Chris Cornell Talks Missing Andrew Wood, Writing Songs In the Bathroom: Unpublished 2015 Interview Excerpts
No matter the circumstances surrounding Chris Cornell’s untimely death at age 52, there’s no doubt the singer leaves a huge hole in the music world he enhanced for more than 30 years with his multi-octave voice, thoughtful songs, and powerful, nuanced stage presence. Cornell, singer of Soundgarden, Audioslave and a solo artist, passed away in Detroit on Wednesday (May 17) night following a sold-out concert.
In segments of a previously unpublished Nov. 2015 interview, the Seattle-born Grunge pioneer waxed philosophic about the songs on his fourth solo album, Higher Truth, and also held forth on the methods and muses that brought about such hits as Soundgarden's “Rusty Cage.”
Funny, forthright and thoughtful, Cornell is most himself on solo albums, free of the constraints to lyrically speak for, or answer to, band members. “I’ve always said that my albums are the diaries to my life. I'm not one of those guys who looks out the window and sees something, then goes and runs home and writes about it,” Cornell explained. “It's more constant observation. I’m not a big talker and I’m sort of constantly looking and thinking, and then I remember odd things. I might not remember the list of things you would, I might not remember the things my wife would, for example, but I'll see things that show up later. As I'm sitting and writing a song I find that it sort of becomes about that.”
Onstage, Cornell seeks to reach out by reaching in. “It’s that weird magic of if you sing a song you’re connecting to emotionally, it's going to trick me into feeling my emotions.” A keyed-in audience is caught up: “I'm not feeling your [pain], I don't know what happened to you, but you have just tricked me into feeling my own pain and my own emotions and that is an amazing thing. That's this miraculous thing about music. Film can do it too, art can do it, but music does it great.”
In creating Higher Truth, Cornell’s standards were exacting when it came to making those connections: “That’s where making an album like this is exciting and special. The downside is you pretty much have to do it on every song. You don’t get a free pass unless you write a joke song, which I'm not good at. If I wrote like the [Beatles’] ballad ‘Rocky Raccoon’ or something I could get away from it for a second. A song about a raccoon that gets in a gun fight.”
In Soundgarden, the emotions are often loud, wild and visceral, but Cornell had the ability to make his own quieter solo songs speak just as loudly. Johnny Cash did a cover of Soundgarden's 1991 hit “Rusty Cage” that was almost painfully naked and beautiful. Indeed, while Cornell was a Zeppelin-head, his listening and influences were myriad. “I think of songs from Pink Moon, Nick Drake, where he spent very little time recording guitar and it’s really roughly recorded and it tends to just be one guitar. You can turn that up really loud and his style of playing and his finger picking is actually very percussive and very aggressive. And he has this icy voice that’s always exactly the same volume going underneath it. There's something about that, that it’s still somewhat visceral.”
As a solo artist, Cornell enjoyed creating stripped-down songs. “A lot more can happen in the world of singer-songwriters that I appreciate,” he said. “This storytelling where you have the ability to sit and listen to it because you don’t have other distractions -- you’re not listening to what the bass part is doing, there isn’t an elaborate instrumental arrangement that’s taking you into Middle Earth and back,” he said, referencing Zeppelin. “For me just as a singer I think you’re able to hear aspects of my voice and my singing and what it conveys in ways you’re not going to on a Soundgarden or an Audioslave record.”
Cornell will even work in the bathroom, all in service of the song. “A few years back, I decided I was never going to become good at doing acoustic shows, so I just went out and did a whole tour. I just started rehearsing in the bathroom cause that was the place to go. Nobody would bother me. People don’t want to run in to the bathroom,” he laughed. “So I spent a lot of time and it sounds good, kind of echoey, and feels good and I continued to do that and when writing these songs for Higher Truth.”
“If I'm putting something together, once it’s a written song with words, I think well, let’s see if this works. I go in the bathroom and play it and if it works its there… I have vivid memories of writing ‘Rusty Cage,” he furthered. “I was sitting on a couch with an electric guitar in the living room of a house I’m renting and coming up with the guitar riff, which is a really fast riff with the guitar tuned down to B, I think. I had the idea of the melody, I know what I want to sing, and I had the lyrics all ready because I had written them when I was on a bus. But no fucking way I can sing that over that crazy [riff]. I can’t sit there and sing back that song to myself and know that it works as a song, it’s impossible.
Consequently, he revealed, “I don’t think that I could ever sing and play ‘Rusty Cage’ until after it was demoed, and then the band recorded it and then we rehearsed for the tour. I then had to sit in a room and just play that riff and figure out how to sing over it. On Higher Truth, it’s the opposite. This is maybe the first time I've ever written an album where I forced myself to sing and play the song from beginning to end and try different angles and approaches to it before I actually demoed it.”
Cornell has been an experimental, hard-working songwriter since his teens, and he’s quick to recall the influence Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood had on him. Seattle’s Mother Love Bone were poised to break out when singer -- and one-time Cornell roommate -- Andrew Wood died of a drug overdose in 1990. The vacuum of his death allowed for the creation of Pearl Jam and Mother Love Bone, and Wood’s memory and influence is omnipresent for Cornell.
“I don’t know if you can ever take him out of [my heart and soul]” Cornell mused about Wood. “There was a period of time when he would sit in his bedroom across the hall from mine and we would kind of have these dueling four-track demos and songs. He wasn’t doing it for Malfunkshun and me doing it for Soundgarden; it had nothing to do with that. It was us just having fun. Maybe you can look at it as songwriting exercises? We were always kind of neck and neck. We were very different from each other in terms of our approach. He was very free and didn’t necessarily have a critical voice while he was in the process of writing a song. He would just do anything. I on the other hand,” admitted Cornell,” “not only do I have a critical voice, I have sort of an editorial staff and what that creates is something kind of completely different.”
“He would do these amazing free things that felt so – almost to the degree of just being dangerous in a way --because it was so free and un-self-conscious,” Cornell reminisced. “I would think ‘How do you do that?’ We would always observe each other. That’s sort of like what I would equate to early college years, that doesn’t go away. Those experiences never stop being a part of who you are and how you think.”