Chris Cornell wrapped up his Australian tour on the weekend with the second of two sold out shows at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday night, December 12th. It’s been a good year for the Soundgarden vocalist, who released his fourth solo studio album, Higher Truth, in September, and hit the road for a series of acoustic solo shows in which he plucked songs from his 30-plus year career, taking in everything from Soundgarden, Audioslave and Temple of the Dog to his myriad solo and soundtrack compositions.
Related: The Life and Times of Chris Cornell
2015 hasn’t been without its issues, though – in April he weighed into the legal dispute over the ownership of the master tapes of Temple Of The Dog’s 1991 debut album, in which London Bridge studio co-founder Rajan Parasher, brother of producer Rick, is refusing to release them to the band’s label, A&M Records. The terror attacks in Paris on November 13th, meanwhile, struck particularly close to home for the singer, who once lived in the city. Speaking from the bowels of the Opera House hours before hitting the stage on Friday night, Cornell discussed all this, as well as the progress Soundgarden are making on their new album, the follow up to 2012’s King Animal.
On a solo tour such as this, how many songs do you have ready that you could play on any given night?
I don’t know. Probably 150 or something. There’s a lot of songs that I sort of forget about and someone might yell out onstage, but I tend to notice that the ones that get yelled at me are usually within about 20 songs. And the rest of them are like, whatever I feel like doing at the time, or whatever the theme of the tour might be.
How quickly when you walk onstage do you get a sense of whether you’re going to have a great show or a less than great one?
I think lately, particularly on the Higher Truth tour since it started, I haven’t felt confined to the idea of great show, not great show. I feel like there’s a fluidity in there that the shows can kind of move and change and grow, and I think part of it too is the notion for myself, just as the person playing and singing the songs, a large part of this is what’s entertaining to me. That’s what makes it work, it has to be that. And one of my favourite things to do is just sit with an acoustic guitar and sing songs, so that’s been the focus of this tour. I have to be having fun. I make sure I’m having fun, so in turn the audience does, and that works every time. That never doesn’t work.
In the song “Higher Truth” you sing about filling the world with pain and hate. Has that song taken on more resonance since the attacks in Paris?
It’s completely changed my perception of my own song from the time the tour started until now.
Because of what happened in Paris?
I think that was a large part of it. I think that event suddenly made me feel different about what that song is. What it can mean. I suppose the initial idea lyrically came from that notion of a conversation with a child: “These are the different ways that you’re going to be tempted or possibly gravitate towards living your life, and this is what you can bring to the world and this is what you can choose to avoid to bring to the world, and this is what you can search for.” But at the end of the day when I think about children I think about babies living in the moment, and really… they don’t even have the option to not appreciate each second going by, because they’re lost in it. And as adults we totally fail in that regard. Even with our own children we can be distracted and not be there in the moment. And that’s what the song meant to me – as an adult, trying to remind myself to keep my eye on the moment.
But lyrically it was open enough to include what I think of as the important aspects about what you bring to humanity as a person, which is tolerance and compassion and that golden rule of do unto others. And that song has started to speak that to me. And there’s a bridge in it that’s kind of like hitting the reset button of appreciating what’s around you and not taking it for granted. And every night when I sing that, it’s like its own reminder back to me. We tend to concentrate on negative things as people, and life can be negative, it can be really hard, but I think that as purposefully as we concentrate on the negative we should give at least that much to the positive aspects of life and being alive and the miraculous things that humans and human nature can create.
You used to live In Paris. Emotionally, did those attacks strike home?
Yeah, I have a hard time talking about it onstage especially, because I’ve played this acoustic show in that venue [the Bataclan theatre, where 89 people were killed during the Eagles of Death Metal concert on November 13th]. And how do I bring it up to an audience that’s in pretty much the same environment that those people were in? And with the realisation that this could happen right now! How closely are we paying attention, and if we are paying attention really closely, what can we even do about it anyway? It’s been really difficult to stand on a stage and speak about it, I haven’t felt comfortable if for no other reason that I haven’t felt like it’s an appropriate moment to remind everybody of how horrendous [it was], just to entertain that. I think we all have pretty good imaginations, we know that it really happened, and we can imagine everything that could have unfolded from the first sounds and your brain trying to make sense of it and tricking you into thinking it’s something else. It ended with a lot of people dying and a lot of people being injured and a lot of family members who probably will never heal from it.
In your schedule it looks like you’re not playing any shows between Christmas and late March. Will that time be spent working on new Soundgarden material?
Yeah. If I’m not on tour or making an album for myself I’m always focusing on Soundgarden. It’s kind of what I do. And in the last five years it’s been pretty amazing to be able to do this acoustic solo career simultaneously with Soundgarden, which is like this sonic assault. And to be able to bounce back between the two always feels refreshing.
And how far along are you into writing the new album?
It’s hard to say. We’ve definitely got a good start. We don’t have a clock on what we do ever, it’s sort of how we function, and so I can’t say we’re close to an album or really that far away, it’s always hard to tell.
Has there been any resolution to the ownership of the Temple of the Dog master tapes?
I don’t think so. It’s kind of a stupid thing. Unfortunately the band is not really part of this dispute. Temple of the Dog had a contract with A&M Records and there are specifics in that and it’s A&M Records that owns the masters, and doesn’t have them. And if anyone besides them would have the right to own them it would certainly be us first. But ultimately legally it’s not a fight that we can ever be in. It’s a strange thing.
In what ways have you heard your voice change over the years?
I think it’s always a moving target and depends on what I’m doing. It depends on the songs I’m singing, am I on tour, am I not on tour, am I in the studio, what am I focusing on, what kind of songs am I singing in the studio, what am I pushing it to do. I’ve been pretty lucky in that my voice has been a pretty reliable instrument. All it ever really required of me was just to figure out how to manipulate it in the best way to get what I want out of it. And as time goes on that gets a lot easier, cos I don’t struggle with mistakes that one can make when figuring it out, like overuse, hanging out and talking to people for hours after the show, smoking, stuff like that. Stuff that should seem obvious, but when you’re in your twenties, it’s just really difficult to want to worry about.