When Chris Cornell gets up on stage, he’s a familiar sight.
The iconic singer, who turns 50 next year, looks practically the same as when he first fronted Soundgarden, a band that, along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, helped put Seattle and grunge on the musical map. He’s the longhaired guy in the Temple of the Dog video for “Hunger Strike,” horsing around with Eddie Vedder, the figure out in front of three Rage Against the Machine-ers in Audioslave, the performer behind “You Know My Name,” the mid-’00s theme song for the James Bond flick “Casino Royale.” He’s a familiar property, a regular, blue-eyed American rock dude with the superhuman pipes.
But there’s something different about him: He’s holding an acoustic guitar. He isn’t surrounded by amps, drums and other burly tattooed types. It’s just you and him, face to face. If you shout, he’ll hear you and maybe respond with a song. For a couple of years now, Cornell’s been playing the solo circuit, selling out intimate joints like Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House. He released a live chronicle, Songbook, in 2011, and now he’s doing songs from Soundgarden’s latest release, King Animal, acoustically, for the first time.
Cornell, who’ll perform twice in our area this week (at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton on Nov. 17 and again at the Shubert Theater in New Haven on Nov. 20), spoke to us by phone from a recent tour stop in Toronto about his approach to solo performance. [This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]
Besides the music itself, what’s fascinating about listening to “Songbook,” the live album that chronicles of the 2011 tour, is hearing your between-song dialogue, which I think adds a lot to the understanding and appreciation of the songs themselves. Do you enjoy that part of it? And if so, what is it that you enjoy about it?
For me, I don’t ever plan on saying anything. I don’t really go out there with that focus. I go out there just thinking about playing the songs, so anything that comes out of my mouth, really, is just something that’s happening in the moment, and that’s what I enjoy about it. I’m reacting to who’s there and what’s happening, which makes it, I think, more of an interesting moment. It’s not a script. I’m not going out there with any sort of planned banter that I’ve thought about saying in the dressing room before I walk out. It’s all just very stream-of-consciousness, and that goes for song choices. I don’t really think about what I’m going to play either. I end up playing largely the same stuff, just because I go off of requests a lot of the time, and there’s definitely about 20 songs that always get requested. That leaves me with another eight or nine that I can fill in there.
The whole thing for me feels much more stream-of-consciousness and in the moment. That’s what’s good about doing a one-man-show: You can say or do anything, any time. You can literally start playing a song someone shouts out at you within one second. There’s no communication involved, because there’s no one to communicate with except the audience. It becomes a living-room type environment, and this is the first time in my career that I’ve really had that. There’s no other way to achieve that in any other context of my career. A rock band, in a sense, negates that possibility. Even if you want to, it’s difficult [to communicate] when there’s that much volume onstage. It’s difficult to even speak. I have trouble sometimes even hearing what I’m saying. This is the only way I can get that feeling of just complete stream-of-consciousness, that anything can happen at any time, that nothing’s ever planned, just me walking out on stage.
That’s a pretty exciting feeling: when the lights go down and I’m walking out. I have no idea what I’m going to say. I have no idea what the first song is going to be. I don’t know anything. All I know is that I’m standing in front of a lot of people who are excited to see what I’m going to do. There’s something about that that’s pretty exhilarating.
Do you think that exhilaration was something that was lacking up to that point? Maybe it’s not even something you realized you were missing until you started playing solo shows. Did it fill a certain gap for you personally?
What was lacking for me, or what I thought about, was this idea that someone, even a front man for a loud, aggressive rock band with a long career, might not be able to walk into a room, pick up an instrument and entertain a group of people, at any given moment. Rock guys always go through that, where you go to some party and someone else will walk in, get behind the piano and do something amazing. I would ask myself the question all the time: What kind of musician/entertainer am I if I really can’t do that?
One time, I was with Artis the Spoonman, who’s in our video, “Spoonman.” He plays the spoons. The song’s titled after him. He’s this super-charismatic guy who can walk into a room of 10 people — or a sold-out theater, or three people on a street corner — and take out his leather bag of spoons, open it up and put it on the ground, pick out a few spoons and entertain a bunch of people, and have them completely riveted, absolutely and completely attentive to what he’s doing, and have them be entertained totally. I would watch him do that in all these different places: backstage, in the band room, opening up for Soundgarden, in our house for a party, for kids, for anyone. It was amazing. And it dawned on me: that’s got to be an amazing feeling, and I don’t have the ability to do that myself.
Another moment that really stuck with me was seeing Elton John unplugged. I don’t know why, but he seemed grumpy. He was in a bad mood. He came out and he had a baseball cap on over gray hair. He didn’t really give a shit what he looked like that day. He didn’t smile a lot. Then he got down behind the piano and played a whole bunch of amazing songs from his career. There was nobody else [performing], and nothing else happened. There’s something about that that’s always fascinated and entertained me.
I’ve been a fan of albums that are the most stripped down. Bruce Springsteen, for example: I wasn’t a huge Springsteen fan until Nebraska [which was released in 1982], and not after that for a lot of records. But that record really spoke to me. Here’s this guy who has a band with tons of instruments: keyboards, saxophone, a second keyboard player, and so on. He’s developed this sound, and yet he can turn around on a dime and put out a record that’s just demos of him and an acoustic guitar, and it’s incredible. I suppose there was a juxtaposition for me, in that I definitely felt like I found my home in Soundgarden, in inventing who we were, inventing a genre, and that was very satisfying. But there was this other side to it: distilling a performance and a song down to almost nothing. There’s a rawness, a danger and a vulnerability to that that’s as exciting as that sonic assault. Slowly but surely, I was driven to do that.
This idea of distillation is interesting to me: Here you have this repertoire of songs — big rock-band songs, recorded by Soundgarden and Audioslave — to choose from. When you’re performing, are you translating the arena-rock genre into the solo-performer genre, or is there a shared source for each song, a skeletal version, perhaps, that you’re tapping back into?
I don’t think of it as a reference to a version of a song that existed before it became what people know. Some of the songs were written on electric guitar. With some of them, the first time there was an acoustic version was when I sat down and try to figure out what they would sound like. It’s more about looking at songs from a completely different angle, the way I would when I do a cover song, or when other people do cover songs, when they reinvent them. That’s the angle that I’m looking at it from.
In a sense, it’s also an opportunity to show the audience the malleability of a good song, the way Rick Rubin put Run-DMC together with Aerosmith, or the way he had Johnny Cash do “Hurt” [by Nine Inch Nails] or [Soundgarden’s] “Rusty Cage,” ideas that show you what a song can really be, that it isn’t necessarily reliant on a particular artist or a particular sound or version of that song. I don’t believe all songs are like that, but it enables me the opportunity to show that many of the songs from my career and my bands are like that, or that I have the interpretive skills to find something in those songs that can hold their own in an entirely opposite context. I think there’s something about that, for me, personally, that’s been super interesting: just approaching something from a completely different angle and finding something else. It’s difficult to figure out what you’re finding: Is it in the song? Is it in the person who’s performing it? What is it?
The world was really moved when Sinead O’Connor did that Prince song [“Nothing Compares 2 U,” released in January 1990]. Prince had already done it without anybody really caring. And then she did it, and a lot of people talked about how great the song was. But it was really her interpretation of it. When I approached [Michael Jackson’s] “Billie Jean,” I was going to do it as a joke on Brad, Tim and Tom from Audioslave. I was doing a couple of acoustic songs in the middle of the set, which allowed me to do whatever I wanted. I was going to do an acoustic version of “Billie Jean” as a joke on them while I was onstage. Their frontman is playing a Michael Jackson song, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it! I never did it [with Audioslave], but I learned the version. It’s in a different key, and there’s a couple of added chords. When I did it that way, in that context, suddenly the lyrics sounded different, to the audience and to me. I realized I had never really paid attention to the lyrics and what they meant. That was also the response I got from a lot of people who heard it.
I also remember when Johnny Cash did “Rusty Cage.” Right after it was released, I started getting phone messages from people, saying they’d heard the song and how much they loved the lyrics. When Soundgarden’s version of “Rusty Cage” came out — it was a single that was on MTV constantly — I didn’t get any messages from anybody about how great the lyrics were. It took somebody like Johnny Cash, who, when he sang those lyrics, people actually listened to them. The sonic mix of the song allowed for the vocal performance and the lyrics to be up front, to be heard from a completely different angle. I think there’s a magic to that. I think there’s a magic to the idea that, when you write a song and record it and release it, it goes on to have its own life, and there’s very little you can do to affect that life.
Prince is another example: he doesn’t like that other people can reinterpret his songs. To me, that’s what’s miraculous about it, the way four or five generations from now people will be looking at Van Gogh paintings, and it will mean something completely different to them. Those paintings are these living things, and as long as they last and don’t deteriorate, they’ll continue to be that. That’s kind of an amazing thing. That makes me love what I do.
w/ Bhi Bhiman
Nov. 17, 8 p.m., $38-$58, Calvin Theatre, 19 King St., Northampton, (413) 584-1444, iheg.com
Nov. 20, 8 p.m., $46-$66, Shubert Theater, 247 College St., New Haven, (800) 745-3000, shubert.com
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