Cinderella’s Tom Keifer talks about “The Way Life Goes”, the late Andy Johns, vinyl, vocals and much more
Longtime Cinderella front man Tom Keifer is back on the road and supporting his debut solo record, “The Way Life Goes” which is sure to make a lot of “top ten year end lists” come this winter. It’s the right album at the right time for Keifer who has spent much of the last ten years alternately touring successfully with Cinderella and battling back from some unfortunate vocal cord issues. The album shows no wear and tear in Tom’s voice or songwriting abilities and the live shows are intimate affairs, which include both electric and acoustic “storytellers” type and segments. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Tom about the album, his early work with the great Andy Johns and much more, read on….
LRI: Thanks for talking with us Tom. Like so many people I’ve been a fan of your band and your songs for so long and this new album is a really nice collection of tunes. The title, “The Way Life Goes” almost reflects the overall vibe of the record, was that intentional?
Tom Keifer: No, not at the time. That song, the actual song “The Way Life Goes” was a song that I really loved and as soon as I recorded it, knew it was going to go on the record but as far as the album title goes, we really didn’t make that decision until a few months ago when we were getting the credits and art together and we still didn’t have a title. I was kinda looking at all the lyrics after the fact and that just felt like a natural title for the record and we said “Hey, how about this” (laughs). Everyone seemed to like it so it stuck but yeah, it does kind of sum up not only this record but pretty much the way I’ve always written. My lyrics are inspired by life and real things because my influences and heroes as a writer have always been about that going back to Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, The Eagles, Skynyrd and Zeppelin. It’s all blues based and all about real stuff so that title just worked for me.
LRI: You’ve always been that guy who’s been music first and foremost but how important are all the other factors that figure in like artwork, image, design and all of that to you? is that all just kind of peripheral?
Tom: No, I think it’s important. I think anybody who’s an artist is aware of that, there is something to be said for how you are presenting yourself. Believe me, I’ve had artwork sent to me over the years which makes you aware…it’s hard to not pay attention to that stuff because if you’re not involved with it someone else is and I’ve had lots of things sent my way over the years where you look at it and it’s like “Oh my god!!” (laughs). I’m just instantly struck by this feeling of “That doesn’t feel like me at all!” (laughs). It’s just personal, I think a lot of people wanna take pride in how they present themselves or their photos or packaging or whatever. You want it to feel like “you”, at least I do, I don’t wanna look at something that feels far removed from who I am.
LRI: I still have my “Night Songs” on vinyl with the big Mark Weiss photo, along with Zeppelin 3 with the spinning wheels and I still value actually playing a CD in my car over an mp3. Do you still have that connection with the physical product of music?
Tom: Cool, yeah, I do. I have a whole cabinet full of CD’s and DVD’s. I don’t have vinyl anymore, I kind of lost a lot of that when I moved to Nashville but I really love vinyl. I still think the size of the packaging and the sound of the vinyl is amazing, there’s nothing like it. When you have an amazing turntable and sound system and you listen to vinyl it is magic because it’s an actual sound wave coming off the needle. It’s still awesome. As magical and crazy as digital seems with the 1’s and 0’s and all of that being turned into sound and all of the crazy things you can do creatively with digital, to me it is still equally magical to me that the sound is actually in those grooves on the vinyl (laughs). Even when you don’t turn the amp on and you just spin the record on the turntable you can physically hear the sound coming off the vinyl! How do they do that? (laughs). Analog tape is the same way too you know…you can turn the sound down on the board and if you put your ear right up to the tape heads on the two inch machine, you can hear the music. It’s magic! I still love it but I also love my CDs and DVDs. There’s some kind of connection to holding it in your hands and actually looking at it that I enjoy.
LRI: I know that we have a mutual connection with an old friend of yours, John Corabi and he told us that you and he go way back. How did you actually meet, was that just running into each other in the Philly rock scene?
Tom: We both are from Philly and we both came up in the Philly and mainly, South Jersey club scene back in the late 70s. There was a huge circuit there and John and I both played in probably countless cover bands and crossed paths many times. We made friends back then and over the years our paths keep crossing. John’s a great guy and I think the world of him, he’s very, very talented.
LRI: I also have to ask about another old acquaintance of yours who recently passed away, legendary record producer Andy Johns. Andy produced your first couple albums with Cinderella and was even in the “Somebody Save Me” video, do any fun memories of Andy stand out?
Tom: Oh god, everything with Andy was fun. He was such a unique person, he really was, and very, very talented. I remember that he was very driven to really get things right in the studio, Andy never ran out of energy (laughs). I can still hear him saying “One more take Thomas, one more take Thomas” as I’m struggling to keep my eyes open and he’s just pushing for that perfect performance. Andy was a perfectionist and he hated mediocrity. He was a very special guy and we learned so much from him, Coming into “Night Songs” we were pretty green in the studio and that’s a whole other learning curve. It’s one thing to write and record songs in a rehearsal room and try to take that energy to the stage but it’s a whole other animal to capture that in the studio. That’s why it’s called the “recording arts” because it really is an art to capture that and make it presentable enough to be forever. It’s a talented person who can find that magical moment, know it’s there and capture it and I’ll forever be grateful for what Andy taught us and what he did to produce those records and for the fact that he was a good friend of mine. I feel lucky to have had him as a friend.
LRI: I have so much of the old Cinderella demos and live material and it was great even that early on but it had to be unreal to be working with someone like Andy who was hands on with people like the Stones and Zeppelin.
Tom: We were blown away. We were finally hearing our stuff recorded right and sounding the way we always hoped but had never heard before (laughs). It was like “Wow! So that’s what drums are supposed to sound like!”. It was definitely surreal.
LRI: Your music evolved and changed and still does but there are a lot of different moods here on “The Way Life Goes”. I like “Fools Paradise” and “Cold Day In Hell” but I also like “Flower Song” and “You Showed Me”. Was that diversity partially because you had so much time to write and cherry pick the material that made it to the finished product?
Tom: The different styles or vibes or dynamics of the record are something that again, ultimately comes from those influences that I grew up on. I mentioned some of them earlier and I could go on and on listing people who meant a lot to me growing up as a kid but I think that’s really what shaped that. I think even within Cinderella you can see it. “Night Songs” was kind of a basic record, I mean there was a ballad on it but it was basic hard rock. Very quickly though, with “Long Cold Winter” we started introducing more instrumentation, piano, dobros, acoustic guitars and more dynamics, the songs “Don’t Know What You Got Til It’s Gone”, “Coming Home” and even the title track “Long Cold Winter” which is a blues song, really reflect that. After that, with “Heartbreak Station” we went even further and I think that’s just a growing process of discovering your roots and who you’re really all about. When we went in to do the first record we didn’t really know what we were all about or really know how to get what we wanted in the studio and Andy was working with some real green horns and did the best he could (laughs) and purposely, I think, tried to keep the record simple. The more we learned and grew, the Cinderella records progressed into something that was probably closer to what we wanted to have from the beginning and I think this solo record is the next logical step for me. I’ve always like records that have that kind of contrast and this does, going from a song like “Flower Song” to a track like “Mood Elevator”. That was important to me, Led Zeppelin always had that contrast on their albums or even within the context of a song, if you look back at a song like “Over The Hills and Far Away” where the verse has like a single acoustic, like celtic guitar and then it just kicks into this driving, electric kickin riff. I love that color and that contrast and I’ve always tried to incorporate that, not even so much in the writing but in the production. Obviously you can produce and orchestrate a song however you want, instrument wise so a lot of those dynamics are more of a result of the production of a record.
LRI: I can’t wait to see the live show but judging by the video clips I’ve seen you have gotten pretty comfortable with your solo band. Did it take a shaking out period or was it pretty seamless?
Tom: We rehearsed for quite a long time here in Nashville and had a room here for us locked out and I knew we had our work cut out for us not only to nail down the new stuff but also to get into a groove with the old Cinderella stuff with a different band. We rehearsed for a month but it only took a couple days before it really fell together. They’re really great musicians and great guys and I’m really enjoying working with them every night.
LRI: I’ve talked to other singers who’ve had vocal problems or surgeries but I was really surprised when I started hearing about the troubles you had experienced. Every time I saw Cinderella live I was just blown away by the entire band but also by your voice. Did you have to relearn your limits to make this album? It still sounds like the voice we all grew to love.
Tom: My condition was a neurological problem, it was a partial paralysis of my vocal cords that I was diagnosed with in the early 90s. I was told I was never going to sing again because most people who get this aren’t able to just because it’s more than you’re prepared to handle and you just can’t control your voice anymore. There’s not a cure for it in terms of medicines or surgeries so the only possible way to get around it is to retrain your voice and that’s what I’ve been doing since the early 90s, including working with every vocal coach and teacher that I can find to try and learn more about technique and how to make that vocal cord work properly. Learning how to untie the knots that occur when you try and overcompensate for the weakness is a big part of the training because you start to bring in other muscles to overcompensate, kind of like a runner who hurts his knee and soon enough hurts all these other areas by trying to overcompensate for it. It’s not an exact science to try and retrain your voice to sing so it’s an ongoing thing still, to this day. Through the years I have learned more and more about technique and ultimately, as you pointed out, there are some parts of my voice that are very familiar but there are also new things I’ve found which are very cool. I guess those new areas are a result of all of that training. I’ve had six surgeries but they’ve all been because of collateral damage, you strain so much trying to sing with this condition. I’ve hemorrhaged my cords and had to have some surgical intervention to patch it up. All of those surgeries are just a band aid on the real, root problem which will always be there and can only be helped by retraining.
LRI: I am far from educated on these matters but have always wondered… you have always had a few different vocal styles and approaches, for instance the intro voice to “Coming Home” versus the hard rock raspy vocal that comes later. Did that heavy, Cinderella vocal style have anything to do with the initial damage?
Tom: No, there’s an old saying in the business, “There’s a right way to scream and a wrong way’ and if you scream the right way you can be up there all night long, night after night (laughs). This condition can be caused by a few factors, one can be a tumor pressing on the nerve that increases the signal from the brain to that vocal cord and the other one which I don’t understand completely has to do with the general anesthesia that you are given in a surgery which can sometimes leave a vocal cord paralyzed or partially paralyzed. The other way I know of that this can happen is through a virus, like a really bad bout with the flu and sometimes the virus can lodge itself in the nerve and degenerate it. They attributed mine to that because I hadn’t had a recent surgery or anesthesia and I also had an MRI to check for tumors and none of that was found.
LRI: Your wife Savannah worked on Music Row in Nashville and is an accomplished songwriter and co-produced this album with you and Chuck Turner. Was your relationship always rooted in music from the beginning?
Tom: I started working with her years ago, she’s also an artist and performer in addition to her songwriting and I produced a couple of demos and stuff and worked with her on her own stuff. She was in Nashville for years before me and then when I moved here we reconnected and ultimately hooked up but our initial relationship was a working relationship that turned into something else. We’re kind of two of a kind in terms of our passion for music, we eat, sleep and breathe music and both approach songwriting the same way so it’s pretty cool.
LRI: These shows you are doing right now are very refreshing in the sense that you’re doing different things than a lot of current acts. You’re completely reworking the classic Cinderella stuff, telling great stories and switching gears from electric to acoustic to electric. It’s smaller venues and you’re having fun every night aren’t you?
Tom: We are keeping the show pretty similar to the run we did prior to the album coming out, smaller venues and a real intimate vibe. We are leaving the “Storytellers” section in the show as well as the high energy hard rock too because there’s so many places we weren’t able to hit on that initial tour which was only about 3 weeks. The response to the show has been amazing so if it’s not broken we’re not gonna fix it just yet, at least not until we take it to a few more areas. We are taking this vibe and show and just enjoying every moment of it, every night and just taking it one day at a time.
May 31 The Stone Pony Asbury Park, NJ
Jun 01 The Chance Poughkeepsie, NY
Jun 02 Brews Brothers West Luzerne, PA
Jun 05 Chameleon Club Lancaster, PA
Jun 06 The Emporium Patchogue, NY
Jun 07 Palace Theater Stafford Springs, CT
Jun 10 The Basement Columbus, OH
Jun 11 Peabody’s Cleveland, OH
Jun 13 District Rockford, IL
Jun 14 Cubby Bear Chicago, IL