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An Interview With Tom Keifer

With only four albums under Cinderella’s belt, they made a massive dent in the timeline for this style. Although the band has departed, their front-man Tom Keifer started up a solo project, with the first record titled The Way Life Goes hitting in 2013. This year, Keifer and his band put together a follow up titled Rise, and last week I had the opportunity to speak with him over the phone. Tom Keifer and Cinderella have both been massive influences of mine, so it was great to go over some of his music. Here, we discuss the latest record, the songwriting, some band dynamics, and we go into a few Cinderella deep cuts.

Nick: How are you doing, man?

Tom: I’m doing good. How are you?

Nick: Good! Little cold up here, but pretty good!

Tom: Where are you at?

Nick: Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Tom: Ah yes, very familiar. I’m from Pennsylvania; in Nashville now and it’s cold here too. In the twenties today.

Nick: Oh, that’s very cold for down there. So between all of your releases, Rise is the hardest record I’ve had to pick up a common theme or idea behind, and I think it’s because the songs are all over the place and kind of unique. What was the biggest thing, or things that inspired the writing of this record?

Tom: Life; I mean, it’s always the inspiration, your life experiences, or observations of things you or other people go through. I write very much from a place of human emotions, and it always starts with a lyric, something that can strike you at any time. In terms of the variety on the record, that’s something that goes back even to the Cinderella days. There’s always been that change of gears from song-to-song, and I think that comes from the bands I grew up listening to in the ’70s. That’s where I cut my teeth as a musician, learning about rock ‘n roll from bands like Zeppelin and The Stones, and their records from track-to-track are very different. There are hard-driving songs to acoustic ballads to Rolling Stones songs that had reggae feels. This album overall, I think the songs have the commonality in the sense of having a very raw feel to them despite the different styles. We went for a very live approach with the recording of it.

Nick: I definitely caught onto that. One that caught my interest was “The Death Of Me,” not only because the rhythms, I thought, hearkened back to “Night Songs,” but it seemed to have a lot of emotion and backing affect, and the metaphoric lyrics were intriguing as well. Do you mind shedding some light on that track?

Tom: Yeah, well that song is actually- I write pretty much with Savannah, my wife, who is also a member of the band. We produced the solo records together, and we wrote pretty much everything together on this new record, as well as with The Way Life Goes, and we have other writers involved. But that song, in particular, was a lyric that Savannah wrote and handed to me. And I loved, like you said, the metaphors in the verses for the things that are holding me down, and then the chorus being this uplifting “none of this is gonna be the end of me, or the death of me.” I really related to the lyrics, and not only did I relate to it, but I thought a lot of other people would be able to relate to it. So that lyric kind of inspired the riff, then the music. That’s usually how this works, whether I come up with the lyrics or Savannah does. I felt like that tune should be heavy and have some angst, so I gravitated toward the electric guitar, plugged into an amp, de-tuned, and went for a heavy, darker riff. Ninety-percent of the lyrics were done when she brought it to me, I contributed a little bit, and then we worked out the music and the melody together.

Nick: Ok, so you’ll usually get the lyrics first, and then write the music around that rather than the other way around?

Tom: Yeah, the emotion of the lyrics creates or captures the music that expresses that emotion.

Nick: So that takes me to “Taste For The Pain,” which seems to be more of a ballad between the cleaner vocals, the drum patterns, and the pianos. This one struck me as deeper rooted in emotions as well; is that true for that one?

Tom, Yeah, that’s one that I had started writing, gotten it down the path, brought it to Savannah, and we grew it from there. We were out on tour, and I just remembered having a thought for it. For the most part, I think that comes from a place of heartbreak and heartache, getting over a lost love. But it can apply to a lot of things; there are plenty of metaphors that could make it apply to other areas of life. I think that it kind of has that common theme the record has throughout, of overcoming adversity. That one leans towards the broken-heart side, as it stands out more.

Nick: One that really caught me off-guard was “Untitled,” partially just from the fact that it didn’t have a title. *laughs* It also just feels very atmospheric and oddly structured. Is there a reason why it doesn’t have a title?

Tom: There wasn’t a title, the lyrics just kind of came together and there wasn’t anything that stood out obvious to be the title because it’s not a traditional arrangement in terms of there being a big chorus or chorus-line. It’s more of a jam-thing. It reminds me of something Zeppelin did, something off of Physical Graffiti. The working title on the page just said “untitled,” and we never settled on one, so we just stayed with the working title. It kind of has a creepy feel to it. And that song’s pretty obvious what it’s about. It’s about karma and reaping what you sow. There aren’t a whole lot of other ways to take that lyric. It’s got that atmosphere, we took it to cut it with the band, and we weren’t sure where that one was gonna go or what we were gonna do with it. So it sorta took on a creepy, eerie feel, and it’s one that we were pleasantly surprised with where it did go. It’s a very non-traditional arrangement, but yet there’s a big hook with that guitar riff, and it’s become one of our favorites off the record since it became such a unique arrangement.

Nick: Oh yeah, I love songs like that, especially when they have a hook or a resolution at the end.

Tom: Where that song ends up and where the tempo picks up, actually going into a big hook-line, isn’t anywhere else on the song, and you don’t see that coming. It’s pretty cool, arrangement wise. Quite a journey that one was! *laughs*

Nick: Right on! I can imagine it was! So seeing that you drew a lot of inspiration from singers like Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, or Janis Joplin, do you have any more recent singers that you admire? Or even ones that may have risen at the same time as Cinderella up through now?

Tom: There are a lot of singers over the years that I really love, some come from different genres. I love how Bruno Mars sings; I don’t really sing like him, but I love his voice! *laughs* He’s so soulful. Lzzy Hale I love, and I’ve worked with her, and she’s been an inspiration vocally. I’d say of the more contemporary rock artists and singers, that she’s probably had the most impact on me since I’ve worked with her, shared the stage with her, and sang with her. She’s definitely someone that makes you feel like you have to step-up a bit when you sing with her because she has such a powerful voice.

Nick: I’ve seen her a couple of times, and it’s kind of funny because that leads me to my next question, regarding the duet of “Nobody’s Fool” with her. How did that come to be? Because I noticed there’s some extra instrumentation and pianos. What was the story behind that? How did you guys get together and decide to do that?

Tom: When The Way Life Goes was released in 2013, we wound up doing some tour dates with them. She was a fan of Cinderella and of me, and I was familiar with their music and really loved what they did. So I ended up on the phone a few weeks before the dates, and the idea came up for us to do a song on the encore together. We picked “Nobody’s Fool,” ran through it at soundcheck, and we thought it sounded really great. So we did a few shows together where we sang it as an encore, and the crowd loved it! We had several other gigs after that; we’d end up on festivals here and there. Whenever we wound up at festivals together, we would jump up on stage and do that, and everybody loved it. We started getting requests on social media about how we should do a studio version, and we included it as a bonus track on a deluxe version of my first solo record. We wanted to make it different than the original; there are actually two versions. There’s the more traditional rock version that’s closer to the original, with the full drums. We changed some of the arrangement, but for the most part, it’s pretty true to the original. Then there’s the piano-vocal version that’s more broken down, more orchestrated, has keys, synths, and goes into a totally different drumbeat. So there are two different versions, and I like them both; the intensity of the one truer to the original, but how the other one is kind of a reinvention of the song.

Nick: The reinvention is the version I’m familiar with, I’ll have to look for the other. So when it comes to touring, how do you go about choosing your set-list, and having to choose between the Cinderella tracks, The Way Life Goes, and now Rise?

Tom: Well, it got a little harder this year because of the new record. *laughs* There’s obvious songs from the Cinderella days that people want to hear that will probably forever remain in the show. I still love playing and singing them, and the fans love hearing them. Before Rise, over the years that we toured with The Way Life Goes, we had rotated in almost every song off of that record. I think we’ve played nine out of the fourteen from that record. But this year, we had to pull some of those out, and we made room for three or four of the new ones. Every year’s different, we kept a couple of the favorites from The Way Life Goes, this year we’ve been doing “Solid Ground” and “It’s Not Enough.” We are doing three from Rise; the title track, “Touching The Divine,” and “The Death Of Me.” And then, of course, some Cinderella songs.

Nick: I actually saw you two years back-to-back at the M3 Festivals, and I thought the set-lists were pretty diverse between the Cinderella cuts and the Keifer solo songs. 

Tom: We try to keep a good mixture of it. This year we had five or six from the solo stuff, a couple of them being some new ones. So it’s a good balance, and they sit well alongside each other in the shows. People are pretty familiar with them, and the two work-together — the new and the old work well together.

Nick: Well that’s good. Do you mind if I ask about a few of the Cinderella deep cuts?

Tom: Sure!

Nick: The song “One For Rock ‘N Roll” has been a favorite of mine for years, between helping me through tougher times and with how unique it is with the southern coating and everything. And just to give you a reference, I’m only twenty-four, so high-school for me was only about six or seven years ago, which was when I found it. 

Tom: Oh, cool! I like that one too.

Nick: What’s the story behind that one?

Tom: The lyrics are pretty self-explanatory, but for me, it started out when I had an acoustic guitar just sitting around the house, and it just sort of poured out of me. It felt like a folk song. The lyrics are about what I’ve learned from rock ‘n roll, from my heroes and my rock heroes. It’s starting back with my earliest memories in the sixties when I was a kid, and then the seventies kind of taking you through, and ultimately, my guitar and music and rock ‘n roll are something I’ve always been able to lean on, and it gets me through life. Me just sitting with an acoustic and strumming; it was very left-of-center from anything that Cinderella had ever done before. We took what I was talking about earlier with The Stones and Zeppelin with all the different weird grooves and stuff that they would do. And we went in to actually produce the record and work it out with the band. So we thought, “what could we add to this to make it a little more different, so it didn’t just sound like me singing a folk song?” Fred started jamming the reggae beat, we all fell into this groove, and it’s a unique track. One of those quirky tracks, but it’s a lot of peoples’ favorite. I’ve seen probably more tattoos of “As long as I’ve got rock ‘n roll /I’m forever young” than almost any Cinderella song. *laughs*

Nick: Oh, damn!

Tom: I think the only one that competes with it is maybe “Nobody’s Fool.” But I see that tattoo more than anything. That’s why I love writing songs starting with the lyrics, because it is a story, and it is an emotion. It’s something like what you said, even you being as young as you are, those lyrics meant something to you. You’re feeling the same thing I felt about music. That was me expressing my gratitude for rock ‘n roll, and how music has gotten me through life. It’s cool to hear that that resonates with some of your generation, it resonated with a lot of people.

Nick: I actually thought the entire Heartbreak Station album was somewhat like that for me. It had such a different feel. The first ones that I discovered were the Long Cold Winter and Night Songs albums, and when I found that, it seemed like a different band. Same core idea, but totally different layout.

Tom: The songwriting is coming from the same place, the big difference with Heartbreak Station is the production. It’s rawer, it’s dryer, it’s not as affected and slick as the first two records. That was something that we started gravitating towards because we were trying to gravitate away from that slick sound of the eighties. I always think that music is the best pure. And like I said, we tried to do that on the new record. It’s more raw, live, and not supper affected.

Nick: As you can tell, I’m a total sucker for rock and metal ballads. “Through The Rain” off of Still Climbing was another one that was sorta the same to me, and I’d never heard others talk about that one as much as other Cinderella classics. 

Tom: That’s probably one of my favorite tracks off of that record. It’s a lyric about keeping the faith through the storms and knowing the light will shine.

Nick: It definitely has a pretty straightforward message, wasn’t sure if there was a story behind that one.

Tom: Not sure about there being a story in particular, but I was going through a lot of stuff when I wrote that. That’s when my voice problems started, and making that record was very challenging. I was looking for a light at the end of the tunnel at that period of my life for sure, and I think that’s what that song is about. There were a lot of things going on in my life at the time that felt like it was crumbling down. And we all go through them multiple times in life, and we come out of them too.

Nick: Right on! Well, hey, I wanted to thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for me. You’ve been a large inspiration of mine since high-school, and I’m grateful to have gotten this opportunity.

Tom: Well, great, it was nice talking to you man! I’m hoping you’re liking the new record. It’s something we had a good time making, and it sounds like from the things you’re saying that you like from the previous records, that it’s got some of those same qualities. We had a blast making the thing, and I love recording with this band.

Nick: Good to hear, I hope to catch you guys out on the road sometime soon! 

Tom: Cool! And thanks so much, man. You have a good day!

Nick: Yeah, you too! Thank you!

Tom: Alright, thanks! Bye-bye!

Nick: Bye!

Rise was released on September 13th, 2019 through Cleopatra Records. Buy a copy of it right here.


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