Oscar Songs: Chris Cornell Channels Woody Guthrie for ‘The Keeper’

He may be best-known as the hard-rocker behind Soundgarden, but Cornell went acoustic for the “Machine Gun Preacher” song

Last Updated: January 3, 2012 @ 2:18 PM

On Thursday, members of the Academy's music branch will meet to view clips of the 39 eligible songs in this year's Oscar race, and to score those songs to determine this year's nominees. In anticipation of that event, TheWrap is devoting a series of stories to the Best Original Song category.    

This year's Oscar song race is full of refugees or émigrés from the worlds of pop and rock music: Elton John, Elvis Costello, Mary J. Blige, will.i.am, OK Go, Sigur Ros' Jonsi, the Zac Brown Band and the National are among those who've contributed songs after establishing careers outside the movies.

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Still, none of those are dyed-in-the-wool rockers to rank with Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, whose hard rock band was one of the most successful outfits in the Pacific Northwest's explosion of tough rock 'n' roll (they called it grunge, not that the participants liked that label) in the early '90s.

(Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Cornell's highest-profile movie song to date,"You Know My Name," for the 2006 James Bond film "Casino Royale," was a typical rocker. But his entry in this year's Oscar race, "The Keeper" from "Machine Gun Preacher," is something else entirely: a sparse acoustic ballad inspired, he said, by Woody Guthrie.

But the route to that approach, he told TheWrap in an interview, was a circuitous one. "Because of the nature of the story, musically it could be all over the map," he said of Marc Forster's film, in which Gerard Butler stars as Sam Childers, a former biker who became a preacher and founded an orphanage that rescues orphans in war-torn Sudan. 

"I didn't have any visuals to work with, so musically it could be anything," he added. "It could be rock, biker rock, gospel music, hip-hop, Sudanese music … "

Cornell said he initially wrote a song with a more gospel feel, but didn’t feel as if its lyrics got to the heart of the story Forster was telling.

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"'The Keeper' came from a feeling one day that I was missing it somehow," he said. "I decided that what I needed to do was to do something very sparse, with just an acoustic guitar and singing, and maybe a little tiny bit of percussion, and nothing else to get in the way of what I was trying to say."

The song's lyric perspective, he said, came almost immediately after he hit on that musical approach. "It's difficult to write a song about this man's life or the lives that he touches as an observer, because it's so intense," he said. "I haven't seen what Sam Childers has seen, and I haven't been through what these children or their families have been through.

"So at some point the perspective for me became, imagine that I'm Sam Childers, but Sam Childers is Woody Guthrie, and he's writing a song to these children. He's telling them that although they may not have been able to count on anything, his intention is that until he drops dead, they can count on him."

Here's the official music video for the song:

After recording a demo for the song, Cornell played it over a gallery of images from Childers's Angels of East Africa website. (The site is currently being updated, and redirects to the Machine Gun Preacher site.)

"It felt like a perfect match," he said. "I never told anybody that I did that – but in the film the song is laid over photos in the end credits, and some of the exact  same photos are in there."

And if the result is not nearly as flashy as a James Bond opening-credits song, Cornell said that he felt a lot more pressure writing it than he did with "You Know My Name."

"In writing a James Bond theme, it was an honor to be asked to do it, and it’s a franchise," he said. "But it also begins and ends with fun. To me, this story has so much more weight to it – socially, politically, spiritually, in every way. That's a lot to weigh on a three-minute song, but I took that seriously."

He also takes film songs in general seriously – because even though he's now back on tour and in the studio with Soundgarden while at the same time doing solo shows, he is determined to continue writing songs for film.

"I think it's something that is important for me to do," he said. "It's an unpredictable and unique type of collaboration that's very different from any other that a songwriter can ever encounter. I can sit down with other writers or bandmates and write music in other combinations – but with a film, you're collaborating with the director and the story and the film itself.

"It has its own life, and in a sense its own will. Your music is a character in the play, as opposed to the play, and it needs to co-exist. That's interesting, and it's the only time I can really have that kind of collaboration."

But on the other hand, he admitted, he's not actively looking for new films.

"It finds me more than I find it," he said. "I don’t know how many opportunities I would have if I were out there beating the street looking. I'm not immersed in the film industry, so someone else is going to know about it first.

"It usually just sort of shows up, but that works for me."

(Wednesday: An Opinionated Guide to All 39 Oscar Songs.)