Many people associate Chris Cornell for big-riffed, fully plugged in, wall shaking hard rock, thanks to his role as singer in the recently reunited Soundgarden, and for a time, the now-disbanded Audioslave.
But as a solo artist, Cornell has put himself in an almost polar opposite musical setting, performing on recent tours essentially solo acoustic.
Billing his 2011/2012 outing as his "Songbook" tour, Cornell documented his acoustic performances on the 2011 "Songbook" concert release.
"The Songbook tours, that's really sort of all bets off, 30 years of Chris Cornell songwriting in context, before (being in) any band, distilled into a guy standing in front of you with an acoustic guitar singing and playing," he said in a late August phone interview. "It's kind of done what I hadn't been able to do in any other way. It's connected the dots between all of my bands and all of my different projects and all the different periods of my career under one umbrella that makes perfect sense."
Having found his acoustic tours so satisfying and enjoyable, Cornell decided the next logical move in his solo career would be to make an album in the sound and spirit of the acoustic shows. That album, "Higher Truth," has now been released.
"I wanted to write new material that specifically was written for that (acoustic format), almost in respect to that, or out of respect to that," Cornell said. "Like this deserves to have its own record, its own voice. And that's what 'Higher Truth' became."
Doing an acoustic studio album, though did present some questions about how the format would translate to the studio, and Cornell and his producer Brendan O'Brien (known for his work with Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and many other high profile rock acts) had some give and take on the parameters of the "Higher Truth" project.
He knew O'Brien would get great vocal takes, but he initially wondered if he and O'Brien had the same vision for how everything besides the vocals would sound.
"My only question really was the idea of keeping it small, the idea of it not sounding like a band," he said. "So needing it to be simple, needing it to be percussion and loops as opposed to full drum kits, needing it to sound like a singer-songwriter album, meaning it sounds like its more or less one guy's record, how as that going to work? My first concern was I knew he was going to be reluctant to strip things down entirely to just singing and an acoustic guitar.
"He said 'I love your demos, I love your songs,'" Cornell recalled. "'I love the idea of making an acoustic record, but I'm scared of the idea of it just being singing and one acoustic guitar. But if you're open to adding different textures and different things here and there to just kind of keep the songs going, then I think we can make a great record.' Then he also said, 'I don't think anybody but you or I should play on it. I think that will keep the innocence of the album sort of where we want it to be and keep it sort of with the feel of the demos. And that was it."
Cornell said he and O'Brien followed through on those intentions, and "Higher Truth" turned into exactly the album Cornell had envisioned.
What "Higher Truth" reaffirms is that Cornell's songwriting is strong enough to stand up in the spare acoustic format. Most of the songs are augmented by judiciously chosen additional instrumentation, such as orchestration, washes of synthesizer or, as on "Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart," an electric guitar solo. But Cornell's vocal melodies and singing are the stars virtually of every song.
Making "Higher Truth" and scheduling his first tour behind the album for this fall aren't the only projects Cornell has had on his plate this year. He's also been working on a new Soundgarden album, which figures to be released next year.
For the fall tour, Cornell said he'll have a cello player to join him on perhaps a handful of songs, otherwise it will just be him on stage.
He doesn't use a set list, but plans to play not only some "Higher Truth" songs, but other material that didn't make earlier "Songbook" shows.
"(I'm) going to be trying to go sort of deeper catalog, doing some songs that were written for different bands at different points in my life that I haven't done yet," Cornell said. "Some of that is based on request that I see online or I've seen during shows. (I'm) wanting to do as much of my new album as I can get away with, you know, seeing how well that works and wanting to bring in cover songs I've never done before, some of which is also based on requests I've seen or just weird ideas I've had."