Chris Cornell, the singer/songwriter best known as the fiery lead vocalist for Seattle heavy rock legends Soundgarden, admits that penning and recording “The Promise,” the theme song to the movie of the same name which opened this past weekend, was not something he initially thought he might do. The film details that shameful chapter in early 20th century history during which Turkey’s Ottoman Empire exterminated some 1.5 million Armenians and attempted to cover it up. Cornell was perhaps more aware than most of the continuing legacy of those tragic events, partially because his wife’s family is Greek and there was some shared history with the Armenians, and also because he and his wife were friends with a producer named Eric Esrailian — who ended up producing the film.
“(Eric) became a close friend of our family and in the course of a couple years he was talking about this film,” recalled Cornell when he and I sat down in Los Angeles during a stop on his promo tour for the song and film. “It wasn’t discussions about me contributing to it, it was just him talking about this vision that he had and this vision that Kirk Kerkorian (the (late investor and entrepreneur who financed most of the film) had and how he wanted to see it come to fruition, which meant essentially that he had to become a movie producer.”
As Cornell and Esrailian continued to discuss The Promise over time, the singer became more interested in the subject but was reluctant to ask about working on the project. “I never asked him if I could do the song for it because I felt like that would be kind of weird, overstepping the bounds of the friendship,” he said. “But when he asked me, I was pretty excited. I was hoping that he would ask me, if there was going to be a song.”
Cornell is no novice to contributing songs to movie soundtracks, both with Soundgarden and on his own. The band’s music has featured regularly over the past 25 years in films looking for their big, bruising rock pyrotechnics, but Cornell’s solo efforts have gone in a variety of different directions and shown up in a selection of diverse films ranging from Great Expectations to Casino Royale to 12 Years a Slave. Each scenario is different and Cornell compared writing a tune like “You Know My Name” for the 007 thriller Casino Royale — for which there is a certain “Bond song” flavor — to something like “The Promise.”
“I got lucky with (Casino Royale) just because there was a book,” remembered Cornell, who says he watched a rough cut of The Promise but normally just gets a script to read. “But with The Promise, the obstacle I noticed was it had to be out of time a little bit, because this was 1915. So most of my musical influences didn’t exist. So in just constructing the melodies and the arrangement, I needed to use instruments that would’ve existed. I needed the melody to be overarching and not be nailed down or be able to nail it down to any specific pop period.”
Cornell wanted to avoid having his usual influences, like Led Zeppelin or the Beatles, crop up in a song about events taking place in 1915. But listening to music from the era — what little he could find — was not the answer either. “I did listen to some chants,” he said. “I went online and just kind of looked up some different chants and downloaded a bunch of them, which were pretty amazing. At one point I had the idea I would plagiarize one of them and weave it through. That was before I actually had written what I felt like was a good song. Once I felt like I wrote a good song, I didn’t want to obscure it with anything else.”
Always a politically aware personality, Cornell is fully cognizant of the fact that the horrifying subject matter of The Promise is sadly still relevant today whether the location is Rwanda in 1994 (the subject of Hotel Rwanda, an earlier film by The Promise director Terry George) or Syria right now. That point was driven home even more forcefully when Cornell and his family met recently with refugees from Syria an Afghanistan, forced out by the endless ideological and religious conflicts in those places.
“That was one of the things that was important to me, was not just telling a century-old story, but telling that story because it’s happening today,” he said. “I wanted to go visit a camp to add faces and human beings to my own consciousness and really my daughter’s too — it was important that she see it. She’s seeing another 12-year-old girl that’s either a political refugee or an economic immigrant whose family has been torn apart and they’re living eight people in a room half the size of this one that we’re sitting in now…I think telling this story is important because we need to be aware that these things happen now and we need to kind of be slapped in the face with the fact that as horrendous as this was a century ago, in many parts of the world, we haven’t gotten anywhere.”
With The Promise out now and no other film projects on his schedule at the moment, Cornell will turn back this spring to his “day job,” as Soundgarden heads out next month on a string of festival and headlining shows. The band is also preparing material for its seventh studio album and second effort since ending a 13-year hiatus in 2010, with Cornell saying that the quartet is about “halfway through” the writing process: “We haven’t really recorded anything so we’re just sort of working on ideas and I think we have about half the songs that we need for an album,” he calculated. “But you never know. We tend to make pretty long albums. At some point when we feel like we’re done, five more songs show up at the doorstep.” He did add that the band was likely to get into the studio sometime this year.
Cornell has stayed busy with Soundgarden — who have released one studio album, 2012’s King Animal, plus a live set, a rarities collection, and several restored deluxe editions of older albums like Superunknown and Badmotorfinger since reuniting — while also releasing his fourth solo album, Higher Truth, in 2015. But he found time last year to get back together with Temple of the Dog, the legendary one-off Seattle supergroup consisting of him, Soundgarden/Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron, and Pearl Jam members Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready (fellow Temple member Eddie Vedder sat this one out). Temple played five shows last fall to an ecstatic fan response, and Cornell mused that the band might not necessarily go back into mothballs.
“It was really an amazing experience so I think we’re all motivated to do something again,” he said. “The only obstacle really is the same one that’s always been there, which is that everybody’s always busy. So it literally has to be planned ahead by two years and that’s a hard thing to do. But it’s something that we definitely want to do. Whether it’s possibly doing some new songs or just getting out and playing more shows, maybe in other parts of the world we haven’t gone into, I don’t know. But everybody kind of wants to do something.”
Everyone in Temple of the Dog, save Cornell, was inducted earlier this month into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as members of Pearl Jam, and with that group and fellow Seattle icons Nirvana now both in, it would only make sense that Soundgarden — who have been eligible since 2013 and were on that vaunted scene before either of those other bands — get recognized as well. But Cornell said it’s not something he thinks about all that much.
“To be honest, it doesn’t really make any difference to me,” he said, although he himself inducted Heart a few years ago and admitted he’s “really proud” of bandmate Cameron (who would go in again if Soundgarden gets the nod). “I’m not trying to be negative about it. The one thing about inducting Heart was that I was actually really moved by their fans, and the fans were the people in the cheap seats that were screaming, and they were outside saying hi every time you’d come and go over the course of the two days. That was when it made sense to me, that it matters to the fans, and if it matters to the fans, then I think it matters. But they deserve ownership of it.”
The Promise is out in theaters now and you can see Soundgarden on the road in May.