Chris Cornell tries a new voice
With a new foundation and a new solo tour, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell chats with Nicole Brodeur about his relationship with the audience, his teenage years and the streets of Seattle.
Seattle Times columnist
It’s hard to believe — considering the fame and fortune his voice has brought him — but Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell once went for two months without speaking.
“I remember as a teenager feeling super disenfranchised,” Cornell, 49, said the other morning. “Everybody goes through it from age 12 to about 19. But I was a super-emotionally intense kid with bouts of depression and anxiety. And that would be my reaction. To close down.”
Thankfully, it didn’t last forever. For when Cornell makes noise now, well, people listen. Records sell. And venues fill up, as Benaroya Hall will Oct. 20, when Cornell brings his “Songbook” solo tour to Seattle.
With support from American/Sri Lankan folk artist Bhi Bhiman, Cornell will perform acoustic arrangements of songs from “King Animal,” which Soundgarden released last year. It was the Seattle-born band’s first new studio album in more than 16 years.
The acoustic performances — barn-burning ballads stripped down and more than a little vulnerable — were something Cornell had always wanted to try.
“I had a little chip on my shoulder about it,” he explained. “My bands have always been super-loud and aggressive, but what kind of musician would I be if I couldn’t just walk into a room and perform in front of a group of people?”
He did an hourlong show in Stockholm that was recorded without his knowledge, and is now available for download as “Chris Cornell: Unplugged in Sweden.”
“I heard it later; it was an amazing experience,” he recalled. “I was hoping it would hold the attention of the audience, and it seemed to do that.”
It was also a new way to travel back through his career.
It started in the early ’80s with a cover band called The Shemps and then, through a series of departures and recruitments typical to any band evolution, Soundgarden was formed in 1984. The group sold millions of records (its 1994 release, “Superunknown,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, reached quadruple platinum status and won two Grammy Awards), but fell apart in 1997. Five years later, Cornell was fronting Audioslave, a band that emerged from the remains of Rage Against the Machine.
(Cornell was also a member of Temple of the Dog, his one-off tribute band to former roommate and Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood).
He filled the spaces between with solo work, including contributions to the soundtracks of the films “Great Expectations,” “Mission: Impossible II”; the 2006 James Bond film, “Casino Royale” and 2001’s “Machine Gun Preacher.”
“It was a huge body of work,” said Cornell, who now lives in New York City with his wife, Vicky, and their two children, Toni, 9 and Christopher Jr., 7. (He has another daughter, Lillian, now 13, by first wife, Susan Silver).
“And there was all this discovery in the different approach to the performance, the dialogue with the audience. I was letting the songs find themselves in that context.”
Cornell compares these shows to sitting with an audience in a living room for two hours. The involvement and inclusion is inevitable, he said.
“Some of the best rock concerts are the band coming out and laying waste to the songs,” he said. “And that’s great. But this context is cool, too.”
On the day before Soundgarden laid waste at the Paramount Theatre last summer, Cornell and Vicky explored some of the city’s nonprofits, in search of beneficiaries of their newly established Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation.
Now, one dollar of every ticket sold on Cornell’s 30-city tour will be donated to the foundation, and a portion of those proceeds will benefit ChildHaven’s Creative Music Therapy Program Expansion and the YouthCare job training program.
“We wanted to really see and feel something with the Foundation,” Cornell said, “So we did the research to find something where we know the money is going right to something that is hopeful.”
The Cornells chose child-centered programs after a visit several years ago to a place called Five Acres in Los Angeles.
“But I wanted to get deeper into it,” he said, which is why they settled on Seattle nonprofits.
“Seattle streets are the streets I ran around on,” he said. “It’s my home. It seemed like a natural place to start.”
He grew up one of six kids, and attended Christ the King Catholic School and Shorewood High School. He started listening to the Beatles after finding a stash of records in a neighbor’s basement.
“That sort of fostered me,” he said. “I wasn’t good in school. I didn’t do sports. I sat in the bedroom and listened to records. Because the Beatles did whatever they wanted to, I took that as a kid and said, ‘That’s what rock is.’ ”
Still, he described himself as a “highly functional, depressed kid” who grew up and moved out, working at R&R Seafood as a wholesaler and a cook at Ray’s Boathouse.
Coming back to Seattle “is a little strange at first,” Cornell said. “It always takes me a minute because it has changed a lot. But it is a place I know better than any other place in the world.
“Part of my creative life is there.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Nicole & Co.
Every Sunday, I bring you a conversation with a local who is doing something great, or a great who is doing something local: media personalities, big thinkers, visiting artists, colorful characters and doers of all kinds.
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