Chris Cornell was in the middle of a seemingly endless Soundgarden tour in 1989 when he started to burn out on hard rock. "We were on the road just incessantly," he says. "Every band we toured with was super loud and aggressive with neck tattoos, black sweatshirts, black sweatpants, black sneakers. That's when I discovered Daniel Johnston's Songs of Pain. I played it over and over again in the van, and then I got into Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska and Nick Drake's Pink Moon. They were great palate cleansers."
Very little of his own music over the next couple of decades reflected the stripped-down sounds of those albums, but about five years ago he felt the need for another palate cleanser after his solo LP Scream was met with scathing reviews and anemic sales. He won back a lot of old fans with a triumphant Soundgarden reunion tour, and to keep his momentum going he followed it up with a series of solo acoustic shows he dubbed the Songbook tour. It featured unplugged renditions of Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog and Audioslave tunes, as well as covers and songs from his solo career. "The tour felt like a really special thing to me," he says. "For the first time as a solo artist, I felt like I had my own specific identity. It allowed me to draw a line through my whole career and make sense of it as one body of work."
When it came time to write tunes for his upcoming solo album Higher Truth (in stores September 18th), he decided to stick with the spirit and vibe of the shows. "I wanted to make an album of original material that serves this Songbook touring thing," he says, "and makes it a living thing as opposed to a nostalgic one that looks into the past."
To help pull that off, he tapped producer Brendan O'Brien, who he'd previously worked with on Soundgarden's Superunknown and Audioslave's Revelations. "I wanted the album to be intimate and small and so I didn't want to hire a band," says Cornell. "I also know how Brendan works. He's very focused and very quick and he always makes the right choices. Some of it was a leap of faith for me, but everything I wanted to get out of our relationship I got and none of the fears I had came to fruition at all. I feel like I got pretty lucky."
Cornell and O'Brien played the vast majority of the instruments on the album themselves, though former Pearl Jam drummer Matt Chamberlain, pianist Patrick Wong and violinist Anne-Marie Simpson contributed to select tracks. "Most of the songs with drums are either loops that I made electronically or that Brendan basically recorded just playing a little drum kit he had," Cornell says. "We just made loops, layered things and played some percussion stuff."
Many of the tracks on Higher Truth, like "Worried Moon" and "Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart," have an undeniable layer of sorrow to them. "That's not unusual for me," says Cornell. "Often times, especially in the context of an acoustic song, I'm motivated to write by some amount of melancholy. I listened to a lot of other acoustic albums going into this. There's a sort of chipper, uptempo nature to a lot of records, like with Jack Johnson, where it sounds great and there's an intimacy to it. But I don't have that in me."
The record is nearly certain to get a warmer reception than Scream. (Trent Reznor spoke for many critics when he Tweeted, "You know that feeling you get when somebody embarrasses themselves so badly you feel uncomfortable? Heard Chris Cornell's record? Jesus.") "I don't think there was any reference for [Scream] at the time," says Cornell. "And obviously the world of recorded and released music is a world that required reference 99 times out of 100. I mean, even for me, I could stand on a soap box and say that art shouldn't require reference and then still make references to you. When I hear a band I'm gonna say something like, 'It's a cross between Abba and the band Swans.' So I get it. The response to the album didn't surprise me. But I do think there is more context for it now."
That said, don't expect to hear many Scream songs on Cornell's upcoming solo tour, which kicks off September 17th in Phoenix, Arizona, and runs through early November before it heads over to Australia. That won't leave a lot of time for Soundgarden, who last played at Big Music Fest in July, but Cornell says the group is alive and well. "We're already working on new material for an album," he says. "And then I've got several other irons in the fire and things going that I won't mention now. There's a lot of things coming in addition to Higher Truth, as well as a new Soundgarden album."