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Interview: Tom Keifer

It’s not often that one gets to speak with the man whose band’s ballads used to rock her to sleep as they played late at night on the local ‘80s radio station. And yet, here I found myself wondering what Tom Keifer (Cinderella’s vocalist and now solo artist) would be like during our scheduled call. After all, ‘80s metal is known for its loud personalities, larger-than-life image, and often-devilish behavior. Would he be as loud as his hair used to be big, or the king of one-word answers? Open to discussing his past music or focused on his solo work? Would it be easy for us to get along?

Keifer has a decades-long history in rock and roll, playing guitar in a band in middle school and eventually being a guitarist/rotating vocalist for cover bands in the Philadelphia/South New Jersey circuit. Coming to the realization that no one could sing the songs he’d written the way he envisioned, Keifer made the transition to full-time vocalist and fronted Cinderella. Initially discovered by Gene Simmons and later on by Jon Bon Jovi, Cinderella made a lasting impression on glam metal and hard rock—with hits like “Nobody’s Fool” and “Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Till It’s Gone)” destined to be replayed over the years.

It all came crashing down in the early ‘90s when Keifer was diagnosed with a paralysis of his left vocal chord and told he would never be able to sing again. Several surgeries—to correct damage made as a result of his condition, rather than the paralysis itself—and years of working with vocal coaches later, Keifer began recording the songs that eventually made their way onto his solo release, The Way Life Goes (a deluxe edition of which is on the horizon).

Credentials aside, Keifer is down to earth. He seems like the type of guy you’d bond with over having kids or similar tastes in music—a cool dad who doesn’t like to brag. This realism and lack of attitude is something to be enjoyed in Keifer’s lyric-driven work, whether a classic Cinderella album or his solo work. Add in a bluesy, rock and roll background, and a voice able to unleash raw screams at one moment and croons worthy of any top-billed country artist the next, and you’ve got a recipe for a good time.

As such, The Way Life Goes is fresh. It’s exciting. Above all else, it’s worth a listen and worth listening to live during one of Keifer’s many tour dates (listed at the end of this post).

ME: To start, you’ve been touring pretty steadily since the release of your album, The Way Life Goes, and I was wondering what life looks like when not on the road.

Keifer: When I’m not on tour, it’s about family. Savannah and I have a twelve-year-old son who is just everything to us. He’s got quite a crazy schedule in terms of sports, so we go to all of his games and try to support him the way he supports us. He goes out on the road with us when he’s not in school or busy with his games.

That’s really what it’s about for us when we get home. We’re just a tight-knit family, and that’s our priority other than the touring and the music, which we love doing.

ME: Sounds like a nice way to break from music.

Keifer: Yeah. To me, the perfect evening when we’re not touring is for us to go have a good meal, come home to our house, sit in our living room, hang out, light some candles, and watch a movie. We’re homebodies because of how much we travel.

ME: Something that stood out for me with your songwriting process and live shows is that your wife is part of everything. What’s it like to work with someone who’s such a big part of your home life?

Keifer: Oh, it’s been amazing. She’s an incredible songwriter and an artist and singer in her own right. We write from the same place—the song always starts with the lyrics for us—so we have that in common. We take it a word, a note, and a melody at a time, and then connect the dots to get that lyric or melody. That’s the way I like to write, and she does, too. It always has to be something from real-life experience and real inspiration. It’s never forced, and it’s never, “Oh, we’ve got to finish this song today.”

Some of the songs on the record were written very quickly. Then for others, we took a year of just coming back to the song and writing when we felt like it. It’s a very easy process, because we both have that mindset.

ME: How long have you two been married?

Keifer: We got married in 2002, so [long pause] that’s how long. [Laughs]

ME: Do you have any advice for other couples? It sounds like you two have a really strong connection.

Keifer: You have to support each other. You have to realize that you’re in it together. Savannah and I have that mentality. You have to balance each other and support each other. You both can be having a bad day at the same time, and that’s pretty common [laughs], so you’ve got to try to help each other. That’s important.

ME: Thank you for sharing that. Moving on to your performances, they often include a mixture of your newer solo work and the older Cinderella songs as well. What’s the method behind choosing which songs from each to feature?

Keifer:
With the Cinderella stuff, there are songs everybody wants to hear and sing. That’s the area where we have room to play with changing the set up a bit, but we always include those in the show. I think we’re doing five songs from the new record right now. Three of them are singles, so those are obvious choices, but then we picked a couple of our favorite album tracks, too. Pacing a set where we’re mixing these songs together so that they flow in and out of the old material was something we had to really give some thought to.

The new stuff’s been going down probably as well as the old stuff, which has been a really pleasant surprise, especially for something new and released years later to be played alongside things that were such huge hits. The big concern was how it was going to be received, so we feel fortunate that the fans are supporting our new stuff, too.

ME: Do you have a favorite song to perform?

Keifer: “Shelter Me” has always been a favorite. “Nobody’s Fool” was also one I always enjoyed playing live, as is “Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Till It’s Gone).” That’s one where we’ve played with the arrangement since I’ve been out solo. Savannah and I did an acoustic version for a VH1 collection quite a few years back. When I started touring solo, we had a little acoustic section in the middle of the show between all the rock stuff. We brought everything down. We’ve been doing the acoustic version for the last couple of the years on the road, which is really beautiful, and fans have loved that.

We thought this year was time to change it up, so we have a new version of “Don’t Know What You’ve Got” that combines the—you just have to see it. It’s pretty cool. We brought the piano back, and we’ve been doing this version for the past couple of nights.

ME: I can’t wait to see it. Those are some of my favorite songs, too.

Keifer: Oh, thank you.

ME: I had read in a couple of your past interviews that your personality offstage is different than on stage. Was it easy to take over that front man persona when being more reserved in your personal life?

Keifer: Kind of. I’ve heard myself described sometimes as moody. I’m not really moody. [Laughs] I’m just quiet. I’m not loud, and I’m not a narcissistic kind of person. It’s not moodiness. I’m a very happy person.

The only way I can describe what happens onstage is that there’s a switch. The adrenaline goes so high. The crowd starts, and the music starts. It’s not conscious. I get taken over by that adrenaline, and just become this high-energy thing that’s not what you usually see when hanging out with me. [Laughs]

It builds as the show goes, too. Most nights, I can barely walk off stage. I’ve been carried off stage, because I sweat so much and get dehydrated. It’s a crazy experience. Savannah sometimes tells me, “You’ve got to back it down. I’m worried about you.” I wish I could. I don’t know how to once the adrenaline hits.

ME: Was that adrenaline switch something that happened when you first began performing, or was it something you had to gear yourself up for at first?

Keifer: When I was cutting my teeth up in the clubs in Philly and South Jersey, I just played guitar. They were all cover bands, and I was a guy that would sing a little when the lead singer went to take a break—because those bands would do like five sets a night. So I would sing some of the high-pitched Zeppelin stuff. Then when I started writing music, there weren’t any singers in the area that sounded the way I heard the music in my head. So I decided I was going to try singing my own stuff. I was never a front man before that or anything.

So I decided that I was going to try to sing my own stuff. It was my first time trying it, but I wasn’t scared or freaked out about it. I was just like: “This is what I hear in my head so I’m going to do it.” We cut a couple of four-track demos—some of which are pretty bad. My voice has developed over the years. I’ve learned a lot. [Laughs]

I didn’t feel like I had to get over anything, because I’ve always felt that adrenaline even when I just played guitar. When Cinderella formed, I put myself on my own shoulders and went the whole way of being the front man and singer. It never felt like a weight or a burden. I liked it. It was cool.

ME: Touring can be described as a tough process. I was wondering how you keep your voice going throughout all the shows, especially with everything that’s happened over the years.

Keifer:
Well, that’s the only thing that feels a little bit like pressure. The whole show is riding on this quarter inch piece of flesh that’s down in your throat. It’s actually a very delicate instrument, especially when you sing with a lot of intensity. Some mornings you wake up, and it’s like, “Good lord, how am I going to sing tonight?”

Without going into the whole story—because it’s been documented so much—I was told I would never sing again, because I had a paralyzed vocal chord. It took me years to train it back. In the process of that, I’ve learned so much from working with coaches that I have a routine now. I’ve learned like the classical opera support stuff. [It’s helpful] on those days when I wake up and feel a little off, and those days after screaming all of the night before. [Laughs] The therapy and work out/warm up that I do really stretches things back out and opens them again. I highly recommend training with a good coach—and the best one is Ron Anderson—and learning that routine and support. It’s gotten me through some things that I didn’t think I was going to get through.

As you get older, that’s even more important, because your voice changes. On top of it, I had a neurological paralysis that was a completely different issue to deal with. Taking that aside, even a healthy voice that doesn’t have to deal with that [can suffer] as you get older. Your body doesn’t hydrate the same anymore. Everything changes, so working with a coach is always a good thing. I never did it back years ago when I was touring with Cinderella. I would just jump out of bed, and go sing and scream all night, every night without a problem. A lot of times, I hear singers say, “Oh, I wish I could still hit those notes.” And it’s like, “You can. You’re right in saying that age has taken your voice, but there are things you can do to bring it back.”

ME: Do the exercises ever bother you?

Keifer: I enjoy the therapy and exercises, because they calm me down. A lot of it has to do with breathing, almost like yoga combined with the vocalizing. I’ll have a hectic day—sound check and press, guests, and this and that. Then it’s, “When am I going to eat?” A couple of hours before the show, I close the door—I’m wound tight through the day—and the exercises bring me into a calm place.

I like it. Sometimes, it can feel a little monotonous because I do it at home, too, to keep in shape. Then it’s just kind of like, “Oh OK, here we go again with the same old scales.” But I’ll take that over any diagnosis of you’re never going to sing again. That’s not a fun one to hear.

ME: I can’t even imagine. I was hoping you could tell me a little bit more about your solo album, which is a fusion of hard rock, country, and blues. I’ve noticed that it’s been attributed to a move to Nashville, but is that true?

Keifer: A lot of people have that perception, but starting with the second record, Cinderella had a pretty heavy blues feel once we progressed into a production that painted the picture a little more. The songwriting always came from the same place through my songs on all the Cinderella records and now my solo record, and that would be words-inspired hard rock. My heroes were The Stones, Zeppelin, Rod Stewart, and Janice Joplin—lyrically and melodically, they’re all based on blues and even little touches of country. The lyrics are about real, everyday things, the ups and downs of life, the good times, the bad times, falling in love, falling out of love, and overcoming adversity.

I think what’s sometimes perceived as a change in style is that we didn’t know what the hell we were doing in the studio when we made the first record. We had a veteran producer who came in and said, “You guys are a bunch of crap. I’ve got to teach you how to play.” And he made a very basic record. It didn’t get real complicated. It’s two guitars, bass, drums, and the vocals.

As we grew as a band, we started painting the picture differently, but with the same style of music and writing. We started bringing in different instrumentation and that kind of thing. I see it as all the same style of music. We just got better at painting the landscape and the picture as the years went on. I see my solo record as a continuation of that. In hindsight, we probably would have liked to have seen some of those colors on the first record, but I think Andy was too busy teaching us how to make a record [laughs]. So that’s kind of my take on that.

ME: I know the deluxe edition is coming out soon. What inspired the new songs, the behind-the-scenes videos, or even the art package?

Keifer: There are so many things that we’ve been talking about doing since we’ve been touring these last few years. We’ve wanted to record with the band we’re touring with, who we feel are just a band that was meant to be. Before the record came out, I thought I was going to audition people for months to find the right people, and the same people that are touring right now with this band are the first ones who walked into the room that first night. There are some songs we’ve wanted to record. We’ve wanted to do a documentary with Tammy Vega, who is an amazing photographer and videographer who’s been traveling with the band.

The wheels really started turning on what to do with all of these ideas when I was given a gift by my tour manager last year, which was a collage of illustrations by an artist named David Calcano who’s done stuff for Rush and Mr. Big and created this thing called Fantoons which is pretty popular. He’s a really cool artist. My tour manager commissioned him to make this collage of illustrations with the touring band and some illustrations that depicted the songs, the lyrics, life, and all of that stuff together. I remember opening it and thinking how much our world had expanded as a result of the release of this record and how many amazing people had come into my life.

Tammy Vega was sitting right across from me. I looked at her and was like: “Here’s another one.” And now this artist, as a result of the record, has come into our world. It just looks like what the album cover would look like if it were released today, because all of these people would have been included. They were building the house with us from the beginning.

It was like: “All right, let’s do a really special deluxe edition. We’ll do that documentary with Tammy. Now, we’re going to record the band. We’re going to do those songs we’ve wanted to record. We’re going to have David redesign the whole package.” It’s cool that the deluxe edition is a vehicle through which we can pool all of these talents and put all of these things we’ve been talking about together. They’re all things that came as a direct result of the record, including the songs that were recorded.

ME: So then the songs are not ones that wouldn’t have made the first version of the album?

Keifer: See, that’s the thing that’s different about this. I know deluxe editions are a lot of the time like, “Hey, here are a couple of songs that weren’t good enough to be in the record the first time out.” [Laughs] That’s not the case with this. We actually just recorded these songs two weeks ago, and we hired Vance Powell who is a four-time Grammy award-winning producer who’s worked with some really amazing people. So we intentionally went into the studio to record tracks we felt were special and were actually part of this whole project. That will make sense once we announce what those songs are.

Some people have asked, “Why don’t you make a new record?” Well, these tracks would not make sense on a new record. These tracks make sense with The Way Life Goes, much in the way of all the other things I described that came into our world as a result of the release.

ME: Since you initially recorded the album independently, I was wondering if there was anything that prompted you to not work with a label.

Keifer: When the record started, we weren’t even thinking it was a record. I had a really bad experience with a label prior to that. It ended up in a lawsuit. Savannah had a really bad experience with a label and a publisher just prior to that. We just wanted to go make music for the sake of making music with no lawyers. We weren’t even thinking it was a record. Whenever we had time, we’d go out to the studio, work with our friends, writers, and musicians. We’d write tracks, then get away from it for months on end. That’s why it took us ten years.

There was one point we woke up and was like: “Maybe this is a record. Don’t say it.” [Laughs] We felt we had something that was kind of special. I think the way we backed into it is special, because we weren’t trying to please anyone but ourselves and keep it real. Once we got to the point where we felt like this was a record, we knew we’d need to get some expertise in releasing it. We found a great label to put it out, and they’ve done a great job with it.

ME: This next question is a bit odd, but the ‘80s metal scene seemed very focused on image. Do you ever miss the big hair?

Keifer: I don’t miss it. My hair is still pretty long. I could chop it off and try to go with some contemporary modern look. [Laughs] I’m still longhaired—just maybe not quite as long or big—but my style is still pretty similar to what I was doing back then. Sometimes, you look back and it’s kind of like looking at yearbook pictures.

ME: Is there anything in particular that stands out to you?

Keifer: I had a lot of clothes back then. Designers were sending me stuff every day on the road. [Laughs] I have stuff that I never even wore still in boxes, because we were getting so much. There was one velvet coat I remember having that I wore until it almost fell apart. It’s in a Hard Rock somewhere. I liked that one. It was very plain and classic looking.

ME: My last question is just what to expect for the rest of 2016.

Keifer: We’re going to tour through the rest of the year. The deluxe set will be released in the summer, and the writing process for the new record has begun. We’re gathering seeds of lyric ideas and song ideas here and there. We hope to be making the new record in 2017.

We’re pretty sure there will be more touring with the release of the deluxe, which I think everyone will really like when they see what we’ve done. The artwork is insanely cool and the new tracks are great. The band sounds amazing with Vance in the studio. And for the documentary, I will mention that Tammy was in the studio when we were working with Vance cutting these tracks a couple of weeks ago. She had cameras hidden everywhere. [Laughs]

It’s really an intimate, inside look at the band working and creating these tracks. It’ll be a pretty full-length piece on not only that aspect, but also interviews with the band and road footage. It’s going to be pretty cool.

ME: Thank you for talking with me. I appreciate it.

Keifer: Thank you for having me.

Want to know more about Tom Keifer or listen to The Way Life Goes? Check out the following links or catch him on tour: Website | Facebook | Twitter

Upcoming Tour Dates:
Sat 4/23 – Fayetteville, NC @ Fayetteville Dogwood Festival
Thu 4/28 – Chester, PA @ The Block Entertainment Center/Harrah’s
Fri 4/29 – Englewood, NJ @ Bergen Performing Arts Center
Sat 4/30 – Columbia, MD @ M3 Rock Festival
Thu 5/12 – Dallas, TX @ Gas Monkey Live
Fri 5/13 – Houston, TX @ The Pub
Sat 5/14 – Kinder, LA @ Coushatta Casino Resort
Sat 5/28 – Herrin, IL @ HerrinFesta Italiana
Fri 6/3 – Nashville, TN @ Farm Rock
Fri 6/10 – Saginaw, MI @ FirstMerit Bank Event Park
Sat 6/11 – Elgin, IL @ Arcada Park
Wed 6/15 – Alameda, CA @ Alameda County Fair
Sat 6/18 – Tucson, AZ @ Kino Sports Center
Fri 6/24 – Uncasville, CT @ Mohegan Sun Arena
Fri 8/12 – Three Forks, MT @ Rockin’ The Rivers Music Festival
Sat 8/20 – Calgary, AB. @ Deerfoot Inn & Casino
* More dates to be announced.

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