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Chris Cornell Talks Being More Of A Songwriter Than A Singer And How He Approaches Solo Records

Written by Nathan Wood on December 3, 2015

It’s undisputed that in modern contemporary rock, there are few voices more distinct and powerful than Chris Cornell’s gravelly howl.

The Soundgarden, Audioslave, and Temple Of The Dog frontman and solo artist in his own right, has one of the most distinct organic instruments on the planet and has had a signature role in defining the standards of modern rock singing and songwriting for going on 30 years now.

That insanely powerful and distinct instrument has never been more prominently displayed than on his latest solo album Higher Truth – a stripped down acoustic effort filled with warm production that pits the rich sounds of resonation between metal and wood against that of his own taught vocal chords on songs that shed light on his abilities as a performer unlike he ever has previously as a solo artist.

Music Feeds caught up with Cornell while he was in the country to discuss his approach to making solo records, how so much of his songwriting comes down to how the songs make him feel, how each project he works on influences the next, and why he considers himself a songwriter more than he will ever consider himself a singer. 

MF: When I was listening to the album, there were times where I felt like I was in the midst of an Americana album. There’s so much organic musicianship and it’s a really warm record. Was that something you were going for?

CC: I don’t know if I would say Americana. In terms of getting into what I would think of as acoustic song sand where those influences come from, it’s kind of all of the place. A lot of it is probably the UK and a lot of it is probably US artists and just kind of a mixture of folk and rock and just what I felt like made sense to me in terms of me writing an acoustic song or several songs especially in a row, that work first in an acoustic context.

Was there a strategic plan when you set out to make the record to achieve that sound then? I mean it’s obviously really stripped back in a lot of ways and in others it’s very lush – but I always felt that composition drew you towards not just your voice but also your lyricism.

I think that started first with the songwriting. I don’t think that it’s really possible to create a body of work from the context of just stripped down songwriting, where you don’t focus on the vocals and the lyrics really [laughs]. The biggest difference that I hear in an album that’s mostly acoustic versus say a full blown rock band is that rock bands can sometimes lean on a production style and can lean on a guitar sound or a beat or a lot of things other than the lyrics.

And so on this album that was one of the key focuses – that there was no time that music had influence over what the lyrics were saying. It was the first time that I’ve really done that in long form. I’ve done this one song at a time here and there but I’ve never made a whole album where it had to work that way first. And then I think we went past it on several of the songs and then when we were mixing we took a lot of stuff out that we had just added while we were in the middle of having fun.

Well going through the actual lyrics on the record, I seemed to find a lot of recurring themes of love and heartbreak and the passage of time. Where were you drawing from emotionally and ideologically when you were writing the record?

I sort of let that happen kind of on its own and then I sort of have a better perspective on what it all means to me a couple of years later, usually [laughs]. It’s moods and ideas that just sort of occur to me is the best way to put it and I tend to not put that under a microscope too much and the closest that this comes to a concept record really is in that I wanted it to be stripped down and I wanted it to kind of feed this type of acoustic touring that I’ve been doing over the last several years and I wanted that to become a kind of a living thing with new music and generating new ideas, as opposed to always a look back.

So I think like anything else – like a Soundgarden album or like an Audioslave album, the lyrics are often and the lyrical ideas are often inspired by the music and by the mood of the whole thing. And that ends up in this case being love and loss and heartache and the things that everybody goes through.

Has your approach as a song writer changed much over the years or is it similar to how you first started?

I’ve always pretty much done the same thing, which is whatever works [laughs]. So, that is always a moving target I think. Whatever it sort of takes to feel like not only am I writing but it feels good and it feels like I’m writing something that means something to me. I don’t think I’ve ever had writer’s block, I think I’ve just gone through periods where I’ve written things that I don’t particularly like. I guess that’s what writer’s block is maybe, I don’t know. But for me the process is always a moving target.

What’s the difference then between something that you do like and something you don’t? Do you find that maybe when you’re being more honest in your songwriting that’s what clicks with you or is there a specific element that resonates with you and makes you say, “Alright this is something that I’m really happy with”?

I guess it comes down to a feeling, the same way it would if I were listening to somebody’s record or how I listen to other people’s songs. Especially in the context of a body of work where I’m just sitting with an acoustic guitar and just playing songs. Does it make me feel like something? Does it make me want to play it again? Do I enjoy playing it and singing it? Does it do that thing that songs kind of need to do if I’m a fan of a song? And I think that’s true writing a rock album or writing any kind of music, really.

But with this type of songwriting for me, it was really an interesting approach where no real production value or style was going to take precedence over the song. It was literally sitting in a room and playing it and how does it make me feel. And I think that for me as a writer my opinion of that can change sometimes. I can play a song one day and really think it’s great and the next day not really like it and two weeks later I like it again. I think that’s one of the challenges of writing an entire album yourself.

That being said, are there any songs off this album in particular where you have that immediate call back to that feeling and that you knew you were onto something special when you were writing it?

Well I think toward the end of writing for it I really started to get into a rhythm and I also started to get into a new zone in terms of focusing on what an acoustic to me really is. The last few songs happened so quickly I don’t even really remember where the ideas came from, like Worried Moon and Through The Window – they just sort of happened at the last second. Those two especially.

I’m sure it’s something you get asked a lot but does writing as a solo artist have an effect on how you write with a band or how you approach writing with your band? Do you discover things about yourself through this process?

I think every record that I make probably informs the next thing I do. I’m not sure how much writing in Higher Truth is really going to influence the next thing that I do or influence writing Soundgarden music – I’ve already started doing it and I don’t see much of a relationship between the two. Other than the process. I think that the process of writing in and of itself is something that works best for me if I stay in it.

If I’m writing continuously, as one project is finishing I’m thinking about the next thing. I guess it’s sort of like a painter finishing a painting and then moving on to another image that that painter has in his head. It just kind of happens seamlessly and it’s hard to say. I don’t know if I see much of a crossover from one thing to another at this point.

It’s not a fair question to ask in terms of the fact that you haven’t had much time to sit with it yet, but at this point in time how do you rate this album in the context of your career and how does it feel to you in terms of the context of your career and how much it exhibits you as an artist?

Well I think it’s among my favourites of records that I’ve made. I might say that it’s my favourite solo record and if I did – if I put it there – it’s mostly because I feel like the whole thing, from the beginning of the writing process all the way through to the recording or the production and working with Brendan [Obrien – Higher Truth producer] feels like everything sounds like the way I’d imagined it to sound and everything sounds the way I kind of wanted it to sound.

I think that when you go into something with conceptual ideas like that, it’s sometimes that coming out with a record that doesn’t sound like you thought it would is a good thing. Sometimes it’s not necessarily – surprises aren’t bad. But it feels really great when you imagine it and then you get really close to what that imagining was because that’s really difficult and it’s hard to bring that stuff into the real world.

I assume that when you release a solo record it has a much different pressure to when you release an album as a band because obviously all the focus and the burden is on you. Do you think that you’ve become stronger as an artist or stronger as a musical identity through the pursuit of your solo career and in turn has that helped you develop stronger with your band?

It’s sort of created a situation where I’ve become more well-rounded I suppose as a songwriter and maybe as a performer. It’s difficult to say. With the band and especially what band because I sort of look at the different things through my career as artistically very separate and very specific things. Within the context of that world, whatever it is, I try to move around and push the boundaries of it. But I see Soundgarden, for example, as being its own world and I don’t know if what I do outside of it makes me change the way I approach it. I don’t think it does.

When you take a record like this on tour, you’re at a stage now where you have such a devoted fan base and you can really only accumulate more fans as you go along, is it a fun process to be going out and playing these records still? Is it something that you really get enjoyment out of?

Yeah, I made this record specifically because I get enjoyment out of playing and touring and wanting to kind of feed that and thinking about what am I missing. What am I missing – what song or songs or feel would I like to have in a song that’s my own composition that’s my own, that I can go out and now play. In other words changing the shape of the setlist by writing the songs. That’s something that I’ve always done and something that I still do because I like touring and I like performing.

When you read a lot of the reviews surrounding the record so far, a lot of the talk has been about just how strong your voice is shining through. How do you rate your voice at this stage of your career? For a lot of artists it can go away and become weaker and for others who work at it it can get stronger and it seems to be the general consensus that your voice is almost as strong as it ever has been.

Well I think it’s different and I think that mostly to do with what I try to make it do and what I want it to do and what’s important for me that it does. You know my approach to singing and what I want it to sound like and the songs that I write are really very different than 20 years ago or 30 years ago even. Really I think it’s more of an artistic issue than anything else. But I also think that there’s a dedication to craft in a sense and maybe that’s not fair and everybody’s different but I think of singing – I approach it as an instrument because it is, it’s a reed instrument really.

There’s a lot of factors that go into creating the particular tones that you want to try to create. The same that there would be if you were a trumpet player or if you played strings or you played the saxophone. Over the years with the amount of experience that I’ve head I’ve figured a lot of things out and have become a lot more experienced and getting a lot more out of what I believe it can do – getting my voice to do things I didn’t think it would do. That sort of learning curve never really goes away.

Is that exciting then finding you can do things with your voice and create new sounds that you’d never been able to do previously?

Yeah I think it’s always been exciting, ever since I first started getting into the idea of discovering it. I guess it depends on the singer or the band or whatever the artistic approach is. I feel like some guys start fully formed. Maybe they’re 22, maybe they’re 19 [laughs], maybe it’s the first time you heard the band Free and then you listen to Paul Rodgers now – how different is it really? It’s amazing to me how fully formed he was before he was 20 years old and how soulful a singer he was then. For me it wasn’t that way.

I felt like as I started singing I was just making the decision to even be a singer. After that it felt like the rest of my life is going to be that – it’s going to be discovering, it’s going to be changing, it’s going to be reaching and looking for different ways to approach a song or songwriting because to me that’s what’s important. To me the big picture has always been more important than “I’m a singer.”

Sometimes I’ll see things on quiz shows or something where they’ll refer to Bob Dylan as a singer and I always find that strange. They’ll say, “The singer Bob Dylan” or “The Beatles sang that…” and I guess because I was brought up in that era where songwriting was really valued as opposed to just being a pop singer or a pop star – especially the way that it is now where there’s singing contest shows and there’s a panel of experts telling young people how to be a star – it has nothing to do with creativity, it has nothing to do with artistry, it’s totally a presentation. I’ve always felt that when I see myself being referred to as simply as a singer in a band it always seems strange to me because I’ve always spent a lot less time worrying about that than I have worrying about the big picture.

Chris Cornell 2015 Acoustic Australian Tour
Presented by Triple M and Live Nation

Friday December 4
Palais Theatre, Melbourne
Tickets: Live Nation

Saturday December 5
Palais Theatre, Melbourne
Tickets: Live Nation

Monday December 7
Festival Theatre, Adelaide
Tickets: Live Nation

Tuesday December 8
Perth Concert Hall, Perth
Tickets: Live Nation

Friday December 11
Sydney Opera House, Sydney
Tickets: Live Nation

Saturday December 12
Sydney Opera House, Sydney
Tickets: Live Nation

Sunday December 13 – CANCELLED
Sydney Opera House, Sydney
Tickets: Live Nation

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