Chris Cornell in 2015: Soundgarden singer goes quiet
This article was first published in 2015.
Music writer Grant Smithies interviewed Chris Cornell in June 2015 before he embarked on a solo acoustic tour of New Zealand.
Cornell talked at length about how music had sustained him, recalls Smithies. "Music was the thing that had saved him," Smithies says. "His unhappy childhood was the main thing that came through the conversation. He was a thoughtful, but quite glum sounding guy. He gave the impression of an unhappy person for whom music had given a real focus."
Cornell died on Thursday, NZ time, hours after playing his final gig in Detroit.
Did music save his life? Chris Cornell suggests in some ways that maybe, you know, ah, well, possibly, it mighta done. The Soundgarden singer is a bit of a rambler, to be frank. Given half a chance, he'll gladly drone on about his other bygone bands Temple Of The Dog and Audioslave, or his own role as "chief architect of the 90s grunge movement".
It's a bit like being trapped on a long car ride with a muso uncle. But when we get onto his childhood and the way music gave him some sense of value and purpose, he lights right up.
"You know, people always think of rock stars being these really cool guys, but they never are!," he says from his Miami home, his voice haystack-dry and Grand Canyon-deep.
"They're always these kids who didn't really fit, so they retreat into a corner, then one day they find something in music that creates a spark and other people react to it.
"They're the guys no one cared about, and part of making music is a 'f--- you' attitude that starts to grow on them like a fungus. Rock music is a great medium to express difficult emotions, I guess."
Now 50, Cornell was a loner growing up. After a bad reaction to the drug PCP in his teens, he spent a couple of years depressed, bunkered in his Seattle bedroom, listening to music. "It was a time in my life where there were a lot of drugs and other things I gradually retreated from, and music became a big part of what that retreat meant. Really, the first time anyone reacted positively to anything I did was with music. Before that, no one ever gave a shit about me."
The turning point came at a school music class. "The teacher played a scale on the piano and asked if I could sing along. I sang the notes, and she jumped! Her eyes got wide with surprise, and she had a happy look on her face I'd never seen before as a reaction to anything else I ever did. I think that set me on my way."
Cornell formed Soundgarden in 1984, determined to forge a new kind of psychedelic rock by cross-breeding hardcore punk with Sabbath and Led Zep. In 1988, they became the first underground Seattle band signed to a major label, nudging open the door for Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and made seven albums before splitting in 1997.
Cornell bellowed out cryptic, angsty songs about suicide, serpents, rusty cages and black hole suns, the lyrics retaining a touch of the depressed schoolboy vibe. People lapped them up: he has sold 30 million records, interspersing band projects with soundtrack work and solo recordings. Along the way there have been addictions to alcohol and synthetic opiates; spells in rehab; an acrimonious divorce; a lucrative Soundgarden reunion in 2010.
Cornell possesses one of the most powerful and distinctive voices in rock, and he's an inventive guitarist, too, equally at home exploring sludgely doom-metal or bashing out lacerating punk riffs. But there'll be none of that raucous carry-on when he steps off the plane in our backyard in November. He's coming down here for a solo acoustic tour.
"I used to do a few acoustic songs during Audioslave shows to give the band a break, then challenged myself to see how many songs from my history might work in that context. I have a mostly acoustic solo album out soon, too. With a rock song, all people want is a cool riff. You see 'em out there, singing along to the riff, not the lyrics! But acoustically, the voice is at the forefront; it's almost voyeuristic, you're up so close to all the little naked nuances of it, and that's what carries the emotion of the song."
Reminiscent of Robert Plant, his own four octave howl is routinely praised to the heavens by hard rock fans, but Cornell favours voices very different to his own.
"The formative singers for me were people like Johnny Cash, and I think Freddie Mercury was the best rock singer in music history. But it was The Beatles who taught me the most. Paul McCartney could sing Helter Skelter one minute and Yesterday the next, and as I got older and became a singer in a band, that really made sense to me- to just find whatever voice might suit each song."
All manner of unexpected people proclaim themselves Soundgarden fans. During the OJ Simpson murder trial in 1995, someone asked presiding Superior Court Judge Lance Ito what sort of music he listened to. He famously replied "I really like Soundgarden."
"Oh, yeah, that was weird! I read that, too. It made me realise what an eclectic audience we had. Another time I ran into Janet Jackson's producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis at a Soundgarden show. That was weird to me, because we were so loud and visceral and aggressive, with a lot of hazy, moody songs in strange time signatures.
"We were like a prog band it was OK to like, or maybe a stoner band for people who didn't smoke pot. There were a lot of strange things at play in our sound, and a huge range of people responded to that."
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