Taking a bow in Glasgow: Photo by James
He doesn't live here any more...
There's a compelling story which New York magazine editor Robert Stein used to tell about Marilyn Monroe. He and photographer Ed Feingersh had persuaded the actress to do a Cartier-Bresson style verité shoot, what they called "a straight look at her life".
As he recalls "…between moments of being seen, there was another Marilyn, suddenly drained of energy, like the air being let out of a balloon…Marilyn had never been in a subway. Wrapped in the camel's hair coat, her famous hair subdued, she walked to the Grand Central stop of the IRT and down to the platform. Nobody recognized her. Eddie's camera kept clicking while she stood strap-hanging on the uptown local. No heads turned. Back up on the street, Marilyn looked around with a teasing smile. "Do you want to see her?" she asked, then took off the coat, fluffed up her hair, and arched her back in a pose. In an instant she was engulfed, and it took several shoving, scary minutes to rewrap her and push clear of the growing crowd."
Artists like Monroe adopt their onstage persona as though it were a costume, a suit of armour to hide behind or plumage to be displayed. They strike poses, employ stagecraft, construct themselves out of a confection of lights and choreography. Sometimes, like her, they simply stand offstage, out of sight, and operate the machinery that projects the goddess or the Wizard of Oz the people cross continents to see. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, we seem to hear them say, as the creature on the stage runs through its act, night after night, and the crowd cheer the persona they believe in, the one they've bought into.
Others go a different route. The recent story of Chris Cornell has been all about drawing back the curtain and letting such projections fade away. Although he's admitted hiding behind a persona in the past, the singer of the band once dubbed 'Frowngarden' has never seemed happy with labels, however hard the press or audiences tried to force his music and his personality into categories that suited them.
With Carry On, his second solo album, he seems to be trying harder than ever before to leave behind the preconceptions people have of him. Barechested rock screamer. Heavy-metal hero. Unattainable sex god. Doom-laden grunge miserablist. Supergroup member. Although his live shows are revisiting almost every era of his career as well as promoting his newest songs, the intention seems to be to tie everything together, create a career coherence that makes sense to him as well as to audiences. At the age of 42 he's so restless to move on, carry on, establish a new independent identity, that tonight his energy is palpable.
Rehearsing songs at soundcheck, he keeps up a constant on-mic commentary - joking, teasing his bandmates, his mind skipping from distant boyhood memory to the previous night's Dublin show in an instant. It's almost a show in itself. Later, sitting backstage at the Glasgow Academy on a shockingly vivid lime-green sofa, we pick up the threads of the conversation started over a month before in London.
Steve Lillywhite said that if there was one artist in the world who was capable of coming out with music that was comparable to what Jeff Buckley was doing before he died, it would be you, I tell him.
"Yeah, I mean, the first conversation we had was pretty much that, that was what he said to me," Chris recalls. However, he slides away from too direct a musical link with his dead friend, as he does from any comparison with other artists. He's almost impatient, shrugging off associations.
"Everyone sort of has a description in their own mind of a record... how they see an artist, how they see a band... and his [Lillywhite's] made sense to me. But…it's all just kind of talk at the end of the day, because what was Jeff Buckley doing? I mean, I dunno, he made one record a long time ago and he was having trouble making a second one. So it's an idea, it's an attitude, it's like a starting point I suppose, it's a reference point that you both understand.
"But then moving forward, it's based more on the songs that are written than anything, and I don't really write into particular concepts. So I think ultimately where our attitudes kind of met, that made sense, was …[I'm] someone that's maturing in rock music, that wants to, versus someone that kind of wants to stay in a vein similar to that person's past."
That need to change and to progress is something Cornell explores in the song 'Ghosts'. Addressing someone who's looking for his old self, he sings: "I'm sure you found the right place/Same address you knew before/But that won't change what lies behind the door/And what lies underneath/Has to change/From the inside out/He doesn't live here any more." It's something he's reiterated in many recent interviews, even telling Men's Health in September 2006 that "even if you have exactly the life you want, you have to change to survive."
"I think that's why in a way Steve [Lillywhite] was good for me," Chris continues. One of the things was, really, the fact that, looking at his discography… the records he's been involved with, that there wasn't really anything with any heavy metal on it, there wasn't anything where if I write a song, for example, like 'No Such Thing', he's going to add production to it that's going to make it sound like someone I don't really think I am. And it kept all the songs more organic sounding, based on the songwriting and not so much on a production style."
Cornell is eager to stress that this hunger for variation isn't new. The self-confessed "wild ADD boy" seems to have been juggling different potential careers from the beginning.
"Probably 75% of Carry On wouldn't make any sense to be in Audioslave. Which is not a new circumstance for me - I had the same situation in Soundgarden, the whole time. I was actually making home recordings on 4-track that were being played on the local college radio station at the same time they were playing Soundgarden demos, like before we'd even made a record. So like the two . . . me on my own as well as me with the band, co-existing at the same time, started from the very beginning. So I guess I've always been quite used to it."
Although he doesn't in any way regret the time he spent fronting Audioslave, he does feel that those years effectively interrupted the course of his solo career. "I didn't go back to what I was doing in Soundgarden, but I took a step back into the direction of aggressive rock, and out of more ethereal and melodic music. Which was welcome, 'cos I love aggressive music as well, but I have yet to really establish myself as this other type of songwriter, singer," he admits. "That's why I see the problem with three Audioslave records between the two solo records. I feel like… to a degree, Carry On is similar to Euphoria Morning in that I'm just getting started making solo records. I was doing that on Euphoria Morning and just kind of reacting to the band that I'd just been in for 14 years and just writing songs that I wouldn't be doing in that band - and that's what made that record. But the next record would've been more, I guess, what my true identity is as a solo artist.
"But instead I became a member of Audioslave and so now Carry On is a little bit like Euphoria Morning in that it's a little bit of a reaction to Audioslave… I think my next solo record will be the first one that is really not a reaction to anything. If anything, maybe it'll be a reaction to this record, I don't know!" he chuckles.
Perhaps that means he has to persuade the public all over again that he's more than a rock frontman with an impressive roar.
"I remember when Temple Of The Dog came out, hearing people saying they were quite surprised that I could sing songs like that or write songs like that . . . I was a little bit surprised, because I thought, why wouldn't they think that? And then I thought, well, nobody's ever really heard any of the other songs that I've written… the Temple Of The Dog thing ended up selling a lot and still, when I would come out with a new song that sounded more melodic, for example, moody, or ballad-like, it still seemed to cause a problem with certain fans that just didn't expect it, and just didn't know that was something that I could do."
It's a recurring difficulty for Cornell. "Even Soundgarden had that problem, you know, if we came out with a bunch of songs that sounded like 'Outshined' you could've put us in a box and we would've sold more records back in like 1990, 1991, '92, and we'd be less important historically because of it. You know, people wouldn't be thinking of us as meaning much. But we would also have been copied more. There would have been bands where you would've thought, OK they sound just like Soundgarden. Because we were so eclectic, there wasn't really any band in particular or artist that seemed to lift what we were doing exactly. And also we changed as a band pretty dramatically over a period of a few short years….even just Soundgarden as a band seemed to have critics confused - and not always in a bad way, sometimes it was in a good way," he laughs.
Critical confusion has certainly followed the release of Carry On, dividing reviewers into those who value its exploratory intent and those who are bemused or indignant that an artist of Cornell's pedigree might want to transcend the limitations of a successful genre. Cornell, however, feels that music has to stand outside notions of genre and trend.
"Whether it's taken positively or negatively, you can't really rely on either one… the climate really has nothing to do with the artist. If you look at it in the 60's, really changing what you did wasn't really a matter of whether you wanted to be accepted, it was really mandatory. People had to transform, I mean look at a band like The Rolling Stones over the course of a few years and four or so records. Or The Beatles, like how much they changed, and how much music changed just in that short time - like from 1964 to 1969, how much rock music completely changed and how much was included in it . Nowadays it's not so much, you know, are you changing cos you've gotta change and show growth, it's more sort of looking back - like, "well, it doesn't sound like what we're used to or what we like."
Moving on, though, is sometimes more easily said than done. The songs on the album have a multitude of origins, from the version of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' which grew out of a conversation with his wife about improbable covers, to the James Bond movie theme 'You Know My Name' which took its lyrical themes from Daniel Craig's performance and the movie's script. One of the most striking songs on the album is the meditative 'Disappearing Act', but according to Steve Lillywhite that was one of the most troublesome songs to record and mix.
"There are different schools of thought on what that song was," recalls Chris, "but I did demos for everything, and 'Disappearing Act' was the very first one I did, and my demo was all acoustic. That one… and maybe one other song …was the only one where I didn't play all the instruments, and have drum loops, and basically get a pretty accurate demo that we copied in the studio. So we didn't really know what to do with 'Disappearing Act'. I knew I wanted a full band, we wanted upright bass, acoustic guitars, like keep it acoustic-ish, but have it be a band, not just be me and an acoustic guitar. And I think because we didn't really have a template for it, we were sort of exploring, and it was also one of the first songs we did. And then Steve got adventurous on it and he put a lot of bowing and strings on it, and different things, and then he basically made a mess that he had to sit around and figure out how to make work. And he did, actually!"
'Disappearing Act' is perhaps one of the most complex and rich songs on Carry On both emotionally and musically, yet unlike, perhaps, 'Silence The Voices', it doesn't begin to stray towards the ornate.
"No, I think that was his struggle," recalls Chris, "because I would go out in my car, I'd be driving home, and I'd turn around and come back with the CD and yell at him because it becomes like a mess. The balance was like, what do you put in there that reaches that epic point without it becoming too much? You know you have to find that fine line where you're just pushing your luck a little bit, with the epic nature, but not so much that it all implodes. And because everything with this record - and with me working with Steve - was organic, you can't really use any tricks, you can't really cheat it.
"Like a lot of modern music is sort of time code, bass, drum loops, and you're dealing with sonic texture and compression. You're just turning things up, and aggressive things sonically are coming and going, and that creates your dynamic. But when it's really the tempo and the band, like Nir Z's drumming on 'Disappearing Act', he speeds up and slows down, he swells, he's playing these drum phrases through parts where normally you would just have like a straight beat, and it was a brilliant performance. And the organic-ness of it made it difficult, I think."
Lyrically, some of the songs on Carry On seem to glance back over their shoulder towards older material as well as dealing with new experiences. 'Killing Birds' seems in parts to directly reference Soundgarden's 'Like Suicide'; and like Audioslave's '#1 Zero', 'Poison Eye' evokes a sense of surveillance, of watching and being watched - although it's not clear whether the song is threatening or paranoid, whether it's the hunter or the hunted that's actually the viewpoint character.
"Well, I think the hunted doesn't happen without the hunting, you know, like one hand kind of watches the other," muses Chris. "And then other things like 'Like Suicide' and 'Killing Birds'…. it can create similar imagery, but that's more accidental, maybe. It's like, maybe, using similar words, but as different metaphors. Which is normal."
"What I will do, occasionally, if I'm writing in a kind of a condensed period… there'll be words that sort of reappear. But themes don't necessarily, although sometimes it seems like they do. With '#1 Zero', I never really thought of it as being paranoid or threatening . If anything, it kind of typifies… I think….. what male affection feels like to me, but is overlooked and is never written about. I don't know how many friends I've had and I've watched them have identical obsessive experiences with women and in relationships. And I don't see that as being bad, or good. I see that as being normal, but nobody ever points that out as being normal. So why not? Everyone refers to male obsession when it comes to females and relationships and jealousy as being unhealthy and weird and bad - and it might be all of those things, but it's also more common than anything else when it comes to the male approach to relationships. So something like 'Poison Eye' is meant to be aggressive, but I think that want or need to express that aggression can't come without some sort of paranoia that arrives first. I hadn't really thought about that before."
It's almost time for Chris to take the stage and the Glasgow auditorium is buzzing with anticipation. The tour's publicist is making wind-up signals at me from the open door, but Chris is still deep in thought.
"I'm not going to speak for everyone else in the entire world," he chuckles, "but for me, there's a certain amount of paranoia going on all the time, I guess. There's a certain amount of over-reacting inside, whether I show it or not."
- Clare O'Brien, 27 June 2007.
...part 1 of this interview, recorded at the Astoria, London, May 16 2007
...this interview translated into Portuguese for Chris Cornell Brasil
...my interview with Steve Lillywhite, producer of Carry On
© Clare O'Brien 2007
"Probably 75% of Carry On wouldn't make any sense to be in Audioslave. Which is not a new circumstance for me - I had the same situation in Soundgarden"
"I took a step back into the direction of aggressive rock, and out of more ethereal and melodic music. Which was welcome, 'cos I love aggressive music as well, but I have yet to really establish myself as this other type of songwriter, singer.That's why I see the problem with three Audioslave records between the two solo records."
"I think my next solo record will be the first one that is really not a reaction to anything. If anything, maybe it'll be a reaction to this record, I don't know."
"The climate really has nothing to do with the artist. If you look at it in the 60's, really changing what you did wasn't a matter of whether you wanted to be accepted, it was really mandatory. People had to transform."
"...because everything with this record - and with me working with Steve - was organic, you can't really use any tricks, you can't really cheat it."
"if I'm writing in a kind of a condensed period..there'll be words that sort of reappear. But themes don't necessarily, although sometimes it seems like they do."
"I don't know how many friends I've had and I've watched them have identical obsessive experiences with women and in relationships. And I don't see that as being bad, or good. I see that as being normal, but nobody ever points that out as being normal. So why not?"