Jerry Cantrell: there are times when I think 'Layne Staley is gonna kill this'

Jerry Cantrell
(Image credit: Jonathan Weiner)

Jerry Cantrell thinks of records as time capsules. Whether as the leader and chief songwriter of Alice In Chains or as a solo artist, he says each of his releases represents a period of time “etched in wax”. 

From AIC’s game-changing early-90s releases – albums that reshaped the rock landscape – to the acoustic-tinged EPs that punctuated their heavier moments, to the sonic exploration of his solo work, for Cantrell every one of them occupies a different head-space and era. 

It’s the same with his new solo album Brighten, the first record under his own name since 2002’s Degradation Trip Volumes 1 & 2

“I’m just trying to make the best record I can for a particular time,” he says.

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How has the past year and a half been for you? 

You know, probably like everybody else, vacillating between “What the fuck?” and the reality that we all have to deal with and try to help each other get through it. 

Did you take up any new hobbies? 

I made a record. It’s called Brighten. New record, old hobby. When did the album begin? Probably the end of 2019. Alice In Chains got done touring Rainier Fog and we were planning on taking about a year off, which is par for the course for us. I decided to take that time and work on some other stuff, and that ended up turning into a pretty cool record. 

Did you find it easy to be creative during lockdown? 

I’ve spoken to some artists who couldn’t turn that creative tap on. I’m glad I had something to focus on and that it was already in motion before all this shit started. If I had to start in the middle of it, that might have been different. But who knows? You play it as it lays, man

What is it about this collection of songs that made you want to do it as a solo record rather than with Alice In Chains? 

Well, the difference is there’s no Alice In Chains members on this record except me. That’s what makes it not an Alice In Chains record! 

But do you feel like you’re putting on a different hat in terms of the writing? 

Not really, I just write. The method is the same, the players in the field are different. That being said, there are times when I’m like: “Layne [Staley, former AIC vocalist] is gonna kill this and Sean [Kinney, drummer] is gonna do a really cool thing here, and I bet Mike [Inez, bass] will come up with something for this.” 

You rely on the strengths of the band and the talents that everybody brings for some things. But mostly I’m always cataloguing riffs and recording stuff. I’m a collector of ideas, and I have a deep file of ideas and things that are unrealised. 

On that note, hasn’t [single] Atone been around for a while? 

Pieces of it. It’s a completely new song, put together about a year and a half ago, but the riff and part of the chorus idea have been kicking around my head for years. Some songs have a longer gestation, and it was time for that song to be born a year and a half ago. 

July was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Alice In Chains’ MTV Unplugged, and Brighten has some of that stripped-back, acoustic vibe about it. Did you have any of that in mind when you were making it? 

Yeah, there’s some real moments where the acoustic songwriting part of me shines through on this record. It reminds me a lot of the music I grew up with, music of the sixties and seventies and eighties, and even the nineties too. It has elements of that. 

What do you recall about that MTV Unplugged session? 

The day we did it, we hadn’t played in a while, so a lot of our friends were there – all of Metallica was there, a whole bunch of our people were in the house. The crowd was great. It was a loose, fun gig, the capturing of a moment. There’s some real haunting foreboding moments in that performance, and there’s some fun, lighthearted moments.

Brighten closes with a cover of Elton John’s Goodbye, and you got the nod from Elton to include it, right? 

Yeah. One of the things doing this that I’ve enjoyed the most is meeting a lot of my heroes and becoming friends with a good deal of them, and Elton is one of those. He played piano on a really important song and an important record for us when we decided to start over – on Black Gives Way To Blue, which I’d had written for Layne. He loved it and he wanted to be a part of it and played on it. 

I did a couple of live shows in LA, December 2019, and we closed the show with Goodbye both nights. Tyler Bates, my co-producer on this record, was like: “We should write a song that’s like that, that’s not really guitar-based, more keys and strings where your voice is like that.” As we got toward the end of the record, we thought: “Let’s just record that song, it makes sense.” 

So we demo’d it, and I called Elton up, sent it over to them, and was like: “Hey, I want to put this on the record, it would mean a lot to me, and I just want to make sure you’re cool with it, that you don’t think I butchered your fucking song!” And Elton said: “It’s beautiful, you should absolutely use it.” 

The universe gives you some science here and there, serendipity and shit lining up. I didn’t intend it, but it was the last song we recorded. And it’s also the last song on my favourite Elton John record, Madman Across The Water. That’s a nine-song record and so is this. I didn’t intend any of that, it just happened to be that way. It made sense.

Niall Doherty is a writer for The Guardian, Variety and Classic Rock, and co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former editors of Q magazine Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. Niall has written for NME, X-Ray Magazine and XFM Online and interviewed some of music’s biggest stars, including Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, St Vincent, The 1975, Depeche Mode, Radiohead and many more.