It was a mix of emotions, Chris Cornell recalled, one of them being fear. “’This is something that I should try,’” he remembered thinking. “’It’s really exciting to do, but it’s also terrifying because I’ve never done anything like it.’”
He was remembering how he felt when he decided to play a solo acoustic tour in 2011, hitting the road for the first time without a band.
Cornell took a circuitous route to being on stage solo, just him and a guitar. While he’s been an acoustic songwriter for many years, he’s known around the world primarily as a powerhouse rock vocalist, fronting, first, the hugely influential Seattle band Soundgarden, and then the 2000s rock supergroup Audioslave.
In September of 2006, while Cornell was in Stockholm to promote Audioslave’s album “Revelations,” he had a chance to play some acoustic songs at a promotional event. The set was scheduled for an hour, but Cornell was skeptical it would last that long.
“I had never played that long by myself on an acoustic guitar,” he said, “and assumed that it wasn’t gonna work. I figured I’d get away with about 35 minutes and people would just be talking over me, because I’ve heard live acoustic records before—or have seen YouTubes—where it’s acoustic and all you’re hearing is crowd noise with a little bit of music behind it. I thought that’s what was gonna happen, but the whole hour was like, you could hear a pin drop, and it was this really magical moment.”
The show was unofficially recorded and made its way around the Internet, and when Cornell returned to the U.S., a couple songs from the concert were being played on radio stations. But for the next few years, Cornell kept touring with a band.
By 2011, he was eager to try a solo acoustic tour. He had done several critically acclaimed acoustic shows at L.A.’s Hotel Café, but he wanted to take it on the road, across the country. His management team, however, wasn’t so sure.
“There was some resistance to that from my world of management,” he said. “You know, ‘take it slow and maybe try going up the west coast first,’ which is laughable, because if you go up the west coast, you’ve done maybe five shows.”
Cornell decided to press ahead, ignoring the powers that be.
“It didn’t make any sense,” he said, “and seemed stupidly cautious, so I booked a 30 show tour in North America, and, surprising everyone, it sold out. And then I went out on the road, and by about the fifth show I figured out what it was, and what type of show I wanted it to be.”
Cornell continued touring throughout 2011 and in November released “Songbook,” an (official) acoustic live album, recorded on the road. It contained songs from all eras of his career, including previous solo efforts, songs he did with Soundgarden and Audioslave, and songs from his 90s Seattle project Temple of the Dog, a collaboration with Pearl Jam members. It even featured acoustic covers of Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Since the release of “Songbook,” Cornell has continued the acoustic tour, as well as playing with the reunited Soundgarden. He has just released a solo album called “Higher Truth,” featuring all new songs he intends to play live.
“I wanted to make this a living, breathing thing,” he said, “as opposed to nostalgic, because I’m never gonna be one of those guys that just goes back and beats that drum from when I was 27. I’ve never been that guy, never gonna be that guy.”
The experience of the acoustic tours made Cornell take a different approach to songwriting on “Higher Truth,” he said.
“The new record was an opportunity to finally be able to make a record where I’m writing songs from the point of view of acoustic guitar and singing,” he said. “Storytelling that absolutely has to work on that level first, entirely by itself, and doesn’t require any other instrumentation, even if I ended up adding it later. I’ve never done that before, and there was certainly a component of me being able to have this opportunity to challenge myself as a songwriter and get into something new and different.”
In addition to his old and new songs, Cornell likes to play interesting covers during the acoustic shows. He’s famous for his version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and he’s also performed a mashup using the music from U2’s “One,” and lyrics from Metallica’s song of the same name.
When asked about that particular creation, Cornell had a revelation.
“You just gave me an idea even in bringing it up,” he said. “I just suddenly realized that now I have to do the Metallica song with U2 lyrics.”
And with that, Cornell was off to another show, just him and a guitar and, of course, the songs.
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