In the mid-‘80s, Tom Keifer was one of hard rock’s premier power-singers, with his distinctively sandpapery vocals setting his 15-million-album-selling band Cinderella’s bloozy barnstormers — like “Shake Me,” “Nobody's Fool,” “Somebody Save Me,” and “Gypsy Road” — apart from the rest of the Headbangers Ball pack. But Keifer’s voice was almost silenced for good in the early ‘90s (Cinderella’s final studio album was released in 1994), after he injured his vocal cord so grievously that he was told he would never sing again. It was almost as if the chorus to Cinderella’s biggest hit, “Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone),” was tragically coming true.
Fast-forward to 2019, and Keifer is sounding stronger, louder, and prouder than ever with his eponymous group of the past six years and his second solo album, the optimistically titled Rise, out Sept. 13. The music video for the album’s defiant lead single, “The Death of Me,” addresses the 58-year-old rocker’s medical struggles (as well as record-label lawsuits that derailed Cinderella, who have no immediate plans to reunite). Keifer recently sat down with Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume to discuss his against-all-odds recovery and why he refused to let a damning diagnosis be the death of his career.
Yahoo Entertainment: How did you first lose your ability to sing?
Tom Keifer: It started in the early '90s. My voice just went to hell, it wouldn't work overnight, and I can't tell you how many doctors all looked down [my throat] and said, "There's nothing wrong.”
They actually thought this was psychosomatic?
No, they just said, "You must've forgotten how to sing. You need to work with a vocal coach. We don't see any nodes. We don't see any of the normal things that on the cord that would be surgically fixable.” So after much research, and going to the doctors — I mean, like hypnotists and all that, energy healers, all kinds of stuff — trying to get [my voice] to come back, the last doctor I went to said that he was going to do a different kind of test. And he did a neurological test. And then he said, "You've suffered a paresis, which is a partial paralysis of your left vocal cord. You're never singing again. There's no surgical fix, there's no pill you can take."
But to answer your question, it certainly can become a mental problem, particularly when they couldn't tell me what was wrong with my voice, and then people around me were saying, "Oh, it's all in your head." And then a very good friend of mine it all in perspective. He said, "Don't listen to them, because even if it is in your head, that's a problem too, right?”
That’s an excellent point. But after you finally did get an official medical diagnosis of paresis, what did you do next?
[The doctor] said, "Your only hope or prayer of being able to sing again is to try and work with speech pathologists and vocal coaches and retrain and try to strengthen that side of your voice box” — which is not an exact science, and I've been doing it for decades, trying to figure it out. And for a long time, I was very much [up and down]. One night would be good, one night would be bad.
So I finally got with an opera teacher in 2009, his name's Ron Anderson, and since I've been working with him. I've been working his technique for [about eight] years or so. It was very challenging to figure out how to strengthen it. But the opera training [helped], because I do sing very loud. Some rock singers that have that raspy tone are very quiet, but my voice is very loud, so it was a natural fit for me to work with [an opera trainer], because he actually said, "I know you've been to everybody. I know your story. And I know you're skeptical coming in here, to work with me. But the technique I'm about to teach you is hundreds of years old, and it was developed in the opera houses for singers who had to sing for four hours with no microphones." And he said, "If you can master this, I will get you around."
Do you know how you paralyzed your vocal cord in the first place?
Several things can cause it. General anesthesia can cause it — my uncle actually had one from having general anesthesia for a surgery. A brain tumor can cause it, so first thing they did was send me for an MRI, which was a little scary. I cleared that one. They attributed mine to a cold virus, or a bad flu virus. A cold virus can lodge itself in the nerve and deteriorate it — and apparently, those are the ones that don't go away. Some people get this and it goes away, but [my] nerves are actually [permanently] damaged from the virus. And all the surgeries can't fix the paralysis, but that condition makes it so difficult to sing, so I injure my voice a lot. I've had multiple hemorrhages that they have to fix.
Do you injure yourself often?
The last [injury] was in 2017. My voice was pretty strong, but I just hit a note wrong one night and I had to go under the laser again. I had a “bleed,” is what they call it. But I've recovered good from that. The doctor who did [that surgery] said he feels that other than the neurological condition for all the injuries I've had, considering the years of screaming rock ‘n’ roll I’ve done, he feels my cords themselves are in pretty good shape. So I've got a few more years.
Your video for “The Death of Me” addresses all this medical trauma you’ve been through. It’s a pretty intense video, but the song feels powerful and anthemic, like a celebration of survival. The album title Rise itself conveys that feeling too.
The verses [of “The Death of Me”] are very dark imagery. It's a lyric that actually [my wife and co-writer] Savannah handed me a couple years ago, and I loved the lyric. And when it came time to do this record, I sat down with a guitar, and I was reading those lyrics, and I was like, "This needs a very dark riff, but then it needs to open up into a positive end of the chorus." Because it is an anthem for overcoming your adversity in life. So we thought it'd be an interesting way to start the [video] by portraying some of my challenges on the screen. But we want to inspire other people: When you watch that video, put your own challenges on that screen, put your own adversity on that screen, and then take a guitar and smash the hell out of it.
Now that you have a new album and you’ll be touring to promote it, how are you going to protect your voice and avoid re-injury?
Lots of hydration. I drink “Gatorwater,” a mixture of a water and Gatorade, because the shows are very hot and it's a very intense performance. And of course I have the warmup stuff that I do that was taught to me by the vocal coach, Ron, that I do for about an hour before each show. And then there's kind of a cooldown thing that I have to do after the show that's much shorter, about five minutes. So as long as I do those and I take care of myself, because it's physical so you have to stay in shape, it seems to be — fingers crossed — holding up.
And on a positive note, because I don't want to end this conversation just talking about injuries, it seems that even when things were looking really bad for you, you never gave up. It seemingly never dawned to you to think, "Well, I guess I won't sing anymore. I'll do something else, or I'll retire."
You know, I've played music since I was 8 years old, and I was taught guitar at the same time as singing. My first [guitar] teacher, he gave me Beatles books and he made me sing the song [while I played]. So it's always been one and the same for me. When I lost my voice, people would say, "Well, you can just play guitar, or you can be producer or a songwriter." But to me, it’s all one thing; I don't think I would've felt whole [only playing guitar], because it kind of goes together. So I guess it was the sheer fear of not being able to do that, because I love it, that drove me to find a solution.
The above interview is taken from Tom Keifer’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.
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