Jerry Cantrell has nothing left to prove. It’s been three decades since the Alice in Chains singer/guitarist summited the music world with his hard-rocking brethren, who satiated their die-hard following with 2018’s return-to-roots “Rainier Fog” album, earning a Grammy nomination along the way. Instead of taking time off once touring wrapped, Cantrell embarked on making his first solo album in nearly 20 years, the superb “Brighten,” released last month to positive reviews.

Thirty-some years in, Cantrell sounds as hungry and restless as the kid making noise in Ballard’s old Music Bank studios, with highlights like desert rock noir “Atone” ranking among some of the best coming out of the AIC camp since their days with the late great Layne Staley (if not ever). The songwriting on the trust-your-gut record, made with a cadre of friends including fellow Seattle rock royalty Duff McKagan, has stronger echoes of Alice’s acoustic EPs than the sludge-hammering chug rock that placed the band on the heavier end of the grunge spectrum, while also breaking new ground for Cantrell.

We recently caught up with the AIC co-founder, who’s streaming a performance evening of songs, storytelling and Q&A on Dec. 1. He also plays the Moore Theatre on May 2. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

We’re coming up on 20 years since your last solo record. Why was now the right time to do this?

I’ve been lucky enough to have a job where you just follow what feels right. I started thinking about the idea as we were winding down the “Rainier Fog” tour in 2019, and so I started recording little snippets of ideas and cataloging stuff like I normally do. I’ll do that for a period of time and then I’ll wade through and see what I’ve got and then start building stuff up. Over that winter, I spent some time writing and demo-ing and looking at a couple older ideas that I hadn’t developed yet, and that turned into what this record would become.

You just follow your gut, that’s kinda what this business is about. It’s about creating something out of nothing, just going with what feels right. I’ve been in this band, December will be 34 years, so we know how it goes. When you make a record [writing, demo-ing, recording, art, touring], it’s generally about a three-year cycle. It’s good to take a little time off and breathe a little bit after that. I planned on using my time to make this record. Of course it got a whooooooole lot longer with COVID. A funny side effect of it taking way longer than I wanted it to, I got three fantastic players that I didn’t initially have in the project: Duff McKagan [bass], Abe Laboriel Jr. [drums] and Vincent Jones [keys] came on later in the project and the record just got richer with their involvement.


I know Duff played on “Atone.” Is he on anything else?

Yeah, “Atone” is, in Duff’s words, a Frankenstein track. It’s kind of me and him. When I write, I put down a basic idea of everything. I’ll do some drum machine drum beat, I can play bass enough to [put together] a cool bass line once in a while, I can do the guitars and I can sing, so I kinda flesh it out. And then — that’s the great thing about taking it to the band or taking it to people that actually play those instruments well [laughs] — is they elevate it and put themselves in, too, and take it places you never would have imagined or could’ve achieved on your own. So yeah, “Atone” is mostly Duff, but it’s a little Frankenstein. He plays on about six songs and I do a couple of tunes myself.

Was there anything sonically you wanted to try or explore that didn’t feel like a right fit for Alice?

There really isn’t any such thing that’s a wrong fit for Alice. I think we proved that with the acoustic EPs that we’ve done. You go with what feels right and we had some pretty major success with our first record, which was a very [expletive] rock record [laughs]. To follow that up with an EP, “Sap,” of acoustic stuff was a bit of a risk. But I’m so glad that we took that because people got used to us being able to do some different [expletive]. And then we came out with “Dirt” and gave you another slammin’ rock record and then did “Jar of Flies” as well. So the playing field was wide open.

One thing I like is there’s almost an alt-country vibe in certain spots. Twang and pedal steel in there, Wurlitzer. What inspired you to incorporate some of those sounds?

Just kinda happenstance. I try to not think about it in an analytical way and I never have. We’ve always worked that way in Alice and I guess I carry that with me. You don’t know where the [expletive] you’re going. The coolest way to make that journey is to be kinda blind about it, instead of writing down on paper in a cold, analytical way. It’s cooler to go bash the undergrowth in the [expletive] dark and hack your way through it and then you come out the other side with this thing that surprises you even.


What’s your process for curating which musicians you want to bring in for certain songs or moments?

You follow what’s being laid down. Part of the process for me is there’s a certain amount of, “What does this song need?” and almost more importantly, “What doesn’t it need?” You try to get it to the simplest, purest form. This record is, it’s a rock ‘n’ roll record, it really is, but it definitely has elements of the acoustic side of writing that I’ve done in my career, too. Having Michael Rozon, that adds that kind of country, western-y vibe to it. Michael’s pedal steel is amazing, and Jordan Lewis and especially Vincent Jones’ keys are just insane. That’s one of those things where I didn’t plan it out for that to happen, but you just follow it down the road and I luckily was able to stumble on to meeting those guys through my other friends. It was a record of friends and friends of friends. I think it’s very warm and a very alive record.

You mention the album feeling warm and I think of the title track “Brighten.” You’ve described the song as being a cornerstone to the record. What was it about that song that felt very central to this project?

That was one of the first songs I wrangled together. I think I demo-ed “Atone” first and then “Brighten” right after that. But normally what you call a record is the absolute last thing and it’s usually some frantic, semicomical thing at the end of the record where we’re like, “What the [expletive] do we call this thing, man?” I think this is one of the first times where I actually, early in the process, I wrote that song and I was, like, “That sounds right.” So, it was baked in really early in the process that this record was going to be called that, probably because of the strength I felt that song had, and it was also a descriptive word of the work.

You had been kicking around some element of “Atone” for 20 years. Can you tell me about the origins?

Every record you’ve heard that I’ve been involved with, there are ideas that have been around for some time. It’s a process of collection and cultivation and shelving sometimes. Sometimes you just can’t crack the code on it. All I had of that song was a chorus idea and the main guitar riff. It just never was the moment for the other parts to come into existence until late 2019 and I finally cracked the code on it. There’s a track or two on every record that I’ve been a part of that is from previous records or previous periods of writing for other records. The cool thing about ideas is if they’re still speaking to you after that [expletive] long, there’s something to it [laughs].


The Elton John cover at the end makes a perfectly haunting coda to the record.

When I was getting close to wrapping this record, I felt I needed one more song, but the song[s] that I had, it felt like they were a different record. Heavier riffs and [expletive] like that, and it wasn’t gonna fit with this body of work. We had closed both shows in L.A. with “Goodbye” and it was just a really chilling, powerful cover. And Tyler [Bates] suggested, “[Expletive] man, why don’t we just record ‘Goodbye’ and call it a record.” It made sense and we did it. It’s very bare bones and packed full of emotion. I reached out to Elton and sent him the demo and he dug it. Then [John’s longtime collaborator] Davey Johnstone called me the next day and he’s like, “I heard you covered ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.’” I’m like, “No, it’s ‘Goodbye.’” [Laughs.] He’s like, “Dude, can you send it over man, Elton said it was cool.” I’m like, “Yeah, no problem.” And I sent it to him and he’s like, “[Expletive], that’s awesome.” So getting a little thumbs up from those guys that you didn’t butcher their song [laughs], life’s a really funny thing, you know.

What has been your relationship with Elton’s music? What has his music meant to you over the years?

It was some of the first music that really opened my eyes and ears to the possibility of being a songwriter or being in a band. I was born in ’66, so my musical coming of age is in the early ’70s and the mid-’70s, and when I started really becoming aware of music and the fact that it made me feel. And he was one of the artists that I connected with.

Upcoming events with Jerry Cantrell

“An Evening with Jerry Cantrell,” including a six-song set, storytelling and a Q&A hosted by actor/comedian Jeff Garlin, streams 6 p.m. Dec. 1; $12 preorder, $15 day of show; stream available for 24 hours;

Jerry Cantrell at Moore Theatre, 8 p.m. May 2; 1932 Second Ave.; $36.50-$62;