General Question

submariner's avatar

How can Tom Waits sing like that without wrecking his vocal chords?

Asked by submariner (4165points) November 30th, 2010

I’ve experimented a little bit with that growly sound, but I’m afraid of damaging my voice. Or is it because he has already wrecked his voice that he sounds like that?

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15 Answers

janbb's avatar

I believe it’s because he already “wrecked” his voice that he can sing like that, but I’m not a musicologist.

marinelife's avatar

Growling does wreck your voice. Many rockers have already stripped their vocal cords.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

This is so weird, I’ve been listening to Tom Waits all morning. In fact, it is playing as I’m typing.

And, I do believe a lot of his sound comes from heavy drinking and heavy smoking. The growling can’t help.

GladysMensch's avatar

His vocal chords are wrecked. Fortunately (for him), he’s known for the grovely sound. It’s not like he got his start as a pure singer who can no longer perform. Also, I’m not sure he’s doing any further damage to his voice. Some singers can just abuse their voices seeming forever with little consequence… think Brian Johnson (AC/DC) or Bruce Springsteen.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

When the vocal chords can’t handle the strain of high notes, a push from the gullet modifies the sound away from the nasal cavity. As @TheOnlyNeffie suggests, heavy drinking and smoking cause the throat and nasal passages to become weak. A push of wind from the gut, provides the iconic gutteral growl resonating from the back of the throat, away from the nasal cavity.

In 30 years, changing my smoking and drinking habits is the easiest way to change my vocal texture. I can hit much higher notes without drinking and smoking in my life. It can repair.

A more difficult repair is one who is constantly high note screaming. That can cause permanent chord damage. I believe Steven Tyler just underwent surgery to his nasal cavity to save his voice.

Fairylover78's avatar

I love Tom Waits, I first heard him on The Daily Show in 2006 singing Day after Tomorrow and have since become a huge fan. I love his husky, gravely voice. He’s got a pretty husky voice when talking so I think it’s more just that he embelishes his voice like any other artist.

Although, His voice was once described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” lol I have to agree, but somehow it is extremely pleasant too. His lyrics are real and well…human. Here is an interview on NPR done in 2006.

crazyivan's avatar

I take exception to the notion that Tom’s voice is “wrecked”. It’s beautiful, just gruff. There are a long line of exceptional singers whose voices fall far outside the lilting norm but that is certainly not a negative. Tom Waits’ voice might be the only positive effect anyone ever got from smoking…

YARNLADY's avatar

@crazyivan I think the wrecked reference is to the vocal cords, not the sound. The vocal cords have to be damaged to produce a sound like that.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Leonard Cohen sounds close to Tom and I don’t get the impression his chords are damaged at all. Compare this to his earlier career. His voice has become much deeper swarthy over time.

filmfann's avatar

I love Tom Waits. I saw him a couple times in concert. Once, he had two gas pumps on stage as props, and he just stood between them and sang. It was terrific!

Hmm, better add something, lest I get my response removed.

Many singers have vocal exercises that allow them to strain their voices without harm.

janbb's avatar

I heard an NPR program on the changing of artists’ voices over time. It referenced both Marianne Faithfull and Joni Mitchell. Marianne Faithfull’s was due to her heavy smoking partly but the program indicated it was a natural progression. Waits’ growl may be partly a natural progression, a strain and also the results of the mileage.

submariner's avatar

Thanks for your responses. I like his sound too, but most of my singing is choral, so I have to take care of my voice.

FortunateSonSyndrome's avatar

well as someone who has also experimented with that style and taken it even further really, to where it’s more raspy it definitely takes a toll. i can’t sing like that for very long before my normal speaking voice either starts to sound like that or i start to lose my voice completely. admittedly, i have smoked and drank somewhat heavily on and off since i was 15 (i’m 21 now) and i have been able to access a rougher sound continuously throughout the years. i do remember that i could get a pretty nice rough sound when i was younger, pre-ciggarettes and drinking, but yea. i would say that smoking ciggies and drinking helps to achieve that sound. i think it has something to do with vocal polyps or something. ciggarettes definitely more than drinking, but i suppose it does a little. would have to test someone who just drank a lot and never smoked, but i can’t think of anybody like that. but yea i think you pretty much answered your own question. i mean if you listen to his normal speaking voice it’s a lot edgier than any other normal speaking voice. and furthermore, you can tell that before he started drinking and smoking heavily his voice was a bit high. another example of what smoking and i imagine drinking can do to ones voice is clive barker. he’s a famous english horror writer if you haven’t heard of him, but if you listen to his voice now, or lack of voice i should say, and then go back and listen to him talk when he was younger it’s like night and day and he owes it all to what id imagine was both continuous and excessive smoking and probably drinking as well. it’s kinda sad too because he had the classic smooth sounding tenor english voice, and the great english pronunciation too no cockney or sousce going on, none of the slang more blue collar types of the english language. not that those aren’t pretty cool but yea his voice was really nice in my opinion and now it’s barely even there.

submariner's avatar

Waits comments on his vocal exercises on the Oct. 31, 2011 edition of Fresh Air .

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