A Conversation With Tom Keifer: Michael Franklin

To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  One minute you’re standing on top the world, the next minute the world has its boot on your neck.  It’s a pendulum that swings from cloud nine to bone dry bottom.  From top ten records to losing a record deal.  A truly gifted voice silenced by paralysis.  Adulation to depression.  The pendulum swing—swoosh–is brutal, unforgiving, and it never changes.  It’s the one true and unrelenting force of life.  Swoosh.  You don’t know what you got (till it’s gone).  Swoosh.  The winds of change.

No one knows this better than Tom Keifer.  With his band Cinderella, he’s sold over 15 million records.  Their debut (Night Songs, 1986) sent them straight into the stratosphere.  They blared out of every car radio in America.  In 1989, they played the Moscow Music Peace Festival (with Bon Jovi and Ozzy Osbourne) for over 100,000 people.  Cinderella were MTV staples back when the M meant something.   From 1986 to 1994, they made four of the best rock albums of the last century.  Played at the appropriate volume, 1988’s Long Cold Winter will give you a concussion and snap your neck in half.  But with each album, they incorporated more and more Americana elements:  harmonicas, slide guitars, horns, gospel singers.  They got pigeonholed (inaccurately) as glam rock or hair metal, but they were actually just a rock ‘n’ roll band with their roots showing.  It’s why their music holds up 25 years later.

Cinderella’s original brand of rock ‘n’ roll translated into an unyielding string of top ten hits and platinum albums.  One phenomenal success followed another.  And then something happened.  Tom Keifer woke up one day and found his voice partially paralyzed.  He couldn’t speak or sing.  That incredible throat of razor blades and sandpaper…was broken.  With no warning, the abyss burst into the room like thieves demanding money.  All Comes Down.

Swoosh.  

Keifer went from facing thousands of fans to facing speech pathologists and vocal coaches.  ‘Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)’ would prove prescient.  Gone had arrived.

A decade-long struggle with vocal paresis, record companies, and a shifting musical landscape ensued.  It was one frustrating setback after another.

Until now.

On April 30, Tom Keifer will release his debut solo CD, The Way Life Goes.  A stunning piece of work, it instantly jumps off the speakers and grabs you by the jugular.  It feels like electricity coursing through your veins.  Heavy rockers to piano ballads to bluesy swagger, it has a conscience and a heart.  It’s everything rock ‘n’ roll should be.  Gritty and ragged and all over the place. The Way Life Goes makes you feel alive.  Mick Jagger wishes his solo debut were this good.

And Keifer’s voice?  It remains a wonder to behold.  Vocal paresis clearly bit off more than it could chew.

So here comes the pendulum swing.  It’s the way life goes.  And right now, life is good.

Swoosh.

On April 23rd, I had the great fortune to speak with Tom Keifer in his adopted town of Nashville, Tennessee.

Michael:  First of all, I want to say thank you for speaking with me.  I’m a huge Cinderella fan from way back, so this is a thrill.

Tom:  Oh, cool.  Good to talk to you, too, my friend.

Michael:  How’s this tour going?  How much longer is it going on?

Tom:  Well, we did three weeks back in February and then we took a little break.  And now we’re going out in May.  May 2, we start on the west coast in Los Angeles.  And I don’t know how long it’s gonna go.  I really don’t.  Releasing a record is a new adventure.  I haven’t had one out in a while and we’re just gonna see where this all leads.  You know, one day at a time.

Michael:  You’re used to being surrounded by the members of Cinderella and now you’re surrounded by different people onstage.  That’s an interesting experience, isn’t it?

Tom:  Yeah…  Mainly in rehearsals–back in February, when we first started rehearsing for the tour–I even said something to the guys to the effect of the whole experience of releasing a solo CD and stepping out of Cinderella and putting together a new band was very exciting and very scary at the same time.  It took me a few nights to get used to that idea.  [There’s] a great bunch of guys in the band, really great musicians.  And I’ve learned over the years that it’s kind of like riding a bike.  You get in a room with some great musicians and some good things are gonna happen.  I was fortunate to have that with Cinderella and I also have it with this solo band.  So we fall into it pretty quick.

Michael:  The Way Life Goes is the name of the record.  So how is life going?  Good, I hope.

Tom:  Yeah, man.  Life is awesome.  Just trying to keep up with it all, you know?  (laughs)

Michael:  That’s a good problem to have.

Tom:  Yeah, it absolutely is.  It’s going really well.

Michael:  These well-publicized voice battles, is that the main reason the record took as long as it did?  Or is it just…life catching up with you?

Tom:  It’s one of the reasons.  The main reason it took so long is because we made the decision to produce the record independently of a label.  So there was no time frame, release date, budget, nothing that we really had to adhere to.  There was no pressure to release an album.   So…I didn’t plan on taking ten years.  I didn’t think it would take anywhere near that, but having that freedom and that luxury of being able to step away from it for a while and come back and listen to it objectively—and when I say ‘while’, I mean sometimes four and five months at a time.  [I] just wouldn’t even listen to a note of it.  I’d go on the road with Cinderella–or something else going on in my life–and come back and hear it fresh.  And if you hear things that you think could be better—if you’re not on a deadline—you’re gonna try to make them better.  So one thing led to another and the next thing you know, it’s ten years.

Michael:  I know you don’t want to dwell on this, but is this a rare neurological problem [with your voice]?  Is that what this is?

Tom:  It’s a neurological problem.  The medical term is ‘paresis’, which is a fancy word or another word for partial paralysis.  And it’s my left vocal cord.  I was diagnosed with it in the early ‘90s.  I was told I would never sing again, because when a singer gets this, it’s devastating.  There’s not a cure for neurological problems.  Once a nerve is damaged or the transmission from the brain is blocked, they can’t give you medicine for that.  There’s no surgery that can fix that.  The only way you can really fix it is you have to try and retrain it [and] teach it how to do what it’s supposed to do.  And it’s not an exact science, so it’s been an up and down battle over the years.  But fortunately, I’ve been able to figure it out and it’s getting stronger all the time.

Michael:  Well, I also have a neurological disorder, so I have to say you’re an inspiring figure to me, because you never quit and you never gave up.

Tom:  Well, thanks, man.  I’m glad my story can help.

Michael:  You really have.  It’s helped.

Tom:  What is your condition?

Michael:  Well, I have something called Inclusion Body Myositis, which is like a form of muscular dystrophy.  So it affects my legs and my arms and hands.  And it’s a daily struggle, you know?  You have to…train your muscles to do things that your brain is not quite connecting with.

Tom:  It’s the same thing with my voicebox.  I mean, it sounds like that’s quite a bit more challenging [IBM].

Michael:  I don’t know, man.  To a singer, that’s your worst nightmare.

Tom:  Yeah.  Well, it is.  To put it in that perspective, yes.  I certainly feel for you and I’m glad that me and my story can be an inspiration to you.

Michael:  Well, I was listening to new youtube videos this morning, and if somebody had told me this guy has had vocal problems, I never would have known it.  You sound great.

Tom:  (laughs)  Well, I try not to let anyone hear them.  Believe me, it’s been up and down and there’s been times where…it’s been bad.  But I’ve worked and been to therapy and the training and stuff.  I can’t ever let up on it.  It’s every day, you know?  An hour and a half to two hours every day, whether I’m on tour or not.

Michael:  Well, if it works, it works.

Tom:  Yeah.

Michael:  I got in the car this morning, driving to work, and the second song I heard was ‘Solid Ground’.  On Sirius/XM,  I forget what station it was.  But that song just absolutely jumps off the speakers and grabs you.

Tom:  Oh, cool.  I’m glad you like it, man.  That’s one of my favorites off the record.

Michael:  The scream at the beginning, is that like a statement of intent?  That’s pretty brutal.

Tom:  (laughs)  I remember being pretty worked up the night we cut that vocal and that just came out.  A moment of angst.

Michael:  It’s almost like “Ha!  I still got it.”

Tom:  I don’t remember what I was mad at, but I remember I was kind of pissed off about something when we cut that vocal.  And a lot of that’s reflected throughout the whole vocals, particularly the opening scream and a lot of stuff in the out section, too.

Michael:  My favorite song on the record is toward the end.  It’s called ‘You Showed Me’.  If you wouldn’t mind, can you tell me about that?  It’s a touching song.

Tom:  I wrote that for my wife.  When I first moved to Nashville, Savannah and I had been friends for years.  We’d actually worked together years and years ago.  In the early ‘90s, I had produced some demos and stuff for her.  She’d moved to Nashville and a few years later, I moved here.  And when I moved here…it was not a great time for me.  This is the mid-‘90s, I was still going through this voice thing.  Hadn’t really found any answers for that yet.  I’d been working, trying to fix it, and wasn’t getting real far.  The career was on very shaky ground.  Cinderella had lost their deal with Mercury and we’d split up.  I’d just lost my Mom, so…it was a bit of a dark time in the mid-‘90s for me.  And that’s when I moved to Nashville and Savannah was already here and we kind of re-hooked up.  You know, she literally got me through some really really really hard times and showed me—like the song says—how to live again, how to enjoy the simple things.   So I wrote that for her.  It’s a thank you, really.

Michael:  Is she a singer, too?

Tom:  Yeah, a singer and a songwriter and a producer and a musician.  She was very involved in the record, actually.  She wrote a lot of the songs, she co-produced the record, and did some singing on it.

Michael:  Most of it was recorded in Nashville.  Am I getting that right?

Tom:   Yeah, all of it.

Michael: Yesterday afternoon, I pulled up some videos–and I hadn’t seen this video in 20 years, but it was the one for ‘Shelter Me’.  But…[there was] Little Richard.

Tom:  Yeah, Little Richard.  I’ve been a fan for years.  I love all that early American roots music, from the blues to country, R & B, and gospel, and then the early phases of rock ‘n’ roll–Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis.   And it was like a really big deal to me that he was in that video.  He was a friend of the director, Jeff Stein.  It’s one of the few times in my life that I’ve walked into a room and there was somebody there that just really…blew my mind.  And Keith Richards was one of the other ones.

Michael:  I can imagine.  You know, Little Richard, I met him a few years ago in a hotel lobby and he didn’t sign autographs but he did pass out these Seventh Day Adventist pamphlets.  He’s an interesting dude.  Seemed like a really nice guy.

Tom:  Yeah, he was real nice to me.

Michael:  Flamboyant.

Tom:  Yeah.  He’s the original Prince.

Michael:  Yes.  Absolutely.  I’ve never thought about that, but that’s absolutely right.   Well, the tracks off the new CD have acoustic numbers [and] I feel a lot of gospel music seeping through there.  Harmonicas, real rootsy.  But for people who have been paying attention, that’s nothing new for you.  Cinderella was already pretty deep with that.

Tom:  Yeah.  That’s some music I grew up on.  I grew up on the Stones and Zeppelin and Janis Joplin and Joe Walsh and the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd and Fleetwood Mac and Deep Purple and…I mean, I could go on and on about that bands that I grew up on.  That ‘70s, late ‘60s era of rock was all really coming to life.  And the one thing all those artists had in common was American roots music–blues, country, and gospel.  From the writing to the…everything just came from that.  That’s always been a part of the Cinderella sound and my writing.  Even down to the first record.  Even though Night Songs was a pretty basic wall of guitar, bass ,drums, vocal.  Probably a little slicker, more flavor-of-the-day production, ‘80s effected kind of vibe.  But we grew out of that quickly.  But the heart of the music–regardless of the production and the sound of the record—melodies, guitar riffs, lyrics…were blues-based from the beginning.

Michael:  Especially on the song ‘Long Cold Winter’.  I can imagine what a record executive would have said when you brought that in:   “Are you kidding?”

Tom:  Yeah, actually, we got a lot of “are you kiddings”.  (laughs)

Michael:  Really.  I was just guessing.

Tom:  Yeah, ‘Long Cold Winter’ wasn’t exactly a favorite.  ‘Coming Home’ was a little bit viewed as—even though it went on to be a big single—they quickly got on board with it.  You know, we tried to push the envelope.  Within our genre, anyway.  Nothing we did was new, obviously.  Country rock and blues rock had all been done by the generation before us, but we put our own twist on it.  But certainly in that decade—in the ‘80s—coming in with a song like ‘Coming Home’ or ‘Long Cold Winter’, that definitely got the record company’s attention.  They maybe had a little bit of reservation about it, but they came around.  They released ‘Coming Home’ as a single.  It was a big song and they made a video for it, so they got it.  But at first, it was probably a little shocking for them.

Michael:  Was there one particular artist when you were a kid that made you go, “That’s what I want to do with my life?”

Tom:  Well, different phases of my life.  When I was really, really young and I first saw the Beatles–I was probably 7 or 8—on TV.  Maybe even younger.  And right around the same time, there was a TV show with a TV band–The Monkees–that I loved.  And they had such amazing songs and the guitar work was incredible.  Mike Nesmith’s guitar playing was just great.  So those two things, at that age, made me want to play music.  I don’t think, at that point, I made the decision that’s what I want to do with my life.  I think after I heard Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Janis Joplin, and Rod Stewart—I was a little bit older—I was like, “I get used to doing that for the rest of my life.”  (laughs)   So probably more of the rock stuff, later on, that I heard is what really sealed the deal for me.

Michael:  Is it true that your mom promised to give you a guitar if you graduated school?

Tom:  Yes.  That is true.

Michael:  Tell me that story.

Tom:  A Gibson Les Paul.  And prior to that, I had an Ibanez copy.  And I really really wanted it bad.  It was like the golden ring on the wall at the local music store.  And I was not the most academic student, but my Mom knew how to motivate me.

Michael:  Bribery.

Tom:  She promised me that guitar if I made it through high school.

Michael:  That’s awesome, man.

Tom:  And I still have it.

Michael:  Of course.  Bribery works as a parental tool.  I guess we could all make mental notes.

Tom:  (laughs)  Yeah, it works.

Michael:   Do you have a favorite record of all time?  What are your desert island discs?

Tom:  Oh, man.  It’d be hard to pick one of all time.

Michael:  Well, three or four.  Narrow it down if you can.

Tom:  Well, it’s tough, ‘cause I like a lot of different things.  Physical Graffiti was definitely a cool one.  The Stones It’s Only Rock And Roll.  The Eagles Hotel California.  Pretty amazing record.  Man, it’s tough.  There’s so many things I love from when I was growing up and they’re still my favorites.  Obviously, I listen to new music all the time and there’s a lot of new artists I love.  Bruno Mars to Fall Out Boy to lots of new stuff that I like.  Train—that’s a great band.  But when you’re talking about desert island records, I’d probably have to go back to the ‘70s, you know?  The stuff I grew up on.  Fleetwood Mac Rumours was a huge record, growing up when we were kids.  So that’s a few.

Michael:  You kind of segued into my next question, which was what you’re listening to right now.  You’re driving down the road, what do you throw in the CD player or on the iPod?

Tom:  Over the years, there’s bands that have stood out to me.  In recent years, I love a lot of Buckcherry’s stuff.  The band Jet, I really love their first couple of albums.  Train, I just love everything that they do.  Macy Gray.  Some of her stuff is really cool.  Really, really current stuff?  I guess Fall Out Boy or Bruno Mars.  You know, I’m always kind of keeping an ear to the ground.  You know how it is.  Just different things catch your ear.

Michael:  Have you heard the new Fall Out Boy?  It came out…this week or last week.

Tom:  Yeah, I think the song’s called ‘My Songs Know What You Did (Light Em Up)’.  I don’t have the record yet, but I like that.

Michael:  There’s one track with Elton John, I believe.

Tom:  Oh, is there?  No, I don’t have the whole album yet.  I’ve heard that track, I’ve heard it on the radio.  Man, that’s fuckin’ cool.  I love all kinds of music, though.  There’s a Pink single that came out within the last year that I really love.  A lot of great musicians out there, a lot of great artists, writers, producers.  [There’s] really great music still being made.

Michael:  And you’re right there in the belly of the beast, too.  Nashville is it.

Tom:  Yes.  Songwriting capitol.

Michael:  The lyric is really king in Nashville, isn’t it?  Everything revolves around the lyric.

Tom:  Yeah, and that’s why this was a natural fit for me, ‘cause that’s how I’ve always written.  I’ve always waited for true inspiration.  I rarely ever just intentionally sit down with an instrument and write a song.  Unless it’s songs I’ve written flying on an airplane or driving down the road or in Aisle 6 at Home Depot and something pops into you head, like a song title or a line and you hear a melody with it.  It kind of all comes together and then you’re just racing for an instrument to try and…figure out what this thing is that’s playing in your head.  And it always starts with a lyric.  Every time.  And then I just put the riffs in around it.  If the lyric’s appropriate to be a mid-tempo or a ballad, then it’s more piano or acoustic guitar.  And if the lyric and melody has the attitude of a rock song, then I’m gonna pick up my electric guitar and plug in some cool rock riffs around it.  But that’s always secondary—the grooves and riffs and stuff.  You gotta have that spark of the lyric, of what you wanna write about.

Michael:  It’s what the song calls for, isn’t it?

Tom:  Yeah.

Michael:  Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for people just getting started in the music business?

Tom:  I think that it’s important always to stay true to what you like to do.  If you try to chase trends or be something that you’re not because it’s popular right now, you’re gonna miss the boat.  I think if you do what you love, and focus your energies on being as good at that as you can be, then when the time comes around…you might be the next trend.  You’ll be prepared for when what you do is the current trend as opposed to just chasing something else.

Michael:  So after all the touring is done, what next?  Any Cinderella stuff, another solo record?  What’s up next for you?

Tom:  Well, [it’s] too early to think about another record.  (laughs)  We’ll see.  I mean, I’m always gonna be writing music and I’m sure I’ll record stuff down the road.  This one certainly took a long time and it felt like a big relief to be done with it, and signed a deal, and put it out.  I’m real excited about that, so I just wanna enjoy that for a while.  Cinderella’s on hiatus for most of this year.  We made that decision last year, because we toured three years in a row pretty hard.  We did the States three times and we were over to Europe twice and South America, so it felt like time for a break.  So that was a good opportunity to do this, you know?

Michael:  Well, every review I’ve seen of the new solo record is stellar.  Everybody likes it.  I haven’t seen anything that was even remotely…iffy.

Tom:  Yeah, what I’ve seen so far has been real positive and it feels good after spending so much time on it.

Michael:  That’s all the questions I have, but before I go—first of all, thanks for talking to me.  I really appreciate it.

Tom:  Oh, you’re welcome, man.  Thanks for your support.  I appreciate you talking to me.

Michael:  Well, I just want to thank you on a personal level.  I bought all your CDs when they came out.  Long Cold Winter and Heartbreak Station, they both still move me and speak to me to this day.  So from me to you, thank you so much.

Tom:  Oh, you’re welcome.  I’m glad it means something to you.  That means a lot to me.

Michael:  Well, I wish you the best of luck with this new record.  I hope you go platinum.

Tom:  Well, thanks, man.  I appreciate it.  Good talking to you.

Michael:  Give my best to your wife and family.

Tom:  All right, man.  You have a great day.

Michael:  You, too.  Take care.

If you love rock ‘n’ roll (and you do), then The Way Life Goes should be the soundtrack to your 2013.  It’s astounding from start to finish.  Debut of the year, hands down.

Learn more at: http://www.tomkeifer.com/ & https://www.facebook.com/TomKeiferOfficial

Special thanks to Amanda Cagan and Tom Keifer.  

~Michael Franklin

 

Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael is also a professional musician and sound engineer. He is currently recording his 6th CD with his best friends Screenlast 6.0 and Audacity Sourceforge. He thinks Iggy Pop is the greatest singer in the history of music. If you disagree, you’re wrong. You better ask somebody.

Contact Michael:

Blog: http://pointlessendeavor.wordpress.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/wkumike
CDBaby: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/franklinstapleton

Outlaw Magazine. Country, Rock and Roll, Blues, Folk, Americana, Punk. As long as it is real, it is OUTLAW. Overproduced mediocrity need not apply.

www.outlawmagazine.com


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