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Exclusive Interview: Tom Keifer
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.
The 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 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.
Rock Confidential caught up with Keifer to find out more about the inspiration behind The Way Life Goes and dig a little deeper into his influences as a singer, songwriter and performer.
I’ve gotta start this out by telling you the first time I saw Cinderella was on the “Unfinished Business” tour back in 1998. I most recently caught your solo tour in Lexington, Kentucky. What I loved about your solo show was you had the opportunity to create a storyteller atmosphere and give a little background into your career and explain the songwriting process for the new tunes and some of Cinderella’s biggest hits. You also came across as very grateful and dedicated to your faith, family and career.
I had a lot of fun with that show. Normally, during a Cinderella show, I don’t talk that much. We’ve certainly sat down and done acoustic stuff before but I’ve never really told stories like I did. To kick off my solo thing we make a conscious decision to play more intimate rooms where we’d be able to do that. I wanted to make this a little bit different. As much as that show was very familiar and very much like a Cinderella show with songs like “Shelter Me,” “Gypsy Road,” “Coming Home,” and “Sick For The Cure,” I wanted to have some elements that were new, too. Reinventing a couple of Cinderella songs and being able to sit down and tell some stories and do something a little bit different after many, many years was something I thought would be special for the fans. I got to be a little closer to them. I had a lot of fun doing it and we’re getting ready to go out on another run in May.
You’ve had so many landmark events happen over the past decade plus – you became a father, Cinderella’s battles with the record label, the emotions and struggles involved with your vocal cord paresis. Did you look to any of these for inspiration when writing songs for The Way Life Goes?
I’ve always written from that place as a songwriter. I was influenced by people like the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and Led Zeppelin. I could go on and on naming bands that influenced me as a kid, but what they all had in common was they were inspired by American roots music – blues, country, gospel, R&B. All that music lyrically is about real things. That’s how I learned to write songs and I continue to write songs from that place. This album is more personal than previous things I’ve done, hence the title The Way Life Goes. It pretty much sums up the whole record to me.
That’s what life is about, right? Doing things you love to do with people that you love doing it with.”
Tell me about working with your wife Savannah on The Way Life Goes and how she initially got involved.
It just kinda happened. We have been writing together for a long time. I started writing for a solo record in the mid 90s when the music industry changed and Cinderella parted ways with Polygram Records. I wrote a bunch of songs with Savannah and some of my other friends here in Nashville. I eventually decided one day that the record was coming off the back burner and I was going to start recording tracks. Savannah is not only a songwriter but a really talented musician and producer. It just felt natural to have her involved in the production, too. She’s someone that I really trust musically and someone I enjoy working with. We also brought in a third producer, a really good friend of ours in Nashville, Chuck Turner. He’s a very talented engineer and knows how to run ProTools and all that stuff. He’s a great producer, too. The three of us are very good friends. We get along very well and can stand being around each other in a control room for hours on end – and actually have a good time! The three of us were like the Three Musketeers over this nine or 10 year period of pushing this music to the place where it was finished. We had a blast doing it. That’s what life is about, right? Doing things you love to do with people that you love doing it with.
Do you remember writing the first song that ended up on the album? How recent are the tunes?
They were all written prior to 2003. That’s when we entered the studio and started cutting masters, real tracks with session players. That’s when we committed to making a record. Once I put on the recording/producing hat I usually don’t write songs after that. I make sure I have the songs written before I get into that mode. If memory serves me, one of the earliest songs on this record is “Solid Ground.” It was written around 1999 or 2000. It’s hard to remember. I’ve been writing songs since the mid 90s for this. I had a really creative time between 1995 and right up through 2002 and 2003 when I was just writing constantly.
How do you know – as a songwriter, musician, and producer – when a song is finished?
That’s not an exact science! That may be why this record took so long! The record was produced independently from a label. The nice thing about that is there was no deadline. There were no budget restrictions. I got to really live with the material. When you work with it over that period of time – we did take long breaks from it. When you work with something for ten years…there were times when I thought it was done. There was no rush to put it out. I did probably five tours with Cinderella during that time. We’d go out on tour and I wouldn’t listen to those songs for four months while we were on the road. I’d get home and listen to the songs and think, “Nope. This really isn’t done!” When we made the Cinderella records there was no time for objectivity. We had a budget, a time-frame – usually about six months, and we worked six days a week. The only objectivity we had was taking Sunday off. That’s not really a lot of time to reflect on what we’ve done! You can make great music that way, obviously. I love the records we’ve made. This was just a different approach. I got the opportunity to really leave no stone unturned. We would pick apart everything – from the arrangements, vocals, drum parts. In ProTools you can really change a lot of things, even after you cut the tracks. It’s a great tool for making records and we had a lot of fun with that. We went down some bad roads with editing and backed out of them. There was a lot of experimentation and we had a lot of fun. There was no big hurry to get it done. To answer your question: Who knows when it’s done! I woke up one day after ten years and pushed play. When I heard coming out of the speakers what I heard in my head, that’s when I knew. Every record has it’s own path. Some take 10 days, some take 10 years!
The Way Life Goes does something a great record does – it creates an atmosphere. It reminds me of those old Rod Stewart records where you immediately were transported into a different place where those songs came to life. Records like that don’t happen much anymore.
There are so many compliments in that! The people I admired were storytellers and songwriters. Rod Stewart. Mick Jagger. I grew up on that style and it’s hard to run from yourself. I’ve never made records that are chasing trends. There’s no fun in that.
I have always had an emotional attachment to music. With today’s technology it seems all the emotion has been removed – songs are just another number in an MP3 player. What do you think?
The more things change the more they stay the same. I think the new generation is emotionally connected to things. There’s always a new delivery system for music. It started with 78s, 33 1/3s, 45s, cassettes, 8-tracks, CDs. It’s very different know because there isn’t a physical product. A lot of it doesn’t even come with credits. The experience is different for everybody. Music is an emotional thing. Music expresses angst, love, loss, happiness. I do think there is a disconnect with less and less physical product. You don’t have the art that’s had time and thought put into. You don’t have the lyrics and credits in your hand. I guess if you listen to a song and it affects you emotionally it will still affect you if you have the lyrics in your hand or not. Who knows, right? It’s always been a very emotional thing for me.
It should never be overlooked how important how important the guitar is to your career as a songwriter and a musician. When did it first become a part of your life?
My first interest in music was seeing the Beatles on TV. That made me want to sing and play guitar.”
My first interest in music was seeing the Beatles on TV. That made me want to sing and play guitar. I was very young then, maybe seven or even younger. Then I started watching this really cool show called the Monkees. When I was very young the Beatles and the Monkees were my earliest influences. I love Mike Nesmith’s guitar playing. The Beatles and the Monkees both had really well-crafted songs and really cool guitar work. Not long after I heard Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and Deep Purple. Certainly, Jimmy Page was a huge inspiration for me. Keith Richards. Once I shifted into the rock vein as I got a little older I loved the James Gang and the Eagles. The 1970s – amazing guitarists. It was all very steeped in blues and roots music. I didn’t know what blues was when I first heard Jimmy Page play. I went back and listened to what my heroes where inspired by and I really got into blues music – B.B. King, Elmore James, Muddy Waters and as far back as Robert Johnson. I loved James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis. That gives you another dimension and an opportunity to interpret that stuff in your own way. The blues and rock stuff was a big influence on my guitar playing.
Did you start writing songs before you could play the guitar or did learning the guitar serve as a catalyst for songwriting?
I started taking guitar lessons formally when I was about eight. I just had an acoustic guitar. The teacher would come to the house and he taught me the basic chords and how to strum them. He would also make me sing. We would strum and sing Beatles songs, folk songs – anything that was a basic three or four chord sing-along. It was almost more like singer/songwriter lessons than just guitar lessons. He didn’t teach me any blues or riffs, that’s all stuff I picked up later by ear. Most people aren’t trained to play rock guitar! Singing and playing guitar feel like they go together to me. I wrote songs back then – guitar and vocal at the same time. Just like I do it now. Usually the lyric comes to me first and I’ll add the music but I normally write on the guitar when I get to that point. Sometimes I’ll write on the piano.
Do you have any guitars in your collection that stand out as favorites?
The prized one is the ’59 Sunburst. Just like Jimmy Page. Ever since I saw “The Song Remains The Same” I wanted that guitar. I finally got one! It cost a little bit more than when Jimmy got his! I played it on Long Cold Winter and Heartbreak Station. That’s really my go-to in the studio. I don’t take it on the road much anymore. It’s pretty valuable and I wouldn’t want anything to happen to it. I use it in the studio and around the house. I’ve got a reissue of a ’59 that Gibson made for me that they matched the look and colors of mine.
How many guitars do you own?
I haven’t really counted them, but probably 25 or 30. I had a lot more before I moved to Nashville. I got rid of them in the mid 90s because I built a really nice state-of-the-art studio here in the house and I turned a lot of those toys into new toys. I just kept the favorites. It was getting a little ridiculous, like Spinal Tap. I probably had over 100 guitars and I really needed a studio.
Tom, thanks for making time for this. What would you like to say to your fans to wrap things up?
I really appreciate the support the fans have brought to my world, my life and Cinderella’s life over the years. It’s much appreciated and I look forward to many more years making music and rockin’ with you all!
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