December 03, 2012

An Interview with Tom Keifer of Cinderella

Photo courtesy of Thomas Petillo
As the ‘80s were winding down Cinderella were on a heavy-metal high, having reached the Top 10 with Long Cold Winter, the Philadelphia band’s most successful effort to date. Frontman Tom Keifer had no idea how prophetic the title of the album’s hit power ballad, “Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone),” would become when in 1991 he was diagnosed with paresis of his left vocal cord — in other words, partial paralysis. “It affected my speaking voice slightly, but much more so in the singing ranges,” Keifer soberly recalls. “It just wreaked havoc on that. I couldn’t sing. It was awful.”

Undergoing intense vocal therapy to mitigate this incurable neurological affliction, he continued to tour with Cinderella despite (and arguably to spite) the diagnosis and rather daunting odds. “It really does take away your confidence,” Keifer explains, “and that’s everything when you perform. Most singers, if their voice cracks once it’s devastating to them. I went for years where I cracked multiple times a night and just had to deal with it.”

Throughout the last decade of this ordeal, in particular, Keifer, who lives in Nashville with his wife Savannah Snow and son Jaidan, has been at work on his as-yet-untitled solo debut, which will be released early next year on Merovee Records. “For a while I didn’t know if I’d be able to perform these songs live, to be honest, and I recorded them with a lot of blind faith,” says Keifer, underscoring the adversity he’s not only so far defied but still confronts. “I’m not going to say it’s going to be easy but I’m going to be able to do it.”

In writing the solo album, did you have to take your vocal condition into account insofar as what you would be capable of singing?

I tried not to. The fourth record for Cinderella, Still Climbin’, that was a hard record to write because I was in the depths of this problem and I didn’t know what was going to come out the other end. So I was writing for a voice that I didn’t even know if I was going to have or what it was going to sound like, but I decided to just write — and the same thing with this solo record.

Writing is a process where you don’t want to close any doors or windows. You want to be open to anything that pops into your head, melody-wise or range-wise. Sometimes after the fact when I’ve got to go into the studio and record it — because the writing comes first — I go, “Why in the hell did I write this melody, particularly with this condition? It’s going to be hard.” But, you know, you get around it. You get it down on tape any way you can and then when it comes time to perform it live you just practice, practice, practice, and try to get it ingrained in there. 

Can you sense any evolution in your songwriting over the years, having been in a group for so long and now doing the solo album?

I always try to write from the heart and from experience and from true inspiration. I’m not an appointment writer. I wait for a song to come to me. There’ve been times where I haven’t written for a couple years at a time and I don’t really worry about that. I know some people get freaked out, and they go, “I’ve got writer’s block.” If you’re not really pushing the issue you don’t have a block. [Laughs] So, the way I write songs hasn’t really changed over the years. I still believe, for me — I mean, everybody writes differently — that’s the best way. That’s when I do write my best songs, is when I just let them come to me and they’re real. I approached this record the same way.

The main difference on this record is I wrote with outside writers more than I ever have. Obviously, living in Nashville, there’s a huge resource here of songwriters — one of them being my wife, who has been a writer here for years and was a staff writer on Music Row and is just an amazing songwriter. She co-wrote a lot of the songs with me. And there were a few other people that I brought in, too, who were just friends, people that I’d known along the way and just sat down and wrote some songs with.… And a lot of the songs I wrote myself, too.

The medical issue with your vocal cords must be something you have to work to keep healthy.

Yeah, it’s a daily thing. It’s not something that they can really cure because it’s a neurological problem. It’s a partial paralysis on the one side. When I was diagnosed with it, they told me that most people never really sing again, or they don’t sing the way they used to. It’s not really curable, but the only way to combat it is through vocal training and you have to work with speech pathologists and also voice teachers and vocal coaches for the singing aspect of it. So yeah, it’s a daily thing, an hour to two hours every day of training. If I slack on that at all it goes backward pretty quickly.

It seems like you could risk over-stressing your good vocal cord in trying to just maintain the stamina of the bad one.

I’ve had six surgeries just to repair collateral damage, from — you put it very well — just forcing or overdoing it. So I’ve had six surgeries to repair hemorrhages and cysts and all kinds of things that have happened as a result of that. I was diagnosed with it in ’91 and it’s just been an ongoing battle. In recent years it’s been a roller coaster ride, honestly, until about three or four years ago when I started working with a vocal coach named Ron Anderson who really taught me a whole different way to support my voice and how to find those right muscles and how to train those and tune those and get the other ones out of the way. That’s the real trick, the training, because there’s a lot of different ways to produce sound. If you’re not exercising the right muscles you’re just spinning your wheels. Unfortunately it’s hard to find those because they’re the weakest ones.

Was there a moment when you consciously thought that you would not sing again?

I think when I was first diagnosed with it I was in denial and I didn’t want to accept that it was a condition that they just couldn’t give me a pill [for] or perform a surgery and fix…. I wanted someone to tell me that it was something that they could fix. Obviously, when you go to every major specialist in the country and they’re all telling you, “This is your situation,” eventually you accept it.

[I have] mixed feelings on your question because, yeah, on the surface I was, like, “Wow, this is it,” but I think there must’ve been something inside me that I believed I would sing again because I’ve just continued working at it. I think I would’ve given up a long time ago if I actually did think that. So, yes and no. At times I felt like I wouldn’t [sing again] and it was very frustrating. I’d be in the studio trying to sing parts and getting frustrated and smashing stuff and getting angry.

But your will was stronger than your discouragement.

I guess, because I’m still out there and I’m touring. I think that the best answer that I’ve found was finding the right teacher, which was Ron. What I’ve been able to accomplish working on what he taught me over the last three years, my voice is stronger than it’s ever been since I’ve been diagnosed with this. In some ways it’s better than before it happened because I’ve had to develop my voice in a different way.

It’s still a roller coaster. The frustrating thing is I can go out on the stage and give a great performance where I sound really good and everybody’s [like], “Oh, wow, he’s fixed,” but it doesn’t feel good. It feels so left-footed and it doesn’t flow the way it used to. It knocks a little bit of the joy out of it in the moment. But when you walk offstage and you step back from it and you go, “Well, coming from where I was, I was just able to do that,” the joy comes back. When you’re in the throes of it you’re just trying to make it happen.

For more information on Tom Keifer, please visit the artist’s official website.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Petillo

(First published at Blogcritics.)