Chris Cornell injects power, presence into new solo album

Grunge's heyday is past, but Chris Cornell can still bring it. (NurPhoto / Sipa USA)
Grunge’s heyday is past, but Chris Cornell can still bring it. (NurPhoto / Sipa USA)

By Steve Appleford
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

For even the greatest singers in popular music, time is not always on their side. But for a few, as the decades pass, losses in youthful range can be eclipsed by the sheer power and weight of experience: Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger among them.

From his earliest days in Soundgarden, Chris Cornell was identified as a vocalist of special force. Now 51, he’s reconciled with the changes in his singing abilities and, in the process, found hidden benefits that escaped him in his 20s.

“As time has moved on, I have less range and less ability to easily go in and out of different registers, but I feel like I have a much better ability to emotionally connect with any song,” Cornell says. “All that is a moving target. The human voice is not a trumpet. It’s not a piano. It’s always changing, and a singer has to go with the flow.”

Yet that power and presence is still very much in the mix of his new solo album, Higher Truth.

It also marks the first time Cornell has felt clear about who he is as a solo artist, following his successful Songbook acoustic tours and a 2011 live album. He’ll be back in that mode on his 2015 tour.

“That’s who I am,” he explains. “It’s taken a long time for me to feel like I have a solo artist identity, but I do now.”

His solo work has taken some unexpected turns, especially on the Timbaland-produced Scream, a 2009 album built on beats and synthetic sounds of the moment. But both of his last two studio solo albums were big productions, and Cornell found himself feeling distant from his own work.

“I wanted this to be an album of songs that could be stripped down, and had to work first in the context of me strumming an acoustic guitar and singing,” Cornell says. “It had to sound like what I feel is inherently me, for good or ill.”

The singer-guitarist and producer Brendan O’Brien played most of the instruments themselves, with very few outsiders contributing to the sessions. “All the flaws that I have as an instrumentalist or as a song arranger — there’s something about those things that when you put them all together are my identity,” Cornell says. “Let’s just do that for once.”

Some songs are fully arranged recordings, but of a very different flavor from Soundgarden, Audioslave or his other solo work. During tracking of the song “Let Your Eyes Wander,” Cornell and O’Brien added layers of sound before finally taking it back to the delicate acoustic melody of the final recording.

“There are a lot of records out there where less is actually less,” he adds with a laugh, “so it is kind of a tightrope walk on some of these arrangements.”

Higher Truth
was recorded at Henson Studios in Los Angeles, the former location of A&M Records, where Soundgarden became a platinum-selling rock band in the days of grunge. Remnants of his former life, and the label’s, include “A&M” etched into glass studio doors and the same bench where he once took cigarette breaks.

“It’s still a recording studio so there’s still that energy there — a constant flow of musicians coming in and out, making records,” he says of the collection of brick buildings on La Brea Avenue originally built by Charlie Chaplin. “It was nice to be going back there every day. It was cause for a lot of reflection.”

Soundgarden reunited in 2010 and released a new studio album, King Animal, two years later. The band is still in operation, but the songs Cornell writes for his solo albums are very different from what he creates for Soundgarden.

“Soundgarden, more than a lot of bands, is absolutely the sum of its parts,” he says. “Soundgarden I feel is this other world. It’s a dimension and a world that I go into and we all write for that that band that we almost can look at as a fictional thing. It’s an exciting thing. It’s almost like writing a soundtrack to a movie.”

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