Five Questions: Chris Cornell

Inside the Higher Truth recording sessions

Chris Cornell’s fifth solo release, Higher Truth, is a stripped-down, reflective, intimately joyous record enlivened by the Soundgarden frontman’s dynamic vocals and performances on guitar, bass, mandolin, and percussion. Produced and mixed by Brendan O’Brien, who also contributed guitars, keyboards, bass, drums, and hurdy-gurdy, Higher Truth flows with acoustic instrumentation and yearning melodies.

Cornell took a break from recording his own vocals (which has been his practice ever since Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”) to talk about the project.

Your latest album is essentially a duet between you and producer/mixer Brendan O’Brien. Why did you follow that approach?

I wanted to expand on the songs a little bit from the demos but I didn’t want to do it a lot. I wanted one other person’s take on it. That’s risky because it has to be someone who understands the direction of the music. On a gut level, I really believed Brendan knew what the album should sound like. I knew he was a great musician, and I liked working with him as an engineer and a producer in terms of him recording my vocal on Audioslave’s Revelations album. I usually record vocals alone, and I usually don’t have a great time doing it. Most producers and engineers have no idea what I am capable of. And they don’t know what they are hearing. They just hear a voice coming out of the speakers and they settle for that. I can choose a microphone and dial up a sound that works for my voice in ten seconds. Some engineers can also do that; most engineers can’t find it if you give them a week. I am picky in how I want to hear things. It just has to be right or I don’t have any fun and I don’t want to do it.

I felt like on an album as stripped down as this one is, it’s super important that the performances are good. They’re live tracks so it had to be recorded right the first time, and there needed to be a guy in the room who when he said “you sang it right,” I believed him, and when he said “you didn’t sing it right,” I believed him. I knew Brendan was that guy. And he has a vast knowledge of sounds that could compliment the atmosphere of songs without stepping on them. And he’s a great bass player.

What was the recording process?

I’d run down a couple song takes on acoustic guitar. Then Brendan would play bass over that, and I would sing to those two instruments. I needed to sing to those to pitch right. His bass was a placeholder, but after a few songs I discovered that he has a really great feel as a bass player. He has a Paul McCartney approach to the bass, which works well with my songs because as a songwriter and arranger, The Beatles are by far my biggest influence. We went for a Beatles [production] approach on Higher Truth. It’s a little epic but not overdone. It’s hard to address that subject without sounding like an asshole or getting into some New Age, preachy thing. Something was annoying me and I wanted to use that song to write that away.

Did you get better vocal performances on Higher Truth by having Brendan O’Brien there?

Yes, the record is actually better than my demos. Usually, my demos sound more energetic and more inspired. That’s because I haven’t become self-conscious about performing the songs yet. They’d become stiff when I recorded them for the album, and there’d be things that I couldn’t recreate. But it works with Brendan because he is a sing-it-three-times-and-that’s-it kind of guy.

It all started when I did 11 takes of “Black Hole Sun.” The producer, Michael Beinhorn, did a comp, which took him two days. He was really excited for me to hear it. I was bummed out, crestfallen; I hated it. It sounded so stiff and awful. To his credit, Michael said, “maybe you should record your vocals yourself.” That was the first time I did it [alone in the studio]; I sang it three times. I did that for the rest of the album, and Down On the Upside. The first two Audioslave albums as well, and most of Euphoria Morning. I did all of King Animal at home. I wanted to work with Brendan so I wouldn’t be doing it all myself. It’s great to do it alone when you want to try different things and you don’t want to waste anyone’s time.

Tell me about some key pieces of gear that you used on the record.

I think Brendan used a Neumann 251 for half of the record, then a vintage U67, which I use a lot. And a Shure SM57 on one song.

The Neve 1071 works well with me. For mixing, Brendan used some type of compressor that is his secret for focusing the vocals. We used a DBX compressor to tape; it was pretty straightforward.

You have an amazing ability to probe the human psyche in all its joy and pain like nobody else. Is that nurture or nature?

When I am writing a song, I have to feel that or no one is going to hear the song. What scares me is that if I record it and I am excited about it, whether it’s happy, sad, or a longing, whatever that is, I don’t know if the guys in the band will feel it or if the listener will feel it. I don’t think there is a way to know until you play it. There’s no litmus test to know you nailed it.