Soundgarden’s frontman strips down to show off his songbook 

Seattle native Chris Cornell has lived several musical lives. He rose to fame in the 1990s as the leader of grunge giant Soundgarden, then spent much of the 2000s belting rock hits with Audioslave. That group’s breakup cleared the way for both the resumption of his on-and-off solo career and the return of Soundgarden, now completing its first new album since 1997’s Down on the Upside. Lately Cornell has been revisiting his catalog with a solo acoustic tour documented on the new live disc Songbook. The album also features the new song “The Keeper,” a ballad Cornell wrote for the film Machine Gun Preacher.


Why the live album?

It was based on the reactions I was getting to the shows. The whole thing took on a spirit I hadn’t expected. I never imagined I would be able to do this onstage for two and a half hours and still have people wanting more. The songs on the album were culled from seven or eight different venues in different cities. They’re basically taken right off the soundboard. I just chose the best-sounding versions.

How did you write “The Keeper”?

I spent days on ideas that simply weren’t working, and finally realized I had to let them go. That’s when I started thinking it should be very stripped down, just acoustic guitar and me. And that’s when the entire song popped into my head—I wrote and arranged it while riding my mountain bike. Later I fleshed it out on guitar and did a demo, which was pretty close to the final version.


How do you relate to the guitar?

I’ve worked with brilliant instrumentalists, but I’m not one of them. I played guitar a little when I was 12, even wrote songs but didn’t stick with it. It was only when I joined Soundgarden that I started thinking of the guitar in a more serious way. But even then I wasn’t concerned with learning how to play. I was making noises and chord patterns. But that was a good thing for me. Not having spent time learning other people’s songs or learning theory about how to play, it became just pure expression. Consequently I wrote songs that otherwise I would never have written, and those songs have a unique sound because of that.

How’s the new Soundgarden album?

Fans will recognize that it’s us but there’s nothing nostalgic about the music. It’s a bigger leap than it would have been had we made the album three years after the last one instead of 14 years, but still it sounds like a natural progression. It doesn’t sound like a completely different band. Though in terms of the songs, it’s different from anything we’ve ever done before.


How do you balance solo career and your work with bands?

That’s what I’ve always done. I did the [solo] song “Seasons” for the Singles film soundtrack in 1990, and here it’s almost 2012. There tends to be a limited perception about the concept of being in a band while also doing other things. Music is infinite in terms of its possibilities. Why would anyone want to limit themselves? No one could have imagined something like Audioslave, yet that turned out to be an amazing experience. Soundgarden is a big part of what I do but I’ve always done things outside of a band context. I always will.

Russell Hall

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