“I feel very fortunate to be in this situation where I can actually always be concentrating on what I love the most,” said singer/songwriter Chris Cornell of the state of his career in a recent phone interview with The Independent. “Getting up in the morning and [writing songs], that’s exciting. It’s as exciting as it always was.” Cornell achieved mega success in the 1990s as frontman for grunge rock originators Soundgarden and then later with the Grammy nominated supergroup Audioslave. He has simultaneously carried on a notable solo career, recording several original songs for film and four records — from 1999’s Euphoria Morning to his latest, Higher Truth, which becomes available September 18. Higher Truth sees Cornell take a different sonic direction than his last studio album, Scream, which was produced by Timbaland, explaining that on this record there was “nothing labored over.” It’s closer to a demo, he added — one that is also high in quality and musically dynamic.
Thoughtful and forthcoming, Cornell spoke of his vision for this project, working with producer Brendan O’Brien, and Johnny Cash.
I’ve been listening to “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart” from your new album, and it has a sort of back-porch feel yet is really well done. Is that what you were you going for? Well, it jumps around. There isn’t a lot more of those [on the record], but you’ll have to make up your mind. I mean, these [songs] delve into a lot of feelings, but ultimately, yeah, I think that it can represent the overall on some level, sure.
I like it because it feels kind of raw, kind of jangly but it’s got a lot of cool layers. Were you going for a particular type of sound? Well, yeah, it’s a difficult one to describe. I guess one reference I have is being such a big Johnny Cash fan, and the transition that he made when he started doing records with Rick Rubin at the end of his career, there’s something to that. Here’s this guy who really doesn’t have to do anything, except strum a guitar, and sing a song. And it almost doesn’t matter what that song is, I’m gonna be completely bowled over by it. Completely moved by it. And what ends up happening for the most part in the music business is, that’s the thing that nobody ever fucking figures out. Ever. And I think that that was happening with him.
I’m a huge Ray Charles fan, Ray Charles as a singer. I never sat around and listened to a lot of Ray Charles records. But I would have loved to produce one. Walk in there and say, “Here’s a piano. We’re gonna put bottlecaps on it and mike it with this shitty desk-top mike and you’re just gonna sing all your favorite songs and, ya know, get drunk or whatever you need to do. And that’s gonna be your record.” And that would’ve been my favorite Ray Charles album. So you know, the weird trick…is to get what you think of as soft-sounding instruments and arrangements and lyrics and all of that, but allow it to sound live and let there be a certain amount of warts on it. You know, no more than a couple of takes of anything — vocal, guitar — nothing is pored over too much, there’s no production taking precedence over the song. And then, really a concentration on keeping it as minimal as possible, as far as the arrangement. We even went back when we were mixing and took a lot of the stuff out and got it back to its core.
Well, again, based on the one song, it feels different from your past work. I feel like you constantly keep changing this up. I’ve done songs that sort of allude to this; I’ve done songs that would actually work on this album, but never in the context of a whole album. And then there are some songs on there that are just unlike anything I’ve ever written. It’s more to do with the song than with production and just getting into the singer/songwriter style of just writing a song with an acoustic guitar and having it work in that context, first without having to add anything to it.
Was that a process similar to “Sweet Euphoria”? Sort of, yeah. “Sweet Euphoria” is a demo, the album was a demo that I did at home.…It was for no particular destination. I think what happened when we started making the album Euphoria Morning, I kept listening to that demo, and thought, “Well, there’s no point, the guitar’s one take, the vocal’s one take,” it sounded good to me, so I felt like there’s no need to redo this. It’s not gonna be better — it might be different…
So you’ve had Soundgarden, Audioslave, all your solo stuff, and then movie work, too. I never know where you’re going to pop up. I like that. So the question is how do you keep all of that going? Well, there has to be an idea behind something. I sort of have to have the ability to envision it. If I can imagine it, I’m kind of off and running, with whatever that might be — collaboration or writing a song for a film or making a new album. As long as I can kind of imagine what that is, then it’s just the doing part. And the getting up in the morning and doing it, that’s exciting. It’s as exciting as it always was. With I think probably a little less stress now. If you can imagine, I’m waking up and I’m excited to be writing and arranging this new song, which is an idea that I have, except that I have to go to work on wash dishes for eight hours and then come back home before I can actually do it. I remember those days really clearly. Coming back from work and coming back inside my house, and having obsessed all day over the arrangement of a song, then I couldn’t wait to get home so I could work on that, and then I walk through the door and fall over on the couch and fall asleep for a few hours, and wake up and, “Fuck.” So yeah, I feel very fortunate to be in this situation where I can actually always be concentrating on what I love the most.
I love to hear that you’re still so passionate about music because I can imagine there’ve been ups and downs and times when it was exhausting. Did you ever feel like you wanted to throw in the towel? I never felt like retirement was something that made any sense in terms of what I’m doing, because it doesn’t really feel like a job. It never felt like I’m doing maintenance to pay for the rest of my existence. This sort of is my existence. So it needs to support itself, and then I’m good.
Well, that’s probably why you continue to make dynamic music, because you’re invested in it artistically, as opposed to just being in a band to make money, which some people seem to get into. With bands there are a lot of things that can happen. What I noticed in the ’90s, which I guess is the last great decade of seeing rock bands have really big success, was that there’d be guys in these different bands that would become really successful, but they had other interests that weren’t music, and they could go off and do those things. One guy would want to be a jet pilot and another guy would want to be a race car driver, and another guy would be like, I don’t know … a naturalist, open a winery or something. And I’m not criticizing any of that, by the way. You’re an artist and your music creates opportunities for you to do other cool stuff. That’s great. And maybe I’m just simple in that what I still cared about after having a lot of success was the same thing that got me there in the first place — getting up in the morning and writing a song. So that has stayed, my passions haven’t really switched.
To me, there’s always the challenge of doing it better. Or going into a direction I haven’t gone before that I’ve always wanted to and looking at music as being sort of something of an art form with infinite possibilities. There’s no way I can do more than just scratch the surface anyway. Also each of us as songwriters, we have habits that we fall in to time and time again, and how do you break out of those habits? And continually moving on. There’re all of these puzzles, and sometimes they can only be solved one song at a time, and I think that’s always an interesting thing.
How do you break those habits? Kind of pay attention to it; it’s hard to know what they are sometimes. And listening to a lot of different music and not shying away from something that would be a bit of a challenge. Just getting up and going back to the drawing board a lot helps too. A lot of the time trying something new fails. I can spend the week on some new song, and [then] absolutely hate it. Feel like I missed the mark. But somewhere in that struggle — because that usually feels really bad when that happens — you sort of get into a mood of desperation and somewhere in that, something new comes out of that that otherwise never would have happened. I don’t get too into trying to figure out the inter workings of what that is, because I figure as long as it works…Maybe if I know how specifically how, it’ll stop working? But I feel like I’ve had the ability to kind of break habits to some degree.
How was it working with Brendan O’Brien on the new album? He kind of seems like the most valuable player, really. As an engineer, and a producer, I knew that he was going to make it sound right. I wasn’t worried about that. In terms of someone recording me singing, he’s really the only guy I let do that at this point; otherwise, I just do it by myself. It’s always gonna be good if I do it by myself, and yet with him, somehow it’s like 10 percent better. I haven’t been able to figure out why that is. He’s a really great musician, I respect him a lot as a musician, so I think what happens is when he’s in the room and I’m singing, you know, I’m pushing a little bit more. Because there’s a guy who can hear nuances that other people might not, and I’m probably trying to impress that guy. That might be what it is. But whatever it is, it’s great. And so, I knew that going into it.
What kind of surprised me was that [Brendan] had the ability to add some layers, play different instruments on different things as he went along. He’s really amazing, particularly on the bass. He plays mostly the bass on the record and it’s really fantastic and it’s not a bass arrangement that we worked over for a week or two weeks, going over song after song. I [would] play an acoustic guitar, he would play the bass line, and I would sing over it, all within the first couple hours of the morning. And nine times out of 10, that was the performance. And he’d never played the song before. That really helps the energy of these songs, to be able to play live and … nothing labored over in spots.
The only other musicians we brought in were Matt Chamberlain played drums on a couple things, very similar, one take, ya know. He’s like Matt Cameron in that way, he understands things instantly, and plays them instantly, as good as anybody ever could or better, and it just keeps the energy up. And we had a couple other musicians come in and play one thing on one song, and that was it, otherwise it was just Brendan and me. That was one thing we decided when we got in the studio that it was just gonna be he and I playing on it because we wanted to kind of keep a homemade quality to it, which I think we got away with. Closer to what the demo sounds like, close to what I think maybe a Nashville record sounds like. You get all these brilliant musicians in a room and you perform everything live but it is definitely a band, and it does sound like sort of a singer standing in front of a bunch of people. This record sounds more like an interesting kinda homemade record.
I think that you were able to make it sound homemade and also make it very clean and professional, which seems a hard line to walk. I think you’re touching on something that is kind of the key point on why this works and how it works and what I was trying to get at — a combination between having it feel live and having an edge to it, a little bit dangerous and a little bit homemade, is exciting. While by the same token, not having it feel like a lo-fi record, where it doesn’t sound great at any volume, or on any set of speakers. I don’t know too many people, other than Brendan, who even understand that. I can explain it if I want to, but I can’t explain how to do it. I kinda do it, on my own and I can certainly do it with Brendan. But [it’s difficult] to achieve that balance — where it sounds warm and it sounds professional and it sounds sonically beautiful but it also has that edge and it isn’t just completely cleaned up.
When you come to Santa Barbara, is it just you and your guitar, or will you have a band? It’s just me and my guitar, and I have a guest musician I’m bringing out with me. He’s gonna play a couple songs with me, he mostly plays cello…he’s one of those guys that can kinda play anything. But it’s mostly gonna be me and the guitar, really.
I saw you in the Ventura Theater a few years back when you had a full band so I’m really looking forward to hearing you on your own. Well, that’s one of the main reasons why I made an album like this, because I was enjoying this solo acoustic touring so much that I wanted to write new material that would kind of make it a living, breathing thing, as opposed to a tour actually mostly nostalgia. [The tour] is now more that it’s being supported by new music and new records and with more new music and new records to follow up. So the point being that I really like touring and it really coexists just super well with other things that I do. Like Soundgarden, for example.
Do you feel like you’re having a resurgence of creativity, or is this just one of the creative flourishes that constantly comes along for you? Well, I live with ongoing daily efforts to try to figure out how to do [music]. This kind of career is basically me trying to figure out how to do it. Everything I’ve done, that’s just me trying to figure out how to do it. So one day, if I put out an album and I decide, I did it. I figured it out! Then that’ll be the last thing…and then I’ll have to go and do something else.
Well, I hope you never figure it out then. [Chuckles]
Chris Cornell plays Wednesday, September 23, at the Granada Theatre, 1214 State St. Call 899-2222 or see granadasb.org.