Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who shockingly died Wednesday, achieved “rock god” status in the ‘90s — very deserved, as one of the most iconic voices in rock, although he said that title embarrassed him. I interviewed him six times over the years, and the following Q&A, culled from two conversations (one in 2007 and one in 2011), explores his other, less hard-rocking musical sides.
Yes, Cornell was a rock god, but he was also a songwriter, a soulman, and folk singer, an incredible interpreter of other artists’ songs, and a heartfelt troubadour. And he had more music in him, more ambitions that will sadly never be realized.
Chillingly, he told me that he “never saw a finish line” when it came to his career, and that he looked to heroes like Neil Young and Tom Waits for inspiration about how he planned to live out his later years: “people who will keep doing what they do until the drop dead — and it might be on a stage, for all you know.”
Cornell played his last show, with Soundgarden, in Detroit Wednesday night, just hours before he was found dead in his hotel room. He was 52.
YAHOO MUSIC: Does being able to do something acoustic [Cornell’s live unplugged album Songbook was released in 2011] keep you refreshed musically, and also keep away from the pressure you’ve spoken about before with Soundgarden?
CHRIS CORNELL: It couldn’t be further from what I would do in Soundgarden, for example. [And] to me it’s kind of seeing my dream career come to fruition. I would try to look toward examples that made sense in the long run as kind of blueprints to follow and whose careers those were. Neil Young’s a great example. Tom Waits is always a great example to me. An example of people who will keep doing what they do until the drop dead — and it might be on a stage, for all you know. I never saw a finish line. And when I’ve seen that in musicians, you kind of end up hearing it in the music, and you sort of see it in the choices that they make in their career and in the songs that they write, and it becomes something else — where they’re not existing in music for the sake of enjoying music and playing music. It becomes more of they’re putting in the hours so they can make a living.
And since I can remember, since I decided I was a musician, I’ve always thought I don’t want there to be a finish line. [Music is] not something that I ever don’t want to not do and since there are so many things that can be done, I just love the idea of being immersed in them.
And Neil Young’s a great example because you’ll see… Soundgarden toured with him with Booker T. & The MG’s and in the next two years there was a tour with Crazy Horse, there was a tour with Pearl Jam as the band, and then after all that he did an acoustic tour as well as released a couple of albums. And the record he did with Daniel Lanois, Le Noise, really surprised me; it’s one of my favorite Neil Young records, period. And that’s an example that makes me happy, because I see that it’s possible to continue to be vital in your career and that never has to end. That’s not something that has to stop unless you decided to stop it, so that’s important to me. And that’s where I want to live musically, is constantly be doing things and constantly be doing not things to shock or somehow try to avoid predictability, but just do things that are interesting and fun and exciting.
Why the desire to go acoustic?
There are certain songs I’ve become good at realizing can have a bigger impact acoustically. And some of those songs might be songs that were initially done as full-on rock songs. But I think that will be a part of it. And just to be able to mix it up… one of the things about being on my own, in terms of the live arena, is I can do pretty much anything I want.
Are there songs on [your second solo album] Carry On that really jump out at you stylistically?
“Safe and Sound” — it’s one of the first ones we recorded. That could be a song that will stand out in a live arena and not necessarily sound like anything else. I’ve done sort of gospel-y, bluesy songs before, but this one’s pretty stark and sparse. That’ll be fun. The song “Killing Birds” I’m really excited about, but I wrote it last week. That’s one of the newest I’m really excited about. I like the idea on this record there are a lot of different styles of music. At this point in my career I’ve done so much music, so many different kinds of music, so many different songs stylistically that I think I can offer up a great set of music without having to go off the map.
Tell me about the writing of Carry On.
All the songs on the record I think can lend themselves to just sort of a live acoustic interpretation because they were all written essentially that way. I wrote and demoed all of those songs at home without using any amplified instruments at all. If I used a guitar, it’s through like a pod and then directly in. And it was interesting; I didn’t know if I could actually do that, but with modern equipment it was possible. I have two young children; I can’t wake them up or be playing loud music that way inside the house. So I just did it that way and it worked great.
It feels like you are in a very prolific period.
My head was in the songwriting mode and enjoying it. I think I’ve enjoyed songwriting, alone especially, more now than I ever have. I don’t know if that’s with experience. Part of it has to do with my personal life just being great. And being able to work at home with my family there, it’s not as isolating. I can work all day long on a song and come out of the room and have people there, have my family there, have my wife there, as opposed to the way that I used to do it, which was being in some dark warehouse room alone. But part of it too is I have been really focused in term of the songwriting aspect. And I really have attacked some of the things that have scared me previously in my career, because I think it’s scary for anyone to just go in a room with nothing, turn on the tape recorder with nothing on it, and come out at the end of the day with a song. It’s a scary thing, and whatever problems I’ve had with working through that I’ve just sort of attacked them in the last ear and come through it. And that’s really helped a lot.
Do you consider yourself a solo artist these days?
One thing that I have thought ever since Temple of the Dog is that I would never say no to an interesting collaboration, and that’s partly where Audioslave came from. I was getting ready to start writing another solo record. I didn’t do it because that opportunity came about. And it was my experience in Temple of the Dog that made me check that out. And Audioslave was also a great experience. We made three great records. I’m very proud of them. So if something like that comes up I will never say no. But really I’ve gotten so many ideas as a solo artist, and I also think at this point in my I’m a person that probably shouldn’t be in a band. Someone that writes songs as much as me and has the energy and focus in terms of songwriting and performing is probably someone who’s more akin to a solo artist than someone who should be in a band.
Where did the acoustic idea first begin?
The first show I ever did that was acoustic was in the late ‘80s: me, Matt Cameron, and Scott Sundquist. And it was great, we had a great time, went over great, and then I never did it again. And then somewhere around the time of the third Audioslave record, Revelations, I did a full show, an hour-plus show in Stockholm, and that was recorded, although I didn’t know it was going to be. I just showed up and did it and I thought it was like a radio broadcast and the audience was mostly just radio call-in winners. And there was a trepidation, I didn’t know if I could actually by myself, with an acoustic guitar, entertain a roomful of people, but it was something I’d always been bothered by my whole career. Which is I can do this onstage with a band and amps and volume and aggression — I got that, no problem. But if I can’t just walk in a room, pick up an instrument, and entertain people, then how much of a musician am I really? So that show was sort of the acid test and I had a great time. I was totally nervous and the audience was great and then it turned out it was recorded. I actually plan on releasing that at some point.
It’s funny you say that, because I just did an interview with Jackson Browne, who’s been playing acoustic for years, and he was telling me that’s the hardest thing he does, so you’re in good company. But it does it make it a good litmus test, do you feel that when you go out there?
Yeah, I think that it really sort of shows the songs in a different light and also in terms of the focus: The people that are there kind of have to be there, because they want to hear the songs, and they want to focus on the lyrics and they want to experience the music in a live context without the volume — without the electricity, really. And I think the challenge on my side of it is that’s not that difficult; the problem is I think that if I sit in a room with an acoustic guitar and practice a set of songs that works pretty good, it’ll sound pretty good and I’m happy. And there’s something about that I think that just inherently allows an intimacy to be possible in any other way, and I really like that.
What are some of the songs that have changed for you?
One of the first comments I hear whenever I go and do something different is, “Oh, that’s what you want to do all the time. That’s all you wanna do.” And that always sounds a little silly to me. The music, to me, is so diverse and there’s no way in one lifetime I’ll ever be able to scratch the surface of what’s possible to do. But what I do know is that in approaching it from multiple different angles it’s not only possible, it’s exciting, and you learn from it. It can really change how I feel about a song, which then changes sort of the approach and the feelings I get from performing it with a band. You can really walk around a song and completely, if it’s a good song, look at it from a lot of different angles. Johnny Cash with Rick Rubin illustrated that perfectly.