Tom Keifer

Tom Keifer has been doing a lot of talking lately. With his first solo album finally coming out in the spring, he has decided there was no better time than now to get people as excited as he is about its upcoming release. So he is talking: about the vocal problems he has been dealing with for the past twenty years, about his band Cinderella, about his new album.

When Keifer called in to talk with me about these things a few days ago, he was in a good mood, laughing, sharing memories of recording the first Cinderella album and of cutting grass to earn money to buy his first electric guitar. He is excited about his new album and reflects on some of the upcoming songs. And although his throat paresis has been a scary adventure, it has actually given his vocal cords a boost.

Born and raised near Philadelphia, Keifer has always been drawn towards the bluesy side of rock. Forming Cinderella in the very early 80’s and breaking wide open with 1986’s Night Songs, the band is still alive and kicking almost thirty years later, still touring actively on the circuit to sold out audiences; all without a new band album in sight. Their reputation of good songs in an electrifying live set is what keeps fans coming back time and time again. Although they hit with songs such as “Nobody’s Fool” and “Somebody Save Me,” it is really the later tunes like “Long Cold Winter,” “Shelter Me” and “Bad Seamstress Blues” that really define the band’s true nature – a blues rock band.

You have been talking about your voice a lot lately that you’re probably sick of talking about it, right.

Yeah, just a little bit (laughs) but I don’t get tired of talking about that. It has improved a lot so I’m really grateful for that.

So what has made this the right time for you to talk about all your throat problems?

You know, I’ve talked about them in the past. This has been a twenty year battle. I was diagnosed with the paralysis in the early 90’s and it’s been an ongoing battle up and down. It’ll get better and worse but once you’re diagnosed with it it’s really how you sing. Most people, usually, they don’t sing again or they don’t sing again like they used to. If you’re able to retrain it in a way that it’ll work, which is pretty challenging, then you can continue to work. But it took me years to just get to a point where I could work again.

If you slip up or kind of start singing, maybe losing that technique that you’ve taught yourself, it can go up and down. I’ve discussed it before in the press. I think a lot of people are asking me about it now because this record is the first new material that I’ve released in years. So I guess everything’s coming back up to the surface again (laughs). And I sound strong on the record so I guess people are curious about what I’ve been through to get it to that point, I guess.

When did it first happen?

It was in 1991 and we were on tour for the Heartbreak Station record and it was towards the end of the tour and it was literally overnight. I woke up and I just couldn’t control my voice, it just cracked and would break, like a yodeling sound. So I pushed through the rest of the tour and I started going to see doctors and the first one I went to I was kind of laughing cause I thought, I’d never had any problems with my voice before. I’d toured for years and I’d always heard about singers getting nodes, especially rock singers. I said to him, “I think all these years my voice has been breaking and cracking, I think all these years being on the road has finally caught up with me, Doc. I think I got a node.” He looked down my throat with a scope and said, “No, there’s nothing wrong with your vocal cords. There’s no nodes, there’s no anything on them. You’re fine.” And I was like, “Well, I can’t sing.” And long story short, I started going to doctor after doctor, flying all over the country trying to find out what was causing this. Every time I’d sing, it’d just sound awful.

I finally found a doctor who did like a simple neurological test on me after I described to him what was going on. Then he looked with the scope and he said – cause I felt like I was starting to go crazy as this is over a couple of years – and I was finally diagnosed with this paresis and he said, “The good news is you’re not crazy. There is something wrong with your voice. But the bad news is you’re probably never going to sing again. Cause it’s not something that we can fix with a medicine. Once the nerve is damaged then the signal from the brain is decreased and that’s it. Your only shot is to work with vocal coaches and speech pathologists and try and put it back together.” Which I’ve been doing for years. The maintenance on my voice is an hour to two hours every day. It’s constant because if you back off of it at all, it forgets very quickly. So you’re just constantly trying to remind that left side to do the right thing.

And what was the cause? Did you find out?

Mine was actually a virus, like if you have a cold or a bad flu, the virus kind of actually gets into a nerve and it can degenerate it and that’s what happened to me and that’s what left me with a partly paralyzed vocal cord.

So where are you at right now with it?

I feel it’s stronger than ever. Like I said, I’ve had ups and downs over the years and I’ve had some real lows. The lowest and the darkest time, I hit a bottom where we had to cancel a tour in 2008 because it just got worse and one doctor thought I had a second paresis and he didn’t really confirm it. They have like an electrical test that they do that is kind of painful and he didn’t put me through that because I had it done the first time and he said, “You know it really hurts. Do you know if you have a paresis and if you have a paresis, there’s nothing we can do. Just go train your voice. There’s no point in putting you through that.” But my voice was just the worst between like 2006 and 2008; it just really took a nosedive. I thought it was over at that point. You know, I had done a few tours before that that I’d got away with it. Maybe not quite as easy as it used to be but we did a bunch of tours after I had retrained it the first time but this felt like it was over.

Then the miracle. I found a vocal coach named Ron Anderson and out of all the vocal coaches I’ve worked with over the years, he was just very different. He teaches classical and he teaches the technique and support that they teach opera singers. And no one had ever really taught me that before. And I’ve been working his technique for almost four years now and it’s just changed everything for me. My voice is stronger than it’s ever been. The last three years – 2010, 2011 and 2012 – I’ve been out touring with Cinderella and each year it’s gotten stronger and stronger. And I’ve been in a combination of being on the road and working this technique that Ron taught me has really gotten my voice in a place where I think it’s better than it’s ever been since this problem. And in some ways, maybe some areas of my voice are a little stronger than they were before I had the problem because I’ve learned a lot of the things over the years with voice training and how to support your voice right.

I can vouch for your voice because I saw you last year in Biloxi and your voice sounded great.

Thanks. It’s gotten stronger each year. It’s funny because just before we started touring again in 2010, and I had met Ron Anderson about a year before that in 2009, and in 2008 was when I just thought it was over. I mean, I was considering like career changes (laughs). I thought, I’ve been going through this too long and it hit bottom harder than it ever had. And I took like one last shot. And I can’t tell you how many vocal coaches I’ve worked with and every one of them said they had the answer and they’re going to fix it. It’s funny, when I walked into Ron’s, he knew a little bit of my story the first time I worked with him, and he said, “So, you’ve worked with a lot of people, right?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said – and I forget exactly how he put it but he said, “So you probably aren’t feeling real confident right now that I’m going to be able to help you,” or something like that (laughs). I said, “To be honest, no, I’m not.” And he said, “Just trust me.” And I did and I followed what he said to do and I still do every day. I work his exercises and routines. So if anybody out there has a voice problem, I can save you a lot of time: Go to Ron Anderson (laughs)

Your new album is coming out next year. Do you know exactly when?

In the spring, I think maybe sometime in March. I don’t have an exact release date but I’ve heard them talking like the end of March, maybe. But don’t hold me to that (laughs). Just in the spring.

Who do you have playing with you on the CD?

The rhythm section are two guys here in Nashville who are session players who play on tons of records. They’re really great. The drummer was Greg Morrow and the bass player was named Michael Rhodes. And they’ve played with everybody here in town. Greg, he just works all the time. He is an amazing drummer and Michael’s a great bass player so that was the rhythm section. Then I had a keyboard player. I did some of the keyboards myself but I had a great keyboard player, another local session guy named Tony Harrell. I would say, probably 90% of the guitar work, I did. I had a couple guest guitarists on it, actually two session guys here: A guy named Pat Buchanan and another guy named Gary Burnett did a solo on one of the songs. But most of the guitar work, I did.

I don’t know if you’ve heard the whole record but there is one tune that’s got a pretty cool sax solo on it and that’s Bobby Keys, who has played with the Stones and a bunch of other people.

The song “Ask Me Yesterday” is already kind of out there and it definitely has the Nashville influence.

Yeah, that is one of the more acoustic, little more of an intimate vibe on that one, a little Stones-y kind of thing. And that is kind of one side of the record and then there’s stuff that’s pretty hard driving rock and everything in between. Records, to me, need to have dynamics. I don’t like to get a CD and have fourteen songs that are all the same so I’ve always tried to write that way where I mix it up a little bit. So that would be one of the ones that would be a little more acoustic, a little more broken down.

Which one of the songs was the most personal for you, that really hit a nerve with you on this CD?

The most personal one is a song called “Thick & Thin.” I wrote that for my wife. Savannah is a great songwriter and producer and singer and artist. She’s been in Nashville for years. She co-wrote some of the songs on the record with me and co-produced the record with me and another good friend of mine here named Chuck Turner. But I wrote that song years ago when she was still working down on Music Row and she was at a big company down there who will remain nameless. And they were grooming her as an artist and a songwriter. She had moved to Nashville like many people do to pursue her dreams and she poured her heart into it and unfortunately she got to see the ugly side of the business. It was her first time to really feel that and the music business can be kind of cold and they let her go, after kind of building her up.

And she got this news at right around the time I was on the road with Cinderella but I was home for about a day and a half break. And I got home and I saw how heartbroken she was and I had to leave, I had to go back out on the road. So I sat down the next morning, she was out somewhere at an appointment or something, and I just sat down at the piano and I wrote that song “Thick & Thin” for her. I made like a really bad cassette (laughs). It was like right after I wrote it and I left it for her with the lyrics. I know what that feels like cause I’ve been through it and everybody in the music business eventually is going to feel that side of the business and it’s hard because you pour your heart into it and that’s a hard thing to take. I understood what she was going through and I felt bad for her and that was my song for her to let her know that I would always be there for her … even though I had to get on a plane and get back touring.

Which new song would you say you had the most fun with?

There is a song called “Welcome To My Mind,” which is one of the heavier tracks. I wrote that with Savannah and with a good friend of ours here named Blair Daly, who is a big songwriter here in Nashville and he also writes a lot of stuff for pop and rock; he’s a very talented guy. We were sitting around one night in the living room and, you’ve heard the song so you know it’s kind of out there, the lyrics are kind of out there, and it was just a fun song to write and even funner because of what the lyrics are about, just being crazy and having issues (laughs). It was even more fun painting a picture in the studio on the track, cause I just got in there with the guitars and just started making all kinds of crazy and wacky guitar sounds, like I’ve never really done before. But it fit the lyric. I think that’s really important that the colors and the sounds and the track would fit the mood of the lyrics and that was obviously a really fun one to try and do that with, to make the guitars and the track sound as insane as the lyrics were. So that was fun. I would probably say that was the most fun one.

What do you remember most about recording the first Cinderella album?

Looking back on it, I remember just how green we were, in terms of actually making the record. It’s a good thing we had such a veteran producer as Andy Johns because, you know, it’s one thing to be in a rehearsal room or on a stage in a bar when you’re first coming up and writing songs and just jump up on that stage and do that thing that you do. You just crank it out and it’s just raw energy and you just think when it comes time to make a record that you’re going to set the mics up and hit record and it’s just going to sound like that. And that’s not the case (laughs).

You know the term ‘recording artist’ came to be because it really is an art to capture that thing cause the first thing is you just start to freak out every time you see the red light because it’s like, ‘oh wow, this is forever now, we got to get this right;’ so it’s the nerves (laughs).

Just all the things we learned from Andy about making records was a real learning process and I was glad we had somebody like him. And we caught on really quick. By the second record we were much more involved and I think that each record grew in production from that. But that’s the thing that really stands out is just how green we were and excited to get in there but then kind of realizing that we don’t know everything. We better listen to the big guy (laughs). And the discoveries we’d have when we’d listen to him and he’d say (imitating Johns), “Well, we need a counterpoint here and Jeffrey, you try playing something a little different than what Tom’s playing or vice versa.” And we’d hear that kind of rhythms kind of complimenting each other on the guitars and then we’d go like, wow, this dude’s cool (laughs). So we learned much from Andy. He was a great producer and still a very, very good friend of ours.

I think Long Cold Winter represents the band better with more of that bluesy rock instead of what they tried to put you as, the hair metal stuff. I may be wrong but I see you as a blues rock band.

Yeah and I agree and I think that was more apparent as we matured in the studio. And that kind of goes back to what I was saying on the first record. We were so new at it we didn’t really know how to capture in the studio what we wanted. Andy did a great job making just a good basic rock record for us and kept it very simple and bare bones. Then we grew in production and Long Cold Winter had a lot more instrumentation on it, dobros, acoustic guitars, some pianos and keyboards and a lot of stuff that wasn’t on the first record. But the heart of the band, and the roots of the band, are blues; even on the first record, even though it’s a little more straight ahead and basic, all the melodies on the voice and the guitars, are all based out of the blues scale. And even more importantly, the lyrics are about everyday things. They’re written from a place where blues lyrics would be written from: good times, bad times, love, love lost, that kind of thing, things that people could relate to.

So to me, those are the influences that I took out of blues cause I’ve loved blues for years and I think that melodic sense from the blues scale and the lyric sensibilities of just kind of keeping it real and about things that people can relate to, I think that makes us a blues band. Whether it’s a real basic, raw, in your face production like the first record or the little more complicated, more instrumentation that we had on Long Cold Winter and Heartbreak Station, either way, the heart of the band to me has always been those blues roots.

And just American roots in general. We’ve got those shades of country, there’s shades of R&B, gospel even on some tracks later like “Shelter Me.” That’s who we are and it comes from growing up on the Stones and Zeppelin and just the 70’s. It’s crazy because I feel so lucky to have grown up in the 70’s and listening to that music and learning how to be a songwriter and a musician because it’s endless. Savannah and I were just listing all the bands from like our high school days in the 70’s and it’s endless (laughs). They were all amazing and very unique so it was a great time. That whole hard rock/blues thing was just exploding from the 60’s into the 70’s and I could list bands from now until two hours from now and it’s just insane how much great music there was then.

You grew up around Philadelphia. What were you like growing up? You listened to a lot of music, obviously, but what else did you like to do?

I played sports a little bit. I liked football. I liked hockey and in Philadelphia it was a big thing. I remember the Flyers, there was two years in a row where they won the Stanley Cup and they were the “Broad Street Bullies” and they were like the toughest team in the league and they were always getting into fights and I was way into that. My friends and I, we all played street hockey. It was real big then and I think it still is, but the sporting goods stores would sell all this stuff that looked like the pro gear that the players in the pros wore but it was designed for street hockey because we didn’t have ice anywhere that we could really play on. So I was into that and I liked football and I always played music. I started playing guitar when I was about eight years old.

How did you get your first guitar?

My very first guitar, my mom bought me. It was the three-quarter size Harmony, a little acoustic guitar, which I still have. It’s hanging on the wall – I’m looking at it now – and I was about seven and a half or eight when I said I wanted to start taking guitar lessons because I had seen The Beatles on TV and I loved that show The Monkees and I wanted to learn how to play guitar. So she bought me that and then she had a teacher that would come to the house once a week for me. He was Hungarian and he barely spoke English but he loved The Beatles and he loved folk music so he would teach me all the basic chords and how to strum open chords but he would make me sing too. It just wasn’t guitar lessons. And he would make me sing Beatles songs and probably Monkees songs and just really simple American folk songs like “Michael Rowed The Boat Ashore.” So it just wasn’t guitar lessons, it was kind of like song lessons.

Then I wanted an electric guitar. And that I had to earn by cutting grass for like a whole summer. It was a whopping $25 for the electric guitar I wanted that was in some department store, and there was a matching amp that was $25 too; so the whole package was $50. I don’t know how old I was, maybe ten, and I had to raise $50 so I had to cut grass for the whole summer.

And do you still cut grass?

No, I have horrible allergies. I actually really like cutting grass (laughs). I used to enjoy it. I would daydream. Just something about that motor sound and just kind of walking around outside, you would kind of like go off into a trance. I actually didn’t mind doing it but I just couldn’t wait to get that guitar so that summer felt like forever. But my grass cutting days are over. I have horrible allergies and it just doesn’t mix with a singer (laughs).

You’ve been living in Nashville for years now. How did you do when the storm came and flooded the city a few years ago?

We were trapped in the area and the town we live in became like an island for about four or five days where no one in the area could leave or no one could get in because the water cut off every main road or every way into where we lived. We had no power, no anything, no cell phones really cause everyone was on and jamming up the airwaves so you could barely even get a call out. That was a lot of time to reflect (laughs) Quiet time. It was really, really quiet.

I interviewed Jeff LaBar last year and when I asked him about the so-called secret to Cinderella’s longevity, of having the same four members, he said it was the humor amongst you. He said, “We just make each other laugh our asses off.”

All day. We do, we really do. You know, some bands can’t even ride on the same bus with each other and we always ride on the bus together. And that’s not to say we haven’t had our differences. Believe me, being in a band for this long, it’s like being married to the other three guys, and we’ve had our knock down drag outs (laughs) but I think something has kept us together and we get along really well. We just laugh and cut up all day. You spend a lot of time on the bus together so you either got to get along or the alternative is to be in misery. So somehow we managed to get along and put our differences aside when we have them – we’ll talk them out and then you put them aside – and we just try to have fun. We love touring, we love being out on the road and as much fun as the shows are and playing music and we’re all dedicated to putting on the best show we can for our fans and we love seeing our fans when we’re out there and that’s the time we get to meet them and hang out with them, and as much fun as that is, equally as fun is the time that we spend together with not just the band but some of the people that work with us that has been with us for years and it’s kind of like a family out there. He’s absolutely right, we laugh pretty much all day long.

That’s better than fist-fighting.

It absolutely is and probably prevents it (laughs). I think that Jeff was spot on in his assessment there.

Who was the first rock star that you ever met?

I don’t know. I’m trying to think of the first one but it’s kind of all a blur because I’ve met a lot of people that I really looked up to. When I was in high school and going to concerts, I didn’t meet anybody. It wasn’t as accessible, I think (laughs) but the thought of meeting someone from Yes or something was like, that’ll never happen (laughs). A lot of those bands in the 70’s when I was in high school just appeared to be so untouchable. I don’t know if people view us that way or not. I mean, we certainly love to meet our fans and are always willing to.

I guess it was when the band first started getting like notoriety, really. We met a lot of people who we were touring with and I remember meeting Steven Tyler and obviously David Lee Roth, that was one of our first big tours, and that’s probably when I first started meeting people was when we went out on tour cause I didn’t have access to anybody else (laughs)

Is there still someone left that you would love to meet?

It would be cool to meet Mick Jagger. I really, really love the Stones and he’s the only one I didn’t meet. I think it was in Atlantic City, I went to see, I think it was the Steel Wheels tour back in the 90’s, and I met Keith Richards and I met Ron Wood and Charlie Watts but I didn’t meet Mick that night. But that would be cool. I’m a huge fan of him and his writing and lyrics, which I think are just amazing. So that would certainly be one.

What do you have left to learn as a musician, as a performer? Is there anything left for you to work on?

There always is (laughs). You’re never there. It’s what always keeps you going, trying to write a better song, trying to play better. That really means a lot to me. I know when we walk on stage, I’m very aware of what it means to the fans and that they’ve spent a lot of money to come see us, and we really take that seriously. Just always trying to play a better show and write a better song and sing better and just be as good as you can be. I don’t think you’re ever done learning. And not only about music but life. Every day the more you think you know, you end up finding out that you don’t know shit (laughs)

What is the rest of the year looking like for you?

I’m doing a lot of press for the record coming out next year and December is just around the corner here so it’ll be a lot of family time. We take the holidays serious here. Looking forward to spending Christmas here with Savannah and Jaidan, my son. We try to slow down towards the end of the year because I know next year, whether Cinderella is touring or this thing with me having a record coming out next year, usually right after the first of the year things start to get hectic. So we try to slow down towards the end of the year and enjoy life and take it easy a little bit if I can.

Do you know if you’re going to do a solo stint or at least some solo shows?

I’m sure I will. We’re kind of talking about all that now. I don’t have anything to report on that just yet but I’m sure that is coming up soon.

Last question: After everything you have been through, who do you think you are today?

I don’t know (laughs), hopefully, a better person each day. I mean, hopefully I’m going to learn things and treat people well. Who am I today? I wake up every day and try to just be the best person that I can be. We’re all human and we all have our ups and downs with that and that’s probably what’s most important to me in life than anything – to try to be a good person and try to live a little more in the moment and not let the past cloud up things and not to be looking too far forward that you miss where you are right now too. I think that’s a hard thing to learn and hopefully over the years as you get older, I think that helps you be a better person when you can be in the moment because you’re actually with the people that you’re with and enjoying that time.

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