Hit songs like "Nobody's Fool" revealed a soulful lead singer in Tom Keifer, who in 2013 released the solo album, The Way Life Goes. Keifer can sound like a raspy Steven Tyler one minute (particularly during "Nobody's Fool") and a soul-stirring revivalist – in the Rod Stewart model – the next.
His band, Cinderella, was always a bit deeper than many of his makeup-caked contemporaries back in the '80s. A song like "Shelter Me," for example, reached for real, sincere emotion, instead of the glossy one-night-stand romance music so annoyingly prevalent at the time.
Because Cinderella's music contained such unusual depth, it was a pleasure to go a little deeper into the songwriting process with Tom Keifer.
Tom Keifer: Patting myself on the back has not been something I've been real good about. I'm always trying to move forward. I think, honestly - and this may sound crazy - I think since the years have passed, and the first three Cinderella records kind of settled in and I got far away from them and was able to really look back at those songs, I think that was when I was first able to hear them for what they really were, and there are some songs that I can say I'm proud of and are really well written. But when you're in the throes of it, it's hard to really look at it that way. It usually takes a bit of time for me to appreciate anything I've worked on because I'm so close to it working on it.
Songfacts: Did you always want to do original music, as opposed to doing other people's songs?
Keifer: Well, I started out playing covers from the time I was in high school, and I played in countless cover bands. There was that point where I thought, 'You know, I'd like to make a record.' And you look at your heroes, the people you look up to, like The Stones or Zeppelin, and you go, 'Why do they get to make records?' It's because they have their own songs. And you're gonna need that before you get an opportunity to make a record. So that's when I started trying my hand at writing.
Songfacts: You've had a number of very successful songs. Do you know when you've written a hit?
Keifer: I don't think anybody, like A&R people or producers, can recognize something that will be a hit or be more successful, one song over another. But when I'm writing a song, I'm just trying to write the best song I can write. It's hard to predict at that stage what song's a hit. I know it after they are a hit, but before then, who knows? You're just writing the best song you can write.
Songfacts: I would think a song like "Shelter Me" was one that you knew would resonate with people. Did you have a sense before it came out that people were going to say, "I really feel that song!"
Songfacts: How is it different making solo music, from making music with the band? Did you take a different approach to writing songs for The Way Life Goes, or was it just a natural extension of what you've always done?
Keifer: I pretty much approached it the way I always have. I've always approached writing the same way. That is, I've always tried to let the song come to me or be inspired by something. It's never, like, sitting down to write a song today at 3 o'clock and I'm going to finish it. It doesn't work that way for me and it's more like an idea can pop into my head anywhere. I can be out driving down the road or flying on an airplane. Anywhere. Something just starts to play in my head, a lyric and a melody. At that point I'm usually racing for an instrument to try to work out what I hear in my head and build around it.
Keifer: I don't think I have written one on a strange instrument.
Songfacts: So, no ukulele songs?
Keifer: No. Usually, it's just guitar, electric guitar or acoustic, or piano is usually what I write on, depending on what I'm hearing.
Songfacts: When you recorded the solo album, were there any things you wanted to do sonically that might separate it from your role as a band leader? Did you want to try to do some different sounds than maybe you've done in the past?
Keifer: Trying to get the sound of this record was the hardest part, I would say. It was a struggle, it was a mixing process. Honestly, I wasn't trying to go for anything all that crazy or special. I was really trying to get it to be really raw and in-your-face and dry. And I find a lot of mix engineers are resistant. They want to play with all the toys and the effects and stuff, and I always like that in-your-face sound. That was probably the hardest aspect of the record; was trying to get the whole thing mixed – that big, fat, natural sound. Keep it organic and not processed.
Songfacts: Was that a reaction to what you'd done in the past, or is that just what you were feeling when you went to create this music?
Keifer: Well, certainly the first two Cinderella records [Night Songs, 1986; Long Cold Winter, 1988] were much too processed than I would have liked them to be. That was really the sound of the times and pretty much any engineer you walked into a studio with was going to be going for the big, exploding snare drums and more of a slick and processed sound. We were pretty green to the whole recording arts and experience of the studio at that time, so we were just along for the ride at that point. But there was a point, particularly on Heartbreak Station , where I realized we were happy just to hear a quality production recording on the first record because our demos were so bad that they didn't even register. It was just, like, "Wow, this sounds better than anything we've ever done." So we didn't think about it.
Then with Long Cold Winter, we started to think about it more. We started to have more organic instruments - pianos and acoustics. We toned down the slickness or the processing a little bit, although that record's still pretty slick. But by the time we got to Heartbreak Station, there was a conscious decision - and a reaction maybe - to the first two records and saying, "Well, as good as they were, that sound isn't really for me. I want something a little more organic and real sounding." And we purposely produced Heartbreak Station that way.
Songfacts: I'm wondering about the song, "Nobody's Fool." Did you draw on any experiences where you might have been somebody's fool in order to create the mood of that song?
Songfacts: Did you ever write a song that did apply to specific people and specific circumstances?
Keifer: Yeah. I can't think of any of them off the top of my head. Most of the time, for me, the emotions are more cumulative or an average of a lifetime. But also, a lot of it is observation because we all share a lot of the same experiences, so a lot of it is watching what friends or family or people you know are going through, too.
Songfacts: Do you think that might be one of the keys to the popularity of your music: you sing about shared experiences, so it's easy for listeners to relate?
Keifer: Well, certainly there's a connection for people when a lyric is something they relate to. I'm sure some songs I write, people relate to more than others. Probably ones we call hits, right?
June 25, 2013. More at tomkeifer.com.
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