Thursday May 18, 2017

'A staggering amount of talent': Soundgarden producer remembers Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell performing at a show in 2013. A few hours after playing a gig in Detroit Wednesday night, the Soundgarden frontman took his own life. He was 52.

Chris Cornell performing at a show in 2013. A few hours after playing a gig in Detroit Wednesday night, the Soundgarden frontman took his own life. He was 52. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

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The music world is in shock after news of musician Chris Cornell's death broke early Thursday morning.

The grunge rock pioneer played in Detroit Wednesday night with his band Soundgarden. A few hours later, he was found dead in his hotel room. A medical examiner has determined that Cornell killed himself. He was 52.

Michael Beinhorn

Michael Beinhorn produced Soundgarden's breakthrough album "Superunknown." (Michael Beinhorn/Twitter)

Michael Beinhorn produced Soundgarden's breakthrough album Superunknown. He spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about what it was like working with Cornell. Here is part of their conversation.

Helen Mann: Mr. Beinhorn, first of all, my condolences. Chris Cornell performed just last night. What were your thoughts and feelings when you heard this news that he was gone?

Michael Beinhorn: I'm still having a hard time processing all this. It was literally the last thing I expected to hear. My wife actually woke me up at four in the morning to tell me that he was dead. At first, I thought it was some kind of joke. I'm sort of gobsmacked at the moment. 

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Chris Cornell performing at a show in 2017. ( Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

HM: It's been confirmed now, very sadly, that he took his own life. He spoke in the past of his struggles with substance abuse. A lot of his lyrics had some darkness about them. Are you reflecting on that today?

MB: Not so much the lyrics but more just the experience of being around him and working with him. Most of the time it seemed like he was consumed by being in a really dark place. The process of the record that we made, in hindsight, I feel that it must have been incredibly rigorous for him because it forced him to expose himself emotionally in a way that I felt, and feel even more now, that he hadn't really done or been able to do, prior. I know that was a very uncomfortable experience for him. He had to dig really, really deep and considering the pain that he clearly was in, on just a regular basis, day-to-day I would say, the experience had to be even more profound for him. So yes, this event has definitely put the process of making that record and knowing Chris into a whole different context.

HM: That was back in 1993. That's a long time to be living with that kind of darkness. I'm wondering how you found working together on that seminal album?

MB: It wasn't an easy process. We didn't always get along or agree on stuff. But there was enough mutual respect there for us to really press on. He knew that I had very specific expectations about what this record needed to be and I saw in him that there was such a staggering amount of talent and greatness that I felt, even after the success that they'd had, the world hadn't gotten to see. My goal was to make sure it came out and in the most dramatic way possible so that it would be painfully obvious to anyone who encountered our record exactly what was there and just how brilliant this guy really was on every possible level — not just as a performer but as a songwriter. 

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(Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

HM: He had this incredible voice. It was so soulful and rich. Did he appreciate that he had a talent?

MB: He knew it and I think he felt it sometimes but I don't think he felt it all the time. I think that whatever was haunting him and torturing him was probably more prevalent. I think probably the only way that he could escape from it for the moment was to really retreat into whatever work he was doing. I think the case is probably true for a lot of creative people. As the saying goes, "the devil finds work for idle hands." If you're that creative, and have that much talent and sensitivity, and you have even moments where you have down time or perhaps you're just coasting — there's no telling where your mind can go. 

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Chris Cornell performs at The Ryman Auditorium on Oct.27, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

HM: Did he ever share any of the source of that darkness with you?

MB: No … I mean at times he was really kind of taciturn or moody or kind of grouchy. I didn't really probe. I hoped, I guess, that the work that we did together would somehow be a safe place where he could expose those parts of himself and deal with them in his own way.

HM: I understand that you had Chris listen to Frank Sinatra. Why Sinatra?

MB: [Laughs] From my perspective, Sinatra is one of the greatest vocal performers in recorded history. He left behind this incredible legacy of how a performer immerses themselves in a piece of music and expresses themselves so fluently. It kind of brings out ever bit of subtext and every single thing that they really need to say. What I played for Chris was mainly the more moody stuff that he did like In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning or Only the Lonely. They're very, very haunted, miserable records. But it's also something that as a rock performer, not trying to emulate the phrasing or the styling, but seeing how he is kind of able to transmit his soul through the music — that was something I really wanted to get across to Chris. It's funny because when I played it for him he laughed at me. At the same time, I knew that he connected with it right away. It hit him on a pretty deep level.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Michael Beinhorn.