TORONTO -- The soundtrack to Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" is Eddie Vedder's first solo album, but he can't take all the credit. True, he played most of the instruments, sings nearly every note and wrote nine of the album's 11 songs. But when he tries to remember where the songs came from, he draws a blank.
"I don't remember a damn thing about it," he says over coffee and cigarettes at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film recently had its world premiere. "It just kind of flew out. It felt like other things were at work. Things came through, musically and lyrically, that I really didn't have to do too much work on. It felt more like just grabbing sparks around my head and putting them on the fire."
What began with Penn's request for a handful of songs to fit into his nearly complete film grew almost by accident into a brief but cohesive album that recapitulates the movie's journey in miniature.
"Into the Wild" is based on the true story of Chris McCandless, the young Virginia man who starved to death in the Alaska wilderness two years after giving his life savings to charity and severing all ties with his family. Although the Pearl Jam frontman more often retreats to the surf than the wilderness, he connected deeply with McCandless' prickly idealism. On "Long Nights," he channels McCandless' Thoreau-inspired desire to exile himself from the evils of the world, singing, "Have no fear, for when I'm alone, I'll be better off than I was before."
Vedder was struck early, and forcefully, by similarities between McCandless' life story and his own. When he was 18, McCandless discovered that his father, Walt, was already married when he married his mother and had fathered another child with his first wife after Chris' birth.
At 17, Vedder's nuclear family imploded when he learned that the man he had been raised to believe was his father was in fact his stepfather and that his real father had died several years earlier. (The revelation is recounted in "Alive," one of Pearl Jam's early singles.) Although he declines to revisit the past in detail, Vedder makes it clear that he drew on his own experience to inform McCandless' inner monologue. "I had things that I hated having gone through as a young adult that just happened to serve me very well for this job," he says.
When he began to record the music for "Into the Wild," Vedder assumed that his one-man-band versions would eventually be fleshed out. But the songs fell into place with so little time and effort that soliciting outside contributions seemed unnecessary, even counterproductive.
"I thought we'd call in real musicians at some point," he says. "But there's something about not having to explain the part to somebody, not just the part but the direction, the meaning, the soul of whatever the song was. You'd just grab the bass and do it."
Rustic, intimate and compact, the "Into the Wild" soundtrack is a marked departure from Pearl Jam's stadium-size rock, embellished with banjo, mandolin and pump organ, a sound inspired by the movie's outdoor settings. But despite its sparseness, the album has room for intricate textures, like the chiming 12-string guitar of "Setting Forth" and the tribal thwack of the drums on "Hard Sun," which also features Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker on harmony vocals. Vedder drew inspiration from Pete Townshend's oft-bootlegged demos for "Who's Next," which he listened to obsessively as a teenager.
When lead singers start releasing solo albums, the rest of the band traditionally starts double-checking their retirement plans. But Vedder points out that he is the last of Pearl Jam's five members to release his own record. "I was the holdout," he says. "We've been a group for a long time, and we will continue to be so, I hope, for a really long time."
But with Pearl Jam lying dormant while two members care for newborn daughters, Vedder is mulling the possibility of playing a few shows on his own, preferably at venues more intimate than the band's usual arenas. "If you surf 50-foot waves all the time, you can't try too many new things, because 50-foot waves are kind of life and death," he says. "Playing big shows is like that. So you want to take on some smaller waves to rework or refine what you do, and then take it back to the big surf."