Learn to Sing
is an accomplished singer, songwriter and guitar player currently
fronting the rock band Alter Bridge. Mark Tremonti recruited Kennedy in
2004 as the lead singer for Alter Bridge shortly after Creed broke up.
Alter Bridge’s debut album One Day Remains was certified Gold.
Their next album Blackbird will be released on October 9th, 2007.
Kennedy’s involvement in the music scene began long before he joined Alter Bridge. He started off by playing guitar in his Spokane high school’s jazz band before forming one of his own: Bitterweet, a heavy metal band. He went on to study music at Spokane Falls Community College (Spokane, WA) where jazz continued to be an interest. In the early 1990’s, his next band Citizen Swing saw the day. A mixture of rock and R&B characterized it. During that same period, he actively participated in the jazz-fusion band Cosmic Dust. Kennedy’s efforts until then were most noticeable in his song writing abilities and in his impressive guitar skills. Before the decade ended, Kennedy had already put together a new rock band: The Mayfield Four. Kennedy’s potential as a vocalist became more eminent with both albums it released: Fallout (1998) and Second Skin (2001). He has since continued to come through as a thoughtful lyricist and composer as well as an accomplished three-octave tenor and guitar player.
Another interesting fact about Kennedy is that he played the role of Thor in the movie Rock Star
|Interview by: Valerie Bastien|
|Myles and I
met at the Hard Rock Cafe earlier that day and settled for a 4
o’clock interview time. When I walked in a more secluded area of
the dining room to meet him at our appointment time, Myles and Mark
were rehearsing a new song. I later found out it was called Wayward
One. It was absolutely special to hear them play unplugged with no amp
or mike. Let me tell you that Myles’ voice sounds as fantastic
without amplification as it does during a live performance. You should
have seen the smile on my face, I was so happy to be there! Myles than
noticed I had arrived and he invited me to the patio so we could
proceed with our interview.
Valerie: This is a three-part interview.
Myles: All right!
Valerie: The first part focuses on your singing, the second part is about your writing since you are such a wonderful songwriter and the third part is about the new album.
Myles: Sure, all right!
Valerie: So the first question is: you play different instruments. I’d like to know which one came first.
Myles: Ah… I was a trumpet player first of all when I was a kid. I was in a jazz band, a marching band and all that stuff…
Valerie: That was even before you started playing guitar?
Valerie: Oh really!
Myles: I started playing trumpet when I was ten because my mom insisted. I didn’t wanna do it initially, but I’m glad I did because it made it easier to pick up the guitar. I started playing guitar when I was about fifteen. I fell madly in love with the instrument. And the interesting thing is that I started singing years after that because I found that it was just easier when I was putting bands together to take care of the vocals myself. It kind of helped me define the vision a little better at the time. In retrospect, it turned out nicely cause I guess if I were just a guitar player, I wouldn’t have gotten a call from Alter Bridge. I’m glad I had the singing thing in my pocket.
Valerie: It’s funny that you did not know than that you had a talent for the voice…
Myles: No! I didn’t!
Valerie: Cause not everybody can sing on pitch obviously but there’s a nice color to your voice.
Myles: Thank you! I had no idea. I actually didn’t like the sound of my voice.
Myles: The first time I heard it on a tape recorder, I was like “I have a terrible voice; I can’t stand my voice”! There are still days where I feel kinda self-conscious about my voice. I guess it’s one of those things where you hear it a certain way in your head but when you hear it back it always sounds different.
Valerie: So I guess that’s when you realised that you had potential to actually be a lead singer…
Myles: Yeah! I sang for the first time in front of people when I was about sixteen. I sang “Rock And Roll” by Led Zeppelin and I was terrified beyond belief about playing guitar and singing, and I had very bad stage fright. And that was it, I didn’t sing again for another few years. I just played guitar in bands and we always had different singers. And then I started singing in my early twenties. I was playing basically trying to pay the bills. I was playing in bands and we’d cover R&B songs and what not. And one night the bass player couldn’t make it. So somebody needed to sing the songs, so I was like, “I’ll give it a shot”! And that’s when it kinda started. I started doing it more and more. People pushed me into doing it initially. The people in the band I was playing in were like “Come on Myles, stop being a sissy and sing!” I was really shy…
Valerie: You know what; people don’t realise how personal singing is. Because if they don’t like the sound of your guitar you can just buy another one.
Valerie: But when it’s your voice and they don’t like it…
Myles: Exactly, it’s you!
Valerie: You really take it personal!
Myles: : It’s hard not to. It’s you!
Valerie: The thing is… They’re always the first person people are pointing at, criticizing.
Myles: You're absolutely right. It’s hard man!.
Valerie: You said many times that you were describing yourself as a “geek” when it comes to playing guitar.
Myles: Yeah (laughing)!
Valerie: You know all your modes and you can improvise and you shred. In comparison, I would like you to explain what is or what has been your approach to learning to sing.
Myles: Initially my approach was listening. I spent a lot of time listening to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. That is kinda where I caught a lot of my inflections from. Later on Al Green was an influence. And obviously because I was such a huge fan of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant ended up being an influence without even realising it. And once again, he’s a blues based singer. I consider myself a blues singer at the end of the day. That’s what I stole everything from. Then later on, in order to maintain my voice, touring and what not, I had to learn how to use it correctly without beating it up. So I took some lessons with Ron Anderson. He gave me the tools and knowledge, basically the Bel Canto technique.
Valerie: Yeah, Bel Canto!
Myles: That’s when I learned that there is a proper way to do it. And the trick for me has been to balance it where it doesn’t come across too clinical and too sterile. I think people get so wrapped up in technique that they lose the soul. The soul doesn’t come through because they over analyze. It’s always my challenge to find that balance and still convey the emotion without abusing my voice.
Valerie: The thing is, if you think about it too much as well, you can become tensed and that will affect your voice too.
Valerie: You have to let it go at some point…
Myles: You have to let it go. There’s a great book that people should check out called “Effortless Mastery” by a guy named Kenny Werner and it’s fantastic! It teaches you how to tap into that effortless aspect, the way music or art should be. You shouldn’t be thinking about it. You have to let your ego go. That’s been the thing for me to learn to kick the ego to the curb, and become a vessel, that’s the goal. And some nights you’re able to do it, some nights you’re not. And for me that’s even more important than trying to sing and play well. My biggest challenge is to simply find the right frame of mind every night. And even if I sing well on a night and I feel like I didn’t tap into that effortless state, I will be hard on myself. I will say to myself, “You were wrapped up in ego! You were too wrapped up in people judging you!” that’s not what it’s about. Music is about expression, and it’s about trying to tap in whatever is up there. Just channelling it. When you’re able to do that, it’s the most rewarding… I think people sense that.
Valerie: Yeah they do. You can touch people like that.
Myles: Yeah, definitely!
Valerie: So going back to your vocal coach; do you still keep in touch with your vocal coach Ron Anderson?
Myles: I talked with Ron… I think I saw him over two years ago. I’ve been working with the technique now for about ten years and it’s starting to take hold. It feels very natural. I don’t wanna say that I’ve got it mastered by any means, cause I’m sure there are still a ton of things I can learn from him…
Myles: I just haven’t… I guess I get by with what I know.
Valerie: You come to a point where you know yourself too.
Valerie: So you know what works for you.
Valerie: Actually, when I learned that you had studied with him, I looked him up on the Internet and I couldn’t resist buying the CD from American Idol..
Myles: Oh you did?! What did you think? I haven’t seen that yet. How is it?
Valerie: It’s good!
Myles: Is it?
Valerie: It’s good actually because I… especially the tongue exercises, that was very good for me.
Myles: It’s a big one!
Valerie: I never could really find the right spot; how to place the tongue. It would either be too much backward or too forward and you know how you can get the “U” at the back of the tongue…
Myles: The “U”, that was the key for me!
Valerie: Me too!
Myles: Yeah, “U”… In fact, it’s funny! Right before I went to sing the vocals on this record I had started to lift my tongue again. So I fixed it. It’s hard for me to listen to the last Alter Bridge record cause I really lifted it a lot. In fact, I was basically singing from my left side. My tongue was so high. There was only a narrow space for the sound to travel through.
Valerie: Oh yeah?!
Myles: Yeah, Ron was like, “Dude, you keep on raising that tongue!” So right before I went to do this record, I was looking in the mirror, practicing my vocal exercises to keep that tongue down and it really helped a lot. I just opened to that…
Valerie: I’m glad to hear that! When you interpret a song; do you sit down with the lyrics or do you just sing impulsively? Would you rather analyse word for word or just sing it out?
Myles: I actually am a big fan of going through the vowels first. I like to get real comfortable with where the vowels are.
Myles: Are you talking about from once the lyrics are done or are you talking about when you’re creating melody?
Valerie: No, I’m talking more about the feelings; putting the feelings into it
Myles: Well, at the end of the day, you wanna convey what the lyric is saying. That’s what it’s all about. It’s kinda like being, I’ve used this analogy so many times, it’s like being an actor. The lyric is essentially your script you know. So you as an actor, portray that emotion and try to feel that. I’ll focus on that along with where the vowels are. Once I’ve programmed my brain to know what each vowel is, and where to place everything, then I can really go and focus on the emotions.
Valerie: do you take the vowels into consideration when you write the lyrics?
Myles: No generally, but sometimes if you hum a melody, certain vowels will jump out. I go to “A’s” a lot. I think a lot of people go to easy vowels to sing. It really depends. Sometimes you’ll come up with a lyric that will paint such a picture that you forget what the vowel is, you don’t want to worry about it. It really depends on the song.
Valerie: How do you like to warm up before a show?
Myles: A lot! I’m very anal about warming up. I spend anyone between 45 minutes to sometimes 90 minutes warming up.
Valerie: Oh it’s a lot!
Myles: Yeah, sometimes it’s too much. Sometimes, I think that I’m over doing it, but it’s just to get myself in that head space. And I’ll start out with one of Ron’s… one of the tapes that he gave me. I usually start off with the first 45 minutes of that. Sometimes less. If I feel good, maybe I’ll just go 20 minutes. If I feel that everything is open and I’ll be fine, then I go through different parts of the show in my head voice that have been troubling me. I keep it real light. I try to save it the best I can. And usually the 90 minutes sessions are only if I’ve really abused the night before. I’m real guilty of moving my jaw sometimes. When I start moving the jaw, putting the tongue in the wrong place, then I feel it the next day. I wanna basically reprogram my brain.
Valerie: Oh yeah…
Myles: It’s like: “O.k. your jaw is taking it in, your placement’s off; get your placement back so you can sing this show!”.
Valerie: So do you do any particular exercises for that? Like lip bubbles?
Myles: Yeah, I’ll start with lip bubbles, you know “Brrrr”! and the “Rrrr” and that whole thing. I do the whole stick the tongue out “Ahh” and get that mask to resonate. Those are usually the first ones. You know what’s funny? I don’t have a great grasp on where my head voice begins. People are like: “Are you using your head voice? Your chest voice?”. I have an idea what they are but I’ve spent enough time with the technique that they start to fit into one another so I don’t really know when one ends and when one begins so I really have to think about it: “What type of my voice am I using? I guess it’s my head so…”.
Valerie: There are so many ways to define those anyways. People argue about what’s what and… I’m like that. I don’t really pay attention to it. Just the break. I know exactly where my break is. And I try to be self-conscious of that.
Valerie: But other than that… I just try to keep everything…
Valerie: How have you grown as a singer since the last album, you’ve sort of touched on that already but can you explain may be more how it will show on the new album?
Myles: The new album? Yeah! I’m really, really happy with everything from the songs on this record, to the performances and the sounds on this record. We are really very content. I was very conscious of the fact that there are a lot of singers that get that real gravely thing in their upper register, so I wanted to try and do something different on this record. And keep it a little cleaner on the upper end. Sometimes, if it’s a really hard, aggressive song, I put a little gravel in there. But for the most part, I tried to keep it absolutely pure on this record.
Valerie: Do you mean like grit when you say gravel?
Myles: Yeah! Just trying to shy away from a ton of grit and keep it soaring. Where the lines just float. Like the way Stevie Wonder would just soar over a line. I wanted to integrate a little more of that on this record. But keep it rocking!
Valerie: I’m actually glad that you’re not using grit so much on One Day Remains because that’s what I really liked about you as the new lead singer. And mostly that it’s sort of become so trendy to sing with that kind of voice.
Valerie: And there aren’t that many singers that can sing with a pure voice and do it well. So I’m glad you’re sticking to that!
Myles: Yeah, I tried to use it more. And also you know at the end of the day, I think it actually extends your career. I noticed the guys who didn’t use a lot of grit back when they were younger still sing great now! The goal is for me to still pull this stuff off in 20 years. I would prefer to maintain my instrument as opposed to abusing it to sound like everyone else.
Valerie: I can never do the grit! May be because I’m a girl but I just can’t do it… Anyway! The writing now... You are a wonderful singer, a skilled guitar player and also an amazing songwriter. I would like to know what are your writing strategies.
Myles: It really depends. Some of it is just, you know, like we were talking about earlier, “trying to tap into something special.” I heard Chris Robinson of the Black Crows once say “You just try to tap into the song” as he put his hands up like it’s out there to just try to grab it. It’s a moment in time that you try to capture, record, and document forever. And that’s really our goal. Mark and I spend a lot of time stock piling ideas. We both have micro-cassette recorders that we capture verse, bridge and chorus ideas on. Then we piece our individual ideas into songs. br>
Valerie: So you do it individually and than you get together?
Myles: Yeah. That’s how it tends to work. It’s like putting a puzzle together. There’s a song on the next record called Watch Over You. I had the song pretty much written about five years ago but I could never find a bridge that was dead on. And I remember Mark playing this melody and this cool musical piece and I was like: “Man, that bridge would fit perfectly for this song!” So right before we went to do the record, I brought the song to the band. Once we integrated Mark’s part as the bridge, I heard it and exclaimed, “Oh, that’s just what it needed! That’s it!” It just drove the song home. That’s how we work.
Valerie: So what do you feel comes first most often; the lyrics or the music?
Myles: The music and melody for us. Generally the melody is key. That’s what it’s all about. Writing something that is memorable that will draw a listener in. You know when you listen to the radio and you hear something and it grabs your attention, “Oh, I like that melody!” You turn it up and it’s something you can sing along to. It’s got a good hook and it sticks in your head. Then, once the listener is captivated by the music and melody, they wanna know what it’s about. And that’s when the lyric comes in. It is the soul of the song. The substance. I spent tons of time lyrically on this record. More so than on any previous records because we wanted to make sure that it was really saying something. Lyrics on Mayfield Four records tended to be very personal. Very much like journal entries. This record is stepping back and stepping out of myself to look at what’s going around me. As a writer that’s a little more difficult for me to pull off. Seeing what’s going on in the world, looking at people around you who are in a bad place and trying to write from their perspective. That was a real challenge, but I think we got it in the end.
Valerie: That was actually my next question, I was gonna ask you what’s the percentage approximately, what’s the percentage of the lyrics that’s personal and that’s just…
Myles: a commentary?
Valerie: A perspective, yeah?
Myles: I would say on this record… I’m gonna say 70% are probably commentary. 30% are probably personal. Maybe more commentary… May be 80%. There’s one song that was written about a friend who passed away last year and that was more personal. Then there are other themes on this record. Themes of anti-apathy I guess. I’m guilty of becoming complacent and not paying attention to what’s going on around me, and not trying to change something that needs to be fixed. And my goal as a writer was to try and write songs that served as mantras. Essentially, I would sing that song so many times that it would light a fire to my ass and get me to do what’s needed to be done and change something. And I hope that people don’t…. my big fear when this record comes out is that people might misinterpret it as being preachy. And that’s not the goal. I don’t wanna preach. It’s more about just to trying to help me along.
Valerie: That sounds very inspiring!
Myles: Well, we’ll see if the critics crucify me for it. But you never know…
Valerie: I’m sure they won’t! You have already started talking about the new album. I wanted to ask you… We’ve been told that Mark will be singing more back up vocals.
Valerie: I was wondering if you were turning into a personal vocal coach for him to help him out.
Myles: Oh no… I tried man! Mark, he’s a funny guy! He’s got a great voice, but he just doesn’t know it! And the thing that we’ve noticed really early on, and we’ve tried to tap into on this record, was that there’s something real special about how our voices blend together. A lot of times you don’t get that luxury with 2 voices. I think because my range is where it is, and his is where it is, not to mention the timbre of our voices, our sound seems to gel well together. When you tuck him in the mix, it gives our sound more body and depth. So I embrace it. Once in a while he will be like: “How should I sing this?” and I will suggest: “Try your vowels like that!” But for the most part, he just does what he does and it works so why so…
Valerie: I totally agree actually about the color; they’re both contrasting but than they complement each other so well.
Myles: Yeah, it’s weird!
Valerie: I’ve noticed that since the beginning of… The first few times I listened to One Day Remains.
Valerie: He’s got a great voice.
Myles: He does!
Valerie: It’s good that he is singing more.
Myles: He’s definitely singing a lot on this record so…
Valerie: And it’s good that you will be playing more guitar.
Myles: Yes, thank you! Ah…I cannot tell you how what a relief that is. I still to this day consider myself a guitar player first and a singer second. The guitar is like my security blanket. In fact, here in the Hard Rock they were showing videos like Open Your Eyes, and I can’t even look at it because I know how uncomfortable I was without a guitar on.
Myles: Yeah, I need a guitar. I’m one of these guys that’s just guilty of spending way too much time sitting in his hotel room playing guitar. I just love the instrument! That’s probably why Mark and I get along so well cause we’re both… geeks! We love the instrument.
Valerie: (laughing) See!
Valerie: I wasn’t lying!
Myles: We are!
Myles: Definitely, definitely without a doubt! I don’t blame you for saying geeks!
Valerie: Nothing wrong with that! Going back to the album, there were talks that as many as 25 songs were written for the new album. I’d like to know how many made the cut.
Myles: We ended up recording 17.
Valerie: That’s good!
Myles: Yeah, it’s good! And we’ll probably keep a few of them for b-sides and what not. And then, we’ll keep 13 or 14 to put on the new record. We’ll keep the others to have for future use. What’s hard is deciding which ones are not gonna go on the record cause we’re pretty happy with almost all of them. Even the ones that we initially thought were not up to par, turned out better than we thought. It’s a daunting task.
Valerie: Can you tell us how the recording is going?
Myles: Ah… It’s been great! It’s almost done actually. We just came in from the producer’s studio in Virginia. We’ve been there for about a month finishing the vocals and some guitar overdubs. The producer’s name is Michael “Elvis” Baskette. He’s just top notch. I can’t say enough about how great he is to work with. He worked on the second Mayfield Four record and…
Valerie: Yeah I knew about that! Did you ask for him to join you?
Myles: Yeah, since we had some history together. The guys in the band liked some of the previous work that he’s done and I was like, “I know Elvis, he’s awesome!” I knew that as people the five of us would all get along well. He was young when I worked with him as an engineer years ago and I saw his potential. Now he’s moved up in rank as a full fledge producer. He’s the real deal, there’s no doubt about it.
Valerie: Yeah, since we had some history together. The guys in the band liked some of the previous work that he’s done and I was like, “I know Elvis, he’s awesome!” I knew that as people the five of us would all get along well. He was young when I worked with him as an engineer years ago and I saw his potential. Now he’s moved up in rank as a full fledge producer. He’s the real deal, there’s no doubt about it.
Myles: Yeah, you should hear it!
Valerie: When do you think it will be coming out?
Myles: Hopefully September. Hopefully!
Valerie: Do you wanna start touring this summer?
Myles: Yeah, probably August, September something like that we’ll be out. Looking forward to it. In a venue near you soon!
Valerie Bastien is a vocal coach, teacher, musician and freelance journalist.
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