Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those working behind the scenes in the music industry. Vocal coach extraordinaire Melissa Cross is widely known for her work with “extreme” metal musicians including the lead singers of Slayer, Megadeth, and Killswitch Engage, as well as non-metalists Maroon 5, Sarah Bareilles, and Kevin Bacon. Helping musicians to preserve their pipes is highly technical work, but as Cross explains, singing is also about achieving the right state of mind and being.
The Rumpus: Can you tell me a bit about your background? I understand that you’re a classically trained musician and actor?
Melissa Cross: Yes! When I was little, my grandmother had an organ, a Hammond B-3. I loved watching her play, and I wanted to play myself but my feet didn’t yet reach the foot pedals. Finally, when I was six, I got a piano and started playing. I say “finally” because I was already taking ballet lessons and writing my own plays. “Look at me!” was my middle name. I was the kind of kid who wanted to show people that I could do something.
I continued piano, ballet, and the theater, and my piano audition got me into the Interlochen Arts Academy. And then I started playing guitar when I was thirteen, and by the time I was fourteen, I also started writing my own songs. Back then I loved Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell was my idol. I wanted to be them, but my dad was British and nothing I did was good enough because it wasn’t “properly” done. So after Interlochen I went to the Old Vic Theatre School in England, but I was still totally into my guitar and I busked in the streets, and when I finished Old Vic I left acting behind to be in a rock band.
Rumpus: Like Janis or Joni?
Cross: Well, at the time there was a big changeover—it was Elvis Costello and the Sex Pistols and I was a little out of sync because I played an acoustic guitar—so I moved from England to California, and I got an electric guitar and started to follow some of the punk bands. Within a year I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles to be in a punk band called The Limit, entering as a guitar player and then taking over as lead vocalist, and I co-wrote songs with the keyboard player. We opened for X, The Go-Gos, The Circle Jerks, The Plugs, The Blasters, The Textones—
Listen to Cross and her band’s song “Teddy Bear” (iPad/iPhone users click here):
Rumpus: Sounds like you landed in the right place at the right time…
Cross: Well, almost. My aunt was on a plane with Simon Napier-Bell, The Yardbirds’ manager (who was at the time managing Wham! with George Michael), and he took our band’s 45 and redid it, and he changed the name, and he painted up my face, and he put colors in my hair, and gave me diamond earrings, and then I had a 12” single in the UK… But it was by Melisssa because he put three S’s in my name and credited the hair designer but didn’t include any musical credits…
Listen to the altered version of “Teddy Bear” (iPad/iPhone users click here):
Cross: Ultimately, years later in New York City, I became kind of the next big thing, meaning I had the top lawyer, the top manager, and three labels that were bidding to sign me. But I also had a drug problem—a bad one.
And I remember the night: it was November 9, 1984. It was in a club called Tracks. The New York Times was there. They were doing a piece—“the day in the life of an A & R person.” There were three labels there all waiting to see me do this performance. I was really bad. I decided to detox and stop using two days before this showcase. I had no voice. I looked like hell. I hadn’t eaten. And a week later in The New York Times, there was a quote: “Had she mercifully paused for breath or had she finished,” and the quote said, “Yup. She’s finished alright.” It was such a disaster but I did get sober. I got clean.
Rumpus: Did you try to get right back in the game?
Cross: Years went by, but I didn’t give up. I continued in my day jobs, going to AA meetings, and writing songs that were somewhat confessional. I think the journey past that point was one where I had a lot of integrity but I didn’t have that Souxsie and the Banshees kind of mystique anymore. I was much more forthcoming and honest. I did acoustic guitar stuff and then I’d get fed up with it and rock out again, and I went back and forth, always showing up at the label and being the bridesmaid. I got so close so many times, but I think it was really the shame. I felt so bad about blowing it, smashing my dream on one night.
Rumpus: How did you come through those experiences to teaching?
Cross: I was a legal secretary. I was an executive assistant. But I couldn’t spend eight hours a day in an office. It just wasn’t me. And there came a point where I didn’t want to live anymore, so I reached a kind of spiritual understanding. I decided I was going to love every moment of my life and that meant I was going to sing no matter what—I bought a little battery-powered amp and I auditioned for “Music Under New York” and I got it, which meant I was going to sing in the subway.
I sang in Grand Central. I sang in Penn Station. And while I was doing that, someone stopped me and asked if I could teach them to sing. And I realized I’d been studying voice at that point for like fifteen years, and that I could do that, and I loved teaching. And the girl I gave the lessons to said to me, “You’re really good at this! You should do this for a living!” Then I had five students, and then I had ten, then twenty. I put an ad in The Village Voice and then I had forty students and carpel tunnel. So that’s how I got to teach—by making the choice to do what I loved. And I’m really glad I did that because it was waiting for me. Everything unfolds as it’s supposed to if you’re awake and flexible. I wasn’t flexible for a long time. They told me I wasn’t going to be a rock star and I was like, “Fuck you!”
Rumpus: Were you able to draw on your experiences as a performer to teach others how to sing?
Cross: I think it’s very important for a teacher to have experience as a performer. It’s very hard to teach this without really knowing what goes on there. It isn’t just technical. I know what the brain does, how the “committee” inside speaks to you, like: oh, you’re an impostor, you’re so bad, they’re telling you that you’re fooling yourself and you’re a piece of you-know-what and you suck. I know that feeling and how to replace that with a different energy. And if I hadn’t been there I don’t know I would know what it takes to move through that.
Watch Cross working with one of her students:
Rumpus: Is it more difficult to teach screaming compared to vocal styles?
Cross: Before I got involved with screaming I was teaching commercial genres of vocal technique for at least eight years—the technique is the same no matter the genre. The person on Broadway does the same warm-up as the heavy metal guy. Your voice is a sponge. You could wash a car with it or polish silver. But with screaming there are some advanced applications and contexts.
In all healthy voice production, there must be coordination, a balance between air in the lungs and the closure of the vocal folds. The human voice has some “registration issues” that keep voice teachers in business. To simplify, there are certain laryngeal positions that won’t accommodate higher or lower notes. Accessing that coordination feels like trying to learn to drive a car with a clutch, and teaching that requires some imagination. When you start thinking about body parts the singer will focus on their body, and then they’ll start holding their breath, and when that happens there’s no air going through their vocal folds. So you have to start talking instead about non-body/voice-related movement, something dynamic like painting a big blue stripe across a canvas…
Rumpus: Is screaming very different from what you had been doing back in your old punk days?
Cross: Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was in a punk band, I thought I was screaming, but it was nothing like screaming today. It still had a musical note or spoken word in it. But in screaming there is just a distortion, a sound with no voice in it—just distortion, a chaotic vibration. For example, an A note is 440 cycles per second, meaning my vocal folds are vibrating 440 cycles per second, like a string. When that distorted sound happens, the vibrations are irregular, sometimes for an entire song. When there is a note with it, that’s what Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Tom Waits do. It’s furry, and when there’s like fur on it, I call that “heat.” But when it doesn’t have any note or spoken word in it, I call that “fire.”
Watch Cross explain more about the differences between “heat” and “fire,” and demonstrate a vocal exercise she calls “the rainbow”:
Rumpus: You’ve made two instructional DVDs, and to date they’ve sold over 50,000 copies. How great is the need for “extreme” vocal training?
Cross: Starting in the early ‘80s, there were some thrash metal bands like Metallica, Pantera, Slayer, and Megadeth, and then more bands like that started popping up, and then there was a need. These kinds of bands aren’t often on the radio but they’ve been strong for years, and unlike many people who are on the radio, these guys are making a living at it. Their fans are dedicated. It survives because it is a commitment of point of view. The fans buy every CD, all the merch, and they do that progressively through the band’s career.
When the guys in these bands went to voice teachers and said, “This is what I do and I’m hurting myself,” the teachers were telling them you just can’t do that anymore. An old friend of mine from Interlochen was recording a lot of these bands and he asked me to help get them through their recording sessions. My mouth was hanging open when I heard this music for the first time, but I used my acting skills to mimic it and figure out how to do without hurting myself, ultimately sticking a camera down my throat at my ENT’s office, watching my larynx on a screen so that I could see what it does when I did it wrong and right. Those first people I worked with became famous. It’s a closely-knit community so it wasn’t long before word got out that there was this “PTA mom” in Midtown and they all came. And soon they all came in droves and that led to the first instructional DVD.
Rumpus: You call your technique the “Zen of Screaming,” which refers to a state of mind and being. How do you help vocalists—not just “extreme” vocalists, but all kinds of singers—to find and hone their true voices?
Cross: Every student has their heroes and we want to imitate them, but at some point you have to find your own voice. When you’re up there and you’re channeling your hero, there are these moments in time when you mimic and you’re trying to choreograph yourself, and you’re not being inside of yourself. You’re being a spectator, driving from the passenger seat. You can’t sing well that way because it physiologically affects your voice. You have to stop listening and replace the listening with being in the moment with your sound, which is as trippy as painting a vowel.
What I teach is being the vowel. I wouldn’t tell you where to put your tongue, your jaw. If I asked you to sing an A, I’d tell you to put one hand here, like on the side of a teepee and the other hand on the other side of the teepee and ask you to be an A. And you can’t listen to it because you’re being an A. The sound, the experience of the resonance, the buzz you feel in your face, it’s all coming from you. It makes your larynx not reach up without you “thinking” that. You should not sound like anyone else. You should sound like yourself. Let it unfold the way it is supposed to. If you love music, music will bring you love.
Featured image of Melissa Cross © by Jim Cooper.
Videos from Zen and The Art of Screaming 2 courtesy of Melissa Cross.