Peter Strobl gained attention from music fans last year as Wolfgang Van Halen’s vocal coach. However, his resume is far more expansive than working with students who seek to improve their vocal skills. He is also a music instructor, producer, veteran touring and recording musician, occasional performer, and was manager/session engineer at Shangri La studio, where he worked with a host of artists, including Mark Knopfler. Today, Strobl focuses on private lessons for singers and musicians and holds workshops for professional-level singers who seek to improve their skills.
As a self-employed teacher and musician, Peter Strobl answers to no one. This means he doesn’t have to be politically correct or mince words when expressing his opinions — strong opinions — about the music industry, musicians or any other subject. Enjoy …
Let’s begin with updates about your current projects.
I’m kind of excited about my relationship with the Wood and Stone Room, a studio in Baltimore. I did a workshop with them, and in January I’m going back to do a serious power workshop of three two-hour sessions. It’s going to be two hours, a break, another two hours, break, and another two hours of hard work, the kind of work that probably will represent six months at a college-level voice class in one day. People will hopefully digest it, take it home with them, tear it apart and see how it applies to what they do. We’re approaching three or four college-level schools about a couple of additional workshops while I’m there, to make the trip worthwhile. It will be a lot of fun, and everyone will sing better.
What do the workshops involve and who can attend?
I prefer to do this with people who are professional-level singers or at least aspire to that. The last one I did in Baltimore was folks who make their money in the music business. We had fifteen people. This one, I hope there are fifteen to twenty singers, background singers, singer-songwriters, people that record or work on other people’s records, and maybe some teenagers who aspire to sing professionally. I recently did a workshop out here at Orange County High School for the Arts. It was a masters class for their commercial music department, so it was all kids who wanted to be professional singers, rock stars or producers, who wanted to learn how I work with singers. I did an hour rap on the mechanical aspects of singing and then we did a practical exercise: stand in front of your classmates and sing. We pretended we had a microphone and had done a recording session, and then discussed how to take what you just did and make it better.
The workshop I’m going to do in Baltimore will be less talking and more exercises. This is how, over the course of six months, you improve the mechanics of how you breathe, how you control your breathing, and how you control your breath support for singing. The next two hours will be about resonance, placement and registration, and how to deal with the issues of head voice and chest voice, or what some people call the regular voice and the falsetto, or the speaking voice and the girlie voice — there are so many terms for the vocal registers, all of which are meaningless. But they do exist, and there exists also the constant battle of how do I keep my voice from cracking, how do I increase my range upward, or how do I bring those two things together. That’s going to be addressed in two hours of exercises. Then two hours concerning what I call vocal jujitsu. Jujitsu is a martial art where you use the enemy’s energy against him. The guy throws a punch; you step out of the way and let him stumble and fall. There are so many pitfalls in a vocal performance that can cause problems, but those same problems, if they’re addressed intelligently, can be used to your advantage.
One of the things I talk about a lot is the voiced consonant, like the v on the word voice. A v has pitch. When you make a v sound, actual noise gets made, and the difference is that if you mechanically do the same thing without engaging the vocal cords, you’re making an f and only air is expelled, but a v has pitch. If you don’t know that, and don’t use it to your advantage, you could scoop or get hung up while you’re making a v sound or a d sound or an m sound or any of those consonants that have actual pitch. Those are places where it can really be obvious that it’s the performance of an amateur as opposed to a professional, if it’s not addressed properly. If it’s attended to, it can help you attain accurate leaps in pitch, or when you change pitches by more than a scale degree. If you take an intelligent approach to voiced consonants, they can help you get to the pitch. But in the case of a singer who hasn’t addressed those things, it can make you sound really stupid. I’ve used a ton of exercises where you use voiced consonants to initiate pitches that build habits, so that when you’re performing, you’re not thinking, Here goes a voiced consonant, so I have to do this or that. You want to sing the song. You do a lot of repetitive exercises so that the habits are ingrained in your muscle memory and your performance becomes that much more fluid.
How did you get involved with the Wood and Stone Room?
Interestingly enough, this was a direct result of our last interview. The Wood and Stone Room belongs to Scott and Jennifer Smith. They’re an artist duo, Naked Blue, and Scott is a producer with a ton of talent. He’s been a big Eddie Van Halen fan since forever, and he came upon our last interview about Wolfgang. He and Jennifer contacted me through my website. They were making a new record and Jennifer was stuck. I said, “I don’t do things by Skype because it’s not very effective.” But we got to know each other over the Internet, I recorded some exercises for her that were hitting home and we started meeting on Skype. I have family back east, so when I visited my family, they asked if I would come to Baltimore, which is just a couple of hours over, to visit with them and work with them in the studio. I worked with them on a couple of songs that they were going to put on their new record, and they organized a workshop for me while I was there. It’s all your fault. Seriously, it all happened because he was an Eddie Van Halen fan. Their music is nothing like Van Halen, but influences are far-reaching. There’s quite a viable commercial music scene in the Baltimore area, quite a few musicians who make a living making music, which is very cool, and a lot of independent stuff. They just got together and did a Pink Floyd album with classical versions and jazz arrangements and all sorts of different approaches to Dark Side of the Moon. There are tons of great musicians, and it’s a great place to do workshops because a lot of people want to get better at what they do, and they’re pretty good already.
I’m glad you were able to make money off of my work. When you schedule a workshop, how does word get out? Is it open to anyone, anywhere, who may want to attend?
It’s pretty much a social media kind of hookup. The date is not set yet, but when it is, it’s going to be promoted on Facebook. There will probably be fifty or so people invited, half will show up and it will be really good. To attend, you have to register, but it will be open.
Can anyone attend and touch the hem of the garment that coached Wolfgang Van Halen?
I’m actually going to wear a hemless garment, so they’ll have to touch more than the hem.
How does a workshop in a school compare to this? Certainly in Baltimore you have a more mature, attentive audience.
At the Orange County school I had fifty kids. I broke the ice by sticking my finger in everybody’s face one at a time and asking for their name and, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “A rock star.” “A singer.” “A producer.” “A go-go dancer.” And I asked, “You want to be a go-go dancer?” “Yeah.” It was some kid trying to be funny. I said, “You’re wasting my time. Beat it. You don’t belong here.” “I’m just joking.” “Well, don’t joke again. There are other kids who want to learn.” The teacher hooked up a p.a. and a microphone, and I said, “I won’t be needing that. I’m not going to talk over them if they get louder than me.”
Where do they get the nerve to mouth off to an instructor?
Exactly. I’m 6’7, so nobody does it twice. It’s because they read stories about how teachers yell at you and then you get to sue them. I take that out of the equation. I say, “I’m not teaching you. Beat it. There’s a street outside. Play in it.” Especially if you’re at a private or charter school, I say, “Your parents are paying for you to be here, to dress like little beatniks and have emo hair, and that’s fine, you can express yourself, but enough with the bulls–t, let’s go to work.” You have to make a decision of how badly do these people want to learn and how does that compare with the level of peer pressure that makes them act like they’re too hip to learn. That’s why I enjoy teaching independent, individual private lessons. I enjoy workshops when it’s an older crowd, people who are in a place where they don’t care if you care what they look like. They’re just there. But when it’s a fashion show at the high school level, it can be pretty tough to burst through that bubble and make a connection, unless they come to you privately as a result of that and say, “OK, I’m ready to learn now,” and you get rid of all the distractions. That’s a difficult thing.
In addition to voice, you teach bass and you have experience in recording. Have you considered doing workshops in those areas?
There are so many of those already happening. There’s Sweetwater and Musician’s Friend and all these big-box stores that have an axe to grind in order to sell stuff, and that have these free clinics and workshops and “Come have so-and-so sign your new microphone box,” and all that kind of stuff. I find that working one-on-one is much more effective. I’m working with two different people right now, kind of mentoring them on how to make decent home recordings effectively with an old-school kind of attitude. I think that’s a lot more effective than having a room full of people. What happens is you’re talking about technical issues, they all know how to do it better than you already, and they just hope that you ask them a question so that they can tell you how smart they are. A lot of times they really are smarter, but they still make sh–ty recordings because they have no ears or musical taste. It’s so much simpler than that whole catalog of stuff that you can buy, because it has to sound good and it has to be music to begin with. So the vocal workshops I do are pretty much as close as I can get to how you would sing a studio environment, and aimed toward professional-level singers, as opposed to being in a church choir or a community Waiting For Guffman type of production.
How do you decide which artists to work with?
I’ve done the Skype thing very rarely. I did this with Scott and Jennifer, and I did it with a guy named Drew Davies, who is the lead singer of a band in London called The Mercy House. He was coming off of a health issue and he contacted me through my website after reading some things I’d written about vocal rehabilitation and maintenance. That Internet deal is a marvelous thing. I Googled his band and listened to them, and it was legit stuff. I get a lot of people contacting me through my website, and when you Google them, there’s frequently a YouTube video that’s just horrifying. With Scott and Jen, I asked them for some video. She plays cello, as well, and there was video of them performing at a Joni Mitchell tribute show where she was playing cello and singing. The mic position was all wrong, she was stretching her neck, and I thought there were a lot of things that could be corrected quickly here, because there’s a lot of great musicianship with these two and I think it could be an effective conversation. It won’t be a waste of time for them or for me. With Drew, we got together on Skype, and the things he had were things that I could address. The questions he had were questions that I had answers to, as opposed to the old, “How do I get to be famous?” Those are the people you have to direct to the freeway off-ramp. “Go play there, but wait until 5:30.”
Where do the artists you work with need the most help?
The most general word that covers more artists than not, on almost every level, is sincerity. It’s a matter of allowing the medium, whatever it is — a song, a guitar part, a vocal performance, whatever it is — it’s allowing that to be the star of the show, as opposed to whoever is trying to bring that into fruition. I find that the best singers — the singers that I appreciate the most, and the singers that probably have the biggest world stage — are the ones that allow the song to be the star of the show, so that when people walk away, they think, Oh, I love that song, rather than, I love the way he was able to achieve the lift over the e-flat into the mix of his voice. People don’t get involved in the technical aspects. They don’t care. When they start a car, they know that you step on the gas and it goes fast. They don’t care about how well engineered it is. They just want to step on it.
In the case of guitar players, for example, I’ve seen Ed [Van Halen] play a very ordinary guitar and make it sound unbelievably beautiful just sitting around, where other people go, “I need all the s–t on page 347 of the Musician’s Friend catalog to get my sound.” They’ve got a suitcase full of pedals, and this amp and that amp, and you’ve got to change the tubes to vintage Mullards because those are older tubes and they’ve just got to be better because they’re old, and they have a guitar cable that has oxygen-free copper in it. Please. Just play the f–king guitar. Let the music come through the guitar and it will be a beautiful thing. So somehow coaxing a musician to be sincere and take their ego out of it is an important thing. At the same time, they have to have an ego in order to put themselves in the position of being the person that’s being watched. Performing artists have to have an ego, but they do the most meaningful performances when the song gets to be the star, and that takes a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of proficiency, it takes a lot of skill, it’s all about being mindless when you actually perform. [pause] Did you fall off your chair?
Yes, right around the time you said, “I’ve seen Ed play a very ordinary guitar,” but I’m OK now.
Let me tell you a quick story.
One time I was walking to my car at 5150 and Ed was in the control room. I hear a harmonica part that sounds like Blind Fat Lemon Pledge, or some blues dude, playing harmonica. I look in the door and Ed’s on his knees in front of the console, playing guitar. He goes, “Hey Pete, check this out! It sounds just like a harp!” He’s playing with this new thing he’s got on the bridge of his guitar, and it sounded like he was playing mouth harp on a blues track. He had that classic huge grin on his face. And then he said, “Make sure you tell Alison about this.” Anyway, continue.
I have no idea what we were talking about.
Sincerity. Sincerity is a huge deal. It’s reaching a high level of proficiency without letting that proficiency be out in front of everything else. It’s letting the material speak for itself. That goes for guitar players, singers and producers. I think the producers that are the most interesting are the ones who produce things where you’re entranced by the music, as opposed to the artful use of an 1176 compressor. People get so involved in the tools of the trade that they forget that there’s a trade, and the trade is the important thing. Look at the pyramids. They didn’t even have wheelbarrows yet. We don’t think so, anyway.
You’ve also been gigging.
A little bit. I don’t like to go out much because you have to take a cord and an instrument with you and I’ve gotten lazy! But yes, I did a gig with Jennifer Hope, who is always fun. We did a show at Genghis Cohen, a Jewish Chinese deli. They have the hottest mustard on this planet. I ordered these spring rolls before the gig, and the woman said, “Be careful with the mustard.” I go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I’ve eaten gasoline on bets before. I put this stuff in my mouth and it was everything I could do not to pass out. I was sitting there trying to maintain a conversation and I thought, Any minute it’s going to be next week and I won’t know what happened. It was the hottest thing I’ve ever eaten. So we played the gig and she packed the place. She had a really good show.
You’re still working with Jennifer.
Yes. I’m doing a demo with her that Warren Huart is going to produce, and it’s going to be a cool thing. Warren — there’s an example of somebody where, when you listen to his work, you go, “Cool, I get it. There’s meaning behind the technology.” There are other people where you say, “I can’t listen to that guy’s work because I can’t hear the art.”
How long had it been since you were onstage?
A while. I did a benefit with Natalia Safran, so it’s been about a year, I’d say. I get out maybe once or twice a year, but I play every day at home, so I get my playing jones just fine. Prancing around in leather pants was a lot of fun a long time ago, but it’s not like that anymore. I enjoy sitting in front of speakers at home, doing autopsies on tracks, and seeing how you can bring them back to life again and all the detailed stuff. That’s more interesting to me now.
It’s been quite a while since you were a touring musician. When you look at the industry now, at touring bands and particularly young bands trying to make it in a very different world, what are your thoughts?
It’s a completely different world. The guys I see in the Baltimore/D.C. area are making a living playing original music. There are actually places to play. Here in L.A., “back in the day,” as they say, you could make a living in a cover band because there were so many clubs and restaurants with live music and dance floors. I don’t know how the business of selling musical equipment can possibly sustain itself, because there’s no way to make a living. The clubs that you play — I don’t know anybody who pays anything. You have to sell tickets, there’s a two-drink minimum and the bar gets that money, there’s a cover and you get a taste of that, maybe. It’s really difficult. If I were 20 years old right now, I couldn’t see that being something that I’d want to do. I don’t know. Then again, I’ve got a couple of students, teenage guys, who have a band and they play two or three times a week. I don’t know whether they’re getting paid, I don’t know what the deal is, but they just put out a CD and they’re having a great time. At that age, I needed to make some money. I don’t know how they do it. And I don’t know how everyone is trotting out these massive rigs. Twenty-five years ago, there were Vox, Marshall and Fender amps, and then they started customizing, and now you go to the NAMM show and it’s this huge thing. I wonder who’s buying all of that. There was a time when there would be five to six different hotel gigs just at LAX. Horn bands, eleven guys in a band, making money, and they were all working and pulling down maybe $1200 a month in a time when a house payment was $300. Now it’s the opposite and the gigs aren’t there. These workshops I do, I enjoy working with professionals, but you have to go to where there are professional people. Unless you’re in academia, where there are people going to school for what reason God only knows, because what happens after school? You’ve got to make a living. I went to school, but I never graduated. Some of the best people I went to school with graduated but never left school. I know one guy who parks his car about ten feet away from where he used to park it thirty-five years ago when he was a student. He’s teaching in the same place.
Going back to your quote: “It’s a matter of allowing the medium, whatever it is — a song, a guitar part, a vocal performance, whatever it is — it’s allowing that to be the star of the show.” You mentioned Eddie Van Halen. You also worked with Mark Knopfler. What makes those two guitarists so great? Let’s look at their craft and their ability to allow the song to be the star of the show.
Both Ed and Mark are recognizable within a millisecond of the time their fingers touch their instrument. The one thing that I know about both of them is that they probably fell asleep with a guitar on their chests when they were kids. I know that they played until they just passed out, because they loved playing so much. It wasn’t a matter of “I’ve got to do this so I can be famous.” It was, “I can’t take my hands off of this instrument.” Students have actually asked me in a lesson, “How much should I practice?” and I laugh, because if you’ve got to ask that question, why bother? Kids who are compelled to play an instrument, you’ve got to force them to stop. Mark is such a great guitar player. I’ve seen him pick up a guitar when he’s getting ready to play a session and whip out some wicked lick that you just think, Holy God, I didn’t know he could do that! He’s got such discretion, and such great taste and editing sensibilities, that he plays precisely what the song requires, but it’s so recognizable and no one else sounds like that, that it’s enough, it’s plenty, it’s so Mark Knopfler that how much more Mark Knopfler do you need to get than what you hear? And every note serves the song. The song is always the star of the show. When I first started working with Ed and Wolf, I asked Ed why the background vocals on their recordings are so important to him. He said, “Ninety percent of the people that come see us aren’t musicians. If they’re not driving home from the show singing ‘Panama,’ or one of the other hits, the hooks, then we’re not doing our job.” That taught me that Ed really takes the song into consideration. He could do his solo thing all day long, But the things he plays have to do with nailing down the song, whereas you hear a lot of players play whatever they know best over the top of whatever song it is. They’re playing the same go—-ned solo. “Here comes the solo that I learned, let me smash it into this track.” With Ed, his solo and playing are geared toward making the song come to life.
Another component of Ed’s playing that a lot of young players possibly overlook is his motor, the freight train rhythmic chug that defines a lot of their records. As a rhythm guitarist, I describe Ed as being “indefatigable.” There! I’ve finally managed to get that word into a conversation. I worked in a fairly prominent church choir in my school days, and our equally prominent and considerably self-possessed head guy loved that word. Whenever his eyes went up inside his skull during a somber moment, you could count on “indefatigable” being the next word out of his artificially bronzed face. I would bet that Ed’s playing is more “indefatigable” than whatever that boor was droning on about. At any rate, I’m glad I hung on to that word until I needed it.
The complaint from many professional producers and engineers is that young bands and aspiring producers want to make a CD, but they don’t know what they’re doing. They have a computer, some gear, some software, and what they record is good enough for listening to on phones and iPods. In that case, do actual studio skills matter?
Yes. Yes, they do. Production is such a huge, huge umbrella. There’s a great quote from Sir George Martin. He was asked in an interview why the recordings from the 1960s and 1970s are so well respected. He said that during those two decades, there were an awful lot of people who were awfully good at what they did. I believe he meant that to say that engineers engineered, producers produced, arrangers arranged, musicians musicianed, singers sang and everyone had their job. You didn’t walk into the control room as a drummer and touch the faders to see how loud you could make things, because the engineer would cut your hand off while saying, “This is my stuff. Your stuff is out there.” Everyone knew what their gig was and they got really good at their gig. With computers, and with the equipment that’s available, you can do things that sound a lot like real music, because from a technical standpoint you can make the numbers add up on your hard drive to actually sound like what music sounds like. That doesn’t make it good music.
Let me back up for a second. I remember the era of the session guy, I guess it was the 1970s and early 1980s, when there were great session sections in New York, Nashville, Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and the Wrecking Crew in L.A. Then those guys started putting out their own records, and a lot of times their solo records weren’t that great because they didn’t have any songs and it was just a bunch of players playing. The records that were really good were the ones that had good singers singing good songs. Now you do everything with a mouse, so we’re all out here pretending we’re producers. What I think works effectively is if you go into a computer program and you approach it as if you were in a studio. You’re not going to be any better than whoever is standing in front of a microphone or playing a guitar, and then you have to commit that performance somehow effectively onto a hard drive. That takes ears and it takes musicality. I’ve got to qualify that by saying that I don’t really get involved in electronica, and cutting and pasting music, or the whole genre of contemporary stuff that’s sampled. It’s not really a song. It’s like cutting out pictures from a magazine, pasting them on the wall and saying you’re a photographer. So what’s changing now in the music world is that the filters are different. You used to have the A&R guys at the labels deciding what we were going to listen to, and there was a time when they chose good music that they were going to invest in and make records of. Now anybody can post anything, so it’s up to the listener to decide. The good news is that anybody can put music on the Internet. The bad news is that anybody can put music on the Internet. You have to dig through so much s–t until you find something you might like, and the bar of what’s acceptable is dropping precipitously.
Aside from Mark Knopfler, which artists did you work with at Shangri La?
Kings of Leon did their first album there, with Ethan Johns producing. Lou Adler lived down the street, so we did tape copies for him and he brought a couple of artists in. We had a lot of fun just talking about basketball, really. John Porter lived just down the street and did Keb Mo’s Suitcase album with us. We did a single with Tom Jones, some tracking with Chaka Kahn, Joe Walsh came up for a month, and then the Eagles got back together, so he left. A lot of great musicians and technicians were always in and out of the place. It was always top-notch, fun people to have coffee with.
Having worked with that caliber of talent, are you more critical of the musicians you work with now? Does it create a more critical ear?
What that does for people who are fools is it gives them the opportunity to drop names. What it did for me was it gave me the realization that great musicians f–k up, but they don’t let that bother them. And a f–k-up could be even better than what was intended in the first place. There’s a fearlessness with great musicians that I think is valuable, and that fearlessness is something that I try and convey to people who may not be at that level, to convince them that it’s OK to f–k up, but you aren’t going to know you f–k up until you f–k up, so just play or sing. Don’t be afraid. If you’re trying to do everything right all the time, sometimes you just don’t get that interesting.
It’s easy to be our parents and play “Back in my day.” Is it as bad today as we make it out to be, were the old days that good, do we make things too precious, or do we all just like to complain?
I think there’s an element of all of the above. I think one of the most valuable things about the old days was the camaraderie and working together. At the same time, there are a lot of people who are a pain in the ass to be around, and you forget the part about how the drummer is always on the phone with his girlfriend, so you’ve got to wait ten minutes for the next take. Now it’s so easy for everybody to sit in front of their computer screen and never meet people. The camaraderie is a nice thing. When you have the opportunity to be in a studio with a group of people, it’s really nice. It’s also really expensive and not done very much anymore, because for the price of paying musicians and renting a studio for just a day, you could buy a bunch of cool new stuff.
Let’s take, for example, the comparison between digital and analog recording. We fought a long time at Shangri La against putting in Pro Tools. We had three or four nice Studer tape machines and they were really expensive at the time. Now you can’t give them away. But they were quite valuable and we fought hard to stay on tape. Then, when they stopped making tape for a while, we had to go to Pro Tools, because if you didn’t have Pro Tools, you could basically just put velvet ropes up and give tours: “This is our recording studio display. People used to make records like this.” I came to realize that digital recording had improved to the point where it was really good. It sounded good, and if you could put things head to head, and you were honest with yourself and did a blindfold test, many times you’d pick the digital recording over the analog recording for a lot of reasons. There were many things about analog that we look at as being warm and fuzzy that were actually artifacts of analog recording that they were able to do away with in digital recording that made sound reproduction better. The reason there’s EQs on recording consoles is to get back everything you’re losing every time you scrub the tape across the recording head when you’re doing overdubs. You’re losing high end all the time, which doesn’t exist in the digital world. There’s basically no loss. There’s an argument to be made that there is a loss, but it’s not perceptible. If you do honest blindfold tests, from a technical standpoint, things are much, much better; otherwise they wouldn’t be that way. Why would they make things worse? You make things better. It’s just like guitar amps. Everybody has a big love for old tube amps, the warmth, the this, the that. The fact is a lot of that stuff is really noisy and clackety-clack, but it has character. Over the course of the years, they improved a lot of that stuff and actually made it better. There are certain things about tube technology that are advantageous, but tube equipment has to be maintained at a certain level and it can be expensive. Making a determination just based on if it’s this or that is a mistake. What’s coming out of the speakers? And can you tell a difference?
I think, in general, the ability to make music is really, really high right now. Could you imagine Mozart in a modern recording studio? Who knows what he would come up with. But it’s still an artistic endeavor, and the heart has to be there as well. So there are certain aspects about the old days that I miss, and there are other aspects that we think are better than they were. For example, when you work in Pro Tools, you don’t have to wait five minutes to rewind every time you overdub. If you want to change songs, you shut the session down and put up another project with two clicks of a mouse, without getting up and making a pot of coffee while the second engineer takes the tape off the machine, and makes sure that the track sheets are all in the box, and puts it back in the right place, and takes another roll of tape, and puts that on the machine, and winds it up, and oh gosh, you bumped the machine, and now you’ve got to recalibrate those damned preamps, and it could be another hour before you get started on the next song. So there are a lot of things that are easier to do.
Let’s look at what’s going on in music now. Award shows …
Much ado about nothing? Aren’t they always about being over the top and the shock factor to outdo whoever opened the show last year?
Yeah. I don’t watch them. I wait to find out who gets the most hits on YouTube and then I watch and laugh. I think the ultimate award is do people show up to see you at a concert, and do they buy your record or CD or download or whatever you call that thing we do now. What I enjoy even more than looking at what people do on these award shows is reading the comments about the articles. “So-and-so is such a disappointment to her parents,” or “So-and-so is such a disappointment to his fans.” All this stuff is very calculated and done for a purpose, because otherwise, who would listen to their records? You could be a very talented singer-songwriter and play empty piano bars in obscurity, or you could create an outlandish persona, develop a worldwide brand, and then hide out and let everyone else deal with the buzz. How can you argue with that? Getting everybody all heated up about sticking our tongues out and waving our tushes, as little as that has to do with making music, as far away as that is from anything that I’m about, there’s really no surprises anymore, but it’s not something that we cover in my workshops. “In today’s class, we’re going to work on … pasties, piercings, and their effectiveness on vocal performance.”
Last time, we discussed taking care of the voice — everything from the difficulties of touring to onstage air temperature. Some artists, for example, Paul McCartney, Styx, Elton John, Aerosmith, Heart, the list goes on, sound amazing. After years of use and abuse of their voices, years of travel, and for some of them, years of smoking and drugs, they still sound great. Others, not so much. Is it genetics, luck of the draw, what?
I saw the McCartney thing [on Jimmy Kimmel Live]. That was something. He sounds 30 years old. It’s just astounding to me. You can’t minimize the value of good genes, I guess. Some people are just blessed, or really lucky, or put together in a way — and now keep in mind that these people, when you talk about years of smoking and possibly drug use and the rigors of touring, most of that happened at an age when we’re pretty resilient. Somebody can get away with things in their 30s and into their 40s that they couldn’t do later in life. There are not a lot of old smack freaks around. You either quit or die. Not to say there aren’t some, but a lot of people who have made it in this business, and at a certain level financially, are able to live a healthy lifestyle now. They saw the light, and luckily they didn’t have irreversible problems or damage. It’s a hard thing to say, “You shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that,” and then you put up someone like McCartney, who still smokes weed, if you believe what he says, and sings like that. I’ve seen people come into a session and they’ve got atomizers, or they’ve set up humidifiers and had their little thing they spray in the back of their throat, and they’ve got to have their special tea and they still sing like s–t. OK, well, you’re wasting your money with that. How about just singing? And then McCartney walks in, says, “Where’s the piano?” and bam! I don’t know how to explain it. But he’s been singing really well for a long time. McCartney, in the early days, would scream outside the studio to get his voice fried enough to do a rock and roll track, but he was in his 30s, so he could get away with it. And consider the fact that when the Beatles were in Hamburg, Germany, they were playing twelve-hour shifts. In conditions like that, you either get better or drop out of the herd and become plumbers, shoe salesmen and politicians.
Conversely, there are “singers” who aren’t about the vocals. When we go to a Bob Dylan concert, are we going because he’s a great singer? No. We’re going because he’s a great songwriter and when he performs those songs, it works.
I think it’s the package. If you’re going to see Dylan, you’re going to see the best musicians in that genre that are alive on this planet at that time. You’re not going to see Dylan with anything less than the best. I remember somebody telling me they’d met a guy and “We have to bring him into the studio because he sings just like Dylan.” I said, “Great, just what the world is waiting for. Can he write just like Dylan?” That’s a different thing. With some pop stars, for example, it’s a different package. You get the never-ending Pepsi commercial that some people enjoy. Not my thing. It’s not relevant to what I do. Remember, you don’t get to see the thin-ees of when the herd got thinned, because they’re not around anymore. You get to see the big dogs that lasted through it. Some of them had vocal problems. Tom Jones, Elton John and Ann Wilson all had times when they had problems with their voices. They got through it and did the work to make it better, but they are the artists they are. I don’t know if it’s possible to take raw material and turn it into a great singer if it doesn’t want to be a great singer to begin with. Someone like me can help someone get closer to their potential, but it’s a mistake for someone like me to take credit for someone being a great singer. Great singers are great singers. If they have problems, you can help them. Otis Redding was the limo driver at Stax Records and he turned out to be a pretty good singer for a while. So I don’t know if there’s an answer. But I was stunned by the McCartney thing. He’s amazing.