When Chris Cornell took on the immense task of writing a song for the movie The Promise, a film whose story touches on the Armenian genocide, he did a lot of research. "There are a couple of really amazing documentaries about the Armenian genocide, and one of them was about the phenomenon that people who had literally minutes to grab what they could from their homes would take photos before anything else – before jewelry even," he tells Rolling Stone. "I was really moved by that; the idea of what is most important to people in a crucial second."
That notion inspired the lyrics to "The Promise," the lushly orchestrated single he ultimately wrote for the picture premiering at Rolling Stone. "If I had nothing to my name but photographs of you," he sings, "rescued from the flames, that is all I would ever need." It builds to reveal that the titular promise is one to survive and persevere against adversity, and it ties into the movie, which stars Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac as two men caught in a love triangle with a character played by Charlotte Le Bon during the last days of the Ottoman Empire.
Musically, the song's strings and triumphal drumming are a departure from Cornell's work with Soundgarden, with the musician wanting to create a song both timely for the film and timeless within it. "I wasn't trying to record a song that sounded like it was from 1915, but I didn't want there to be obvious modern references because obviously at the time there was no such thing as the Beatles or Metallica or everything that is my reference for musical ideas," he says. "So the orchestra works just because that did exist and it can be a little bit out of time, so I was swimming in those waters of ambiguity."
The slight anachronism of the music also played into his lyrical concept. "It's from the perspective of someone singing to an older family member who is no longer around but was kind of a mentor," he says. "And it's a concept that ties into what he learned about the preciousness of photographs of loved ones to people who had suffered during the genocide, a feeling among those who were affected that transcends age. "It shows that a promise was made to the older generation and then telling them that they're the inspiration."
But for Cornell, writing a song for a film – as he's done in the past for 12 Years a Slave, Great Expectations and the James Bond flick Casino Royale, among others – makes him question whether he's even the right songwriter for the job. "For me, with this one, I was asking, 'How close to it am I and how far away from it am I?'" he says. "I married into a Greek family, and my wife's grandparents were affected by the same genocide at the same time, since it was part of the same Ottoman Empire policy. So I saw the nearness to it. And one of the producers is a good friend of mine, and he's Armenian and we talked about it for a long time. It affected his generation and you can see it echoing through the generations. ... I think we all have a responsibility to recognize the warning signs that lead to this."
He also felt connected to the project. "This movie's a great opportunity to tell a story that needs to be told, to help engage the healing of something that happened at a specific time and place, but it also remind us that it's happening now and reminds us what to look for," he says. "You can see it now in Syria, where you have one regime that is trying to deny any [killing] is happening and you have ISIS on the other side who is targeting a different group and advertising it."
In an effort to help those currently affected by such atrocities, Cornell is donating his proceeds from the song to the International Rescue Committee, a charity that responds to humanitarian crises by helping to restore health, education and economic wellbeing, among other things, to people stricken by conflict.
The singer worked on the song after reading the movie's script and participating in conversations with his friend over the course of three years. He didn't feel comfortable writing anything, though, until he'd seen the film, which further influenced his lyrics.
"There are a few different levels to the promise of the movie," he says. "There's the literal promise of betrothal, which is how the film starts. Then as the story progresses, you see it become the promise to persevere. The promise to carry on, regardless, and whoever makes it through will pass the baton."