TORONTO — Forget sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll: if you want a long career as a pop singer, you’ll need to drink water, exercise and — occasionally — just shut up.
You might also want to avoid dairy, anything with caffeine (especially coffee), and forgo the booze.
Surprisingly, those are rules to which many long-running vocalists in pop music willingly adhere.
“I stopped drinking coffee, I stopped doing dairy — which I don’t generally do that much anyway, but certainly when I know I’m going to have to sing, or in cold season — I drink tea, lots of warming up, doing vocal exercises before I have to sing,” said Vancouver-based songstress Sarah McLachlan, who released a 20-year retrospective last year.
“Unfortunately, not talking seems to be the biggest ticket for me,” added McLachlan, who recently suffered through a three-month bout of laryngitis. “It’s also the most difficult, because I really enjoy talking, and I have two small kids who want me to read to them all day long.”
Indeed, Lorna MacDonald, the Lois Marshall Chair in Voice Studies at the University of Toronto, lists not talking as the second most important factor in preserving one’s voice, sandwiched between maintaining good physical health and the No. 1 priority — staying hydrated.
But keeping quiet is tough for chatty Winnipeg rock legend Randy Bachman. He says he doesn’t do anything to get his voice in shape — “I don’t know how to do a warm-up!” he beams — but he still takes plenty of precautions with his voice.
“I’ve never smoked, I haven’t had a drink since I was 22, I get good sleep, I don’t have dairy products which cause a lot of phlegm, and once in a while I lose the top end of my voice, because there’s viruses going around, but I can always talk,” he said.
Dairy is a commonly listed no-no because it can produce excess mucous or can cause digestive problems, MacDonald said.
She said few people realize the link between diet and voice.
“The same old-fashioned thing about exercise and watching your weight, it truly does affect your voice,” she said.
So, why do some singers keep their signature voices well into their retirement years — Paul McCartney, for instance — while other older artists sound completely different than they used to?
“Well, one thing, is that they might have good genes,” MacDonald said. “No. 2, they might really have taken seriously earlier in their careers what we call vocal hygiene — not talking above a loud noise, not talking or screaming after a performance, avoiding alcohol, smoking.”
Or they’ve been afforded a second chance.
Blue Rodeo frontman Jim Cuddy says he had surgery to have polyps removed from his throat about five years ago.
Where he used to sing in smoky bars and power through performances even when he knew his voice was hurting, he says he takes better care of himself now.
“For all the things I did when I was younger and didn’t do right, I kind of got a second chance because I got that polyp removed,” said Cuddy, who says he now makes sure to never drink before a show and tries to stay hydrated.
British legend Elton John also underwent throat surgery. John had several polyps removed from his vocal cords after losing his voice on an Australian tour in 1986.
John — whose personal vocal remedy involves gargling with a mixture of hot water, cider vinegar and clear honey — says his voice has been fine ever since, though he sounds different.
“I lost a little of my higher range,” he said. “I still sing all the songs in the same key but I don’t have my falsetto anymore, but I do have a much lower register.
“When I listen to some of my older records I sound like a castrato I’m so high, but I was very lucky that the guy who did the operation was brilliant. I came out of it with a kind of newer voice, with a stronger timbre to it and I get reviews saying, ‘Well he can’t reach the high notes anymore,’ which is true, I can’t do the falsetto, but I’m still singing the songs in the same key.”
Bachman, likewise, doesn’t sweat it if his voice occasionally fails him.
“All you gotta do is be pure of heart, say your words really good so they know what you’re saying, and they don’t care about pitch,” Bachman said. “It’s the words, it’s the poetry.
“I manage to squeak through the night, and if not, I play longer guitar solos.