One of the most distinctive voices in rock’s entire history also happens to be among the most prolific and eclectic since bursting out of Seattle’s indie scene three decades ago. Between his time fronting alternative icons Soundgarden, short-lived but beloved side project Temple of the Dog (including future members of Pearl Jam), and the post-millennial hard rock supergroup Audioslave (featuring Rage Against the Machine’s rhythm section)—not to mention an immensely successful solo career—Chris Cornell has thus far sold a staggering 30 million albums and been a top box office draw in each incarnation. So how in the world does the singer, songwriter, guitarist, composer, and lyricist face the daunting task of sculpting a show to address each of those vital eras, while also celebrating his critically lauded new album Higher Truth throughout the course of a single evening?
“There’s a balancing act that I do between wanting to play songs that I know a majority of people want or expect to hear, and the songs that I feel are vital for me to play,” suggests the Grammy winner and Golden Globe nominee, phoning in from home in Rome prior to his inaugural Ravinia appearance on Sunday, July 3. “Then as the tour progresses, I make sure that I’m not getting burned out on something. [If that happens], I either stop doing it for a while or I start to approach it in a different way. With the Higher Truth tour and the acoustic tours, I’ve thought of back-catalogue songs that seem like they would [translate] acoustically—I’ve learned a lot about music over the years doing that.
“One of the best examples that I can think of is Johnny Cash’s version of [Soundgarden’s] ‘Rusty Cage.’ He really took the lyrics and the song and made it so musically stripped down that it’s completely different than the original,” Cornell relates. “Another is the version that I do of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean.’ The idea started out as a joke, but when I made adjustments to the chords and time signature, I also realized where lyrically that’s a really incredible song. It’s kind of a lament of a very serious story and somehow that had always been lost on me. One of the joys of doing acoustic tours is the challenge of trying to look at a catalogue of songs in a different way and making it work in an acoustic context.”
The genesis for this type of touring, which clearly informs the understated but still anthemic Higher Truth studio recording, dates back to a period of self-examination by the superstar in 2010. As he was addressing any remaining fears in his life, which surprisingly included stepping on stage with just an acoustic guitar, he decided to face the previously uncharted territory head-on. Not only was an unplugged tour a grand slam for fans (spawning 2011’s extraordinary live album Songbook), but perhaps most important, it built a remarkably cohesive bridge between all of Cornell’s varied projects.
“Between Soundgarden, Audioslave, Temple of the Dog, and all the solo work, it gets so eclectic, but when I strip it down to the context of me just singing and performing the songs, suddenly it all kind of made sense,” confirms Cornell. “You could clearly draw a line between all of those different projects musically, and they sounded like they all came from one creative spirit. That’s the way I can communicate all of the different periods of my career in a way that puts them all together in the same realm, plus that became a way for me to make that type of touring a living, breathing thing, as opposed to nostalgia. It’s a different way of looking back, [and] now I feel like this is an ongoing thing. You can look forward to new songs, you can look forward to new albums, you can look forward to ideas that fit into the context of [acoustic] touring.
“By coincidence, Soundgarden reformed around the same time, [but] there is actually no confusion between the two, whether you’re a fan or whether it’s my creative spirit,” Cornell continues. “They’re so far apart and so dramatically different in terms of me going into a room and writing a song, and I love that. I feel like at this point in my life, somehow I’ve just sort of stumbled upon a situation where I have this huge spectrum of creative styles that I get to go out and do in a meaningful way and it’s very fulfilling.”
Speaking of songwriting, much of Cornell’s ability to bounce between bands with diverse musical dynamics, individual projects, and soundtrack work (including Casino Royale, The Avengers, 12 Years a Slave, and Machine Gun Preacher) has to do with his unique philosophy surrounding the artistic discipline. “I’ve never been a writer where I go out the front door, have an experience, and come back and write a song about it,” he explains. “There’s a germination period, so whatever I’m writing today—if it’s autobiographical, it’s something that happened to me a year or two ago, and then it comes out in a natural way. There’s also a certain amount of fiction or creating a character. With Soundgarden or Audioslave, I would imagine, ‘Who is this guy? What does he sing like? What does he sound like? What is his attitude? What is his story?’ And what ends up happening is it becomes a combination of different people that are real and fantasy—and ultimately some of it is me personally, in the same way that a novelist creates characters.
“‘Through the Window’ off Higher Truth is a great example of that, where I’m coming up with words in a realistic way of observing a woman through a window,” Cornell continues. “She’s allowing herself to feel a lot of uncomfortable feelings from various periods of her life that are making her very sad, and she thinks that no one is watching. It’s something that she would hide from anyone and everyone, but I just happened to see it the way you would see someone on a train or a bus and they’re not paying attention to anyone looking. Ultimately the character in the song is a combination of a whole bunch of people and a whole bunch of experiences that I’ve had over the years.”
While it’s impossible to cram all of Cornell’s expansive musical and personal experiences into a single conversation, one crucial subject is his and Soundgarden’s downright revolutionary role in shaping the music world’s transition from the 1980s’ excesses to the 1990s’ authenticity. Ironically, around that time, the singer wasn’t looking for any type of commercial success, let alone thinking his group would be considered one that paved the way, alongside Nirvana and Pearl Jam, for practically every rock act that followed in their footsteps. “I think our initial goal with Soundgarden was that we needed to create something that was uniquely us, and the goal that followed was that we wanted to participate in the post-punk indie scene,” Cornell recalls. “That was the scene that was the most vital at the time, and it included the UK, Australia, Ireland, and absolutely the US. But our thoughts were [simply] to release our records and be an indie band. I didn’t think—nor do I think anyone else in Soundgarden thought—it would play out on the international stage commercially, especially when you looked at [what else was out there] at the time.
“But I think there was a need for the change, and the changes were audience driven, not music business driven,” Cornell continues. “I don’t think the music business had a clue that rock music would transform so much. To me, it was because the major labels hired guys who worked at college radio stations and indie labels. They went in and said, ‘You guys need to look at these groups because these are the ones that are vital and these are the ones that are great. You hired me to tell you what’s cool and this is what’s cool,’ and the major labels said okay. But I was not a visionary at 21 years old, saying my band is going to sell millions of records, nor would I have said that about Nirvana or Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains or the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Metallica or anyone like that. I figured that would always be something you would think of as underground or indie.”
While all of those acts still have plenty of indie credibility, the active ones are just as popular as ever, headlining arenas, stadiums, and festivals around the globe to this very day. And though Soundgarden faithful are surely rejoicing they can have both the band and its frontman back in the mix at the same time, will loyalists of his other iconic acts ever be so lucky? “It has to be a unanimous thing, with the band in its entirety, as opposed to like two guys and then studio musicians or hired guns,” asserts Cornell. “I made that very clear with Soundgarden, but I think it was clear with everyone even before we split up. If somebody quit, I don’t see us continuing. I don’t think it’s right or fair to the fans … especially with bands, I think the fans have some part of their identity in it, and they’re trusting you [to honor that]. So the answer to that really is if everyone’s into it, I’m always open to it. I had great creative experiences with Temple of a Dog, with Soundgarden obviously, and in Audioslave. As time has gone on, I think that everybody sort of understands their priorities in a different way. I’ve always felt like, you never know. Anything is possible.”
Andy Argyrakis is a Chicago-based writer/photographer whose credits include the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald, Daily Journal, Illinois Entertainer, Hear/Say Now, Concert Livewire, Chicago Now, Redeye, Metromix, Paste, Downbeat, Spin.com, MTV.com, Fuse TV, UP TV, Pollstar, and Celebrity Access, among many others. He also is the founder and content curator for ChicagoConcertReviews.com.