For almost thirty years, Tom Keifer has had seeds rolling around in his head. All day long. They never stop. But Keifer wants it no other way.
Keifer achieved tremendous success as the frontman for the 80s hard rock band Cinderella, selling over 20 million albums worldwide. Throughout his career, Keifer's creative process has involved the sifting of these "seeds," as he calls them. These seeds take the form of melodies and lines that he's always juggling in his mind. Those that he forgets are probably not meant to be anyway, he figures. But those seeds that stick around for weeks or even months are probably, in Keifer's view, meant to be songs. It's not surprising, then, that Keifer's songwriting process always starts with the lyrics. The guitar hooks, he says, are "the easy part." He can write those all day long.
Keifer’s debut solo album is called The Way Life Goes. Read my interview with Tom Keifer after the video for "Solid Ground."
How do songs start for you?
I’ll say this: I don’t ever get writer’s block. And that’s because I never force songs. I’m very happy to not write a song for two years. And I’ve had periods of times like that because I’ve always waited for inspiration to come to me. Usually that inspiration comes by way of the lyric or line, typically a chorus line or the title of the song. Something just starts playing my head. I can be driving down the road or sitting at the airport or walking down the streets. Really anywhere. All of a sudden this thing starts playing in my head, and I immediately hear a melody with it.
A lot of times these seeds, these lines and melodies, roll around in my head, several of them for months or even years. I never record them on a voice memo because my natural sifting process is to just let them sit once they hit me. Then I see if I can remember them a couple of months later. It’s different every time. Sometimes it just hits me and I race for guitar or piano and finish the song right away. But other times it’s a lot of little seeds. A lot of them go by the wayside and I forget them, but there always that one that keeps nagging me. That’s what I mean about the natural sifting process. There’s always a few that just keep haunting me.
I’ll be honest: I have tried it the other way where I just say, “I’m going to write a song today.” And I may get one, but it’s usually not very good.
It seems that would take enormous discipline to let those seeds stay in your head for that long. Most people, I would think, would want to write that song immediately. Aren’t you worried that you might forget them or lose the initial spark?
Well, it could be just procrastination. Laughs. It’s really not a conscious decision. I mean, these ideas are floating around in my head all the time. What you said about being afraid you’ll forget them, to me, that’s my natural sifting process. If I have six ideas rolling around in my head, and in the course of six months only two stick with me, they’re probably the most memorable ones.
So do songs usually start with the lyrics for you?
Always. Even the heaviest songs I’ve ever written with the big guitar riffs always start with the lyrics.
Do you mix and match lyrics and melodies?
Any song, whether it’s heavy as hell or a ballad or a pop song, if you strip away all the production and the atmosphere, you should still be able to sit down with an acoustic guitar or piano and sing it. If you can’t do that, then it’s not a good song. That’s why I always start with the lyrics and a melody. The content of the lyric dictates what the music will be. So if it’s driving heavy lyric, then that type of music will follow.
That’s the fun part for me. I mean, I can write guitar riffs all day long. That’s the easy part. But if it’s a mellower lyric or a ballad, I’ll pull out an acoustic or piano. Plugging music or riffs around or behind the lyrics and melody has always been the easy part for me. The chord progressions just fall into place once I hear the melody. A big hook with a riff like the one on "Gypsy Road" or “It’s Not Enough” off the new album, those big hooks come to me all day long. In other words, the lyric dictates the riff.
Let’s talk about inspiration. Should you go out and seek it or wait until it comes to you?
I wouldn’t say that I consciously do things to get inspired. But certain activities do help. The closest thing to that, and I don’t ever do it on purpose, is a long car ride, like maybe six or seven hours. That hypnotic state on the highway helps. And being on an airplane with nothing to do also helps. My mind opens up. So I will say the idea of movement is a factor. On our tour bus for example I’ll sit in the back lounge and write.
Many songwriters have told me that motion plays a role in their creative process.
I think it all goes back to that hypnotic state. Motion clears my head. You hear people say all the time that when they get angry or overwhelmed they go for a drive. That activity clears your head. But you know what? Now you mention it, movies can inspire me. There’s always some moment in the movie where there’s a great line, and that gets me thinking.
Laughs. Actually it just happened. And I just cowrote the song with someone else here in town after watching a movie. But I can’t say what because I don’t know if anything will come of it.
How important is environment when you write? Things like place or time of day?
I’ve written in every environment you can imagine. And any time of day. I’ve worked on songs starting at midnight and writing all night. I’m not even able to sleep at that point. But I’ve never really written well in the studio. I don’t like mixing technology with that creative process.
When you write, are you a pen and paper guy or a keyboard guy?
I usually like to jot it down on pen and paper. But lately I’ve been using an app on my iPad that allows me to write lyrics with my finger on the screen. I always carry my iPad with me and it seems like whenever I get lyrics in my head I don’t have the pen with me, so this works out really nicely.
Do you need emotional distance to be able to write about a topic?
I would say that with about 100% of what I’ve written there is distance. Especially with my ballad or heartbreak songs. Those are really about a culmination of experiences, Not necessarily one specific experience.
How much revision do you do to your lyrics?
Most of the time, I use just what falls out. I might change a line or two, but that’s usually about it. When I revise, it’s usually about changing the phrasing. I might have three lines and a verse with a melody that I love, and I need to get that same phrasing for the fourth line. That can be tough. It’s got a be the right number of syllables, so it becomes like a jigsaw puzzle.