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The Life & Times of Chris Cornell

The Soundgarden frontman opens up about the past, the present and finding a ‘Higher Truth’.

Chris Cornell is in a restless mood. Though the 51-year-old is at home in Seattle, and the tour in support of his upcoming solo album, Higher Truth, is still a few weeks away, the singer is filling his days not with rest and relaxation, but with “working on other songs and other albums and rehearsing and everything”. There’s not, he adds, “a lot of down time”. Laconic in his delivery yet intensely thoughtful – he’s prone to long answers that occasionally veer off course but always return to the point at hand – Cornell is currently in something of a creative purple patch. In 2012 he co-penned King Animal, the comeback album for Soundgarden, the Seattle quartet he co-founded in 1984. (He’s also just started writing for their new LP.) In 2011 he devised the Songbook tour concept, in which he performs songs from throughout his career in solo acoustic mode. This last endeavour in particular played a big role in shaping the largely acoustic Higher Truth, Cornell’s fourth solo studio album. “The idea was to write and record an album that makes the Songbook tours a living, breathing thing as opposed to just nostalgia,” he comments.

In spite of this activity, or perhaps because of it, Cornell is at a point in his life where he’s comfortable looking back at a career that in some ways began the moment he left school at the age of 15, but really took flight when he formed Soundgarden. Along the way there have been side projects – most notably Temple of the Dog, which he founded in the wake of the 1990 death of close friend and Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood, and featured Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and future Pearl Jam members Mike McCready, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament (the last two were in Mother Love Bone) – new groups (Audioslave); guest spots (he’s sung on releases by Slash and, most recently, Zac Brown Band, to name a few); soundtrack contributions (most famously “You Know My Name”, for the James Bond film Casino Royale), resurrections (Soundgarden’s reformation in 2010) and solo albums. And though not all of it has been received with the same amount of fervour – in particular his 2009 R&B flavoured album, Scream, produced by Timbaland – Cornell’s position as one of the world’s finest rock vocalists has never wavered.

There have, however, been casualties. At one point in our interview, Cornell laments the number of friends he’s lost to substance abuse, something that was brought into clear view earlier this year when he performed at the Sonic Evolution concert in Seattle, and was tasked with singing Mad Season songs with the existing members of that group – guitarist Mike McCready and Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin – in lieu of the fact that vocalist Layne Staley (also of Alice In Chains) had died of an overdose in 2002.

Over the course of an hour and a half, a relaxed Cornell – who returns to New Zealand and Australia in November and December for a solo tour – casts an eye over it all, but with one eye firmly on the future. “To me,” he says, “it’s always been, ‘What are we going to do tomorrow? What song are we writing tomorrow? And what’s our next record going to sound like?'”

When did you start focusing on a new solo album?
Two years ago [laughs]. The reason it took as long as it did is because I was also touring as a solo acoustic artist with the Songbook tours, as well as touring for the Soundgarden album, King Animal. But this album has been a long time coming. All the way back as far as the beginning of Soundgarden I started writing stripped-down experimental acoustic songs, and I’d record them on a four-track, and I was just doing it for fun. And the first time one of those got out to where a lot of people heard it was the song “Seasons” [from the Singles soundtrack in 1992], and a lot of people were fans of me doing that kind of stripped-down acoustic songwriting. So probably back as far as 1990 I was thinking about doing a whole album of acoustic songs, or acoustic-ish songs.

Each of your solo albums has a different flavour, be it the more rock-oriented Carry On [2007], the sombre Euphoria Morning [1999], the R&B tinged Scream and now Higher Truth. Do you feel like you have an identity as a solo artist?
Up until recently I didn’t feel like that was important to me. But walking out on a stage like I did all throughout Australia a couple of years back, playing songs from the earliest Soundgarden periods, Temple of the Dog, Audioslave, all the solo songs I’ve written for films over the years, suddenly I felt like there was this identity to me as a solo artist, because these are all songs that I love, and somehow when you put them into the environment of just an acoustic guitar and singing they start to live together on a stage and it makes sense. I feel like being in touch with a solo artist personality helped me write this album, and it gave me an excuse to write it, really.

In the past you’ve said each of your albums is a snapshot of where you’re at in life. Though this album is quite gentle musically, there are some biting lyrics – “Murderer of Blue Skies”, for example, is particularly vicious: “I can’t wait to never be with you again/I can’t wait to lead a life that you’re not in.” Where were you “at” when you wrote this album?
I think songwriters kind of do this combination of creating a character and a storyline, almost like you would create a character in a novel and you write that person’s story. In my case, writing music, you’re sort of writing the soundtrack to that person’s story in a way. To some degree, these characters are me, and to some degree they’re fantasy versions of me, and it’s difficult sometimes even for me to tell the difference between which part of the song is autobiographical and which part isn’t.

A song like “Worried Moon” [from the new album] describes a guy who is sleeping outside and he’s super anxious about his life falling apart because his relationship fell apart. And he’s thinking he’s going to go back and try and repair it but he doesn’t know if it’s going to work, and he’s confiding and projecting this all on to the only thing that’s there, which is the moon. It’s sort of this vivid portrayal, almost like it’s a scene in a film. But I’ve certainly been in situations in my life like that. So I’m kind of creating a character, but I’m also drawing on my own life experiences to tell that story. I don’t put much effort or much concern into the whens and the wheres and the hows, to me it’s just kind of fun, I’m just creating something.

Related: Chris Cornell’s ‘Higher Truth’ Reviewed

Throughout your career, the stories you tell have always tended to dwell on the more downbeat elements of life…
For me to make a connection with music it has to either have a visceral nature, whether it’s anger or aggression or that kind of passion which shows up in rock music, or there has to be some sort of melancholy and introspection, something about it that makes you feel your own pain. I think a good song or a good film or a good book, they don’t work because they’re making you feel the pain of the characters, they work because they’re tricking you into feeling your own. Somehow when you relate to a character in a song or a book or a film, and that character’s suddenly having a hard time or something horrible is happening to them or they die, it’s pulling emotion out of you that’s really just you allowing yourself to feel your own pain. There’s something about that I just think is really powerful and amazing.

The records that I look to as chief influences on Higher Truth are ones that I receive that way, like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon or Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, albums with almost no production, kind of homemade records. Another record that really moved me when I was starting to get into more stripped-down albums in about 1989, was Daniel Johnston’s album Songs Of Pain. Very melodic, amazing lyrics, very personal and pretty funny, but also really depressing sometimes.

What insecurities do you have as a solo performer?
The obvious ones, especially doing acoustic tours where the curtain is opening, you’re walking out to entertain everyone, and they’ve all paid money and they’re sitting in a seat and they’re looking at you. And it’s your responsibility as the solo artist to entertain them for two and a half hours. If I think about it at any given time of the day when I’m doing it it’s pretty scary. The first solo album I put out [Euphoria Morning], Soundgarden was no longer a band, that was kind of scary, because I knew it was going to be very different from Soundgarden, so I knew there’d be a lot of Soundgarden fans that didn’t like it. But there were a lot that did, and once it came out I felt a lot of support. It was a fairly unique album, it wasn’t what people expected, but in and of itself it was an album that connected with a lot of people in a pretty lasting way. So that was the last time that I got nervous about the notion of being a solo artist.

Euphoria Morning was recently re-released on vinyl, but you’ve changed the title to what you’d originally intended it to be – Euphoria Mourning. How did it come to be spelt differently on the original release?
It was a pretty dark album lyrically and pretty depressing, and I was going through a really difficult time in my life – my band wasn’t together anymore, my marriage was falling apart and I was dealing with it by drinking way too much, and that has its own problems, particularly with depression. So I titled the album Euphoria Mourning, but right before the record came out and I was doing interviews over the radio for example, if you say “Euphoria Mourning”, the listener doesn’t know if it’s mourning with a “u” or morning without a “u”. And that started to bother me. So I had a conversation with my manager at the time, and said I really love the title but do you think it’s confusing? And he suggested that Euphoria Morning would probably be a better title. I thought, in contrast to the lyrics maybe that works. And it wasn’t my manager’s fault, I was a grown man and could say I don’t think that’s a good idea, and in the back of my mind I didn’t think it was a good idea. But mentally I wasn’t together enough to really know what was right. So I went with “Morning”, and it’s bothered me ever since. It even showed up in an early review where someone reviewing the record said that the title sounded like a potpourri scent, and when I read that I was just like [with disdain], “Fuck! Fuckin’ bullshit!” The title was so beautifully poetic to begin with, just the concept of euphoria in mourning; it was a moment I felt inspired and I let all the air out of it. So when we decided to do its first vinyl release I thought, I want to change the fuckin’ title! [Laughs] It’s time to change it.

Of all your solo albums, Scream remains the most divisive. Were you taken aback by the vitriol that met the album?
Yes and no. First of all I knew that that would happen. I didn’t expect that to not happen. But what I didn’t expect was how the release of the album rolled out. What was supposed to happen in the initial conversations was this is going to be kind of a one-off fun thing to do. And we’re talking about a label, which is Timbaland’s label really, through Universal, that was going to essentially service this record to fans of his types of production. And they did the opposite. They pretty much just pushed it in front of all my fans first, and they wanted to see what would happen. So in the U.S. they took it to rock radio and rock & roll press and that was never going to work. In the UK they didn’t really seem to blink at it, they just thought, OK, cool, new Chris Cornell record. But in the U.S. it was, he’s lost his goddamn mind. And so that was kind of disappointing. I think had it come out this week there’d be less of that, ’cause times have changed and there’s more integration in terms of different approaches to music and writing and production and all that crap.

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With Scream producer Timbaland (centre) and the Pussycat Dolls in 2008.

Do you still stand by the album?
Oh absolutely, I think it’s a great album, I’m really glad I did it, and I also got a hell of a lot out of that experience. It was a crash course in a different way of songwriting and a different way of performing, and I think as a songwriter and also as a recording artist it’s easy to get caught in a pattern. I recorded “Seasons” in a closet in 1990, I still have the microphone I used, it was just two acoustic guitar tracks and two vocal tracks, ’cause all I had was a four-track and that was the only way it was going to sound good. And I could have stopped there, I guess. [Laughs] It worked, it was fine! As time moved on it turns out I was just one of those guys who doesn’t like to stop, I like to keep moving on and learning new things, and that’s always been the goal of any band I’ve ever been in as well. The upside to that is that I’ve had a lot of creative output and artistically have had a ton of freedom to do whatever I want with really gracious fans that fucking put up with it. And the downside would be that the commercial side of one’s career can suffer when it becomes super eclectic, and I think on some level mine has done that here and there.

At the Sonic Evolution concert in Seattle earlier this year you performed Mad Season songs with the existing members of the band, as well as a number of Temple of the Dog songs. At the end of the night, in reference to the Mad Season songs, Mike McCready said, “It’s with a heavy heart to hear this music”. Do you feel that way when you hear Temple of the Dog tracks?
I had a similar sentiment that was actually based more around the Mad Season songs. I think there’s something about the Temple songs that always feels triumphant to me, and the reason I say that is because we were all really young, and as far as I know, none of us had had anything like that happen to us – where someone young and really close to us, and who had such promise and was so inspiring as a songwriter and as a person, dies, needlessly, unexpectedly, and there’s no way to characterise it in a positive way. There was no silver fucking lining to that happening ever. And yet, Temple kind of became this moment where we came together as friends in mourning and we created something that became timeless. And the experience of doing it was really great. There was no tension, there were no expectations for it commercially or otherwise, we were all enjoying each other’s company as well as enjoying making the album together. I was having this great moment of taking songs I had written and seeing a completely different group of people approach them, and see what that could turn into, and it turned into an amazing thing.

And also Pearl Jam was forming [out of the ashes of Andrew Wood’s band, Mother Love Bone] right around the time we were making the record, and it felt like that was a very big healing thing; to have Eddie [Vedder] come into the fold of this small group of friends and just somehow know that he was going to bring something creative into their lives. And that [band] that seemed like it was going to die and wither away suddenly had this huge spark, and our scene as friends and our scene as Seattle musicians went from one moment of mourning and this horrible, dour depression to hopefulness again. I think of that as a really triumphant moment that remembers a friend in the best possible way.

Having said that, doing the Mad Season songs and singing them was really difficult for me, ’cause I didn’t know them. That wasn’t an album I’d performed, I didn’t know all the words. I’d heard the songs but I had to listen to the ones that I sang and learn them and then learn the lyrics. And what ended up happening was, I’m listening to Layne [Staley] singing them over and over and over, and it was so sad. It was so sad to hear his performances and hear his expression and kind of know where he was during that period, which wasn’t great, and you hear this kind of vibrant talent, the character of who he really is coming through in the song, ’cause he was able to do that, he was able to convey that. It might have been the first time I really had to confront the fact that he’s dead and he’s not coming back. And I hadn’t done that. And there’s something about that feeling that is so familiar that it’s fucking annoying. I’ve lost a lot of young, brilliant friends, people that I thought were very inspired. Andy Wood and Layne and Jeff Buckley, who was a good friend, and Kurt [Cobain], and Shannon Hoon [of Blind Melon] was a friend, and Mike Starr [Alice In Chains] was a friend, the list can kind of go on if I sit here and try and remember. And they’re all young and these guys all had limitless potential in their lives in front of them. And I think there’s something so inspiring about that – that is like the miracle of youth. And to see that be the final chapter so young is a really hard thing to swallow every time.

Was there never a lesson to be learned from those deaths? You had your own substance issues in the Nineties and 2000s – was seeing these friends die not enough to scare everyone straight?
I remember seeing how Layne reacted to Andy dying from drugs, and I think that he was scared possibly. And I think he also reacted the same way when Kurt shot himself. They were really good friends. And yet it didn’t stop him. But for me, if I think about the evolution of my life as it appears in songs for example, Higher Truth is a great example of a record I wouldn’t have been able to write [when I was younger], and part of that is in essence because there was a period of time there where I didn’t expect to be here. And now not only do I expect to be here, and I’m not going anywhere, but I’ve had the last 12 years of my life being free of substances to kind of figure out who the substance-free guy is, because he’s a different guy. Just by brain chemistry, it can’t be avoided. I’m not the same, I don’t think the same, I don’t react the same. And my outlook isn’t necessarily the same. My creative endeavours aren’t necessarily the same. And one of the great things about that is it enabled me to kind of keep going artistically and find new places and shine the light into new corners where I hadn’t really gone before. And that feels really good. But it’s also bittersweet because I can’t help but think, what would Jeff be doing right now, what would Kurt be doing right now, what would Andy be doing? Something amazing, I’m sure of it. And it would be some music that would challenge me to lift myself up, something that would be continually raising the bar so that I would work harder too, in the same way they affected me when they were alive basically.

In the title-track on the new album you sing “I’ll take the truth, a higher truth”. What does that mean to you?
I don’t know if those words would even have come out of my mouth at a younger age. I was sort of afraid to write it down ’cause there are a lot of connotations to bullshit new agey crap that I’ve heard since the Eighties. The distant notion of a higher truth suggests that there’s truth of a better form, and higher is better, and my connection with the thought of it has more to do with the connection to my children, and that lesson that you get when you’re shaking a keyring in front of your baby’s face and they’re sitting in the crib and they’re completely living in the moment and enthralled with this simple thing that is like the whole universe to them. And realising that really that’s all life ever needs to be – lost in the wonder of whatever moment we’re in, and if it isn’t right in front of our face and we can’t see it then maybe we’re not looking hard enough. That’s what higher truth means to me. The higher truth is really just the simple version of what we’re like and how we feel about life when we come into the world, instead of complicating it and corrupting it and getting swept away in all the bullshit of mysticism and religion and philosophy and vanity and all that crap. It’s who we were before any of that happens.

Speaking of your children, your Instagram contains photos of your youngest son, Chris, playing guitar. Is he following in your footsteps?
I don’t know, he’s his own guy. He listens to a lot of different kinds of music, and I haven’t really tried to push him in any one direction. I think my children are definitely musically inclined and they show it, and they’re exposed to a lot of it. And they’re their own people, and I think easily they could do something musical or they could do something in acting or film or other types of the arts, and I would fully support it.

What one piece of advice would you offer them if they wanted to go into music?
It has to be done for the right reason, and I’d say that to anybody. Obviously I want my kids to be happy, and I believe that they can be super successful at whatever they want to do, but don’t make the successful part more important than the process of doing it. Especially if it’s an artistic endeavour. Make sure that it’s inspired, that’s your chief goal, ’cause I also believe that success comes from that.

When you were starting out, was there anyone in particular who really encouraged you? Who saw something in you and said, “keep going”?
I got a lot of that encouragement from day one, whether it was said or whether I would just read the face of somebody. I was a pretty unremarkable kid. I had no focus, I was horrible in school, nobody seemed to give a crap about anything I was doing, no one seemed to be interested. Until I did music. I think that’s when the switch was thrown. The first time I had a music teacher play a scale on piano and ask me to sing it, ’cause she just wanted to see if I had an ear or not, I remember singing the scale and she almost jumped off the stool and looked at me. I remember it because that’s the first time that had happened. No one had ever looked at me like that. And the first time being in a rock band I started to feel it for sure, I was treated differently. In the early days of Soundgarden, just playing half-full dirty little clubs, people came up to us the whole time and said you guys have something really special.

Your parents divorced in your early teens. What role did music play in helping you deal with that?
Music was my escapism, and that has a lot to do with why I write songs the way I do. Because I still think of it that way. You’re creating an environment with music that other people get to wander into when they listen to your music. And that was what I did when I listened to records; I would put on a record in my bedroom and close my eyes and get lost in whatever that world was. It was super important. I tended to shy away from the records that everyone was playing. I never bought a Rolling Stones record, I never bought a Led Zeppelin record until Soundgarden was being compared to them. Now I have all their records and I’m a huge fan. But there was a period growing up that I shied away from that. I wanted an environment in my bedroom of music that was different.

And you found that where?
In terms of looking outward for inspiration I was looking at the heroes I had that lived in the post-punk indie world, ’cause it was an amazing time. As dreary and shitty as the Eighties were for commercial music, there was a lot of underground music that was fantastic. It was the golden age of that. And the bands were from everywhere – the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, there were these indie bands on little labels that were making really amazing music. It was a bit of an “everything goes” kind of attitude that over time has faded a little bit, and I always wanted to stay in that “everything goes” world. So what I do now is, I’m always looking at guys who are ageing and still manage to have a vibrant career, and still manage to do things creatively that surprise, and yet they do it with authority and with some type of purpose that keeps people interested. Neil Young is a great example of that. He’s almost more frightening when he’s onstage playing a rock song now than he was 25 years ago.

You left school at 15 – what were your prospects?
[Laughs] I had no plan, and there were no prospects. I started working. I was a busboy, I was a dishwasher, those were the jobs I could get, and that was it. Kind of simultaneously I started playing music, and I had a band pretty quickly. I started playing the drums. I couldn’t play any other instrument at the time, but I had learned guitar and piano at a younger age and sort of let it go and forgot about it. So I started playing drums, and I was in a band within a week, and at 16, 17, somewhere in there, that was my plan.

By the time I was 19, I distinctly remember driving home from my restaurant job in my 1969 four door Galaxie 500, and having this kind of moment, it was like an epiphany. It occurred to me that there was no guarantee that as a musician I would ever have any kind of financial success, but I was fine with that. And on this drive I remember making a promise to myself that no matter what happened in terms of success, I was going to be one of those guys playing music until he drops dead. I had no trouble working, I always showed up on time and I was pretty industrious in that blue collar way, so that wasn’t ever going to be a factor. To me, paying rent, having guitar strings, having gas in my tank, that wasn’t that tough, it was just a matter of getting up early when you don’t want to. And you take shit from the boss instead of kicking him in the teeth and getting fired. You make sacrifices for whatever it is you want, and I was able to do that, I was fine with that. So that was my promise.

And after that, things slowly but surely kept kind of evolving into what would become a successful music career. Nothing fast, no overnight anything, but I always felt that having that moment was really important, because it took any kind of desperation out of it. I was never going to be that guy who was thinking, I have to be a rock star next month or I’m going to be too old. [Laughs] I didn’t think about it, I didn’t care, I just cared about what we were doing artistically.

You seem comfortable reflecting on your past – your Twitter, for example, is full of archival shots. Is it because in tandem with that you’re still moving forward with Soundgarden and as a solo artist?
I’m good with it now. That’s never really been something I was that comfortable doing, mainly because I was always looking forward. And I guess two things happened. One was the PJ20 movie [the documentary marking Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary] and being interviewed for that. I really had to stop and remember some things and how I felt and get into the moment. And then what really brought me back in a way I didn’t expect was when we did the anniversary of Superunknown, ’cause we did a few shows where we played just that album from front to back, and we’d never done that before. So I’d never gone back to that moment of what it felt like in that year when I was sitting in a basement writing all these songs and obsessing over the album coming out good. That all came back. Music is like a time machine, it puts you back in a room literally where you remember what the carpet looked like, what time of day it was when you came up with a certain idea, and that did that for me.

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Cornell fronting Soundgarden in the early nineties.

You mention PJ20. What can you recall of first meeting Eddie Vedder? Was it while working on Temple of the Dog?
Yeah, there were two rehearsals I think we did for that, and the second one he was there, waiting for us to be finished so that they could do a Pearl Jam rehearsal. And at the time Matt [Cameron, drums] wasn’t in Pearl Jam, so me and Matt showed up and we just went through the songs once, and that was when I met him. And it was in that moment that he started singing on “Hunger Strike”, just because I was singing both parts and he thought he’d just step up to the mic and help me out. And a lightbulb went off and I rearranged the song and put him in it, ’cause it wasn’t really a song, it was one verse and then a revolving chorus, which I imagined would just end the album. And when we rearranged it and I sang the first verse and then had him sing and the band kind of come in it changed everything, and then it became a real song. Including him in that was also this kind of momentary leap of faith as well as it being in the spirit of the album. There was no ego involved, there was no stress, and the idea that this guy I didn’t even know would suddenly be part of something that was that important to us, it didn’t really bother me. I didn’t react to it with any kind of possessiveness, we didn’t have those feelings about it. And he was a great guy.

Another example of Seattle musicians collaborating was on Alice In Chains’ ‘Sap’ EP, where you and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm sang backing vocals on the song “Right Turn”. What can you remember of that?
It was kind of fun. Those guys were fun, they were fun guys to hang out with. That was a period where Layne was still in really good shape, and he was great in terms of singing in a studio, he’d just get up on the mic and sing and it sounded great every time. It was interesting to see that. He was pretty unbelievable when he was starting out in the early days of Alice. Mark Arm was there, and me and Layne, and I’m not sure if anyone else sang on it, but it was interesting to hear all the voices together. It was one of those cool moments where someone’s going out of their way to pull the group of Seattle guys together. I think Seattle was pretty good about that. Johnny Ramone used to tell me that made Seattle stand out, that our scene was different than any other scene in the history of rock music because we were nice to each other. [Laughs] He would talk about the New York punk scene where he was like, “Yeah, we’d do everything we could to fuck up the other bands! And you guys are best friends. I don’t understand it!”

Was Johnny a big force in your life?
Yeah, for somebody that had a reputation for being kind of tough to deal with, he was super easy to get to know and was really supportive. He was just a really good friend by every definition. He was one of those guys where there was no bullshit about him, he was completely uncompromising, and not necessarily what you’d expect. There was nothing about his personality or his opinions that were anything other than his, he was the architect of himself, and that was pretty awe inspiring, as well as just the fact that he was a genius in terms of conceiving his own band. He would sometimes give me advice on things I was doing, and no matter whether I agreed with him or not I always took it seriously, because for the most part he was rarely ever wrong about anything.

Is there a piece of advice that really sticks with you to this day?
Yeah, one thing that haunts me every time I’m onstage is, he always said that I need to stand with the microphone stand, and if I move I have to take it with me. He said very few singers can get away with taking the mic off the mic stand and walking around with it. I think Jim Morrison was one of the ones he said could do it, maybe Mick Jagger, but I wasn’t one. [Laughs] So every time I walk away from the stand with the microphone I think, Johnny always said this sucked. I should go put it back. It doesn’t look right.

Even to this day…
When you’re onstage you always think about that stuff. That kind of stuff will haunt you until you stop.

From issue #767 (October, 2015), available now.

Cornell is touring Australia this December. Full dates and details available via Live Nation.