Everyone knows Chris Cornell as the bare-chested, bellowing banshee from Soundgarden, whose high-pitched vibrato could shatter glass at 50 yards. But on his first solo album, Euphoria Morning, Cornell breaks all the molds. Instead of lashing out with the kind of dense, down-tuned grunge-rock his band helped pioneer, Cornell takes a more subdued approach, crafting predominantly undistorted songs that swing, sway and swirl. Tunes like "Can't Change Me," "Flutter Girl" and "Moonchild" echo with vestiges of Soundgarden, but are tempered by singer/songwriter hooks and rhythms that are more sentimental than they are stormy. It's not like Cornell is mellowing with age. Quite the opposite; the lyrics on Euphoria Morning are more personal, confessional and thought-provoking than ever. It's just that after 14 years rocking fast and furious he wanted to explore other avenues.
Euphoria Morning was written with the members of the Seattle band Eleven, who had previously worked with Cornell on a couple of tunes for different side projects. Without the members of Soundgarden playing along, Cornell's voice shines through far more clearly than in past, reflecting his vulnerability, mystery and melancholy. And his guitar lines weave in and out of his quivering vocals, providing texture, dynamics and heartfelt melody.
In person, Cornell is soft-spoken and somewhat shy, but he's also articulate and astute. He makes it clear his privacy is not to be invaded, but once that line is drawn, he thoughtfully digs insightful trails around those parameters. Through a 90 minute discussion with Guitar.com, Cornell addressed creativity, songwriting, influences the demise of Soundgarden and the value of being glum.
Guitar.com: Euphoria Morning seems far more inspired by John Lennon than Jimmy Page.
Chris Cornell: That's fair. That makes sense as well. I'm not particularly an instrumentalist. If anything, I've been more of a songwriter and a singer than an instrumentalist, and actually learned to play the guitar by writing songs. I never practiced anything. I would just sit and come up with notes and chords until I thought there was a song in there. And then I'd have to practice that just so I could play it right. I think it makes sense, if you look at John Lennon being in a band and then suddenly being on his own and writing about more personal things and experimenting with music in his own way without incorporating anyone else's ideas.
Guitar.com: Was there any sort of a structure to how you worked on the new songs?
Cornell: I thought the album was going to be very straightforward at first, but it turned out not to be that way at all. I'd keep adding new parts, and then those called for other additions, and before I knew it, the idea had spun around in a totally different direction than I'd initially imagined. Some stuff came quickly, and other songs didn't. It was weird because there were a few things that seemed like they were going to be very simple and easy. Like the song "Mission." We all felt, What does it need? It's a great riff, the lyrics are great. It doesn't need a whole lot. You just record it and it's done. And we recorded it, and it wasn't done. And we couldn't figure out why. And we just tried a lot of different things on it. Anyone that had an idea was welcome to try it.
Guitar.com: Was it easier for you to write this material having already penned a number of records with Soundgarden?
Cornell: No. Every time I make a new record, whether it's with a band or not, it never gets easier. It's not a process where you go, "Oh, great, I've got five or six records under my belt, I've got success, I've got the time to spend on it. People trust that my next record will be good, so I don't have to worry about it." It's never like that. It's always reinventing the wheel every time because you can't go back. You can't use the things you learned on the last record for the next record most of the time. You have to invent new things and new ways of working if you want to move forward.
Guitar.com: Did you write these songs on guitar?
Cornell: Yeah. I did that in Soundgarden as well. So that was actually really similar. It was just approaching it from being brand new and everything is gonna be mine and everything is about me, that was a little difficult. Because having never been that comfortable with the self-promotional aspect of music, it gets even stranger when it's your name and face always. That's something I'm still trying to get used to.
Guitar.com: Solo records are never private, and with this album it seems like your being far more confessional than you've been in the past. Is that a frightening situation to be in?
Cornell: Just in the moment. Just when you're considering what you've just written and realizing that it is that. And then it goes away and it feels better. People respond to that, too. It's not just thinking I'm opening up something, and how do I deal with it and what will other people think? People hear it and respond right away. They'd say things like, "That's really great that you feel comfortable saying that." And that kind of encouragement is helpful.
Guitar.com: What's the best part of being a solo artist?
Cornell: A lot of things take less time. If there's any ideas I want to try, I don't have to go to anybody to see if they are like-minded or really have to push the idea. If I really want to do something, it's going to be done.
Guitar.com: What's the worst thing?
Cornell: Having it all be about you, and not necessarily having a family. The fact that it's just me standing up there saying, "Hey, come look at me now," not "Come and look at us." There's not that same sense of camaraderie and support that you have for each other. You just have to rely on your own ability and your own competence.
Guitar.com: Did you reach the point in Soundgarden where you didn't enjoy the success you were reaping? Is that why you broke up?
Cornell: Well, there were moments when things felt uncomfortable to the point of, "Wow, we're really not where we belong right now." And the industry and the media kind of push everybody in the same direction and treat everything the same way. I think about the time we were opening for Guns N' Roses, I suddenly thought, "Wow, all these people we've grown up knowing have always said, ?You guys will be the arena rock band of the future,' and We'd say, ?Huh?' And now that's kind of a reality." I didn't really like it. I didn't feel comfortable being in that place. But we really broke up because we had already accomplished everything we wanted to do as a band, and we didn't want to tour any more.
Guitar.com: The last Soundgarden album was produced by the band with little outside help. But you produced Euphoria Morning on your own. Was it strange not having the help of your bandmates?
Cornell: Yeah, but only at first. Because ultimately, being a producer and recording a record is 99 percent your ear. If it sounds good, it sounds good. I think that's where people run into trouble. It might sound good to them, but they're still second-guessing themselves, and they're still not sure. And people will run around and they'll go buy Led Zeppelin III and they'll buy an AC/DC record and a War record and all these records that everyone perceives as being the best sounding records ever made. And they go, "This sounds different than my record. Oh, shit, maybe my record's not gonna sound great." But there's a million different sounds and a million different ways to do things. As long as it sounds good, you're okay.
Guitar.com: What inspires you musically these days?
Cornell: Everything inspires me. I think music or being an artist is something that's always an undercurrent, whether I'm with my wife or whether I'm alone in the woods somewhere or whether I'm in a chaotic atmosphere. That's always the precedent with which I perceive things and think and try to draw inspiration for. It's something that you feel is bigger than yourself and more important than yourself. And I don't think it ever goes away. Just watching someone brush their teeth can be a really moving experience if you're open to it.
Guitar.com: The tone of Euphoria Morning is kind of melancholy.
Cornell: I've always liked depressing music because a lot of times listening to it when you're down can actually make you feel less depressed. Also, even though a person may have problems with depression, sometimes you can actually be kind of comfortable in that space because you know how to operate within it.
Guitar.com: Do you perceive run-of-the-mill depression as a comfort zone?
Cornell: The problem is, no one really knows what run-of-the-mill depression is. You'll think somebody has run-of-the-mill depression, and then the next thing you know, they're hanging from a rope. It's hard to tell the difference. But I do feel that depression can be useful. Sometimes it's just chemical. It doesn't seem to come from anywhere. And whenever I've been in any kind of depression, I've over the years tried to not only imagine what it feels like to not be there, but try to remind myself that I could just wake up the next day and it could be gone because that happens, and not to worry about it. And at the same time, when I'm feeling great, I remember the depression and think about the differences in what I'm feeling and why I would feel that way, and not be reactionary one way or the other. You just have to realize that these are patterns of life and you just go through them.
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