Though Chris Cornell is not Armenian, when his friend, movie producer Eric Esrailian, approached him about writing the end-title song for The Promise, a $100 million movie that deals with the Armenian genocide, the theme resonated with him. Cornell’s wife’s family is Greek and had been affected by the same WWI genocide that led to the death of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.
“Literally, it’s the DNA that goes from my children back to my wife’s grandparents, who were both refugees of that policy,” says the Soundgarden frontman. “It felt like that connection was there.”
The movie, which opens Friday and stars Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, was a passion project for Esrailian and former MGM owner/billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. Kerkorian, who was of Armenian descent, died in 2015 after the film started production.
Cornell’s song, also titled “The Promise,” features lush orchestration arranged by the legendary Paul Buckmaster, best known for his work with Elton John and The Rolling Stones. Cornell, who has tackled tough subjects in his film work before — including human trafficking in “Misery Chain” for 12 Years a Slave and The Keeper, his Golden Globe-nominated song from Machine Gun Preacher — talked to Billboard about creating “The Promise” and his doubts that he was the right man for the job. It’s a project that has stuck with Cornell, who choked up when he recalled researching the genocide and the images that he can’t unsee.
Your song leaves the listener with a sense of hope following what is a horrible human tragedy. How hard was that to achieve?
The hope was built into the story. To me, the challenge was being able to distill it in a couple of verses and a chorus. That’s always hard.
The song’s opening line, “If I had nothing to my name/ But photographs of you,” comes from a documentary you watched that talked about Armenians fleeing with photos of their loved ones. Was that image your way in to the song?
I just was sitting there and I sang the first line. I’m not sure how conscious I was of it, but I’d been so moved by photographs being taken over things they needed to survive. I’m always looking for the person that sings the song, and it’s never really me. Even if I’m writing a song that’s about me, it’s always someone else. I imagined this young man singing the song to a photo of his father or grandfather about the inspiration that he was and rededicating himself to persevering against whatever odds there might be. In the case of the genocide, it was horrendous.
Have you done this much research for a movie song before?
No, and I hadn’t planned on doing any for this because you’re talking about a four-minute song. There’s such a thing as being overwhelmed with too much information to do that. It’s a song for a film and there needs to be a harmonious relationship to the film as opposed to deciding I have a different job. I read [director] Terry [George’s] script and I was watching rough edits and I thought that was going to be it. Then one day, I was listening to the negative voices in my head too much, saying, “This isn’t your story, so why the f— are you writing it? Maybe I need to expose myself to a little more.”
System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, who’s of Armenian descent, served as an adviser on this film. Was there a moment when you wondered why he wasn’t writing the song?
There was, actually. [Laughs] The first time I really started to learn about what the Armenian genocide was was when Serj was interviewing his grandfather for a documentary [Screamers]. I felt like there’s such a thing as being too close to it and such a thing as being too far away from it. When Eric asked me to do it, I figured there’s a reason and he’s a smart guy and hopefully I can live up to the task.
Did you pay attention to Gabriel Yared’s score?
Yeah. I felt there was a certain mood of it that led me on my way, especially the melodies, [because] there was a new conundrum that I hadn’t dealt with before — [the song] needed to be a little out of time. I couldn’t have any popular musical references that are all natural to me. Normally, if there’s something that sounds a little bit Zeppelin-y or Beatle-y to me as I’m writing a song, I always steer into it because they’re my natural influences. I had to not do that. I didn’t want to go overtly in a direction of Armenian music because the song needed to do a bigger job; it shouldn’t be confined by geography. That was the biggest obstacle: How do you write a song ignoring all the musical influences that you’ve ever had? [Laughs]
You’re donating your proceeds from the song to the International Rescue Committee, which is in keeping with the tone of the project.
I think it’s weird, period, just being a musician or a songwriter or celebrity and getting involved in any kind of cause that can be referred to as a cause celebre. You’re always walking this line of, is this convenient to me or am I actually doing some good in the world? And the point always is to do some good in the world, so that was an easy decision. I think it probably started before one word of the script was written, which was: This is not a vehicle for commerce from any angle.
Genocide goes on today. How did that play into your writing the song?
I’d love to be able to have the effect of [The Promise] not just represent a century ago, but bring it into now. When people get done watching the film, rather than think, “Wow, what a horrendous thing that happened a century ago,” realize that it is happening now, realize the film [is] telling a true story and you’re seeing how it was created. And the fact that those warning signs are pretty much always the same leading up to a genocide. We have the ability as a global community to pre-empt that, if we’re paying attention and we’re not allowing our leaders to politicize it and get away with it. It’s the goal of everyone in the film that it’s representative of the past, but it’s also exposing the present.
Did you have nightmares after you saw the movie and the documentaries?
It was more like daymares. Especially seeing some of the images and some of the documentary footage. You can’t unsee it. [Chokes up]
Is there a particular image that you’re thinking of?
No. [Long pause] I don’t want it to not stay with me. I remember years ago, we were doing Badmotorfinger, and I saw some drama on the Holocaust with Willem Defoe as a boxer [Triumph of the Spirit]. I watched it late at night, and I woke up the next morning and we were flying from Sausalito back to Seattle. I got a migraine so bad that I had to be hospitalized. The blood vessels had expanded so much in my brain that I couldn’t really talk. I could see that this was blue [points to a bottle], but I couldn’t remember the word that was the symbol for the color blue. It was a scary thing and I’ve never had that since, but it’s stuck with me that there’s some part of me that has a hard time with that on some level that’s way more intense than I would have expected.
On a totally different note, you go back on the road with Soundgarden on April 28. What’s the update on the new album, and what are you looking forward to the most about the tour?
We’re about halfway through writing the new album. We’re not on a schedule.What I look forward to the most — because I tour so much, especially the last couple of years, by myself — is the camaraderie. It’s what we missed when we weren’t a band. When I do solo tours, I’m really kind of alone all the time, so that’s the best thing about it.