The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson On What It Takes To Be A Great Singer
Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes is No.21 in our list of Rock’s Greatest Singers – see the current issue of Classic Rock for the full rundown. There follows the complete version of Chris’s interview in that same issue, courtesy of CR scribe Henry Yates…
Without being modest, what exactly makes you such a good singer?
“My father was a rock ‘n’ roll singer in the ’50s, and he didn’t think I was a very good singer, and didn’t encourage me much, but now he’s proud of me and realises what my talent is. I think it has something to do with honest expression. I probably wouldn’t get very far on American Idol. But this is rock ‘n’ roll. What comes out is who you are and how you live. Singing for me is very visceral. That’s the Southern side of me. Just get up there and do it. Open your mouth and hope a good sound comes out.
“There’s more to singing than hitting notes. Otis Redding sang out of key a lot, but he gave so much with his voice, it was as though he was taking a piece of himself in his hands and giving it to you. That always resonated with me. Rock ‘n’ roll is not a perfect science. The music that always grabs me by the heartstrings is the stuff that isn’t perfect but contains that exchange between the vocalist and audience. For me, that’s the way it has to be.”
Which other singers do you admire?
“Whether it was Otis Redding or Steve Marriott, it’s all about expression. That’s why Neil Young and Bob Dylan are great rock ‘n’ roll singers. I’m sure you’ve met people who don’t think Bob is a great singer, but his voice is honest within the material and cuts close to the bone, and there’s a sincerity to that. It’s the connection between the audience and the experience of what he’s singing about. Freddie Mercury had great emotional exchange too. You could get bogged down in tonalities. Paul Rodgers has a great tone to his voice as a great white blues singer. Or Rod Stewart, when he was starting out. But the stuff I learnt to sing with was Sly & the Family Stone and George Clinton’s Funkadelic records.”
What do you think is your best vocal performance?
“Early in our career, maybe something like Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye from The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion . We were still very young; we made that record in a week, so we didn’t spend a lot of time fretting over it, and I think it’s a real heartfelt performance. And personally, I think Oh Josephine from the last album [Warpaint]. I always tend to go for the ballads, where the imagery and the vocal and the song convalesce into something. If I can’t believe in the stories and the words I’m saying, there’s no use singing it. That’s also true of the covers we choose to sing.
“What mood do I need to be in to give a vocal performance? When I was starting out, I was more at the whims of stuff like anger. Now I’m always ready to sing. Even when I’m tired. Even when I’m sick.”
What’s the hardest song you have to sing?
“Virtue and Vice from By Your Side  is a song that as you get older… you know, it’s one of those things where because you were in the moment, you didn’t stop and think ‘maybe we should try this in a lower key’. That’s the way it was and the way it’s gonna be. I’ll tell you a very hard song and that would be from our Lions album  – a real rock song called Lickin’. It just seems to have a very aggressive chorus. That’s probably why we don’t play it very often.”
How have you had to adapt your voice as you’ve got older?
“I’m 42 now, and I definitely have more control and I’m far happier with the quality of my voice, but I’ve lost a certain top of my range that I had when I was 22. Smoking? No, it’s just age. I’ve never smoked cigarettes in my life. I mean, everyone knows we’ve smoked the other thing, but I’ve even cut back on that. But you get wear and tear, because our lives are on the road. I still sing all the high harmonies. It would probably only be noticeable to me and our producer.”
Is there a big difference between singing live and in the studio?
“I never get too hung up in the studio; I don’t even use the headphones. I don’t get very precious about that stuff. Live, the adrenalin is totally different. You go out and it’s a visceral experience. Plus, the way we started out in the little clubs in Atlanta, like any other band with two guitar players and a gigantic man behind the drums, I had to project, because it was deafening.
“When you get out there, there is a sense of responsibility that you wanna do your best. It might be your last show – you never know what’s gonna happen – so you wanna leave it all on the stage every night. Have I ever missed a note? Hey man, you know how many gigs I’ve done in 20 years? The late, great Jerry Garcia had a great philosophy about hitting a bad note – there’s always tomorrow night. You can’t get hung up on it. Once you let it out of the bag, it’s in the atmosphere and it goes away. Like I say, it’s more about the moment than the science. I mean, some people are into the mistakes, because as long as you don’t make too many, they find a charm in that.”
It’s interesting that your voice is very different to your brother Rich’s…
“The interesting thing about my voice and my brother’s is that when we sing close harmonies, there is something genetic that can’t be duplicated. I’m not comparing us to the Everly Brothers, but that kind of close harmony singing is something that we just fall into and it is unique. There’s some weird similarity, but it’s totally different.”