Grunge Pioneer Chris Cornell Tries Neo Soul Chris Cornell is one of the godfathers of grunge — his band Soundgarden was the first Seattle grunge band to sign to a major label. For his latest solo CD, Scream, he's paired with an unlikely partner: hip-hop producer and studio wizard Timbaland. The result is what amounts to a neo-soul album from one of the great rock voices of the past 20 years. Cornell talks to host Jacki Lyden about his surprising transformation.
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Grunge Pioneer Chris Cornell Tries Neo Soul

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Grunge Pioneer Chris Cornell Tries Neo Soul

Grunge Pioneer Chris Cornell Tries Neo Soul

Grunge Pioneer Chris Cornell Tries Neo Soul

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Chris Cornell is one of the godfathers of grunge — his band Soundgarden was the first Seattle grunge band to sign to a major label. For his latest solo CD, Scream, he's paired with an unlikely partner: hip-hop producer and studio wizard Timbaland. The result is what amounts to a neo-soul album from one of the great rock voices of the past 20 years. Cornell talks to host Jacki Lyden about his surprising transformation.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: In the early 1990s, grunge was king. Seattle Sounds of the Underground took over rock radio and made stars of those festooned in flannel, and Chris Cornell was at the center of it all.

(Soundbite of song "Outshined")

Mr. CHRIS CORNELL (Singer): (Singing) I got up being so down. I got off being sold out. I've kept the movie rolling.

LYDEN: Chris Cornell's band Soundgarden was the first grunge act to sign to a major recording label, and the front man had a voice destined for rock stardom, whether crooning with smoky sensuality or screaming to wake the dead.

(Soundbite of song "Outshined")

Mr. CORNELL: (Singing) Oh yeah.

LYDEN: Soundgarden disbanded in 1997 after multi-platinum sales and Grammy success, and Cornell kept rocking both solo and with the band Audioslave.

On his new record, Chris Cornell has taken a starling turn. He's enlisted the production help of one of hip hop's great studio alchemists, Timbaland. Chris Cornell is transformed.

(Soundbite of song, "Ground Zero")

Mr. CORNELL: (Singing) When it all falls down, and we almost drown. When the sin sinks in (unintelligible) I guess it's every man for himself. Where in the world you're going to go.

LYDEN: That's "Ground Zero," a track from the latest CD by Chris Cornell. It's called "Scream." Chris Cornell joins me now from NPR West. Welcome to the show.

Mr. CORNELL: Hi. Thank you.

LYDEN: So, this really isn't Soundgarden. It's like a modern soul record. How did the project get started?

Mr. CORNELL: It was kind of an accident where I was looking for someone to do some remixes on some songs for my album "Carry On" which came out I think almost two years ago now, and Timbaland's name came up.

And then I talked to him. He said he was a fan. He recited some lyrics from a song I did for "Euphoria Morning" which was my first solo record that came out in 1998, which kind of shocked me because that's a fairly obscure album.

LYDEN: Long memory.

Mr. CORNELL: Yeah. And I'm not sure I remember those lyrics, to be honest. And he said, I would love to do a couple of original songs. And I said, that sounds great. But you know, there's a voice in the back of my head saying, well, what are you going to do with that?

Why not, if you're in the studio with this guy who's supposedly a workaholic, makes albums in three weeks, why not just make an album and have a new album that's completely different than you've ever done to release. And I just sort of got this excited feeling when I thought that.

(Soundbite of song "Enemy")

Mr. CORNELL: (Singing) No prize. Nothing I say will make it alright. Nothing I feel will make it lose sight. Nothing I take will make me sleep at night, sleep at night. When I look within I feel like I should be running, running, running, running.

LYDEN: I'm talking to singer Chris Cornell. His new CD is called "Scream." Now, many R&B singers had great screams themselves: James Brown, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave. Do you feel your style has something in common with theirs?

Mr. CORNELL: I think that it really informed rock music, period. I was, first and foremost, I think, a Beatles fan.

(Soundbite of song, "Can't Buy Me Love")

Mr. CORNELL: And I heard a lot about Paul being really into Little Richard. And I remember seeing Little Richard on TV when I was a child, and he was doing that thing that Paul McCartney would do.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CORNELL: And I realized oh, he got it from that. And that was the first time I understood the concept that, you know, these things don't come from thin air. Everybody's influenced by someone.

And that's what got me more interested in the idea, you know? As time went on, I wanted to, at some point, make what I felt like was more of kind of an authentic R&B or soul album. Now, bearing in mind over all of this time, what has become kind of modern R&B and soul is very different than what I've been a fan of.

And where Timbaland comes in is he kind of has that up-to-the-minute thing going on on the album. So, I didn't expect to be doing an album like this where, in one fell swoop, I'm kind of completely adopting a different style of writing songs and recording an album and working with someone that works in a completely different fashion than I've ever done before.

(Soundbite of song "Get Up")

Mr. CORNELL: (Singing) You got a wasted life. You got nothing to do. Get up, get off the floor. I said get up, do something more. You need a backbone to roll with the world. You got to get you one to run with the bulls. You ready.

LYDEN: Timbaland had you change your singing style completely. How difficult was that to do after 20 years of singing in a different way?

Mr. CORNELL: The biggest obstacle I had, I think, was singing on beat exactly because I think with sort of the modern beat-based recording production style, a lot of it is influenced by hip hop and rap music, and there's a flow to it.

And everything is kind of bouncing on the beat all the time. And if something isn't on that beat, it sort of throws off the rhythm. It throws off the groove, and it doesn't really work anymore. And that is not really the way I'm used to singing.

I always spent years sort of trying to lay off the beat. I would have producers sort of point at Sinatra sometimes. He would really go ahead and behind the beat and sing in between the rhythm sometimes and in between what the other instruments were doing.

And it's an expressive thing, and you get into that. As a singer, you kind of find your own version of that, and then it becomes second nature. So, to just kind of change the focus, that took a few days.

(Soundbite of song "Get Up")

Mr. CORNELL: (Singing) You've got a fatal flaw. Skeleton made of straw. Images on the wall, keeping you in the dark. You're in a pack of wolves trying to live alone. If you're going to be a mole go back inside your hole. Get up.

LYDEN: Are you braced, Chris Cornell, for a little resistance from your old Soundgarden fans? I mean, this isn't necessarily a sound that all of them will wrap their arms around, is it?

Mr. CORNELL: Well, listen, that's pretty simple math. I mean, you can sort of have that epiphany in about two seconds while you bring up the idea of making a whole album with Timbaland. And then, you know, I think it's part of what music and being a singer and a songwriter and a musician is about, though, at some point.

LYDEN: But what do you say to them to convince them to come along on your fans (unintelligible)?

Mr. CORNELL: I don't think you do. I don't think that it's my job to convince anybody to come along. I think that music is sort of out there, and you know, everybody has the freedom to get into something or not. And I don't expect people to necessarily like it that are fans of Soundgarden. But you know, I'm also kind of realistic. Soundgarden was a long time ago. I wouldn't be a happy guy if I was doing music that fit perfectly into that environment.

(Soundbite of song "Scream")

Mr. CORNELL: (Singing) Hey, why you keep screaming at the top of your head? I say hey…

LYDEN: Chris Cornell was the lead singer for Soundgarden and Audioslave. He has a new solo disk out that's produced by hip hop stalwart Timbaland. It's called "Scream." Thanks so much for talking with us, Chris Cornell.

Mr. CORNELL: All right. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song "Scream")

Mr. CORNELL: (Singing) I say hey, why you keep screaming at the top of your head?

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