Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder was sixteen when the manager of the drugstore where he worked gave him The Genius of Pete Townshend, a famous bootleg compilation of the Who guitarist's home demos. Vedder was soon making his own one-man tapes, overdubbing guitars and vocals with a ghetto blaster and a four-track recorder. "This project is a glorified version of that," Vedder says in a New York hotel room, talking about his debut solo release, Into the Wild, on which he sings and plays virtually everything. "I was doing what I learned from those Townshend bootlegs, but in a real studio, where it can sound good."
Into the Wild is the soundtrack to Sean Penn's acclaimed new film based on Jon Krakauer's book of the same name, about the real-life wilderness odyssey of Christopher McCandless, who died of starvation at twenty-four, alone in Alaska in 1992. Ironically, Vedder, an avid surfer and supporter of environmental causes, had not yet read the book when Penn, a close friend, phoned last December and asked him to score the movie. After seeing a cut of the film, Vedder spent three days recording "a bunch of colors," he says, and two songs, "Guaranteed" and the wordless-vocal piece "The Wolf." Penn put them in the movie right away and asked for more – including a cover of "Hard Sun," from a 1989 album, Big Harvest, by Indio.
"When Sean asks you for something," Vedder says fondly, "your body does anything and everything to give it to him. We went fifteen rounds with that song – adding, clearing out. I think we have 140 mixes of it." The result is a hard-folk gem and a highlight of the record, along with Vedder's own "Far Behind," a Pearl Jam-style ode to the adventure in disappearing, and the harrowing goodbye ballad "Guaranteed."
Vedder says he understands the impulse that sent McCandless off the grid: "He went the last twenty percent. But that kind of isolation and connection with the ocean has kept me sane, healthy and humbled." In fact, Vedder has another potential solo effort in a group of songs born in 2000, "on one of those disappearing trips, when I found a friend in the ukulele. It's cool, melodic stuff.
"But I like having a sense of purpose," adds Vedder, who has also contributed music to the new political documentary Body of War. "When Pearl Jam make records, we walk onto some dirt, stick our shovels and a hose in and see what it's gonna be. But this album was different." Vedder smiles. "It was peculiar in its ease."
This story is from the October 18th, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.