Chris Cornell: Moving to Higher Ground

You'd think the mighty Chris Cornell would have this songwriting thing down to a fine art. Nothing could be further from the truth, he tells Joel McIver

Chris Cornell, 51 years old and a legend to thousands – maybe millions – of rock fans, is an enigma.

Thirty-one years since he formed the Seattle grunge icons Soundgarden, and 14 since he took up the mic with the supergroup Audioslave, he's about to release his fourth solo studio album, Higher Truth, and tour it with only an acoustic guitar, hence our chat with him today. As one of America's genuine rock stars, Cornell should really be on top of the world. Is he? Well, listen up…

"I can write songs for three days in a row," he tells us, "but on day four, I'm in a different mood, and it suddenly feels to me like I've completely gone in the wrong direction and I wasn't aware of it. I don't know what creates that. You know when you hear your own voice on an answering machine? It's whatever that phenomenon is. There's something I'm hearing in me, something inherent that I hate. It's unpredictable, and I've never been able to figure out a way to get past it."

He adds: "I remember writing songs for a Soundgarden album in 1991, where I spent six months writing about eight songs, and I threw all of them out, and it was right that I did that because they weren't good. I just went down the wrong road."

With Higher Truth, this dreaded switch in perspective – should we call it 'answering machine syndrome', maybe? – struck, and struck hard, recalls Cornell. "This album took a while: it's been over two years of writing the songs, maybe longer," he says. "The songwriting process was interrupted by solo tours and Soundgarden tours and other projects. The first songs I wrote, 'Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart', 'Dead Wishes' and 'Murderer Of Blue Skies', I wrote a couple of years ago, and I dumped them at one point. I didn't think I was gonna use any of those songs – but then, having time away and doing other things and coming back, I had a different perspective. I thought, 'No, these are great, I'm gonna record these'. It's been a drawn-out process compared to some of my other albums, just because of how much I've been touring and busy. But it's good – I think it's good."

Like many songwriters among us, Cornell would rather not endure the agonies of songwriting over a drawn-out period. Getting them all out in one fell swoop would be much more fun. As he says, "I do like that: I prefer that energy of a blast of creativity that yields a bunch of songs, and it's fresh and brand new and feels like a whole new world. But the thing is, you can't plan on that – it either happens or it doesn't happen. I can't force that to happen. I think it happens with collaborations a lot, because you're reacting to other people."

He continues: "Audioslave's a good example of that, or the beginning of Soundgarden, where you're playing with musicians for the first time. Somehow you're reacting to each other instinctively, and it's a brand new thing and you write 15 songs in a week. As a solo artist, with 30 years of songwriting, it happens two or three songs at a time, as opposed to a whole album in a couple of weeks. That's always the goal, though. The goal is always, 'I'm gonna write an album in two weeks'."

Cornell is in good spirits, but there's conviction in his tone when he says: "It's totally annoying! It's something where I'll rip my hair out about it. I think my wife gets the worst of it, because I have a studio in my house. I'll be off in the corner, working all day long, and I'll come out – and she can tell by looking at me if I'm having a great time or not. I'll be working on a song and I'll be super-excited, and then I'll come out and say, 'It doesn't work. It sucks. I wasted my time. It's horrible!'"

Still, the creative angst has paid off with Higher Truth, an album loaded with acoustic goodness and the occasional electric. Brendan O'Brien, veteran producer of many huge rock artists including Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and Neil Young, was there to help things along – and knew exactly how to manage his client's insecurities, recalls Cornell. "A good producer will have a way of staying positive with no bullshit," he says. "He'll say, 'Yeah, this song doesn't work for me, but maybe if you try this…', that kind of thing. I didn't have that experience on this album: I just gave Brendan all my demos and he was very happy: we recorded them in the order that he prioritised, not me, and that was it."

Cornell has been through some traumas in his time, not least an ultimately victorious battle with the demon booze which saw him emerge from rehab with renewed focus a decade and more ago. Is he a moody guy, we ask, and if so might that be affecting his uncertainty during the songwriting process? "It could be," he replies evenly. "I think that I'm to some degree a moody person, and I think that as brain chemistry changes, and moods change, then definitely my perspective on what I do changes. But I also know that the outside perception of stuff that I do creatively also changes my perception of it, and that's where bands help. When you don't have that, and you're in the early stages of demoing and playing music for people, I don't necessarily trust their reaction. Who's gonna say, 'I don't like it'? Very few people."

Cornell has good reason for this caution. Although his extensive back catalogue has been received with more or less widespread approval over the decades, as the small matter of 30 million album sales indicates, it hasn't all been plain sailing. His 2009 album Scream, produced partly by R&B specialist Timbaland and pop youth Justin Timberlake among others, was roundly condemned as a failure by fans and critics. The damage was undone to an extent by 2011's live acoustic covers album Songbook, but it's little wonder that at points in Higher Truth's creation, Cornell was uncertain of his own writing.

Anyway, never mind all that. For our purposes Songbook is obviously of more interest than Scream, largely because it's all about the acoustic guitar. Which instruments has he been using lately, we ask? "I started using Martins in 2010 or 2011," he replies. "They were doing an ad campaign where they take lyrics from artists' songs and put them in the ad, which shows a guitar. I got an email about that, and I thought 'Well, this is pretty great'. Because really, they were doing a paid advertisement for my song, the way I saw it. So of course I was happy to do it. I think it was 'Hunger Strike' [by Cornell's side project Temple Of The Dog] which had a line in the Martin ad, and they gave me a Clarence White D28 and a regular D28. Once I sat down with that D28, I was hooked on Martins. It was the first time I felt I was playing a nice instrument in my life, because I'm not a great guitar player and I never thought of myself as that: I've always been a songwriter overall first, as opposed to an instrumentalist. The Martins were a game-changer."

Is Cornell picky about using vintage acoustics only, or is he willing to dig into new ones too? "I think new ones sound great, if you choose the right ones," he observes. "I think you need to play 'em, though. The biggest difference is the settling-in. The first time I got a D28, and I had two of them sitting in a room, the one that sounded the best would be the one that I was playing the most. If I played one for two weeks, it would just start to get this really beautiful, woody sound. I'd switch to the other one and think, 'This other one isn't as good a guitar'."

He goes on: "I don't know why this is – maybe you do? – but once they've been resonating for a while, it seems to change the tone and the feel, so I get why old ones sound so good. When I went in to record this new record, I had a parlour guitar and the D28, and Brendan had a long list of vintage Martins, and that's all we used, really. We used mixed electrics too, but otherwise, the whole record is Martins, apart from a Gibson acoustic that I used on something. I had a guy telling me that if you just put a guitar in a room where you're making music, and you let the speakers resonate, that will actually season it faster and make the tone better.

"I think humidity affects them: it can have a positive and negative effect. Too much humidity is definitely bad, and dramatic temperatures up and down are bad. But I've taken a couple of different Martins on airplanes 150 times, to every part of the world, and it doesn't seem to hurt them!"

Does Cornell play 12-string, we want to know? "I haven't really: I have one, but it's kind of annoying to me!" he chuckles. "They sound really great on a couple of things, but I remember when I was eight or nine and hearing acoustic 12-string a lot, and it always kind of annoyed me. That kind of 'Hotel California' sound! There's 12-string on this record on a couple of spots, actually: Brendan played it, and he knew where to put it in. You don't even know it's there, but it works, it sounds great."

Just for a bit of added zing? "Yeah, exactly – that sizzle that happens. I used to have a 12-string on the road because I was doing a couple of Zeppelin songs, one of which had a 12-string on it, but I like bending the strings and I have a clumsy left hand, so it didn't lend itself to a 12-string. Too many strings! Six is too many, really…"

It's funny, in a way, to consider Cornell, a man for whom rock always has a capital R (and grunge a capital G, we suppose), devoting his time to the acoustic tours that led to the Songbook album and now a slew of similar US dates, happening as you read this. It's even weirder to consider that the guy only took up the acoustic properly in relatively recent times.

"My first instrument was the piano, when I was about 10," he remembers. "I learned to read music and wrote some songs on piano, but I forgot all that. Then I wrote a couple of songs on acoustic guitar, kind of folky songs, because in the US at the time you'd hear a lot of Cat Stevens and John Denver, that kind of stuff, so I wrote a couple of three-chord songs when I was that age. But I abandoned it – and when I got back into songwriting it was mostly electric.

He adds: "Sure, if I had an acoustic guitar in the room, maybe I'd play it, or maybe I'd write a song on it, but it was mostly electric until the late 90s, when I started getting more into the notion of it."

How does Cornell approach his acoustic shows? Is his mindset different when he's walking on stage with a full band? "Well, there has to be an immediate connection or rapport with the audience, and that has to happen almost before you even play a song," he explains. "There's no formula to it, I think you just have to come out and do it. One thing that works for me is that I don't really have to follow a setlist. That helps, because it's really important to be able to read the room and know what song's going to be the best song to play next, or to play what somebody's asking to hear. That's the biggest difference – and the other thing is that you have to get over the fact that you're entirely naked, and everyone can hear everything you do, including hitting a bad note."

More pressure, right? "Yeah, way more pressure!" he laughs. "But the interesting thing is that if you do a show this way, without taking yourself too seriously, the audience react to it. There's a guy up there who's not a superhero: it's just a guy playing songs. They get a better sense of who you really are. They see the emotions across your face, and you're doing it right in front of them. That can actually help, once you realise it – and you don't allow yourself to have a nervous breakdown!"