Revisit Our 2007 Feature on Chris Cornell

May. 18, 2017
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If you're a music critic long enough, you interview more musicians than you could possibly remember or keep track of. But some interviews stick with you. In the mid- to late-'00s, during my first few years here at the Shepherd, I interviewed three grunge veterans that I grew up listening to as an alternative kid in the '90s: Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland, Bush's Gavin Rossdale and Soundgarden's Chris Cornell. 

These weren't big, Rolling Stone-style cover stories where I trailed the artists for days on end. They were just phone interviews, and I'm not so naive as to believe you can glean huge insight into somebody's soul based on a single 25-minute conversation. Nonetheless, I was struck by how open and honest all three were. Each chatted willingly and bluntly about their hopes, desires and frustrations—all three were in some kind of career limbo at the time, each attempting a solo reinvention that was either ill-fitting or poorly received (this was during the peak years of "American Idol," a weird window where established '90s rock vets attempted to recast themselves as another Chris Daughtry). 

I reflected a bit about the similarities and the odd commercial fortunes of all three artists in a hasty blog post from around the time, but my 2007 Cornell feature wasn't online back then. In the wake of his death last night at age 52, I'm republishing it below. It's not the most flattering piece, since it was written around the release of one of his worst albums, but I wanted to share it anyway, in part because Cornell makes a strong defense of his range, but mostly because, even though we were discussing a bum album, I really loved the conversation. He was such a friendly, genuine and pleasant guy to chat with, even when he was speaking defensively. Like I said, I don't remember much about a lot of these old conversations, but I still remember how charmed I was by him.

The article is reprinted below. 

Another Side of Chris Cornell

By Evan Rytlewski

Chris Cornell is so comfortable and so talkative during interviews that there’s almost no need to even ask him questions. You just get on the phone with him and he essentially conducts the conversation for you, answering all the questions you intend to raise before you get a chance to. It’s a little creepy, actually, and it sometimes gives the impression that Cornell is mildly psychic (that his speaking voice resembles Christopher Walken’s only underscores this.)

Off-putting as it is, Cornell’s sixth sense can come in handy, especially when it saves you from having to bring up awkward topics. In this case, the elephant in the room was the response to Cornell’s latest solo album, Carry On. It’s attracted cold reviews from critics, and more troublingly, many of his oldest fans. It’d be a real conversation killer if I had to bring this up, but thankfully I don’t have to.

“I think there’s a prejudicial thing going on with me right now,” Cornell surmises, unprompted, “since I’m known almost entirely as someone who has fronted a band, different bands. The genre of hard rock is what I’m known for, and there aren’t a lot of solo artists in that genre. There are very few. Even the ones that are, they sort of have a name that sounds like a band: Like Dio. He’s a solo artist, but when you see it written on a record it looks like a band name. It’s so discreet. I think it has a lot to do with how people perceive hard rock, but really, I’m not making hard rock records on my own anyway.”

“I think some people’s brains stop working when it comes to the subject of a singer they’re used to being in a band suddenly not being in a band any more,” he adds. “They’ll ask questions like, ‘How do you make a record,’ as if nobody has ever been a solo artist before, or as if I didn’t write almost every single Soundgarden radio song by myself.”

Better known for his work with Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog and Audioslave than as a marquee name on his own, Cornell resents being pigeonholed as a performer who can only work with other bands, and he’s more than a little defensive about his legacy.

“In a sense, Temple of the Dog was kind of a solo record because I wrote most of the songs entirely alone,” he says, again unprompted. These are his songs, he’s saying. Their legacy belongs to him.

Cornell concedes he’s considered a hard-rock performer, but he’s not happy about it.  He’s lived uneasily with that label since Soundgarden signed to a major label in 1989.

 “[A&M Records] didn’t really know what to do with us, so they publicized us in magazines, print press and television as commercial heavy metal,” he recalls. “Even the Grammy I won for ‘Black Hole Sun’ was Best Metal Performance. ‘Black Hole Sun’ really has nothing to do with heavy metal that I can think of. So I could see the confusion from the very beginning of our major label career.”

“I’ve been sort of battling the whole genre issue since I’ve been making records, really,” he continues. “I always felt like I should be like the Beatles and just do what I want. If they can do ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Helter Skelter,’ then I should be able to do the same thing.”

And so Cornell branched out considerably on his latest disc, which is probably why his fans are so disappointed with it. Carry On largely tempers the heavy grind of Cornell’s past bands in favor of softer singer-songwriter reflections and shots of studio-polished R&B (with particular emphasis on the “B”).

By Cornell’s own admission the album has no underlying concept—it’s just a set of songs he enjoys singing—so it’s not surprising that it sounds disjointed. The rock numbers fair well, especially those that showcase Cornell’s explosive vocal range. And the closer “You Know My Name,” from Casino Royal, sounds less over-the-top than it did in the James Bond film.

The tortured, coffeehouse cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” however, is nothing short of bizarre. And Cornell’s newly sunny predisposition (he’s now sober, and living in France with his wife, who he loves very, very much) simply doesn’t lend itself to the same thrills as the grungy despondence embodied in the early ’90s.

Perhaps part of the reason Cornell’s fans have rejected the album is that it reflects the “American Idol”-ification of rock music. The hit reality show now regularly features pop chameleons in rocker attire, singing all sorts of genres that have little to do with rock, which is pretty much what Cornell does here. He may be clad in angsty, rock-star black, but he’s singing soul numbers, torch songs and, for some reason, a Michael Jackson cover. The long-respected Soundgarden frontman has recorded a Bo Bice album.

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