Words and photos by JENZ
I almost don’t recognize Chris Cornell as he’s accompanied into his dressing room by his intimidating bodyguard: the vocalist has his hair tied up and has a cool demeanor reminiscent of nonchalance. But after grabbing a Diet Coke and settling into a black couch, the former Soundgarden/Audioslave singer, solo artist, and Paris restaurateur eyes me with a signal to begin.
It’s beguiling to know what kind of career Cornell has had, and is continuing to have, from being covered by Johnny Cash during his Soundgarden days, to writing songs for American Idol contestant David Cook. Cornell is widely recognized for his vocal belting technique on stage: a controlled, yet powerful resonance that’s one part belly, one part throat. Later I get to see this tool employed to reach the nooks and crannies of The Grand in San Francisco, where he is playing, even all the way up into the balcony. His backing band look like kids in comparison to him as the show progresses, Cornell flashing smiles in between songs like a true pro while also delivering his vocals with such authority and fervor it’s hard to look away.
I look around when Cornell fetches an acoustic guitar to play “Fell On Black Days” midway through his show: there’s a healthy mix of old and young, post-grunge and emo, smilers and stoners. I’m glad to see that his set list not only includes songs with his last two bands, but also a healthy selection from all of his solo works — “Can’t Change Me”, “Cochise”, “Black Hole Sun” and “Part Of Me” all sit well with each other, despite the fact that there are 15-plus years in between the release of some. I decide I’d even make out with the crusty punk next to me if it meant Timbaland would come out on stage.
Although Cornell acknowledges pre-show during our interview that he won’t forget his roots (when asked if he’d do a split album with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder — whom Cornell did a duet with at the beginning of his career and still is friends with — the response is “I don’t know if I’d like to do that”), and it’s also evident that Cornell is willing to be a shape shifter to expand his musical palate. 2009’s Scream, executive-produced hip-hop megastar Timbaland, is a venture away from the hard rock and grunge that Cornell has been associated with until previously. It also features select background vocals by Justin Timberlake. That can’t be that bad, right? Read more below on Cornell feeling like Pink Floyd and how we shouldn’t hold our breath for his possible movie career.
I was about your daughter Lillian’s age when I started swiping Soundgarden albums from my dad. What do you think you will tell your kids when they are older about your career?
Oh, they know already. They even tell other people, so they definitely know and are well aware of what I do.
You had a small part in Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film Singles, is that next in your forte to expand?
That was 19 years ago. I think I would have pursued that by now if it was an interest. Besides, there were bigger parts in the movie than mine, lots of cameos.
Timbaland was your partner-in-crime for Scream — he was originally going to remix some stuff but then ended up deciding on working for the whole album. How?
As a producer he is so prolific and focused on songwriting. It just happened naturally and I’m glad it did.
When you were in Audioslave, you guys were the first American rock group to play Cuba. How was that experience for you?
We can’t compare it to anything. It was a four day experience, and the audience didn’t know what to expect. It was a focus on the arts in general, and it was an important role everyone’s daily life that day. Sometimes there are casual fans in the U.S. who just don’t give a shit. My dad isn’t really into art or music, and here everyone was heavily interested and educated in art and art forms. The performance itself was unusual because it was the closest that [Cuba] had to an outdoor festival; 70,000 people were estimated to have been there. And the crowd reaction – a lot of people just – observing. Cuban-Afro music and performances are pretty participatory, and our music [wasn’t] really that way. It’s not music you’d usually clap your hands to and shake your ass to. I felt like were like Pink Floyd in that way, and I’m still stunned we were doing at that point and have a lot of gratitude for it. I don’t think the performance was that well, and we filmed the film part of the experience while I was sick.
Do you think you’d do anything different?
The power for the show was inconsistent, and my vocals kept disappearing. But this huge wave came over us of…I’m not sure. We were all just moved, the feeling of being really the first rock band to do that. Manic Street Preachers also did something similar, I think. Cuban fans also deserve to listen to music as well, and I’m critical of [bands not touring extensively when possible]. Like, why couldn’t a band like U2 play? It’s bullshit, how easy it is to do it. But I would like to go again.