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Chris Cornell's Enjoying Solo Performances And Rockin' With Soundgarden

Special to The Courant
Chris Cornell: 'I've learned that ... as a recording artist .. You have to open yourself up to possibility.'

Editor's note: Rocker Chris Cornell, who gained fame as the lead singer of the bands Soundgarden and later Audioslave, has died at age 52, according to his representative. This is an interview with him from 2016.

 The seeds for Chris Cornell's introspective, stripped down album "Higher Truth" were planted during the "Louder Than Love" era with his rock band Soundgarden.

Cornell, 51, who will perform Sunday, June 26, at Waterbury's Palace Theater, notes that he was inspired to dial it down just as his grunge prototype group was playing up to 11. The venerable singer with a near four-octave range talks about the impact his pal and producer Brendan O'Brien had on the "Higher Truth" sessions.

Q: "Higher Truth" proves that less can be more for you. What moved you to break out the acoustic guitar and slip behind the piano?

A: It goes back to the earlier days of Soundgarden. I got into the singer-songwriter thing when we were super loud and aggressive. I didn't want to listen to that type of music when I was offstage. When I got to my stereo, I drifted toward more mellow recording artists. When I started writing songs for Temple of the Dog, I went to my room with my acoustic guitar and I was happy staying in that mode. It was more chordal based and more lyric driven. I enjoyed not making riff-based songs built around a guitar idea. When I did the solo acoustic tour in 2010, I fell in love with that kind of performance. Making an album like this was harder than I thought it would be but it ushered me into a whole new world of songwriting.

Q: It works since it's easier to focus on your lyrics, which are sort of buried in Soundgarden songs.

A: That's a real benefit. You can't always make out the words I sing with Soundgarden. To illustrate your point, when Johnny Cash covered "Rusty Cage," it was the first time I received compliments for my

lyrics. To take this in another direction, when I covered "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson, it was going to be a joke. I couldn't do it in the form it was originally recorded in, so I slowed it down. When I did that, it wasn't funny anymore. I discovered how incredible the song is. It's an amazing story, brilliant lyrics. When you break out the acoustic guitar, the words are the focal point unless you're the Jimi Hendrix of the acoustic guitar. So the words have to have meaning.

Q: "Higher Truth" is basically you and producer Brendan O'Brien. What did O'Brien add?

A: What I love about Brendan is that he's a multi-instrumentalist and he works super fast and he's focused and he gets the message. I knew he would make a great sounding album but I wanted more. With him as a musician, he nails it. We don't waste time re-recording. We did bring in a drummer, a violinist and a viola player but it was basically just us. The thing I appreciate about Brendan is that he comprehends what I want. If I walked in when Brendan was mixing a song and it was completely wrong, I would say what was wrong and I would give him a couple of reasons why it was wrong and what I wanted. I would come back in 15 minutes and he knocked it out in just the way I wanted it done. That's hard to find. Brendan is a producer who understands it and gets it done quickly.

Q: It has to be difficult to put a set list together. You're going to showcase "Higher Truth" tracks and a number of the hits to appease fans. How tough is it to assemble a group of songs for the tour?

A: There are certain songs people show up wanting to hear. I try to cover that for people. But that's less than half of the set list. I look at songs from the back catalog and choose songs that would be appropriate. I'll do "Rusty Cage." It reminds me of when Rick Rubin asked me to write an arrangement for Johnny Cash and I told him it just wouldn't work. Cash did "Rusty Cage" as a Tennessee shuffle and it worked very well so I do that version live. I've learned that you have to have an open mind as a recording artist. You have to open yourself up to possibility.

Q: There are few bands out there like Soundgarden. What's next for Soundgarden?

A: Soundgarden is in the middle of writing songs. After this tour the songs will become real and we'll put an album out. There's much more to Soundgarden. I get to play with my band and I get to go solo. It's great for me.

CHRIS CORNELL appears Sunday, June 26, at the Palace Theater, 100 E. Main St., Waterbury. Fantastic Negrito will open. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $62.50 and $72.50. For more information: 203-346-2000, palacetheaterct.org.

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