Jerry Cantrell is set to release his third solo album, Brighten, on Friday (October 29th). It comes after a nearly 20-year gap since 2002’s Degradation Trip, and finds the Alice in Chains singer-guitarist taking a turn toward the light — as the new LP’s title indicates.
Cantrell’s latest effort is warm and lovingly crafted piece of countrified alternative rock. Made with a host of close compatriots and friends before and during the pandemic, there’s a tangible positivity to the album. As Cantrell himself told Heavy Consequence in our extensive interview, Brighten is “a journey up through darkness to light.”
Rising to prominence in a band known for dark songs, Cantrell’s previous solo outings have also been steeped in melancholy. You’ll hear a few of those timeless, brooding Alice in Chains chords on the new album, but there’s an autumnal bliss to the recordings here that make them simply feel good to hear.
Cantrell is set to support Brighten with a North American tour in 2022, with tickets available here. Ahead of the LP’s release, he spoke with Heavy Consequence about the making of the album, nerded out with us about guitars, and pondered the nature of touring during the pandemic.
On how Cantrell’s guest-heavy 2019 solo concerts led to his third solo album
It’s about a three year process when we take on the endeavor of making a record and going out and touring it. So we’ve gotten into the habit of taking a little time off to decompress before we jump into the next thing. So I figured I had some time, and I was thinking it’s been a long time since I did a record. And before I even started thinking about that, I was like, well, maybe I could do a show and play some of those tunes that I haven’t played in a long time off of Boggy Depot and Degradation Trip.
I’ve made a really good friend, Tyler Bates; we’re neighbors. We’ve become really good friends, and he’s a really talented composer and writer. I started talking about doing some shows and Tyler’s like, ‘I’m in.’ And he’s like, ‘I got a few people that might be cool to put together the band,’ maybe use some instruments that you haven’t used a lot or leaned on so heavily. And so he invited [pedal steel player] Michael Rozon and Jordan Lewis on keys. We had a whole bunch of people: James Lomenzo on bass, Gil Sharone, Greg Puciato. It was just a really cool mix of folks. It was a fun little semi-acoustic gig. And we did two nights at the Pico Union Project, and it was really fun.
I usually have tunes stashed around… or ideas of tunes, as a normal way of going about things. So I started going through ideas, old ones and new ones, and picking out some stuff and doing some demos with Paul Figueroa, my longtime engineer. We started demoing stuff out, and that turned into a body of work that we ended up cutting with a good chunk of those folks that did the gig with me.
On recording with friends and working during the pandemic
Tyler helped me co-produce it and bring it all together, bring everybody together and get it done. … It was really fun, super organic. It was just about making some music together with no real expectation other than that. We dove in and got most of the tracking done [before the pandemic], and then everything shut down due to COVID in March.
Luckily, at that point, most of the stuff that needed to be done was me singing and playing guitar [laughs]. So I can do that mostly on my own with Paul. So we worked one on one, and then when we got to backup [vocals]; we’d bring Greg [Puciato] over. And Duff [McKagan of Guns N’ Roses] came into the picture a little later, and we did the same thing. We worked in really small groups, just tried to be careful, masking up and keeping clean. Luckily we got through the process with nobody getting sick, and it gave me something to focus on during a pretty uncertain time. We came out the other side with a really great record.
On the differences between recording Brighten compared to an Alice in Chains album
It’s not the same group of guys that I normally make music with. And so that was new and also a little uncertain and scary. But they’re really talented people. And even the folks that were part of the project that I didn’t know, they were friends of one of my friends or one or more of my friends. If they get along with them, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna, too. We’re not too dissimilar from one another, us music types. We’re kind of circus people [laughs]. We all know the drill; everybody’s got their unique talent. There’s the strong man, and the bearded lady, and the lizard boy: Everybody’s got their role in the show to play.
That’s the exciting part of making music. It doesn’t matter that it’s outside of my normal dynamic. The way you go about it and the way that it gets elevated and everybody puts their own take on something — it elevates the whole thing past where you started off conceiving it. And then putting it into reality is a process of everybody pouring into it. All of the players, everybody’s got their ideas — fantastic ideas that I didn’t think of — that made it better.
On the guitar production and luscious guitar tones on Brighten
I give a lot of credit to Paul Figueroa, my other partner on this. The three of us [including Tyler Bates] brought this thing home, and nobody spends more time with me on a record than Paul Figueroa. Before we ever get together with a band, he and I have been sitting in a room together for three months [laughs], demoing ideas, trying stuff out. He’s there on the bad days; he’s there on the good days. And he’s always got a smile on his face, and he is just really good with tone. He’s a guitar player himself. On the last three Alice records and this one, I give a lot of credit to Paul — a tone master, you know?
So we’ve got a method where we work on the fly and we like to have a lot of options available. We’ll set up everything: six different speakers with eight different heads. And we’ll have an armada of guitars and just try stuff out. ‘Hey, this might need a Flying V with a Hiwatt with the treble a little cranked, right up the middle. And then on the left, we’ll go with a Les Paul and a Bogner [amp] and blah, blah, blah.’ We’ll just try shit out. It’s not like a paint by numbers thing. You try things on. Sometimes they fit, sometimes they don’t. But while you’re in the moment, it’s really fun working with that. I like having that versatility. Tone is the thing: the search for tone, the never-ending quest.
On the guitars used on Brighten and partnering with Gibson
Basically my flotilla has always been G&L Rampages, [Fender] Teles, Gibson Les Pauls and other Gibson guitars: [Flying] Vs, SGs. That’s basically the two camps I’ve always resided in. And then you use all sorts of different Rickenbackers, a dobro — whatever the song calls for, you bring it in. But there’s always a good heaping helping of the G&L Rampages and a good heaping helping of Gibson Les Pauls.
On this record, we used quite a bit more Gibsons. I started working with [the company] a few years back and we started designing some guitars. So we used quite a few more Gibsons on this record: Explorers, Vs, SGs — all sorts of cool stuff that they made me. I’m a big fan of the baritone guitars, too. [Gibson Brands president] Cesar [Gueikian] made me this Explorer baritone. It matte black and the thing is thunderous. It’s really awesome. [Gibson and I] have got some stuff coming out over this year and the next year and we’ve got some surprises for you all, hopefully. We’re feeling really good about the new Cantrell-model Gibsons.
On embarking on a solo tour in 2022 and touring safely during the pandemic
We’re all gonna have to go through a process of figuring it out. Hopefully we meet in a place where we can figure out how to deal with this [in a way] that we mostly all agree on, you know? I think the best way to do that is to listen to the doctors and the scientists.
While this was all going on, I was intending to put this record out probably last September and be on tour. We had to make some changes because that obviously wasn’t going to happen. So we pushed it to a later date, and I was bummed out about that. I like to work like anybody else [laughs]. And I have a really fun job where somebody drives me to a town every night and I get to play for people and then drives me to my next gig in my bed, so it’s a fun job. I miss doing that, but what’s going on affects a lot more people than me. So you deal with it, you try to figure it out.
We thought, as a band, as Alice — and I also thought with this record for myself — that it might be better for us to wait until 2022 to see how everything shakes out. … I have faith that at some point, we’ll get this thing under control so that we can go back to some semblance of a regular life.
On vaccine requirements at concerts
All I can really do is what’s right for me. And I wouldn’t really wanna be in a position where I’m telling somebody else what to do with their life. For me, I thought it was a safe thing to do, and I feel good that I got the vaccine and that members of my family, more importantly, some of the older members of my family have it, and that makes me breathe a little easier. Even if they get a breakthrough [case], it’s probably not gonna take ’em out or put ’em in the hospital. And that’s on a personal level for me; it makes me breathe easier knowing my dad’s got it.
On the lineup for the upcoming solo tour
I’d really like Duff to come out and with me, but he’s still working on this little project, I forget what’s called… Guns and Tulips or something like that? [Laughs] I don’t know, he’s still trying to get it off the ground and I’m trying to get him to come, but he’s got some other band.
Everybody’s got their own thing. We’ll talk to some of the folks that were involved with the record. And I think we’ll probably have a portion of ’em and we’ll see what the lineup is. But I guarantee it’ll be fun and we’ll have a good time doing it. We’ll play the music as best we can, like I always try to do.