Of all the unlikely rock stars who emerged during the big wave of early-1990s Seattle, Chris Cornell probably seemed the least unlikely. The lead singer of Soundgarden had been cultivating his powerhouse variation on classic hard rock moves since 1984, and he clearly had the presence and prowess required to reach the widest imaginable audience.
And since the band's heyday subsided (they broke up in 1997, re-formed in 2010), Cornell has remained very much on the main stage. The projects he releases are as high profile as they come—the major-label supergroup Audioslave (Cornell + Rage Against the Machine), cowriting and singing a James Bond theme ("You Know My Name" from Casino Royale), a 2009 collaborative album with Timbaland—but he has yet to develop a definitive aesthetic as a solo artist. That may have been intentional, or a consequence of the kind of opportunities that come only to artists of a certain stature. Either way, he now appears determined to reverse the tendency. His fourth solo album, Higher Truth, released on September 18, comes closest to sounding like the Cornell who first emerged on the Singles soundtrack song "Seasons," which is to say that it sounds like the kind of record the singer/songwriter of Soundgarden might make.
He spoke to The Stranger by phone in advance of his solo show at Benaroya Hall.
You've spoken before about having been reluctant to assert a specific solo identity. Was that about struggling to find a voice writing songs for yourself, as opposed to the band?
The first songs I wrote that weren't intended for Soundgarden were really just for fun. That became my hobby, sitting around in my bedroom or my living room just doing four-track songs on a cassette, just having fun with it. I liked to do it, and it was exciting. My only direction when I recorded my first solo album was I wanted anything that wouldn't be a Soundgarden song. (A) Because I'd been writing so much in that context, and (B) because I had such a high regard for the band that I didn't want to corrupt it by doing some slightly more commercial version of the same thing—which is usually what happens, especially with singers of a band. But I think the two shows I played in Seattle on the Songbook tour, where it was just me and an acoustic guitar—that's where I think I found a solo identity, in essence. That type of touring, which I've done all over the world now, playing songs I've written for three different bands and four different solo albums, and 30 years of songwriting, brought it all together under one umbrella, and I started to feel like, oh, that's who I am. It's not a mystery. It's not a puzzle to solve. I'm this guy, and that's my entire history. It's sort of hard as a solo artist to stand outside myself and say, okay, what kind of song does this guy sing? It's easy with a band. I don't know why, but it is. This is probably the first time in my life that I've ever been able to step outside of me and say, I think I know what that guy should sound like, and here's a song for him.
The Seattle rock music world you came up in had a reputation for being hostile toward commercial ambition. Obviously, you've had a lot of success, both with Soundgarden and as a solo artist, but when it comes to doing things like a collaboration album with Timbaland or singing the theme song to a Bond movie, is it ever hard to reconcile those old prejudices?
Well, those kinds of questions came up much earlier in my career. You had to be really careful when you were sitting down to write a song about what was motivating the direction that song would take. It could be that you were going out of your way to make it sound less commercial, because you were afraid of what someone might think. And yet your inclination was to write something that just seemed to naturally have a more commercial appeal. I used to run into that dilemma all the time. Suddenly I'd be writing a song that just sounded kind of poppy to me, easy to like, easy to listen to—but I'm writing a Soundgarden song, so I'd go in and try to corrupt it just enough to get away from that a little bit. And every time I did that, it would just kind of ruin it. Like it wouldn't work on any level: Didn't work on a level of being a cool Soundgarden song, and it didn't work on a level of what it started out as. And so I'd have nothing. I probably spent a few years wrestling with that kind of thing. I was always the kid who listened to records on my own, in my bedroom, spending hours focusing, always gravitating to deep album tracks and those weirder ones. That was kind of my thing. And if one of those made it on the radio, it was always a little bit surprising. The same way it was surprising to me when "Black Hole Sun" was a single when everybody seemed to unanimously choose it as one. I don't think we thought of it as a song that would make it on the radio. That's kept me from having to bear the burden of making the decision, "Should I try to write a radio song?" I really wouldn't know where to start.
You're still heavily, maybe even primarily, identified as a Seattle musician. How long has it been since you've lived here, and what's it like when you came back?
It's been more than 12 years, but given that I'm 51, you do the math... That means I was born and raised and lived there for a huge part of my life. It's clearly my home. There was a period in my early career, especially with Soundgarden, where it was actually super important to us that we stay home and do what we do there and make Seattle the place for our creativity no matter what happened. And all of our friends and their bands had the same attitude. Nobody had the inclination to go to LA or New York or San Francisco or London... very few, anyway. And it was that dedication to our home and to being creative in our home and to being who we were—in a sense celebrating our own identity was one of the chief ingredients that brought so much attention down on it. That was a time when the nature of commercial rock was that everybody did whatever they could to get a record deal and roll the dice and try to be lucky enough to be the latest poodle-haired people in the latest rock video. We were anti that, and our resistance is what initially got us a lot of attention.
You have one of the most distinctive scream registers of any rock singer I can think of. But I understand you actually don't project very much volume when you sing. How long were you screaming before you learned to take care of your voice?
The earliest club shows, I had a big problem of walking out onstage, going insane, and losing my voice within the first two songs. Sometimes within the first part of the first song. And somewhere in there, I remember around 1990, just out of pure force, I was able to go out and sing a whole Soundgarden set and push as hard as I wanted and be fine. Then over the years, slowly but surely, I had to kind of reel that in a little bit. Some of it happened naturally—I just figured out how to do it without so much effort.
It was hard to go from one song to another to another in the range that I ended up singing in without seriously having to consider some kind of technique. Most of which was figured out standing there on the stage. And there are still moments where I overdo it, and start pinning it, and I'm thinking while I'm doing it that there's gonna be a problem. Not so much then, but the next day is gonna be a problem.