Best known as the singer/songwriter/guitarist of the Philadelphia-based Blues-Rock band Cinderella, Tom Keifer is making his debut as a solo artist with the release of his long-awaited and highly-anticipated solo album, “The Way Life Goes,” on April 30th via Merovee Records (through Warner Music Group’s Independent Label Group). This powerful collection of 14 new songs ranges from intimate, organic, acoustic tracks to driving hard rock. It embraces the Blues, Rock and Country roots that have always been present in his unique sound that has generated the sale of over 15 million records worldwide for Cinderella. Rolling Stone praised Tom Keifer as “a gritty, bluesy (rocker) with enough genuine swagger to draw comparisons to Mick Jagger.” “The Way Life Goes” is a raw, introspective look at the roller coaster ride that has been Keifer’s life for the past 15 years. From being told that he would never sing again as a result of a partially paralyzed left vocal cord, to the emotional and personal battles that followed, his solo debut is a story of perseverance, a testament to the power of passion and will, when combined with a true love of music. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Tom Keifer to discuss his career in music, overcoming adversity, his evolution as an artist and the creation of his most personal album to date, “The Way Life Goes.”
Thanks for taking time out to speak with us today, Tom. We always like to start by getting a glimpse into the past. What are you earliest memories of music?
For me, it was The Ed Sullivan Show. That just blew my mind. There was also a TV show when I was really young called “The Monkees” and I watched it religiously. I loved that show. I loved the music. The songwriting by Mike Nesmith on that TV series was really great stuff. I started playing guitar when I was about eight. I had a teacher who came to the house and a little 3/4 acoustic guitar and he taught me Beatles songs, folk songs and stuff like that. We would just strung pretty basic chords and sing. He would make me sing the songs too, so it was almost like taking singer/songwriter lessons at the same time, to be honest! [laughs] That is where it started. As I got a little bit older, I remember hearing bands like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Bad Company, Janis Joplin and Rod Stewart. That is when I wanted to get an electric guitar. I am pretty much self-taught on electric guitar just from listening to Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Joe Walsh and Lindsey Buckingham. That is the music I really grew up on as a teenager in high school, as I was first learning to play music. It was that really amazing 70s rock!
What was it about music that made you pursue it as a career instead of following a different path?
I just loved it. I think from the time I picked up a guitar and started learning when I was eight, there is no other way I can put it, I just love what I do! I love playing music and I couldn’t really see myself doing anything else. I was never the most academic kid growing up. Actually, my Mom had to bribe me to finish high school with a Les Paul that she dangled over my head! [laughs] It was at the local music store and she said “If you finish high school, I will buy you that guitar.” That was the coveted guitar, a Gibson Les Paul. Yeah, I mean, it just felt like what I wanted to do from the time I was very young watching “The Monkees”. That grew into the hard rock stuff pretty quickly. Once I heard Zeppelin, it was all over!
With so many years under your belt in the music industry, to what do your longevity?
I don’t know. It is hard to say. Who knows! I think for every musician or band out there, there is probably just something about them that clicks with their fans and could be different for everybody. It is hard to say. I think if we could all put our finger on that, we could bottle and sell it, right?! [laughs] I will say that I have honestly, 120%, put my heart into the music and tried to make the best music I can make and give the best performance live. It has always been my motivation. Maybe that is it, I don’t know.
There was a period of time where you thought you might never sing again. Can you take us through that period and the process of overcoming that tremendous obstacle?
It was a long period of time, actually. It started in the early-90s. We were on the “Heartbreak Station” tour, which was our third record. We were almost to the end of the tour and literally overnight my voice started cracking and breaking. Every time I went to hit a note it would just fall apart. I liken it to the little kid on the “Lil’ Rascals,” Alfalfa, who when he sang it would break and crack, ya know! [laughs] It just freaked me out. Obviously! Even in my speaking voice got weaker and it would also crack and breakup if I tried to raise it. Long story short, this was about 1991, I immediately started going to throat doctors. I had never really gone to one before because I never had any trouble with my voice. I had always heard that singers, particularly rock singers, over the years would develop these things called nodes. They are calluses that grow on your vocal chords from screaming or intense singing. Although it is not anything that anyone ever wants to get, it can be dealt with by having them lasered off. You have a little recovery period but most people are fine, ya know? I figured that is what I had and the first doctor I went to I told him I had been on tour for years and I may have nodes. He looked down with the scope and said “No. There is nothing on your vocal chords at all.” I asked him, “Why is my voice doing this?” and he said “I don’t know.” That started a series of going to other doctors and specialists for probably another year and a half or two years. Everyone kept telling me the same thing, “There is nothing wrong with your vocal chords.” Finally, a doctor that I went to ran a different kind of test, a neurological test and told me that one of my vocal chords was partially paralyzed. That is not something that is easily spotted on the scope that the other doctors were looking at. If you know you are looking for it, you might spot it but they vibrate so fast, the reduction on them is not as obvious visually. He had to uncover it with a neurological test and that was the diagnosis.
The doctor said “You know, you are probably never going to sing again.” This was in about 1992 or 1993. There is no surgery or medicine that can fix this condition. The only chance you have to sing again is to try and retrain your voice, which is not an exact science. I started working with speech pathologists. Then when I started to learn how to hold pitches again, I started working with vocal coaches. It has been an ongoing learning process. I get to points where I just learned enough to go out and tour. We made the “Still Climbin’” record but I recorded those vocals very differently than I was used to. I used to just go in and sing the song. On “Still Climbin’” I was singing a line at a time. There was a lot of comping and studio magic. We toured for a couple of months on that one. There was an up and down ride with it because you would think you are getting better and then it would get worse. Over the years, I have learned more and more and I have kept working with more people and coaches and learning new things. It has been a cumulative process of taking in all that knowledge, trial and error, experimentation, therapy and doing vocal exercises everyday that has allowed me to get it to a place where it is pretty consistent. I have been touring a lot in recent years and it is pretty strong! In some ways it is stronger, you know? Certain areas of my voice are stronger because I have had so much training.
One of the things that was difficult throughout this time, if that wasn’t difficult enough, was that you keep trying to sing with this condition and since it is a hard condition to sing wit, it puts a lot more stress on your voice. I have sustained a lot of collateral damage along the way that required surgical intervention to fix. I have had quite a few hemorrhages and done damages to the chords themselves. I have had six surgeries to repair damage from straining. Like I said, it is a long story. It has been years or struggling with this up and down. The good news is over the years, I have been able to put together enough pieces of the puzzle together and figure out what I need to do to keep it consistent and keep on track.
It is really inspiring to hear what you were up against and your determination to push through. You new album is called “The Way Life Goes.” That seems to mirror your take on your struggles along the way. How did you arrive at the title and what does it mean to you personally?
There is a song on the record called “The Way Life Goes”. Lyrically, that song is about the irony of some of the twists and turns that life throws at us. You are in a certain situation and think it is one thing but it turns out to not be. Things are not always what they appear to be. My writing, for the most part, is inspired by life. The songs always start with a lyrical inspiration because that is my background having grown up on people like Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and those kinda things. They were inspired by American roots music, like country and blues. It is all about real, everyday things. It is about good times and bad times, falling in and out of love and all of that. This record continues in that fashion. I just decided to make that one song the title track because it seemed to sum up the album. All of the songs are about life.
You put the album together over the course of several years. Can you tell us about that process and what made now the time to release it?
It was almost ten years in the making. We started cutting tracks in 2003. The idea of a solo record was something I started thinking of in the mid-90s. I started writing then for it and it kept getting put on the back burner. I had tons of songs piling up and finally in 2003 started cutting tracks for a record. It was cut independently of a label because I had just come out of a bad record deal with Cinderella a few years before that. I didn’t want to deal with a label, lawyers and people telling me what to do. I just wanted to make some music! That is how the record started. I produced it with Savannah, my wife, and a friend of ours here named Chuck Turner. He is a really talented producer and engineer. We just kinda worked on it until it felt right. To answer your question about “Why now?,” it is as simple as this. About a year ago, I woke up and pressed play and though it was done! [laughs] Then we started the process of finding a label. That was always the idea all the way along, once the music was done and created, we would go and find a label because I don’t know about marketing a record in this day and age. [laughs] We shopped it around from there. I actually completed the music about a year to even a year and a half, I can’t remember. We finally found a great place at Merovee Records. It feels like home and the first meeting with them like “Bam!” and here we are!
What is your typically process for songwriting? Did it differ at all for this record?
It will usually start with a lyric, like I said. Sometimes a melody will come to you and you will hear it in your head. That can happen anywhere. I can be in a Home Depot on aisle five when I hear a lyric or a melody in my head that I want to write a song about. Usually, it is a race to get to an instrument to try and work out what I am hearing in my head. On this record, I did a lot more co-writing than I normally do. I am not real good at coming into a room and sitting down with no idea and writing a song. I have never really done that. Even with the co-writes, usually I would bring in some idea that had hit me when I was riding on an airplane one day or something like that. I always try to stick with the real inspiration that I had, ya know, like if you were driving down the road and something caught your eye and triggered something. In my experience, the best songs and the songs I think people can relate to and feel real come from those experiences, so that is where I have always tried to start.
Looking back on the entire process of bringing this album to life, what do you consider the biggest challenge involved?
The biggest hassle was the mixing. All of the songwriting was really fun because I never force it, as I just described, I just try to let that happen. That was fun and it was fun writing with other people. I wrote with Savannah, my wife, who is a great songwriter and a lot of other really great writers. That was a fun, new experience for me. Cutting the tracks was incredible. We used some really amazing musicians here and the overdub process and editing process was enjoyable too. When we got to the mixing stage, I really had this sound in my head that just wasn’t happening. We went through, at last count, 17 or 18 mix engineers! A lot of that time was spent on mixing and thinking we were there. Then we would live with it and say “Wow. We aren’t really there.” We would be disappointed and have to step away from it for a few months and go look for somebody else. It was a bit of a process! Every record has it’s path that it takes and at the end of the day with the sound or quality, I got as close I ever have. You are never really 100% satisfied! [laughs] I am pretty proud of it and I feel the time we put into it was worth it.
I know you went out on the initial leg of your first solo tour. What was that experience like for you?
It was great, man! Probably my favorite part of all of this is the touring part and playing music live. I say that because it is a true moment, a pure moment. You are not thinking “Can I do that vocal again?” It is what it is, ya know? [laughs] There is no “Can I cut that part over?” No, this is live! It is great because you go out and have fun. It was really cool. We did a bunch of new stuff off of the record and a bunch of the Cinderella tracks. I have a great band here. That was part of the process of going out this early in front of the record. It was February when we went out and that was months before the record was going to come out. I wanted to get tight with the members of the band, become a band, learn how to play these new songs on the road and all that stuff. I also wanted to give the fans a chance to hear some of the new stuff. We are doing a lot of the new stuff in the show. We purposely picked really small rooms so it would feel more intimate because part of the show was a sit down acoustic thing where I do some storytelling about how some of the songs where written, both new and old. The show really ranges from the storyteller’s aspect to a whole bunch of really blistering, high energy rock. There is a lot in the show.
Looking back on your career, how do you feel you have evolved as an artist since starting out?
I don’t know. It is hard to be objective about yourself! [laughs] What I have tried to do is become a better songwriter, performer and singer. Obviously, the singing thing has been a challenge because of the condition I have. I do think, in a lot of ways, because of all the training I have had, I do think in a lot of ways my voice is better than it was. It is still a challenge and I don’t know what it will do from day to day. It stills borders being inconsistent. On the good days it is better in a lot of ways than it used to be. I think I have grown a lot in that area. I think as a songwriter, moving to Nashville was a really great move because the way that I write, which is lyrics from life situations, is what all the writers do here. That is the process here. I learned a lot from moving here and inspired by the amazing writers that call Nashville home. That is what it is all about to me — always trying to write a bette song.
Is there anything you would differently in your career if you had a chance?
Nah! [laughs] Maybe I would mix the first two Cinderella albums a little bit differently. Someone asked me that the other day and it was the only thing I could think of. At the end of the day, they are what they are and they were very successful. I think what we grew into on “Long Cold Winter” and then into “Heartbreak Station” was really more of where the band was coming from. I would say that is not the only thing and I am not even sure I would do that. Life keeps moving forward and you can’t think too much about the past. We have been really fortunate and have had a lot of great times and success. I feel grateful to have been a part of it all and it still continues.
With that said, is there any interest on your part in creating new music for Cinderella?
We would love to but for as much as we would like to, we haven’t really had the right opportunity or deal presented to us. We had the one deal, which I mentioned, that really went south about ten years ago. We worked really, really hard on that and that is when I really started my solo record because we were in a legal battle in the courts over this record deal. The other guys kinda did the same thing to. Everybody went out and started doing their own things. We continued to tour as a band and that has been great for us! We have done some really, really great tours and it is our favorite part of the business anyway! We haven’t been in any hurry to jump back into a record deal after we got burnt so bad. That isn’t to say that we wouldn’t. To answer your question, we never say never. It is not for a lack of desire on our part, it is just has to be the right situation.
How do you view the music industry today on a whole as opposed to what is was during your early years in Cinderella?
Obviously, it has changed in a lot of ways but in a lot of ways it is still the same. I think the most important thing is to create some great music. That should always be the priority and focus because, ultimately, that is what the fans and listeners want. They want something really great. I think what motivates artists and bands hasn’t changed or shouldn’t change, even though it is a little more challenging in the current environment with budgets being less and labels putting less money into developing artists and music. That is one of the things that has changed as result of downloading and lost revenues. Even though that is going on, you have to find a way around it and still make sure you are creating quality music because that is what people want! In that sense, it is still the same game. You want to do your best but it is a challenge because of how the industry is collapsing on itself. That is really why I wanted to do my record independently of a label. I have a very good friend who put the money up for it and said “When it’s done, it’s done!” I said “I like that!” [laughs] That way there wasn’t any cutting the music short because of timeframe and budget. A lot of artists are up against that now. When you are signed to a label, you are on their time and on their dime. A lot of times that dictates when the music is done. A lot of times, the music isn’t always done! [laughs]
The album isn’t still very fresh for you and hits stores next month. Is another record something we might see you tackling sooner rather than later?
I don’t know. We will see. I am just taking this one day at a time. I put a lot if effort and energy into this record and I don’t even really want to think making another one right now to be honest! [laughs]
Your dedication to the album really shows. You have a bunch of terrific material on there.
Thank you. I appreciate that!
We have covered a lot of ground but I am still curious about a few things. What is the best part of being Tom Keifer these days and what does the future hold for you?
The best part for me is that I love what I do in terms of being a musician. That is great but the family to me is the priority always. It is two very different things but there is nothing like when you get to come home and I see Savannah and Jaden. I get to play with my son and I always look forward to that more than anything in life. He has really changed our world. I love watching him grow and learn. That is good stuff! The future? I don’t know, more good times, right? [laughs] I am playing shows, continuing to tour and watching my son grow. There is a lot of good music in the show — new old and everything in between.
Thanks for your time today, Tom. It is an honor to help spread the word on your work.
I appreciate it, man. I really do. I appreciate your support and help with all of this!
Great! Until we speak again, stay out of trouble! All the best to you!
You to man! Great talking to you!