Given that Chris Cornell and bandmates in the grunge band Soundgarden got a big break in the ’90s when MTV started playing their music videos, you’d expect Cornell to be a fan of the format. But when he talks about music videos, the disdain drips from his voice.
“I can’t stand
videos,” he says via phone. “I’m happy that it’s not a requirement anymore.”
And yet, when asked, he'll put that disdain aside and deliver the goods. Envisioned by Cornell and directed by Jessie Hill, the music video for “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart,” the first single from his solo album, Higher Truth
, appropriately has an old-timey motif and features cameos by actors Eric Roberts (Runaway Train
, The Expendables
) and W. Earl Brown (Deadwood
). So how’d he come up with the concept?
“I was in Seattle with my wife and I was doing some Soundgarden rehearsal,” he says. “I was exercising in the room. I was thinking that I had to come up with something. I listened to the first couple of notes of the song, and I came up with this story. It’s kind of a comedy or a farce. The guy is on death row in the Old West. He’s saved by a woman who puts a corrosive solution on the rope and it breaks and she carries him away and marries him with the preacher.”
Even though Cornell had a small role in the film Singles
, critics have called the video his “acting debut” because the video comes off as something rather cinematic.
“People have also said the moment when I’m standing next to Matt Dillon in Singles
was my acting debut,” Cornell says. “I got comments about whether I’m going to do any more acting. It would have to be explained to me. People would say, ‘Well, you acted in Singles
.’ I would say, ‘Not really.’ I walked down the stairs and stood next to Matt Dillon. I did that. I didn’t think that was acting. He was acting. He was cool.”
The press release for the new album explains that Cornell was inspired by the stark arrangements of musicians like Nick Drake and Daniel Johnston. Songs such as “Through the Window” and “Murderer of Blue Skies” have a real tenderness to them.
Given the fury with which Soundgarden played, those seem like an odd set of references. Cornell says that he likes to listen to quieter tunes to take the edge off, a habit he picked up during Soundgarden’s early days.
“Somewhere in the late ’80s when Soundgarden was on the road a lot as an indie band doing van tours, I think our record was playing 22 shows in a row without a night off,” he says. “All the bands we played with were super aggressive. We were super aggressive at the time. The shows were really violent. I started coming across these records like the very first Bob Dylan record. He just does cover songs and it’s just a guitar and him singing and playing harmonica. It’s a super simple and edgy recording but it has a lot of energy. Nick Drake’s Pink Moon similarly, in that he has such a calm icy voice but this really aggressive finger picking style. It has that very magical British folk thing going on. I started getting into those records with nothing going on except the storytelling and the singing. Maybe one instrument that isn’t even played that well. There was something about that that felt like it was clearing my palate.”
He says he initially thought his 1999 solo effort, Euphoria Morning
, would show off his stark side. But when he started writing those songs, he realized they didn’t quiet work as stripped down acoustic songs.
The album represents yet another chapter in Cornell’s remarkable career. Though he has a natural ability to sing, he initially didn’t get much encouragement from his friends and family.
“[I learned to sing] over a long period of time and a lot of trial and error,” he says. “[Seattle at the time] wasn’t a place where [anyone] would say, ‘You have a huge gift.’ All anyone ever said was that, ‘It’s great you like music. You should concern yourself with a real vocation.’ I had one experience where I took a piano lesson. I was maybe ten years old. The piano teacher played a scale and asked me to sing the notes. She wanted to see if I was tone deaf or not. When I sang, she jumped up. That was the first time anyone has reacted to me in that way for anything I did — ever. It was enough of a reaction that I remember it. I remember thinking I shocked the heck out of this lady for doing something that was super easy. Why couldn’t math be this easy?”
By the time he was in rock bands, he was a drummer, his voice had dropped and he wasn’t singing. He would occasionally sing lead vocals and cover a blues song, and it would “bring the house down and piss off the lead singer of the band.” Even with Soundgarden, he drummed; he only started writing lyrics and singing because he was the best singer by default.
“As we started to get into songwriting, I realized we had a body of work and doing both [singing and drumming] wasn’t going to be good,” he says. “We had to find a drummer or a singer and I became the singer.”
It’s well known that Cornell gravitated to the Beatles at an early age, adopting a record collection that his friend had left to rot in his basement. He says that contributed to shaping his willingness to explore a variety of genres.
“They were rich records,” he says. “Revolver
and Rubber Soul
and Sgt. Pepper’s
— those records were really magical for a kid at that age. Music was becoming an escape for me. I wasn’t good at anything. I wasn’t good at school or sports. I was outdoorsy but I started to disappear into this world of music. What happened in terms of influence is that my intrinsic understanding of songwriting and being in a band and making records is based on those early experiences of listening to Beatles’ records. What’s important about what they did is that they had multiple singers singing in different ways. If you take John Lennon or Paul McCartney, they’re singing completely different on any one song. They seem to not have any concern about presenting an overall band sound from song to song or on consecutive records. They’re completely enthralled in music and whatever inspirations they get. It’s like, ‘I just came back from India and check this out.’ Or ‘I think I can write a song like Bob Dylan; check me out.’ They could do all this stuff. I think that’s the guy I came to be as a songwriter because it’s how I learned what music was.”
Back in 2006 when he was in Stockholm doing promotion, he did an acoustic radio show. One hundred people showed up. He was going to play for an hour and on acoustic guitar and thought he would play for a half hour and then conduct a Q&A. He played a few songs and the audience became “dead quiet.”
“I thought it would be cool to do a tour like that,” he says. “This manager I had at the time was really cautious about it. He wanted me to do test shows. I played Hotel Café in L.A. which is a really tiny place but really amazing for that type of one-man show. That went great. I started doing more. They weren’t as good. Part of it is the venue. Anything that feels like a bar doesn’t really work. In order to figure out how to do it, I needed to do a real tour. That’s what I did. Somewhere mid-tour I started to understand what it was. The room has to be the right room. There’s a flow that happens that’s based on the audience. I’m not following a set list. I tell stories, but I don’t know what I’m going to say until I say it. If it all comes together, it works really great.”
The current tour that brings him to Lakewood Civic will find him playing acoustic; Cornell says playing unplugged has become a way to make all his fans go home happy.
“It’s one way for me to play a show where fans of different periods can come and have a good time,” he says. “If you’re a Soundgarden fan, you can still like it. If you’re just a fan of my solo work, you’ll like the Soundgarden and Audioslave parts. It works for everybody, and that’s not easy to do.”
Chris Cornell — Acoustic Higher Truth Tour, Hemming, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 8, Lakewood Civic Auditorium, 14100 Franklin On the Campus of Lakewood High School, Lakewood. Tickets: $45-$52.50, ticketmaster.com.