Any discussion of hard-rock, or even glam-metal, from the 1980's is woefully incomplete without Pennsylvania's Cinderella receiving a good chunk of chatter. In 1988 Tom Keifer and crew began an impressive run of hitting high on the sales charts and video countdowns. Monster ballads such as "Nobody's Fool" and "Don't Know What You Got ('Til It's Gone)" still elicit open-throated, drunken sing-alongs when a bar's jukebox busts them out.
But as the 1990's began, Keifer faced faced a battle much tougher than any of the addictions he had overcome years prior due to the paralysis of his left vocal cord. A singer known for his ability to shatter glass with his raspy wail, it took years of surgeries and hard work to get back to a point he was comfortable singing. Now 53, those years of struggle culminated in his 2013 solo debut, The Way Life Goes.
Keifer and his band will be in Dallas to play 97.1 The Eagle's annual BFD on Sunday. DC9 at Night had the chance to discuss his painful and uncertain recovery and transition from headliner to the bottom of a bill.
DC9 at Night: It's been a long time now since you were sidelined with your vocal cord issues. Do you ever feel like your voice could be gone at any given moment, even now?
Keifer: I went through hell and I battled for a very long time. I was diagnosed with vocal cord paralysis in the early '90s and I was told I'd never sing again because there wasn't any medical cure for it. I was told the only chance I had would be by retraining my voice using a speech pathologist and vocal trainers, which is now what I've done for years. But even after that, there were times where I couldn't sing at all, and plenty of times when my voice wasn't near 100 percent.
Was there a particular point where you felt you'd turned a corner?
In 2009, I met vocal coach Ron Anderson, and he really put it all together for me, and I've been using his techniques ever since. I've done three Cinderella tours and I'm now on my second tour for the solo record since I worked with Anderson, and my voice is as reliable as it's ever been. I do my exercises daily, but I don't worry about my voice leaving me like I used to. My confidence in my voice is back.
I imagine that for you, having that confidence in being able to sing when you need to is as important as actually being able to sing, isn't it?
Yes. Confidence is such a big part of my singing. You want to feel like you know what's going to come out when you open your mouth to sing. It is very much a mental thing in that respect. It's not an exact science, so I'm lucky that I've figured as much out as I have so far.
Even with your vocal troubles, it's a bit surprising that it took as long as it did to release a solo album. You started work on it over a decade ago. What was the process behind recording and releasing it finally?
There were so many factors going into why it took so long. The voice issues didn't help, of course. I started recording tracks for this record on the heels of a record deal that had gone bad for Cinderella, which had us in court for a while. We couldn't officially record anything as a band during that point, so the solo songs I worked on acted as a healing process, sort of, and it was all done independently of record label. It was always a labor of love for me. After ten years, I woke up one day and thought, "Hey, there's a record here."
Working with your pick of people and without a record label gave you a great deal of freedom. How did that play into what you recorded?
We funded the album ourselves, so it was good to not have record label involvement as we recorded the album. But the freedom we had didn't really help us musically, because musically, I didn't really need it. I was playing the kind of music I love, just as I always did with Cinderella. I would never allow someone to force a style on me I wasn't interested in. The high-energy, blues-infused hard rock I like gives me room to mix in the ballads with the hard-driving stuff if I think it fits. Now, the freedom to take as long as I wanted to finish recording the album was cool.
Was that different than in the early days?
With Cinderella, all of our records were scheduled and budgeted and we would usually work six days and nights a week to finish an album. You can lose objectivity working that way. With this record, I was able to leave songs for a while, and come back to them and to take another look to see if the song really worked or not. With this record, it was just about the music, because I really didn't plan on turning it into a record for a very long time.
Your music indeed has always had an infusion of blues sounds. Do you feel like the current hard-rock chart-toppers have gotten away from the influence the blues has had on rock and roll?
Hard rock and active rock formats have taken a turn away from the blues. I don't know why the format seems to resist it now. I've actually listened to a good bit of Top 40 music on satellite radio, because "The Flower Song" was actually getting played on it. I haven't normally listened to much Top 40 music in the past, but I have heard lots of roots influences, saxophone, harmonica and singers with real soul in their voices in that format. There are still some singers in hard-rock with a sense of blues and soul, but I wish there were more.
The production on your solo record is rather sparse when compared to early Cinderella albums. Were you purposely going for a different vibe with this project?
I learned with [1990's platinum-selling Cinderella album] Heartbreak Station that I need to stay sonically up-to-date. At that point, I was really over the slick, processed '80s sound. I never really wanted that with Cinderella's first two records, but I was green and young going into the studio for them. They still sound very processed to me. But after learning what I didn't like, as we were recording Heartbreak Station, I kept telling the engineer to turn off all of the effects. I did that for this record. You can't go wrong when you just let the honest, dry sounds hit you in the face.
In the late-1980's Cinderella would've headlined a show like the one you're playing here in Dallas. What is like now, at this stage of your career to be playing early in the day, or on some smaller stages than you used to perform on?
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The approach is the same in the sense that you walk out and play the best show that you can every time. I know that being the front man of a successful band that's gone solo, I can't expect to take the entire Cinderella fan base with me. That's not how it goes for anyone lead-singer that does this. In these cases, we'll naturally be lower on the ladder a bit, but that's fine with me. It's a natural part of this process.
Looking back, what would you tell a 25-year-old Tom Keifer that he doesn't already know?
I'd make sure that I never let fear get in the way of a great opportunity. Just to go for it. I've always been pretty good about that, but I'm sure I missed out on some great things because I was too nervous to take advantage of them. But I don't really live with regret in that way. Oh, I would tell him to take better care of his voice and learn how to produce his sound vocally better so that my recovery would've been much easier!