Any fan of 1980s hard rock should remember Cinderella, the quartet as well known for their teased-up hair on its MTV videos as for their bluesy guitar-driven rock. For many of the Philly band’s fans, the standout element of the Cinderella sound was the voice of lead singer Tom Keifer, who hit impossibly high notes in a distinctive, sandpaper wail on hits like “Nobody’s Fool.”
Although voice problems almost silenced him for good at one point, Keifer is back in the game with an excellent debut solo CD, The Way Life Goes, which finds him channeling his inner Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger in a raw rock style that brings his bluesier tendencies heard on Cinderella’s early albums to the forefront.
We talked to Tom about the long creation of The Way Life Goes, the challenges he faced with his voice (and how he dealt with them), the current status of Cinderella, his feelings on the term “hair metal”—even his favorite guitars.
Howard Whitman: Let’s talk about the album. I really, really like it.
Tom Keifer: Oh thank you, I really appreciate that.
Whitman: I understand it took a while to record it?
Keifer: Yeah, it’s a very long story, so I’ll try to summarize it for you. In the 90s, Cinderella, we parted ways with our record company, Mercury. There was a lot of changes in the music scene then. We’d lost our outlet for creating music at least in terms of the label support, and releasing it. So I started thinking about a solo record then and I started to write for it. This was about 1995. And I just kept putting it on the back burner for years, but I kept writing, so I had tons of songs that were building up, and I finally decided in 2003 to start recording and producing the record. It was made independently of a label because I just wanted to take my time with it. And I did, because it took the better part of almost 10 years to finish once we started actually cutting and recording tracks. It was really a fun project to make, because, again, it was more just no deadlines, no release dates, no budget restrictions—we just kind of did it on our own. I produced it with Savannah, my wife, and a good friend of ours, Chuck Turner, here in Nashville. The three of us really get along well, and that was a good thing because we spent a lot of time in a control room together (laughs). We just took our time, we worked hard and played hard, we took long breaks over the years and got away from it for months on end and came back and listened to what we liked and didn’t like and changed it and one day woke up and pressed play and what was coming out of the speakers sounded right. So that’s the summary of the process. Savannah also wrote a lot of the songs on the record with me too.
Whitman: That’s helpful to have your creative partner right there.
Whitman: She sang on it too, right?
Keifer: A couple of songs she sang background on. No lead vocals, but she harmonized on “Ask Me Yesterday,” that’s her doing the two-part harmony and there are a couple of other songs too.
Whitman: I definitely heard her on there, very talented lady. It’s interesting that the CD has a nice consistency to it, even though it was made over so many years.
Keifer: Well, I think that that’s a struggle that you go through in the mixing process more than anything, because I’ve always tried to make records that have a lot of dynamics musically and contrast musically. I love going from an intimate acoustic thing to a hard-driving song all on the same record. I just grew up on that kind of stuff. I grew up on Zeppelin—they would do that on the same song; the verse would be acoustic and then kick into the heaviest riff you ever heard and then bring it back down. So I’ve always loved that kind of contrast in music; that’s the way I’ve always written and approached records. The biggest challenge, when you get down to actually mixing it, is trying to make it all feel like it goes together so you can flow seamlessly between all those different kinds of dynamics. We spent the better part of the 10 years mixing the damn thing (laughs). I think we went through about 18 different engineers.
Whitman: Did you cut a lot of this at home? Was it that kind of situation?
Keifer: Well, the tracks themselves, we have a nice studio here at the house that we used mainly just for overdubs. I did pretty much all of my guitars here and vocals. And we did tons of editing, and worked with Chuck, who’s a great Protools guy, and experimenting with arrangements and editing and all, because there’s so much stuff he can do in Protools, and even just changing sounds, and getting experimental with sounds. So we did all of that stuff here. But actually cutting all of the tracks, we went to other various studios. There are couple here in Nashville that we went to to cut the tracks that were more appropriate for drums. Our studio’s a little small for that.
Whitman: Do you feel that recording it in Nashville, your current home town, impacted the music, influenced what you’re doing?
Keifer: Yeah, it did in a lot of ways. I wouldn’t say, if you’re going for style, I don’t think so, because like I said, I grew up on Stones and Zeppelin, so, for me, I’ve always had a pretty deep appreciation for blues and country and their role in rock. So even going back to the Long Cold Winter album we had “Coming Home” and “Bad Seamstress Blues” and “Long Cold Winter” … you know, there were a lot of roots starting to pop up back then. But where I do think it inspired and helped this record was, the songs are just top-to-bottom filled with amazing songwriters. One of them’s my wife, who’s worked here on Music Row for years. So it’s an inspiration to live in a town where everyone you meet’s got a demo of a song that they just wrote that morning that you listen to and go “Wow, I wanna quit.” It kicks you in the ass because it’s just amazing lyricists and songwriters here. So that was very inspirational. That was an awesome thing to be surrounded by, because it motivated me to become a better writer, and also the musicianship here is just insane. I get to work with just incredible players for this record. The guys here are just insanely great. So that was a cool thing to have. Cinderella had a chemistry and I came in to make this record and it was a solo record so I’m going to use different people, and being able to have the luxury of going to the studio and it’s like “Wow, this is all new people, there might not be a chemistry,” and there was, because the guys were just great, they’re really great players. So that really helped and I think it added a lot to the record, just the musicians themselves.
Whitman: It did have a band sound, like it was recorded by the same guys.
Keifer: Well, it was … all of the musicians were the same, even though we cut the tracks piecemeal. We started in 2003, (those) were the first that we cut. We cut like two or three at a time and then we’d work on those, and then we’d go back and cut a few more. But I brought the same rhythm section in and actually the same keyboard player too—Tony Harrell did most of the keys, and Greg Morrow on drums and Michael Rhoades on bass and I kept bringing those guys back because after the first couple of tracks we cut, it was like “Wow, these guys are just nailing it.” And we did a lot of that work in different studios, so again, the cohesiveness—the goal, always, to me in mixing is to make it sound like a band playing in one of the best-sounding rehearsal rooms. You want it to sound like a band, you know? And a lot of times when you get into mixing, engineers, they have a lot of buttons to push and toys to play with, and sometimes they lose sight of—you have got to capture the feeling of what’s there, and a lot of times it gets lost. That’s a very common thing, particularly when you have a particular vision of what you want to hear coming out of the speakers. And I just wanted to hear a band coming out of the speakers.
Whitman: Did you find that you purposely stayed away from the heavy effects and tried to make it more raw and natural?
Keifer: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was going for, and sometimes you feel like you have got to tie the engineer’s hands behind his back, because they want to go grab the reverb and the harmonizer and the doubler and this and that. Starting with the Heartbreak Station record, I was over the whole 80s processed sound, and there was a marked difference in the sound between the first two records and Heartbreak Station. And Heartbreak Station is produced and mixed more like my solo record—it’s just dry, and raw, and it’s really the hardest way to mix because then it comes down to EQ and levels and the finer points of mixing, because you’re not covering anything up with effects. I like to hear truth coming through the speakers as much as possible. And that’s hard to capture, you know?
Whitman: It definitely had that feel to it. Did you cut a lot of stuff live in the studio with the guys?
Keifer: Yeah. Some of the stuff was, and some of the stuff was built. Different approaches to every song.
Whitman: And you played most of the guitars on there, so you did some overdubbing, right?
Keifer: Yeah, guitars are stacked all over the place. In the mix process, you hone that down to make it feel more like a couple of players, but that’s kind of an art, you know? Where you have things supporting other things you don’t realize. But my goal even with that is always … I might have six guitars on something but I try to make it feel like two players. So a lot of that’s just … it’s three in the morning and you’ve got the Marshall cranked up and you’re coming up with all of these ideas and they’re all cool but you might not need them all going on all at the same time. So you sort a lot of that out in the mix.
Whitman: I understand you had some vocal problems over the years while you were making this?
Keifer: It actually started before that. It started in the early 90s, around 1991, when I was diagnosed with a partially paralyzed left vocal chord. The technical term is a paresis. And it wreaks havoc on the singing voice. I was told I would never sing again. There’s no medical cure. If you have nodes, they go in and laser them off and they do a little therapy and you’re OK. And I’m not downplaying that, because that’s not a great thing to have either, but it’s fixable. The neurological condition that I have is not. And I was told if I ever would sing again, I’d have to figure out how to sing around the problem and re-train my voice and try to get it to do what it’s supposed to do. Long story short, that’s been a real up and down battle ever since 1991 for me. And I’ve had canceled tours, I’ve had years where I couldn’t sing a note. I’ve worked with every vocal coach on the planet and speech pathologist trying to figure out how to get around it. But over the years it’s gotten stronger and it’s gotten more consistent, and really in the last few years it’s gotten stronger than ever. So I’m really, really fortunate that I was able to figure that out because it’s not an exact science.
Whitman: And you have been touring lately behind this album. How’s that been going?
Keifer: It’s been a blast. My voice has been really strong this year, really strong. So I’m having fun. It’s nice to get out and play some new material. That was a little bit challenging with the voice problems because with my condition you almost have to learn every vowel position and everything, so when you’re learning a new song … the Cinderella stuff is different because I’ve been singing it for years, although that was challenging to relearn too. But bringing in the new songs, you’ve got to build a groove in, almost, where everything’s supposed to be placed. So I spent a lot of time doing that, but they’re starting to really feel natural to me, and that’s a process and it’s just part of what I deal with. But I just thank God every day I can still sing.
Whitman: Do you find that the more you’re doing it back on the road, the stronger it’s getting for you?
Keifer: Yes, particularly, counting this year on the solo tour, there were three years prior—2010, 2011 and 2012 that I was out with Cinderella. Actually, 2010 was kind of a comeback after a huge crash for me where I lost my voice completely. I’d gone through a second paresis. I had to have more surgeries to fix collateral damage. I mean, I’ve had six surgeries over the years, not to deal with the neurological problem, it’s more because you’re straining because it’s hard to sing with this, so you tear it up in other ways that they have to go and fix. But I’ve found a coach that I really love who taught me a lot of stuff. I think he really saved my career after that total crash, because I had nothing. I didn’t have a note from about 2006 to 2009; it was just awful. So I got with this coach and learned a bunch of stuff that I’d never been taught before and really worked his technique and got back out on the road in 2010 with Cinderella and it’s been getting better and better every year since. His name’s Ron Anderson.
Whitman: I’d imagine some of the early Cinderella stuff is particularly challenging for anybody to hit, let alone someone who’s had some vocal problems?
Keifer: Yeah, some of the upper, upper notes … for a long time I had to alter melodies and even the more mid-to-moderate notes in those songs. And the really in-the-stratosphere ones were out of the question for the longest time. I’m kind of back to where the melodies of the songs that are more in the middle are no problem for me anymore, and I’m actually starting to hit some of the stratosphere stuff again, so I’m excited about that (laughs).
Whitman: Are you still singing your songs in their original keys?
Keifer: Yeah, it’s still all keyed the same. And we never tuned down. “Night Songs” I think was tuned down a hair, I think at 430, but all of the Cinderella records other than that were 440 and we never tuned down live or anything.
Whitman: When you see some veteran artists these days, it seems like their classic songs are being sung a lot lower than they used to be.
Keifer: Yeah. And that’s fine. I like, with my solo singing, that energy … up high is good, because it’s got that cut and that high-end energy. And as long I can do that I’m going to do it. I guess because I sing a lot of the stuff in a head voice, sometimes it’s easier to be a little bit higher.
Whitman: What is the current status of Cinderella? Are you on hiatus?
Keifer: Yeah, just on hiatus. Like I said, we did three years in a row, and really toured pretty heavy for those three years. We did Europe twice, the states three times, we even went down to South America. So, at the end of last year we decided to take a break, and it just so happened that my record was finished, and I just signed this deal with Merovee Records, who is doing a great job with it. And I got straight back on the road! And I’m doing something a little different this year. It’s fun!
Whitman: So do you foresee getting back with Cinderella for touring or recording?
Keifer: Definitely touring, I’m sure. Over the years, we’ve got incredible fans out there who’ve just been supportive of us regardless of new music or not. They love the old stuff, and every time we go out to play, they just turn out and they make it feel like it’s the first time we’ve ever played “Nobody’s Fool.” They’re great. We’d love to do some new music; that just would depend on the right opportunity to come along, a label that’s serious about producing a new record and really doing things right. So, that’s where that’s at. We’ll see.
Whitman: I saw you recently on VH1 Classic’s That Metal Show … not sure if it was your episode, but on a recent show Eddie Trunk did a rant about the classification of bands like yours as “hair metal,” that he feels it’s a derogatory term. How do you feel about that? Do you feel like you’re lumped in with bands like Poison or Warrant, perhaps unfairly?
Keifer: Well, first let me say that I don’t have any problem with any of the bands of the 80s, or being lumped in with any of them. I think everyone had their own style, and people have different tastes in music. Obviously, all of the bands in the 80s had their fans, so there people out there who loved their music—it’s not for me to judge. So it’s not about being lumped in with anything. Most of the bands from the 80s I really like, so let’s start there. To me the sad thing about the term “Hair Metal” is that it just put the focus on the look and not the music. And I think a lot of music has been disregarded or discounted in some way because of a look, and that’s just stupid to me, because every decade has a look. The 60s were … you want to talk about big hair? I mean, I’ve seen pictures of Clapton with a ‘fro that went past his shoulders. And I look at that and go, “I love Eric Clapton, but people want to talk about what we looked like?” (laughs) Every decade you can look … it’s like looking back at your old high school pictures, it’s like “Ooooooh,” you know. So everybody matures eventually into who they are. The 50s had a look, the 60s had a look, the 70s had a look, and the 80s had an extremely over-the-top look because of the visual factor that was added by MTV and videos. So we were all influenced by the 70s and probably the 60s a little bit. I loved Janis Joplin and Steven Tyler and Mick Jagger and Bowie and Rod Stewart, and I think a lot of my peers in the 80s loved that kind of stuff too. Now you got the medium of the visual videos, and I think everyone was just trying to push the envelope and be more outrageous than the next. And honestly, that wasn’t just in the hard rock scene. It was in the pop scene too—I mean, look at Cyndi Lauper, look at Madonna, look at Boy George. Every envelope was being pushed in every way it could be in the 80s and it’s because there was a whole new outlet to express yourself, and it’s the thing that really everything got pinned on, unfortunately. Like I said, I think a lot of great music has been discounted as a result of just the look of the decade or the style of the decade that every decade has had. So that’s what I think is sad about that.
Whitman: Well said. You make a good point—it’s just a label that categorizes a lot of diverse bands. And like you said, Cinderella had a lot of blues and rootsy rock influences in your music.
Keifer: Yeah. And they were diverse. Like you said, the music was diverse … all of the bands, if you close your eyes and don’t look at the look, the difference between Guns ‘N’ Roses’ sound, Poison, Def Leppard, Cinderella, Tesla, Warrant, Ratt … very different-sounding vocalists on all of those bands, and everyone had their own style and there really was a lot of diversity and a lot of color to the 80s and the music. It’s sad to define it all by an image when, really, every decade has had an image.
Whitman: But over the years, those bands have survived, a lot of them are still going.
Keifer: Yeah! I mean, I’m still shocked every time we walk onstage—pleasantly shocked. And I go, “Wow!” I remember in the mid-90s thinking things were over, and then all of the sudden it just turned back around and we’re back on ampitheater and arena stages, and it’s just kind of crazy.
Whitman: Whereas a lot of bands that were supposed to replace your generation are gone …
Keifer: Well, I’m sure a lot of the bands from the 90s are still hanging in there. There’s a lot from the 80s that have gone by the wayside and a lot that survived and probably the same with the 90s. Again, every decade has almost the same story, you know?
Whitman: What kind of gear do you use—guitars, amps, that kind of thing?
Keifer: For guitars, I’ve played pretty much since I was a kid, vintage stuff, the classics. I love Fender and Gibson guitars, Gretsch, Marshall amps and I’m talking the early 70s stuff, late 60s-early 70s, a lot of the old Fender black panel amps and tweed amps. I’ve collected that stuff over the years and I’ve had a lot of cool old Gibson tweed tremolo amps. I love that sound, I think it’s pure and raw. I’m not a big pedal guy. I like to just plug into an old Marshall Super Lead with an old Les Paul and just crank it up, you know? And I’m pretty simplistic when it comes to guitars,.and I find between a Telecaster, a Strat, a Les Paul and a Gretsch, and a good old Marshall, with all of the different pickup settings and tone knobs and volume controls and stuff, you can get just about any damn sound you want, without even adding a pedal.
Whitman: So, what is next? Where do you go from here?
Keifer: Well, I’ve always taken life one day at a time, because, like I said, things seemed pretty dark in the 90s and then things changed. I’ve learned in life that it’s one day at a time, because you never know what’s around the corner, so you just live today the best you can.
Check out The Way Life Goes at tomkeifer.com