, re-formed in 2010), Cornell has remained very much on the main stage. The projects he releases are as high profile as they come—the major label supergroup Audioslave (Cornell + Rage Against the Machine), cowriting and singing a James Bond theme (“You Know My Name” from Casino Royale), a 2009 collaborative album with Timbaland—but he has yet to develop a definitive aesthetic as a solo artist.
That may have been intentional, or a consequence of the kind of opportunities that only come to artists of a certain stature. Either way, he now appears determined to reverse that tendency. His fourth solo album, Higher Truth, released September 18, comes closest to sounding like the Cornell who emerged on the Singles soundtrack song “Seasons,” which is to say that it sounds like the kind of record the singer/songwriter of Soundgarden might make.
He spoke to The Stranger by phone in advance of his solo show at Benaroya Hall.
People always talk about singers from successful bands going solo in terms of competition or freedom, but no one ever really gets into the psychology of it. You’ve spoken before about having been reluctant to assert a specific solo identity. Was that about struggling to find a songwriting voice writing songs for yourself, as opposed the band?
The first songs I wrote that weren’t intended for Soundgarden were really just for fun. That became my hobby, sitting around in my bedroom or my living room just doing four-track songs on a cassette, just having fun with it. I liked to do it and it was exciting. Most of that stuff was pretty weird, experimental. Most of the time it was acoustic-based, because that was the only stuff you could make sound good with four tracks. At least for me. Once you started bouncing tracks around, it sounded awful. But it was kind of anything goes, whatever I wanted to do, any instruments. It didn’t matter, and that was a great way to sort of clear your palate from the intensity of being in a collaboration with a band, where everything you’re doing creatively is being scrutinized by three other people, each of whom is very passionate about the band and the music that goes into it. So anything I did as a solo artist was just really to blow off steam and virtually do anything that wasn’t the band.
My only direction when I recorded my first solo album was: I wanted anything that wouldn’t be a Soundgarden song. (A) Because I’d been writing so much in that context, and (B) because I had such a high regard for the band that I didn’t want to corrupt it by doing some slightly more commercial version of the same thing—which is usually what happens, especially with singers of a band.
But consequently… I remember saying this about Euphoria Mourning, too, when I was first writing songs for it, saying to friends of mine that I feel like I’m directionless. And one of my friends said, well, if you write 10 songs that you really love, you won’t care about the direction. You’ll be thrilled to have 10 songs you really love. And I thought, “Well, that’s probably true,” and that’s the compass I used. And that’s what Euphoria Mourning is. And then as time went on, it seemed like every time I made a solo album it was in reaction to just coming off of writing several albums for a band.
The second one was Carry On. I hadn’t played guitar in the entire period of Audioslave. I wasn’t the guitar player in that band. I wrote some parts, but for the most part I functioned more as just a lead singer and lyricist. So Carry On was just getting back into a room and picking up a guitar and writing songs again. But I was also in this mode of just allowing it to happen, like I did with Audioslave, where I just sort of did my job. I didn’t get obsessed like I would with a Soundgarden album, where I’d become kind of a control freak and sort of have my hand in every aspect of everything. And so, Carry On, while it’s a solo album, it’s weirdly a collaboration with the producer and the musicians who played on it—none of whom I knew, until the end. It was a strange experience. I liked it but I’m not sure that it’s the album I would have made had I been a little more focused and ready to take the reins the way that I’m used to.
Then when I made the solo album with Timbaland, that was obviously a conscious effort to do something completely different than anything I’d ever done in every way—and it was. I was introduced to a whole different method of songwriting, of recording, of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. It was a different set of rules. (I took some of that into the most recent Soundgarden album, just in terms of what songwriting can be. One of the songs, called “Rowing,” I took a loop from about seven seconds of Ben [Shepherd] playing a cool thing on bass, that he didn’t even remember he’d played and I built the whole song around it. A few years before that I wouldn’t have thought that could work… but it does! [laughs].
But I think the two shows I played in Seattle on the Songbook tour, where it was just me and an acoustic guitar—that’s where I found a solo identity, in essence. That type of touring, which I’ve done all over the world now, playing songs I’ve written for three different bands and four different solo albums, and 30 years of songwriting, brought it all together under one umbrella, and I started to feel like, oh, that’s who I am. It’s not a mystery. It’s not a puzzle to solve. I’m this guy, and that’s my entire history.
And so with Higher Truth, I wanted to write a new album of original material that fits into that. That was the direction. It reminds me to some degree of Temple of the Dog. It reminds me to some degree of Euphoria Mourning, and a lot of solo songs I wrote in the early 1990s. This is sort of now I guess in a way how I see myself, as opposed to seeing myself as someone who does anything and everything. I think when you become famous for being in a band… It’s sort of hard as a solo artist to stand outside myself and say, okay, what kind of song does this guy sing? It’s easy with a band. I don’t know why, but it is. This is probably the first time in my life that I’ve ever been able to step outside of me and say, I think I know what that guy should sound like, and here’s a song for him.
“This is what I would do if I were me.”
A lot of artists talk about their desire for total freedom, but isn’t it also true that the absence of limitations can be paralyzing?
Yeah, that’s happened to me a few times. I always viewed the band as something we all have to agree on, and then that becomes reductive. But then you’re being creative with a few tools and being creative with a few tools can be fun, and I became really good at that—especially with the specific tools that I have. And then outside of that it was more difficult to be grounded. But time changes that too, and I feel lucky.
You mentioned learning a lot about what songwriting is and isn’t allowed on the Scream album. But it also involved stepping into a whole new aesthetic after a couple of decades of work. Was that scary?
The scariest part about it was when it would fall into this session of songwriting for the sake of songwriting, almost like you’re punching the clock. Like I think of pop songwriters, they wake up in the morning and they’re just trying to write a song to get on the radio, because that’s what they do. If I wake up in the morning and I feel inspired to write a song that’s a pop song because I’m in the mood, that makes sense. But to have that be on the docket, you know, that was difficult.
We all have instincts and our own specific nature. And you can mess around with that, but you have to be true to it big picture, or it doesn’t feel right, and it’s not real, not honest. So I was somewhat resistant to that. But that resistance actually created some really great songs, because there was some tension in them that otherwise wouldn’t have been there, and it also got the guys out of the room that I felt that way about. And the guy who was left, who I was working with didn’t feel that way to me. He was just a creative genius who was swept away by the muse and was smart enough to know that it’s better to not really give a shit about anything else. You just write what you write.
Timbaland’s big picture was that, too, ultimately. His approach was you just keep going, keep writing songs, have fun with it, and hopefully that will mean that you come up with a couple of hits. But in that world of record production, you have to come up with a couple of hits, and in the world I came from, you don’t, really. You have to come up with something that’s inspired, and maybe you challenge your fans a little bit, but it doesn’t necessarily have to become pop songs. Sometimes that can even be a bad thing. There were some anxious moments, and some of what we came up with creatively came out pretty special because of the strange combination. Some of it was due to the resistance on my part, but some of it was due to how game I was for trying different things. Ultimately it became what it became, in essence, the way I like any album I’ve made: It’s a whole album, an album-oriented album, it sounds best beginning to end, nothing that needs to be taken out of context.
The Seattle rock music world you came up in had a reputation for being hostile toward commercial ambition. That seems to have faded away—not just here, but in the world—but I know it dies hard in a lot of people who are a little older. Obviously, you’ve had a lot of success, both with Soundgarden and as a solo artist, but when it comes to doing things like a collaboration album with Timbaland or singing the theme song to a Bond movie, is it ever hard to reconcile those old prejudices?
Well, those kinds of questions came up much earlier in my career. You had to be really careful when you were sitting down to write a song about what was motivating the direction that song would take. It could be that you could be going out of your way to make it sound less commercial, because you were afraid of what someone might think. And yet your inclination was to write something that just seemed to naturally have a more commercial appeal. I used to run into that dilemma all the time. Suddenly I’d be writing a song that just sounded kind of poppy to me, easy to like, easy to listen to— but I’m writing a Soundgarden song, so I’d go in and try to corrupt it just enough to get away from that a little bit. And every time I did that it would just ruin it. Like it wouldn’t work on any level. Didn’t work on a level of being a cool Soundgarden song, and it didn’t work on a level of what it started out as. And so I’d have nothing.
I probably spent a few years wrestling with that kind of thing, because sometimes I’d wake up and I’d write a song that was kind of pop-friendly. And almost all the singles from albums I put out were songs that I wrote, but they weren’t songs I wrote intentionally to be radio-friendly. And in fact, Scream included, I still can say that I’ve never had any understanding of why a song makes it on the radio or doesn’t. I still don’t.
I was always the kid who listened to records on my own, in my bedroom, spending hours focusing, always gravitating to deep album tracks and those weirder ones. That was my thing. And if one of those made it on the radio it was always a little bit surprising. The same way it was surprising to me when “Black Hole Sun” was a single when everybody seemed to unanimously choose it as one. I don’t think we thought of it as a song that would make it on the radio. That’s kept me from having to bear the burden of making the decision, “should I try to write a radio song?” I really wouldn’t know where to start.
But definitely the Scream album, there was not a day that I wasn’t in a room with somebody who was thinking about that. And thinking about it in the context of the way a Seattle band in the 1990s or 1980s might have thought about needing to write a song that’s pure honest expression—to a pop songwriter, or pop producer, to them, there’s only one yardstick for successfully writing that song, and that’s commercial success. Same thing in the hiphop world, really. They don’t think of cult success as a positive thing. That’s: You’ve failed. Which makes me think that if you’ve had lasting success, you’ve failed. Because the only way to have lasting pop success is you’ve gotta get up every week and invent a new thing that really young people like, and that’s a really hard thing to do for anyone over the course of several decades.
Did being the one person who didn’t think of hit-making as the only possible impetus to write a song cause any tension during that project?
I was clearly the odd man out in the group in that room the whole time, but there’s also an aspect of that that was the whole reason I wanted to do it and made it exciting. And it was! Nobody I was working with didn’t know my history. They were all there because they wanted to do it, so the only real conflict would have been if I’d shown up and refused to do it. Instead it was more like these moments of passive aggressive, which I could communicate very clearly. If someone came up with an idea and thought I should try it and I didn’t want to, it didn’t happen. But also, to do a whole album was my idea, not anybody else’s.
I reached out through a friend because I’d heard that Timbaland wanted to record a song with me, and said why don’t we do a whole album, and I didn’t know what would come back. And it was sort of whimsical. To me it wasn’t like a dramatic shift-of-career decision. For me it was something to do for two weeks and wind up with this crazy-sounding album I would otherwise never have. And what ended up happening later in the process was that Timbaland seemed really inspired by the whole thing. He really ran with it and wanted to connect all the songs with interludes and make this constant hour of music. He ended up spending a lot of time making production moves after the body of the songs was already done. It was like he wanted to turn it into his Sgt. Pepper’s. So it turned into another thing, but it was still what I wanted it to be. It was a crazy fish-out-of-water experience that yielded something that didn’t sound remotely like anything else I’ve ever done.
You’re still heavily, maybe even primarily, identified as a Seattle musician. How long has it been since you’ve lived here, and what’s it like when you come back?
It’s been more than 12 years, but given that I’m 51, you do the math… That means I was born and raised and lived here for a huge part of my life. It’s clearly my home, and it makes perfect sense to me that conversationally I’d be referred to as a guy from Seattle. There was a period in my early career, especially with Soundgarden, where it was actually super important to us that we’d stay home and do what we do there and make Seattle the place for our creativity no matter what happened. And all of our friends and their bands had the same attitude. Nobody had the inclination to go to LA or New York or San Francisco or London… very few, anyway.
And it was that dedication to our home and to being creative in our home and to being who we were, and in a sense celebrating our own identity was one of the chief ingredients that brought so much attention down on it. That was a time when the nature of commercial rock was that everybody did whatever they could to get a record deal and roll the dice and try to be lucky enough to be the latest poodle-haired people in the latest rock video. We were anti that, and our resistance is what got us initially a lot of attention.
And the geography was a big part of that. Once people started coming up to see us, our big unveiling to labels outside of indies was a show at the Vogue. I think we played with Feast. Three different labels came, and all three tried to sign us, and all the individuals who represented those big labels started coming back. And got the same resistance from most of the other bands, and that created the whole huge maelstrom of mining this town, because it had this untapped resource of amazing bands. I’m always proud to carry that with me.
Did you ever imagine singing at the home of the Seattle Symphony?
The quick answer is no. But I’m glad to have the kind of career where I’m able to play a venue like that. And to be able do it in earnest. I’m doing songs that were originally unveiled in the Central Tavern. And now I’m doing an acoustic version of that same song in the Benaroya Hall, and it doesn’t seem out of place. I recognize how lucky that is.
You have one of the most distinctive scream registers of any rock singer I can think of. But I understand you actually don’t project very much volume when you sing. How long were you screaming before you learned to take care of your voice?
The earliest club shows, I had a big problem of walking out onstage, going insane, and losing my voice within the first two songs. Sometimes within the first part of the first song. And somewhere in there, I remember around 1990, just out of pure force, I was able to go out and sing a whole Soundgarden set and push as hard as I wanted and be fine. Then over the years, slowly but surely, I had to reel that in a little bit. Some of it happened naturally—I just figured out how to do it without so much effort.
It was hard to go from one song to another to another in the range that I ended up singing in without seriously having to consider some kind of technique. Most of which was figured out standing there on the stage. And there are still moments where I overdo it, and start pinning it, and I’m thinking while I’m doing it that there’s gonna be a problem. Not so much then, but the next day is gonna be a problem.