[EDITOR’S NOTE: Chris Cornell died unexpectedly on May 17, 2017 . He was 52.]
From the November 2015 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY WHITNEY PHANEUF
It’s 1990 and Soundgarden is on the cusp of becoming one of the biggest hard-rock acts in the world. The band had just signed to a major label, released its Billboard-charting second album, Louder Than Love, and Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose had declared Chris Cornell the best vocalist in rock. On a three-month tour with metal band Voivod, Soundgarden warms up the crowd, igniting mosh pits, thrashing, and crowd-surfing—no doubt encouraged by the long-haired head banging and thunderous wails of frontman Cornell.
Who would have guessed at the time that, back in the tour van, Cornell was binge listening to a cassette by lo-fi outsider folkie Daniel Johnston?
“None of those guys [in the band] liked it. They all kinda hated it,” recalls Cornell, 51, during a phone call from his home, adding that he started with Johnston’s Hi, How Are You, but quickly became obsessed with his 1988 debut, Songs of Pain. “I remember thinking that I got no less pleasure out of listening to that record, which was recorded on a mono boombox—and was probably a 20th generation cassette-to-cassette-to-cassette copy—than listening to Dark Side of the Moon, from a band with years of experience making epic albums. There’s no difference to me.”
Discovering Johnston, along with Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, planted the seed in Cornell’s mind that one day he might attempt similarly stripped-down, acoustic songwriting. It inspired his first solo release, the acoustic song “Seasons,” for Cameron Crowe’s 1992 movie Singles, and, later, his first solo album, 1999’s Euphoria Morning, which hinted at such aspirations.
But it took 25 years from a fascination that began in 1990, in between fronting Soundgarden and Audioslave—and, he candidly admits, learning to play, write, and perform with just an acoustic guitar—to arrive at his new album, Higher Truth (Universal), written specifically to support his current all-acoustic tour of the same name.
As a child growing up amid the soft rock of the ’70s, Cornell was firmly rooted in the same camp as his Soundgarden bandmates who thought acoustic music was uncool. “The reason why I hated it had more to do with who I associated it with. Something like, ‘Their taste sucks. Whatever you like, I definitely hate.’ The best example I can think of is probably Cat Stevens. Great songs, amazing albums— hated the people who liked it,” Cornell says, chuckling at the notion. “I’m a little kid then, thinking this was not a group of people who could possibly know what’s cool. It was that ’70s organic, hippie, Clarks-wearing, hot-tub bullshit that I couldn’t stand.
“Another thing that put me off of [folk] were all these rules and specific references and things that I thought rock music didn’t have—because rock music is free and you do whatever the fuck you want and that’s the whole point.”
Slowly though, acoustic songs by Led Zeppelin and the Beatles crept into Cornell’s consciousness, and he found himself writing more and more on acoustic guitar. “I only started playing a guitar in earnest when Soundgarden just was forming,” he says. “I hadn’t learned anyone else’s songs or techniques of how other guitar players played. I became someone that was really interested in experimenting with what the guitar could do, but I wasn’t proficient at it.”
By 1990, just as the Seattle sound and grunge started becoming mainstream, Cornell confesses he was tiring of hard rock, having already been in Soundgarden for six years.
“Soundgarden had been touring for a few full years and playing really aggressive music, and pretty much every band we toured with played super-loud, aggressive music,” he says. “There were a lot of black sweatshirts and neck tattoos and dyed black hair and black fingernails, and it was all hard rock, all the time. Something happened to me around then where I got a little bit sick of it. I started listening to palate-cleansing, minimalist, homemade stuff. It wasn’t a passing phase. It stuck with me.”
Cornell deviated from the heavy vibe on his first solo album, which favors psych melodies and pop hooks driven by a mix of electric and acoustic guitars. “That was the beginning of me starting to learn the instrument,” he says. “I started learning how to move in a way that was less blocky and less childlike, a little more eloquent and poetic to support what I wanted to do.”
Fast forward to 2006 and Cornell’s post-Soundgarden project Audioslave. The supergroup he formed with members of Rage Against the Machine was doing a European press tour for its third album, Revelations. In Stockholm, someone suggested Cornell perform an hour-long acoustic set at an intimate venue as part of a radio promotion. He agreed before he even thought about a set list.
“I thought, ‘An hour is going to be a long time. Will people be bored after four songs? Then they’re going to start talking and it’s going to suck.’ When that didn’t happen, it was a great experience,” Cornell says. “I struggled a little, ’cause I had never done it before. I played some songs acoustically that I’d never played acoustically before. It all worked—in that context right then and there.”
When Cornell returned to the States, he was surprised to hear songs from the acoustic set on the radio (the bootleg Chris Cornell: Unplugged in Sweden also was widely shared online). He eventually decided to book a few one-off acoustic gigs in LA—where he lived at the time.
“My manager didn’t want me to tour, he wanted me to slowly get into it,” recalls Cornell, adding that his first LA show at the Hotel Cafe went well. “And then . . . it started to go away. I was losing what it was. It wasn’t as good and I made the decision that I actually had to go out and do 30 shows in order to know what this is. This is one of those things you don’t get good at until you go do it. So I did it.”
In early 2011, between Soundgarden reforming and releasing King Animal, Cornell hit the road on his first solo acoustic tour,
Songbook, which drew its set lists from Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Audioslave, solo material, and covers. He released an acoustic live album, Songbook, later that year.
“That first Songbook tour sold out before I ever played the first show. That in and of itself was an indication of ‘Oh, this is actually something that people do want to hear me do,’” he says.
Then he had to deliver.
“There was quite a bit of on-the-job training that I did. I did a lot of touring as an acoustic singer-songwriter where I was struggling. It was just a matter of allowing myself to do it, allowing myself to struggle, and allowing myself to figure out what the feel of an acoustic instrument is, how to make it sound right, and how to use it. After about the fifth show of that first Songbook tour, I knew what it was going to be.
“The dynamics were the first thing I noticed, as it pertains to being a singer and performing a song, on an acoustic instrument you can bang the shit out of it, but you can also relax and pull back on it to the degree where you can barely hear it at all. That, combined with speeding and slowing down, in terms of punctuating the emotional part of a song, started to happen. It was all something that happened naturally in front of people.”
Following a second Songbook tour in 2013, Cornell set out to write new material designed to be played in an acoustic environment. The resulting album, Higher Truth, demonstrates an artist experimenting and challenging himself on acoustic guitar over 12 songs that range from just guitar-and-vocals on the spare and solemn “Through the Window” to “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart,” which pairs a Zeppelinesque fingerpicked melody with dramatic piano and heavy percussion.
“I felt the need to expand as an acoustic-guitar player to support some of the ideas that I wanted to convey, so I had to start learning different kinds of picking styles and techniques, rhythm playing, things that make the guitar do more than just simple strumming, so that the accompaniment of just a guitar is enough to carry the whole thing,” says Cornell. “It’s really been a work in progress to be able to do it.”
What Chris Cornell Plays:
Martin D-28 Marquis with a B-Band pickup
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In the studio
Mid-1950s Martin D-18
Mid-1950s Martin 000-18
1956 Martin D-28
1938 Martin 0-15