Jerry Cantrell: Music is a Magical Thing

As 2019 was coming to a close, the seminal rock band Alice In Chains was wrapping up a year-long tour in support of their 2018 record, Rainier Fog. Born out of Seattle’s now-legendary grunge scene in the late ’80s, they’re no strangers to hitting the road and filling up stadiums night after night. With six records out—three with the original, Layne Staley lineup, and now three with the post-2005, William DuVall lineup—they’ve been through their fair share of major release cycles. So, when this latest one was ending, they started preparing for what they all knew was coming next: some well-deserved time off.  

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“Generally, an album campaign is pretty much a three-year chunk,” lead guitarist and songwriter Jerry Cantrell explains. “It takes a year to write the album, record it, get the artwork together, etc. Then, after we release it, we go on the road. So, by the time the tour finishes, we’re kind of sick of each other and need to take a break.” 

With another successful string of shows in the books, the band’s break began, but Cantrell wasn’t quite done playing live yet. Serendipitously (considering the looming pandemic that was about to hit), he booked himself two shows in Los Angeles in December 2019. The first opportunity like this he’d had in a while, he decided to use the performances to have some fun and revisit his solo albums: Boggy Depot (1998) and Degradation Trip (2002). 

“I was sorta thinking, ‘Man, I haven’t done a show in a while and there are a lot of fans who really dug those records,’” Cantrell says. “My first and foremost commitment has always been Alice, meaning that the solo material really doesn’t get served… I just haven’t had the opportunity to do it. So, when this break came, I decided to book a couple of shows. Then, a good friend of mine, Tyler Bates, was like, ‘Hey, it’d be cool to do that gig with some different instruments than you’re used to playing with—I can introduce you to a couple of interesting people.’” 

Intrigued with the idea, one thing led to another and Cantrell found himself leading an eclectic group of world-class musicians and old friends, and once they started dusting off his old songs, he quickly found the experience to be invigorating, which got him thinking about what he might want to spend his post-tour break doing. 

“I hadn’t gotten to play that material in a while, so it was just really fun,” he said. “After we did those two shows, I started kicking an idea around with Tyler. He was like, ‘Man, if you’re going to be off from Alice for a little bit, we should start messing around with some new ideas with this new band and make a record.’ I hadn’t made a solo album in 20 years, but once we had that idea, we started working towards it.” 

This was the conception of Cantrell’s third solo LP, Brighten, which is due out in October 2021. A masterful collection of nine new songs exhibiting all the different sides of his inimitable songwriting sensibilities—including some new ones—the album constitutes some of Cantrell’s finest output to date. 

But it was also a new experience for the 55-year-old artist—used to working within the context of a set band (even on his previous solo stuff), he and his producers decided to be more fluid with this record. In the end, it came out as something akin to the classic albums of the ’70s—an array of different players contributed all sorts of sound and styles, which seamlessly coalesced around Cantrell’s guiding vision. 

“It turned out to be a really cool record—it’s not really ‘metal’ by any stretch of the word,” Cantrell said. “To me, it feels like a throwback, rock’n’roll songwriter record. Even though there’s a core group of players, it wasn’t a set band. Gil Sharone played drums on about half of it—then, Joe Barresi (who mixed it) brought in Abe Laboriel Jr. to get a bit of a different feel for some of the other songs. It wasn’t that Gil didn’t have great performances, but in his words, he said, ‘I think this is like a ’70s record, so you should have as many players with different feels on different songs, that’s just the way that is.’ And I think it only benefited [from] having that. 

“Vincent Jones did most of the keyboards, Michael Rozon did the pedal steel, then Duff McKagan came in and did most of the bass (though I ended up playing bass on a few songs too),” he continued. “There’s even a couple tracks where Duff and I were just passing the bass back and forth—what he called ‘Do a Frankenstein.’ I would play for a bit, but then ‘Oh, that bit you’re playing there is way cool. We gotta keep that!’ That was all so fun.” 

The sheer enjoyableness of the record-making process is almost palpable on the tracks themselves—with imaginative arrangements, dynamic performances, and Cantrell’s signature harmonized vocal lines, there’s something infectiously vibrant about it. And as you might be able to guess from the aforementioned presence of pedal steel guitar, it explores some exciting new territory. The opening track—and first single—“Atone” is a prime example of this. Inspired by his love for Ennio Morricone scores and Sergio Leone movies, the song and its outlaw-esque energy is something Cantrell’s wanted to make for a long time but didn’t quite know how until now.  

“That riff’s been around for a while and I’ve always wanted to do something with it, but it wasn’t until this record that it blossomed and came into its own,” he said of the song. “It’s got a real kind of ‘spaghetti western’ feel to it. In my head, I saw a pack of dudes on horses fleeing gunfire—it’s just that sort of vibe. Then, when the chorus hits, it becomes centered around the minor vocal cadence. There’s also a middle part where it lays down and gets beautiful and psychedelic, then it picks back up. It’s all really cool to me. It’s basically a three-minute build into the explosion at the end, where everything kinda lets go. Early on, I knew it should be the first song out and the first song on the album.” 

To that end, Cantrell says that’s usually the first thing that becomes tangible when he’s collecting songs for an album: where he wants it to start and where he wants it to end. “Atone” sets the stage for Brighten, showing off its bombastic and experimentative sonic landscape. So, with such a strong opener, Cantrell knew he had to come out swinging with the finale. Thinking of all the songs he had, none of them felt like quite the right note to end on. Then, he recalled a cover he played at those two solo shows in 2019: “Goodbye” by Elton John. 

“He and Bernie Taupin are huge heroes of mine—they’ve had a huge impact on me as a songwriter,” Cantrell said. “We ended both of those shows with ‘Goodbye,’ which worked really well because the minimal instrumentation made it really emotional. So, we worked up a decent demo of it to see if it’d work as the album closer. But, out of respect, I wanted to at least run it by Elton.” 

So, Cantrell reached out to John’s husband, David Furnish. “I got a hold of him and said that I had recorded ‘Goodbye’ and wanted to show it to Elton. He typed back telling me to send it over, that they’d love to hear my cover of ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.’ I had to be like, ‘No, no, no—not that song.’ Then, I sent it to him and about five minutes later Elton called me. He was like ‘Man, you did a great job on it—you absolutely have my permission to put it on the record.’” 

That seal of approval meant a lot to Cantrell—the first album he ever bought was John’s 1974 Greatest Hits record. Likewise, the first concert Alice In Chains’ original vocalist, Stanley, ever went to was one of John’s shows. “He’s been a huge influence on me and all the members of Alice,” Cantrell explained. “The title track from our comeback record, Black Gives Way To Blue, was written for Layne, and Elton played piano on it. So, getting to include ‘Goodbye’ on this record felt like a cool, full-circle moment. And, coincidentally, my record had eight songs but needed a closer—this song is the ninth and final song on my favorite Elton record, Madman Across The Water. So, it was obvious that it should occupy the same spot on Brighten.” 

In the end, the entire experience of making this new record has been an incredible journey for Cantrell. Finally getting to share it, he can’t help but think back on his childhood when his world would be rocked by each new release from his heroes, like John. While the world’s changed quite a bit since then, the enduring power of music has only grown more meaningful. 

“It’s one of those things that makes you remember what it’s like to be a kid again, to be inspired,” he said. “Then it makes you think about the kids that see you and get influenced the way you did. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of those folks and it’s just such a cool thing to be a part of their story. Really, music is a magical thing. I got that at an early age, and I still know and believe it, I still see evidence of it. So, hopefully, this record can add another little chapter to the rock’n’roll book.” 

Photos by Jonathan Weiner.

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