The band Thursday performing. Photo courtesy of Jason Garber.
It’s not about how it sounds, it’s about how you imagine it.
That might be hard advice to swallow for your average lead singer , but it’s actually invaluable advice from the scream queen of New York City, Melissa Cross.
Melissa is a vocal coach who mixes elements of traditional technique while addressing the unique needs of the most extreme singers in music, helping them to first imagine and then ultimately achieve pitch perfect screaming.
“Imagination is what makes the voice work,” she says. “A bunch of technical information is not going to transfer to performance. The only thing that transfers to performance is imaging.”
Cross’s instructional DVD series, The Zen of Screaming, talks about screaming in terms of imagination and body memory. Her one-of-a-kind teaching style earned her an impressive client list, which includes members of Genghis Tron, Sky Eats Airplane, Thursday, Coheed and Cambria, and more.
Her client list also includes Kevin Bacon. Just saying.
BTR sat down with Melissa Cross to discuss the cathartic nature of screaming, the nuances of her teaching style, and her upcoming DVD, ZOS: See the Sound, which incorporates animation to further empower the imaginative components of the voice.
BreakThru Radio: Were you born and raised in New York City?
Melissa Cross: I ended up in New York City about 30 years ago, but I was born in San Antonio, Texas. I went to boarding school at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, and I graduated from there early, and I went to the United Kingdom and finished the Old Vic Theatre School.
And then I plopped right out of there and went straight to Los Angeles and joined a punk band, and that was like ’79.
BTR: That’s the perfect time to join a punk band.
MC: Exactly. I lived in England right when it was happening. It was right in front of my face. By the time I hit California, I was totally into it, and I didn’t have any more “long dresses with acoustic guitar” left in me by that time. It all kind of disappeared. I was that kind of artist before I got into the punky thing. I liked Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne … that southern California thing. When I was in England, I got transformed by bands like The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, 999, Siouxie and The Banshees… It was a huge revolution in my head.
BTR: So what kind of vocal coaching do you do? Is it just screaming?
MC: I’m actually so glad you asked that question cause it’s not just screaming, but because I’m one of the few people that didn’t say no when somebody asked me to help them scream without hurting themselves, I became well known as the scream go-to girl just by having the curiosity and the commitment to figure it out.
My background is classical. What I teach is solid technique to whatever kind of genre needs it. A voice is a voice. I’ve taught people on Broadway. I’ve taught people in the film industry, and the scream thing gave me the notoriety just by virtue of the fact that I was the only one that actually put a camera down my throat and figured out what was going on. I teach how to use the voice. Since so many screamers had nowhere else to go, half my clients turned out to be screamers at one point, but it’s not exclusive.
BTR: So if you fall into bad habits can you scream for a living and maintain your voice or eventually, are those bad habits going to limit your ability to do what you do in the long term?
MC: I would say that people’s style is often predicated on their bad habits. It’s their limitations that define what they are. Most of your favorite artists, they don’t do things perfectly. They do things that are honestly, uniquely them.
There are singers out there that cannot sing melodies anymore because they shaved off every capability of doing that. The idea is that in classical singing and in musical theatre, there was this ideal of the perfect set of vocal chords. But that’s been out the window for years. There’s been Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits … I mean, those are not perfect vocal chords, and they are making a lot of money on their bumpy, swollen vocal chords. That’s kind of an old-fashioned idea: “Oh, you could really hurt your voice.” Yeah, you could hurt your voice, but it’s all about manageability.
BTR: So you know all about vocal chords. We all have them, and there’s this idea of “I’m a singer. I have a born ability to sing.” If you train your vocal chords well enough, couldn’t you also sing?
MC: If we were all cut off right above the vocal chords, we would all sound the same. We would sound like that thing that they put in your throat when you’ve smoked too much. What makes a difference is the size of the vocal chords, the length of the vocal chords, the amount of space around the vocal chords in the throat … There are all kinds of variables, just like with a musical instrument.
There are limitations, but I don’t call them limitations. I call them colors. A Stratocaster is the same instrument as a Les Paul, but a Fender has a twang-ier, more treble-y sound. You could compare that to the difference between a tenor voice and a baritone voice … one is pink and one is magenta. One is baby blue and the other is midnight blue. There’s no voice that’s exactly the same, but there are voices that sound similar, and usually the similarity is because of the similarity of the body parts.
So now we have the old ideas of what’s a tenor and what’s a baritone, but it’s completely irrelevant. What’s relevant is the sound that’s available at what note. We don’t want people to think, “What’s my range?” and set down these notes based on old-fashioned ideology.
And by the way, if you ever hear someone say they have “five octaves,” they’re full of shit.
BTR: I should tell them flat out?
MC: … just know in your heart.
BTR: So just to go back to your DVDs, what does “Zen” mean?
MC: Well, first of all, I’m not a Buddhist. In high school, I learned about Allen Ginsberg and Beat poets, and I learned about Zen and Eastern philosophy, and it was talking about being in the moment. Be here now. You are where you’re feet are.
I’ve realized that’s a very important concept for happiness, but what’s even more important for singing is that you have to be the sound. What I teach is becoming the sound, not listening to it.
You are not channeling something that you think you’re supposed to be or something you’d like to be. It eliminates the “driving from the passenger seat” kind of technique that sometimes can be harmful because it comes from the wrong part of the brain. Really, the imagination is something that is intuitive, and it’s in the moment.
BTR: What’s cathartic about the “Zen” of screaming?
MC: If we cross-pollinate the senses, and we see a sound … if you go “Ah” and you see the “ah” go across your eye line, across the audience and hit the back wall, what is that emotion? It could be freedom, release … what’s cathartic about it is that you’re so inside your moment that you don’t label it.
My newest DVD, and it’s actually going to be a downloadable DVD as well, it’s called ZOS: See the Sound. Basically, I’m going to use animation. I’m going to use animation to teach you how to make sound that looks like maybe fireworks, sparklers, or waves. Then, your emotions, whatever they are, have this completely free rein to operate.
Discovery Channel special on Melissa Cross.