Interview by Kathy McConnell
The Way Life Goes is the tile of Tom Keifer’s first solo album, set to be released on April 30th of this spring. The album is a lyrically intimate account of Keifer’s life as he has battled sickness and the music industry, found love, and rediscovered his voice. The Way Life Goes’ 14 new songs show off Keifer’s versatility with a mix of tracks that are rawly emotional and acoustic, as well as hard driving rock ’n’ roll. To preview his new songs and reinvent some of his old favorites, the Cinderella frontman is hitting the road throughout February. Concert Blogger got the opportunity to talk with Keifer about his new album, his tour, and to him: the way life goes.
This solo album has been in the works for a pretty extended amount of time. You started recording tracks for the album in 2003. It’s been about a decade. Why such a delay?
TK: Well, it’s been a lot of things that caused that. The idea of making the record started with producing it through an independent label, and I just wanted to take my time and make a record that I really loved. I had been compiling a lot of songs that I had been writing for quite a few years. It finally got to the point where I felt like I had the songs that I wanted.
We picked the songs and started cutting tracks in 2003. From that point on it was many things that caused the delay. Initially, right off the bat, we cut maybe three or four tracks and my wife gave birth to our son, Jaidan, and then we took a little break there to be parents for a while. That combined with my struggles with my vocal cords with the partial paralysis that I have. I also did a number of tours with Cinderella during that time. And, also, just some struggles with the record itself – mainly the mixing. We mixed it a bunch of times and reworked the tracks.
So, I would say that I didn’t spend ten years straight sitting at a mixing board [Laughs]. There were a lot of breaks and things that took me away from the record for months at a time. Ya know, a tour with Cinderella would take me away from it for six months and it gives you a lot of objectivity when you come back and listen to what you’ve done. When you hear it that fresh and are that objective, I would change stuff. Ya know, “I like that,” and’ “I don’t like this.” Working in Pro Tools allowed me to do that. This is the first record I ever made in Pro Tools. So, we didn’t set out to take ten years, but it turned out that way and that’s just the way life went [Laughs], I guess.
So, you feel that being able to walk away and come back to the album after a couple of months really gave you new perspective on the songs. Did you feel that you had to make a lot of changes and that this was a good process for you and the album?
TK: Yeah, I changed stuff constantly. The corrections were a group effort with myself, Savannah my wife, and a friend of ours here named Chuck Turner. We just weren’t in any hurry to get it done. We wanted it just to be right. Those breaks and those extended times away from it – you come back and you change lots of stuff. You change arrangements, and that’s the cool thing about Pro Tools is that you can edit and change arrangements. Even some of the parts are recorded after the fact so, if you use that technology carefully, you won’t butcher the track [Laughs]. We tried to step carefully with that because it can certainly lose a lot of feel and mess things up with it. It was a cool way to make a record. I don’t know if I want to take ten years to make a record again [Laughs]. But, for whatever reason, that’s what it took and I believe everything for a reason, so.
Losing your ability to sing, struggling through operations with seeing little result, and the long process of healing, how did fighting to save your voice and the process of relearning to sing affect your passion for making music?
TK: When you’re first given that diagnoses… I was given this in the early-90s. That’s when this hit me. What I have is a neurological condition that makes my left vocal cord partially paralyzed, and there’s not a cure for it; there’s no surgery or medicine that can fix it. The only prayer that you have is to retrain your voice, and I was told when I was diagnosed that I would never sing again. That’s not easy news to take when you’re a lead singer.
The surgeries that I’ve had over the years have been as a result of injuries that I’ve had, because it is a weakness. Ya know, I’ve hemorrhaged my cords several times and that has to be surgically fixed. Other things have happened – I won’t go into details – but it’s been injured a lot and I have had six surgeries to repair that damage.
How it affects my passion for music? It didn’t affect my passion. I mean, the whole time I’ve been as passionate about music as I’ve always been, it’s just made it more difficult. When it first hit me, it was right after the Heartbreak Station tour – actually right towards the end of it – I had no voice and we had a fourth record that we were going to do, Still Climbing. That’s why there was a three, almost four, year delay for that album. I was trying to write songs and I didn’t know what voice I was going to end up with. I was going on blind faith. The doctor said to work with these speech pathologists and vocal coaches and that eventually, if I worked really hard, maybe I’d get my voice back. But in the meantime, I was trying to write songs that are due to Polygram and I had no idea if I was even going to be able to sing. So, it was just frustrating and weird.
It’s been a real up and down battle ever since then, and it’s a struggle for me everyday. There’s a lot of therapy and stuff I have to do to keep it in shape, but the good news is that I’ve found a way to do it. I’ve done a few successful tours with Cinderella and I was able to finish this record, so I’ve found a way to thread that needle and make it work. I’m really, really grateful for that. I don’t think it ever really affected my passion for music. But, I will say that mainly during touring, when I’m up onstage singing, it feels difficult or left-footed and it knocks a little joy out of the moment. But, when I walk off stage and I realize I was just able to do something that I was told I would never be able to do again, I kind of get happy again [Laughs].
Did you ever lose hope?
TK: I certainly was on the borderline there. There’s a lot that comes along with something like that psychologically. Obviously, there were moments of extreme depression and frustration. A lot of visits to the doctor’s office and lying on the couch having chats and talks with psychiatrists. But, when I would lose hope, that’s when you’re mind starts asking, “Well, what else could I do?” And, I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else. I love playing music. I’ve been strumming a guitar and singing ever since I was seven or eight years old. So the fact that I couldn’t visualize in my mind being able to do anything else is probably what got me through it and got me able to figure out how to get around it.
Those times when your voice was healing or you were going in and out of having surgeries, did the experience as a whole affect the way you write music? Do you think it improved your writing ability at all, or, on the other side of that, maybe hinder it in any way?
TK: I’ve always written in a way where I try not to think about my voice. But what was hard to do, particularly with doing the Still Climbing record because I just had no voice and I didn’t know if I would even sing again, was determining keys. You might get an idea in your head for a melody and a lyric for chords, and then you start to work that out and you get an inspiration for a guitar riff. And that guitar riff only sounds right in one particular key. A lot of rock guitar riffs are like that. So, then that dictates where the vocal has to be key-wise. Sometimes that is frustrating because I have to take the songs a step down, but then the guitar doesn’t sound right. It has to be a compromise sometimes.
I try not to think about the range or stuff of my voice when I’m writing. I just try to write what I hear in my head and try to sing it later. But, that’s how I’ve always written. I don’t think it’s affected that. Maybe it has emotionally from a lyrical standpoint. I’m writing from the same place that I’ve always written from, but I’ve had a lot more life experiences when I wrote this record than when I wrote some of the earlier stuff. I like music that’s real and all my heroes and people I look up to who I’ve learned from do all real stuff. That’s how I’ve always tried to write my lyrics. It’s all in there lyrically, what I’ve been through, on this record for sure.
I had the chance to listen to a number of tracks off of The Way Life Goes, and what I think is respectable about this album is that you stay true to the music you were making with Cinderella, yet, at the same time, you’ve managed to completely modernize it and make it more personal. Your voice was very distinctive of the band Cinderella and of that time period and genre. In my opinion, you’ve mellowed your voice out appropriately for this solo album. Aside from the medical complications, which may have altered your voice, did you consciously feel that you needed to alter the tone and sound of your voice for your solo album?
TK: Without getting too technical about my diagnosis, when you have a partial paralysis like I do, the thing that it affects the most is the middle part of your voice. For most singers, even without a paralysis, what they call the middle break of your voice is the most delicate area. Even if you get a cold, that’s the area that goes first. They call it the “bridge,” it’s what connects the low and the high. That’s a bunch of technical jargon, but paralysis is like having a cold times a million. The middle just goes out and that’s where you notice it first. So, all the training and therapy goes into to trying to build that middle back. I think I may be a little stronger in the middle area now than I was even before. So, I think I do sing a little bit more in the middle ranges. I’m probably singing maybe a third to a fourth lower overall in this record. I still go up to those really high notes, but I think generally I’m singing in a little bit more of a middle range. And, I do think it’s appropriate for the songs and for where I want to be and how I wanted this record to sound. The good thing that came out of all the training is that it helped me to broaden my range a little bit and I’ve been able to use that more.
Were these changes made to distinguish yourself away from Cinderella and that kind of music or image? Or was it to keep pace with music’s ever-changing trends?
TK: I think I just wanted to utilize more of that middle sound because that’s what I’m learning with therapy and stuff. But I think it’s the same kind of music, like you said earlier, that I’ve always played. Hopefully there’s a growth to it and something fresh about it. I guess as a musician you always hope to find when you do new music that you don’t lose yourself, but that you have some sort of growth and move forward in some way. I don’t think growth is ever really conscious. Hopefully it just happens.
What stays consistent in your song writing? For example, whether you were to be writing for Cinderella, yourself as a solo artist, or for any other group or artists out there, is there a common thread that screams Tom Keifer?
TK: In terms of writing, all of the artists I grew up listening to and who I admire as writers are people who were inspired by blues, country, gospel, R&B, and really just real honest music – American roots music like the Stones, Janis Joplin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith, and the Eagles. I mean, I listened to so much great music coming up in the seventies and I’ve always tried to write from that perspective. If you listen to old blues lyrics and even country lyrics, it’s about real things in life. It’s about good times, bad times, ups and downs, falling in love – ya know, struggles. To me that’s where the song always starts. That true inspiration when something just really hits you in your heart and you feel it, then you start to hear a melody in your head and make it with a lyric. That’s where I’ve always started with writing songs. That’s the only way I can really do it. When I try other ways, ya know starting with music or whatever, it feels that you kind of force a lyric and inspiration onto a riff. I don’t know. I always start with the lyrical inspiration. And, that can come at anytime. You could be sitting on an airplane, or driving down a road, or in the middle of the grocery store buying cereal [Laughs], and you get some idea in your head and then you are racing for a piano or a guitar to start working it out.
Having been in the music business for so long, you’ve seen the musical trends and tides change, especially in rock. What’s pretty notable about Cinderella, is that the band hasn’t released any new music since 1994, but you continue to sustain the success to play live and frequently tour. Can you talk a little about staying power and maybe what you think the key to staying power is in the music industry?
TK: Well if I knew what the key was, I’d put it in a bottle and make a whole lot of money [Laughs]. I don’t know. I mean we (Cinderella) didn’t put out any new music not for a lack of wanting to, but after our fourth record, to put it politely, the industry really changed. In the early to mid-90s, music trends changed and we were politely asked to leave our label, as were a lot of other bands. That started it and we didn’t have an outlet for our music. We all started going our separate ways, not out of any animosity or wanting to breakup. We all had a desire to make music, but no one was really interested in the music industry. The fans have always been there for us.
At that time, that’s when the idea of a solo record started for me and I started writing but never really recorded anything. But that, combined with my vocal problems and a failed attempt with Sony between 1998 and 2001 where we ended up in courts, tied us up for a long time. But the good thing that came out of that was it got the band back together and we started touring again. There was a great demand for us on the road and we started touring a lot. Ya know between my vocal problems, lawsuits, being dropped by record companies, tours that were very successful and we loved doing… That was the best part of it because we got to be on the road and do what we loved to do: being with our fans and playing our music with nothing to muck it up. Just us and our fans, no record companies or lawyers, we loved that. That was our outlet. We never say “never” in terms of new music for Cinderella. If the right opportunity presents itself then we’ll be there, but there have been a lot of road blocks in the way. I don’t know what the key to success is.
So what I’m hearing is that it is more of an organic relationship between the artist and the fans, maybe.
TK: We love to tour and our fans are just so supportive and so great. It’s hard to turn down a tour offer when you know you get to go out and do the thing that you really, really love to do. Like I said, there’s nothing that’s going to muck it up like legal stuff or a record company. We’ve had a lot more struggles with trying to get out new music. It’s a lot more complicated than just getting on the road and playing for your fans. And it’s not really for a lack of trying; it just hasn’t been the right place and time for it yet.
Can you tell us about a planned solo tour to promote The Way Life Goes?
TK: It starts February 9th in North Carolina in Winston-Salem. It’s a tour of very small venues. I’ve put together a band of musicians who are friends of mine here in Nashville. It was something that I wanted to do to do out and give the fans a preview up close and personal in a small venue of some of the new material off of the record. We’re also throwing in some old Cinderella favorites. A couple of those are reinvented a little bit and some are straight off the record. It will be a pretty dynamic show in terms of having a lot of high energy rock, but also some acoustic stuff with a sit down section in the middle which will be a little bit of a storytellers. There’s going to be a couple of old songs in that section and a couple of new ones where I’ll talk about maybe where some of the songs came about. It’ll be a lot of different things going on in the show. There will be a good blend of old and new, and some stories too – which I’m not known for; I normally don’t talk much on stage.
Any city you are particularly excited to play? Maybe Philadelphia since you’re from its suburbs.
TK: No, I’m really looking forward to that. I’ve never played Dobbs and I’ve heard so much about it and it’s a legendary place. I think that place is going to be rockin’ that night.
Tom Keifer’s Upcoming Tour Dates:
Feb 09 Ziggy’s Winston-Salem, NC
Feb 11 Highline Ballroom New York, NY
Feb 13 Dobbs Philadelphia, PA
Feb 15 Altar Bar Pittsburgh, PA
Feb 16 Blue Ocean Music Hall Salisbury, MD
Feb 17 Asylum Portland, ME
Feb 19 Peabody’s Cleveland, OH
Feb 20 3rd and Lindsley Nashville, TN
Feb 22 Viper Alley Lincolnshire, IL
Feb 23 Buster’s Lexington, KY
Feb 24 Magic Bag Ferndale, MI
Feb 26 The Intersection Grand Rapids, MI
Feb 27 20th Century Theater Cincinnati, OH
Feb 28 House of Rock White Marsh, MD