By Brandon Voss
Best known as grunge pioneer and hard-rockin’ frontman of Soundgarden and Audioslave, Chris Cornell throws fans a club-friendly curveball with his third solo effort, ‘Scream,’ a collaboration with sample-savvy hip-hop/R&B ueber-producer Timbaland. Released March 10, the album even features Justin Timberlake and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, plus a hidden track co-written and co-produced by John Mayer.
As Cornell launches his U.S. spring tour, the 44-year-old Grammy nominee denounces detractors and revels in favorable feedback from the gays. Any other questions? Just follow him on Twitter.
Because it’s such a sonic departure for you, ‘Scream’ is shaping up to be one of the most polarizing albums in years. How do you feel about the stir it’s creating?
It’s actually kind of funny. The negative responses I’ve gotten are from people who don’t really buy my records anyway. The real fans aren’t the ones who are upset or complaining; they’re the biggest supporters. It’s an interesting sociological experiment, because on these social networking sites you can actually see the people making comments – where they’re from, how old they are, if they’re a man or a woman – so I start to draw conclusions about where the negativity’s coming from. If you’re an older guy in the United States, you’re most likely to make a negative comment. (Laughs) Older people who were exposed to me as teenagers might see a mutation they don’t like. But this album seems to resonate with the younger fans, because they’re not judging it from any particular angle or with any criteria. To them it’s just music, and they like it.
What about Trent Reznor’s diss of ‘Scream’ through his Twitter?
In terms of viral buzz, I got all kinds of free attention out of his comment, so that was really nice of him. (Laughs) Then I was Twittering, and people tried to read into what I was writing because they thought I was secretly responding to him, but I wasn’t. To this day I haven’t read what he said.
What’s the appeal of Twitter for you?
At first it was that I could write anything I wanted anytime I felt like it. I have odd thoughts, weird things I never share because I don’t talk much. Then I started seeing a different side of it: I could directly answer questions from fans on a one-on-one basis, but in a safely isolated environment, and I’ve found that I actually like that. These are people who support me, and I have a career because of them. That kind of contact isn’t such a bad thing.
On various online message boards, I’ve read comments from bitter listeners that the album ‘sounds gay.’ Is a gay-sounding album such a bad thing?
I don’t even know what that means. (Laughs) I guess a lot of people associate dance music with gay people, but only if you’re older, wear a Black Sabbath T-shirt and just listen to rock. Younger people are used to listening to dance music or being in social situations where there’s dance music. If someone says my record sounds gay, it’s definitely dating that person. Either that, or they’re from a part of the country that’s isolated – but I don’t know if there’s a corner of this country that’s isolated enough where someone can be excused for having prejudices like that anymore.
I have heard remixes of ‘Part of Me’ in gay dance clubs. Did you anticipate ‘Scream’ being embraced by gay fans?
I have gay friends who listened to this album eight months ago, so I got the feeling from their responses that it might appeal more to that audience, which appeals to me. I didn’t really think about it going in, but the feedback I’ve gotten from the gay community has been great. It’s exciting. The more people my music speaks to the better, and that’s really what it’s all about to me: making a connection. When Seattle bands suddenly had more mainstream success, a lot of the band members were upset and started judging the people who came to see them, deciding they didn’t like this audience or that audience. It was a prejudice that I never wanted to have. Growing up, I didn’t feel like I fit in – I was little, I couldn’t play sports, I wasn’t good at school, I was socially awkward – and I ended up being this kid hidden in my room listening to records. That’s when the seed was planted that made me who I am. So I never got the concept of judgment, particularly of my audience.
Which track on ‘Scream’ may connect most with gay fans?
That’s hard to say, but the more interesting songs are the ones that have the most unlikely combinations of influences. ‘Get Up’ is one of the most dance-sounding, synth-based songs, yet I hear 21st century Doors in it. In terms of lyrics and emotions, any song should appeal the same to anybody. There are certain songs that aren’t gender specific, like ‘Other Side of Town,’ which is the story about somebody who has a close friend that they partied and did drugs with, but the singer of the song has found a healthier, saner lifestyle.
Do you remember when you realized you were a sex symbol not only for women but for gay men?
It was a surprise to me when friends of mine first told me I had gay admirers, just because I didn’t really think of myself that way. But I suppose that’s part of what I do. I don’t think you necessarily have to be good-looking; I want to believe that it starts with an emotional connection to what I’m singing.
In a 1997 interview you joked, ‘I’ve done my best to get in touch with my feminine side, and it turns out my feminine side is a dyke. So I’m stuck with women for the rest of my life!’ Is your feminine side still so butch after all these years?
There is this sort of Northwestern, clumsy-logger side to me that’s always there. As far as my sexual orientation and what appealed to me, it was really simple when I was a little kid: I saw that poster of Raquel Welch and I watched Barbarella, and it was like, ‘OK, that’s what women are. Got it. Awesome.’ My beauty aesthetic stopped there, and that’s where I’ve lived ever since.
Have you altered your look to gel with your new sound?
Not consciously. It just evolves naturally. We decided the concept for the album cover shoot would be me smashing a guitar, sort of making a statement that I’ve made a record that’s unapologetic in decidedly going in a different direction. But when I saw the images, they reminded me of images of myself from back when I first got started, and I liked that. So it’s a statement about breaking away from what I traditionally do, but it embraces the past as well, and that’s really who I am. I perform songs from my entire career. The new album itself lives in a different world, but when I tour, all different periods of my career coexist really well. I don’t feel any polarization from fans when I play songs from the new album.
Speaking of older songs, is ‘She’ll Never Be Your Man,’ off your 2007 album ‘Carry On,’ an anti-lesbian anthem?
(Laughs) Not at all. But it was inspired by a friend of mine whose wife left him and then became a lesbian. As a guy, I know the feelings of jealousy and heartache when someone leaves you; it brings up all these feelings of inadequacy, like, ‘What does that guy have that I don’t have?’ But I thought about what can go through a man’s head if a woman leaves him for a woman: Not only did you put her off you, you put her off guys, period? How does a man compete with a woman for another woman’s affections?
David Cook covered your arrangement of ‘Billie Jean’ from ‘Carry On’ on ‘American Idol,’ and later you co-wrote Cook’s first single, ‘Lights On.’ Are you a fan of the show?
The pace is too slow for me. I want to see people sing; I don’t want to see someone sing for a minute and then talk about it for five minutes. He did my version of the song, which is a very dramatic reinvention, and the judges assumed that he had gone off and rearranged the song – they’re all standing up and weeping at the brilliance of it. But my fans went berserk, sending angry e-mails and letters to the show, because they felt it gave David credit for something he didn’t do. Co-writing his first single was a coincidence. Someone asked me if I had songs for other artists, and I said, ‘Actually, no, I’m only writing for David Cook.’ It was a joke! But he said, ‘OK, I represent him.’ So I said, ‘Well, actually, I do have a song I think would be great for him.’ And that’s how it happened.
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