From writer/director Terry George, the epic love story of The Promise is set against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide, during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. To compliment the film, producer Eric Esrailian turned to singer/songwriter Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden and Audioslave fame) to write a song that is a perfect companion piece, in its storytelling and emotion.
At the film’s press day, Collider sat down with Chris Cornell for this 1-on-1 interview and discussed everything from his songwriting process to his kids’ taste in music. During the chat, we talked about how The Promise was brought to his attention, why the story was of interest to him, finding the song through a failed first attempt, recording with a 24-piece orchestra, the experience of screening the film at The Vatican, and why it was important to him to donate all proceeds from the song to charity. He also talked about the importance we place on music, growing up, how his vastly different work still feels like pieces of a larger artistic whole, and that he always likes to have multiple things going on, at once.
Collider: Your song, “The Promise,” is really beautiful.
CHRIS CORNELL: Thank you! I’m not sure when enough time will go by that I’ll have any perspective on the song. When so much energy goes into one song, somewhere near the end of the project, I was like, “I hope this is good. I think it is, but I’m not sure.” It’s almost like hearing your voice on an answering machine, after awhile. The relationship to it gets weird. I actually have not performed this in front of people yet, so I’ve just been sitting in a room singing it, recently, and just getting comfortable with that. It’s sure a great song to sit around and sing. I really like that. So, hopefully it’s good. Hopefully, people will sit long enough to hear it.
Is this a song that you’re hoping to break out live?
CORNELL: Oh, absolutely! This is a song that I’ll play, every show. It’s funny, I’ve done a lot of songs for films, and some of them are really great in a love context, but some of them are not necessarily. I think this one will be great. It’s not like anything else I’ve written, or probably ever will. In the context of a live set, it will have its own space, which is good.
How did your involvement with this film come about? Was it the relationship that you have with producer Eric Esrailian?
CORNELL: That’s how it started, yeah. Eric Esrailian is a family friend and he’s become our family doctor, really. He’s almost like the curator of other doctors. When I broke my hand, he took me to the UCLA specialist for broken hands, who’s a guy that’s way too over-qualified to fix my hand. As he helped us, medically, he became a really close friend. Hanging out with him, he started talking about the film, and when you’re having a conversation with someone who, despite his brilliant medical career, says he’s going to produce this film, you think, “How’s he gonna do this? Is he insane, or is he really going to pull this off? It might be both.” It’s really amazing to see someone do what he’s done. He had to learn the whole industry, on so many different levels, as any film producer would, but he had to do it overnight. I just am so in awe of what he was able to do. It’s amazing.
What was it about this story that spoke to you and made you want to make your own stamp on it?
CORNELL: I married into a Greek family and I’ve heard stories about my wife’s grandparents, who were actually refugees, as little kids, from the same conflict. So, it was partly that, and partly just the idea of being able to write a song for a film that has some emotional weight to it and some historical significance, especially on the denial side of it. In a strange way, denial can almost keep an instance like this alive, with the way that we communicate now. It’s a conflict that exists today because the denial exists. The first conversation I remember having with Eric about it was late one night when I was feeling specifically paranoid about the future and having young children, and Eric has young children of a similar age. It was just one father to another, talking about the climate of the world and imagining, “What if it were me, and someone kicked my door in at 4 o’clock in the morning and separated my family? What if they took our children away, or took me away, and then my family doesn’t have a father?”
The idea of telling the story of the Armenian genocide, or really any other genocide, and repeating those stories is really important. I also think it’s important to always be exposing the warning signs for what was leading up to it. Those tend to always be the same. And there needs to be international focused in areas like Syria, where it’s already a full-blown genocide, or preceding that where you see the build-up and you know it’s going to happen. I would hope that the future would have an international community that’s not just bent on commerce, but that’s focused on refugees, of all kinds and from all places. We don’t know that won’t happen in the U.S. someday. It literally could be a crisis from climate change, or anything. I think there needs to be a global focus on people taking care of people. And so, I think this was something that lives under that umbrella. To distill the story of this film down to four minutes is an exciting challenge.
What was the process for writing this song like? Did it come pretty easily, or did you spend a lot of time on it?
CORNELL: I think I was forcing an idea, in lieu of having a good one, and then it just popped in. That’s happened to me before. I had an arrangement going, and then, at some point, after a week or so, I just scrapped it. And then, what the song is now actually came about pretty quickly. That’s just part of the process sometimes. I think doing it wrong shows you what the right way is, and that happened with this song. I had to make the mistake first, and then realize that it wasn’t that, but it was this. My failure pointed to what the song is now.
Are you someone who knows when you’ve written the song you want, or are you very critical and always think about reworking it and tweaking it? How critical are you, of your own work?
CORNELL: I get pretty critical, but I’m also pretty good at letting go once it’s done. There’s this existential argument that comes in, at some point, when you’re over-thinking the songwriting process. There’s no guarantee that the more time you spend or the more you concentrate on certain aspects that that’s going to produce a better result, especially in the arts. Some of the most brilliant things that someone might do could happen in three minutes because it’s something that just occurs to them. And then, there’s the example of really chipping away at something to create something great. I don’t believe that one is more reliable than the other. I really don’t. Any way that you can get the end result is valid, whatever it takes.
How was the experience of recording this with a 24-piece orchestra?
CORNELL: It was pretty fun. It was exciting. I did the theme to Casino Royale, which I think was a 48-piece orchestra. I remember David Arnold, who produced it, told me, “They’re gonna be here at 11:30am, so be on time because they’re fast.” I didn’t realize that they come in, they play it once, and then they leave. So, I got there at ten minutes to 1pm and everyone was gone. I just saw 50 empty chairs and some coffee cups and was like, “Really? I missed that?!” So, this time, it was Paul Buckmaster, a famous arranger who’s most notably worked with Elton John, but he’s also done arrangements for some of my favorite stuff when I was a kid. I was two hours early, this time, so I got to see the whole thing happen. I think all they were playing to is my vocal and a piano performance, so to hear that all happening and to film it was pretty great.
What’s it like to be a part of a movie that actually screened at The Vatican, and be able to share something like that with your family?
CORNELL: Well, it’s all new to me. There’s a certain amount of weight that you feel is deserving of a film like this and a story like this. And yet, you don’t want it to feel like it’s too heavy. It’s still a film. Entertainment is still a part of it, even when it comes to the song. As Eric has said, a lot of times, it’s not a documentary. They’re not trying to teach a history lesson. It’s still a film, where people need to be swept away by it. But having said that, to be able to do a screening at The Vatican, and to be able to even talk this much about this song and this story that’s set in the Armenian genocide, and to be able to talk about and address the denial of it, pretty close to the same year that the current Pope recognized it, there is weight to that. It feels like that’s fitting because there should be. That’s good.
You’re donating all proceeds from this song to The International Rescue Committee. Why is that an important organization to you?
CORNELL: What they do is amazing and incredibly necessary. They have a job, essentially, where they don’t even really have the resources to do what they would like to do. Any help they can get is great. Hopefully, we’ll see more and more people recognize this current refugee crisis isn’t going to go away. It’s only going to get bigger, and it’s only going to be made better by the global community accepting the people who are marginalized, disenfranchised and homeless, and help and support them by making sure they get what they need, the same way you would in your own neighborhood. So, I think supporting the IRC is an important thing, and hopefully we’ll be able to do more of that, in the future. My wife and I have a foundation (The Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation) that initially started with the idea of helping the most vulnerable youth. It started in Seattle, just donating to a place called Youth Care that takes homeless children off the street, daily, and where you can volunteer to go in and soothe crack babies, all day. It started with that, and now that’s going to grow into a more global thing.
Do your kids share your taste in music, or have you learned all new things about music, as a result of what they listen to?
CORNELL: There’s a little bit that’s universal. What I think are some of the best songs ever written, for sure, my kids will like because they really are great. With my daughter, Toni, out of the blue, Queen suddenly became her favorite band. For some reason, I thought that must be a thing that was happening in her class, or because of social media, and that kids her age were discovering Queen and talking about it. But I asked her, and that wasn’t the case. She didn’t know anybody that was into them. She just came across them and reacted to it, and then started listening to every song she could find and watching documentaries on Queen. And then, that turned into Bowie. It’s all pretty organic. I think the great songs that moved me, as a kid, stand the test of time, and my kids love that, but then, they’re also exposed to things that I’m not. My son has become a pretty big hip-hop fan, and I don’t even know who the rappers are when he tells me the names. I haven’t really heard of them. And I don’t try to steer them in any particular direction. I think it’s important that they find their own way and react to things that they come across. Their organic process is much more interesting than me telling them, “You should listen to this, and you shouldn’t listen to that.”
I was exposed to very different types of music, as a result of what my brother and sister would listen to.
CORNELL: I had that experience, a little bit, with my older brothers. I love the way Cameron Crowe depicted it in Almost Famous, where he’s a kid and his sister comes in, and what I liked about it was that there was this importance placed on it. As we get older, we forget the importance that we placed on music, as kids. It’s the soundtrack to a really intense experience, growing up. Growing up for anybody is super intense, and the music does all of these different things. It’s entertainment, but it’s also the tool you use to belong to one thing and to separate yourself for another thing. It becomes the hair style that you have, the clothes you wear, and how you define yourself and find yourself in the world.
Your music has evolved so much, over the years, from Soundgarden to Temple of the Dog to Audioslave and all of your solo material. It all seems so vastly different, but does it all feel like various avenues of one big artistic vision, or do they feel more compartmentalized than that?
CORNELL: I think it’s both. When I started doing these solo acoustic tours, it started out as a one-man songbook show, but it was pretty amazing how a Soundgarden song flowing into a song from my Scream album could work, side by side. Presented in that context, to me, it totally felt like one guy playing songs from his career, and it all made sense. Having said that, if I take a song from Higher Truth, like the song “Higher Truth,” and play it side by side with “Jesus Christ Pose,” it seems pretty eclectic. But Paul McCartney sang “Yesterday” and he sang “Helter Skelter,” and I don’t remember anyone thinking that wasn’t okay. That’s what I was raised on and, to me, that’s what music always was.
Being a songwriter, it’s whatever you’re inspired by, in the moment, and it’s all valid, unless you’re xeroxing stuff. It’s singing in the voice that’s right for the song and writing in the style that you’re excited about, in that moment, and that’s always moving. I guess the antithesis of that is AC/DC, where they decided, at a really young age, “This is what we like about rock, this is our sound, and we’re gonna do this forever.” I think that’s admirable, but that’s just not me. I’m the opposite. I just always want to be doing something new. As songwriters, everybody has habits. Any kind of writer is going to fall into a pattern. So, as much as I can break that pattern, I try to do it. That’s why something like writing a song for film is good because there’s a collaboration with the story that’s only going to happen once. For me, at least, that always enables something new that’s gonna stand on its own. It’s never gonna be like anything else, and it’s never gonna be like anything I’ve ever done before. That’s why I like doing it.
Does it feel like you have more freedom in what you can do when you’re writing for film?
CORNELL: There’s less freedom. If I’m sitting down to write a song for my next solo album, anything that occurs to me is valid for that. For film, that’s not really the case. I don’t want to say there’s framework, but there is a story and a narrative. The song, musically, stylistically and lyrically, has to fit in with that and be in harmony with it.
What’s next for you, music wise? Would you like to continue to contribute music to movies, and juggle that with your own stuff?
CORNELL: I always have a lot of irons in the fire. Right now, Soundgarden is an active band. We’re writing for an album and we’re touring next month. Temple of the Dog hopes to do stuff again. I’m always writing songs, as a solo artist, as well. My attitude is to just keep all of those things going. That’s what satisfies me. To be able to do something as aggressive as Soundgarden, and then to do a tour where it’s just me an acoustic guitar, that’s pretty fulfilling. I like the broad spectrum. To be able to do all of those things is fulfilling.
The Promise is now in theaters, and the single “The Promise” is available on iTunes at http://tinyurl.com/m74ypqa.