Thom Yorke Discusses His Five Favorite Singers, Crying Over “Fake Plastic Trees,” And The Time He Was Too High To Sing “Everything In Its Right Place”
Jason Thomas Gordon, who fronts the LA rock band Kingsize, is about to publish The Singers Talk, a new book of interviews with some of the most iconic and distinctive lead singers in music. Gordon got the idea after moving from drums to lead vocals and realizing how tough the job is. “Once I started taking it serious, I realized that singing was really brutal,” he tells Rolling Stone. “There was no resource to find out how great singers did their job night after night without damaging their voice. After meeting Eddie Vedder one night at a party, the concept for the book came together, and lots of huge names signed on, among them Bruce Springsteen, Roger Daltrey, Chrissie Hynde, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, Ozzy Osbourne, Robert Smith, Geddy Lee, Michael Stipe, Rod Stewart, and Steve Perry. Thom Yorke is in the book too, and Rolling Stone published Gordon’s interview with the Radiohead leader as a pre-release excerpt.
Like Gordon, Yorke became a frontman somewhat reluctantly after learning guitar as a child and beginning to write songs as a teenager. “I was really into Queen, but I never saw myself as Freddie Mercury,” Yorke says. “I was always Brian May in my head, surprisingly. And it sort of changed because I couldn’t really find anyone else to do it.” The head of music at his high school suggested he take singing lessons because he was straining his voice, which led to Yorke performing Schubert at a recital and surprising himself at how well it went. At first he ripped off influences like Michael Stipe and Morrissey: “I was really into David Sylvian’s voice, but my register wasn’t there. It was much higher. It was sort of a comedy when I tried to sing like that.”
He wasn’t comfortable with his soft, high vocal presence until discovering Neil Young:
When I was 18, I took a year and recorded music for most of it. Then I sent the tape off, and it won, like, “Demo of the Month” in this free music magazine, and this review said, “Who is this guy? He sounds just like Neil Young!” I went, “Who’s Neil Young?” [Laughter.] I’d never even heard Neil Young, so I went out and bought After The Gold Rush and was like, “Wow! It’s OK to sound like that?” Because he’s slightly higher than me, but there was a softness and a naiveté in the voice which I was always trying to hide. Then, it was like, “Oh, maybe I don’t need to hide it.”
Yorke famously saw Jeff Buckley in concert while recording The Bends and had another a-ha moment, which led to a deeply vulnerable vocal take on “Fake Plastic Trees.” His bandmates loved it, but Yorke wasn’t so sure. When asked whether he really cried when he heard the playback, here was his reply:
Yeah, absolutely. Because when you record, you’re going through one set of feelings, but the one thing you’re not really aware of is you. You’re not aware of your own identity, so it’s like meditating. Even when you play, if you perform something well, you have a sort of feeling that goes beyond that. You’re not even aware of your own vulnerability, you’re just off somewhere, and then you come back. It’s like seeing yourself in the mirror for the first time, catching yourself unaware.
There’s a lot of great material about the health and wellness of it all, including Yorke’s aversion to steroids, dairy, and air conditioning. Then he shares his most embarrassing vocal mishap:
[Laughs.] There was one time we played in San Francisco in this really nice outdoor place, Shoreline. It was a great show, really, really fun. The audience were brilliant. Then, before the final encore, I smoked a blunt with Jonny [Greenwood]. I went back on and started playing “Everything In Its Right Place” and got completely lost. I think I sang the second verse first, and then I was looking at the keyboard going, “What’s this?” [Laughter.] Then, I went to sing the next verse, and I realized, I’ve just sung that, and I looked at the others, and they were all going [makes a face] “Get us out of this one.” I’m just going around the riff, looking at the audience, and they’re all singing the words, and I’m going, “What?” [Tries reading their lips.] I was so high, I just got up from the piano and [puts his hands up in surrender] walked off. [Laughs hysterically.]
He says his favorite vocal performance of his own is Radiohead’s “Bloom,” and if he could duet with anyone living or dead it would be John Lennon. (“It would sound awful though, awful, UGH. It wouldn’t mix well at all.”) When asked to name his five favorite singers, he lists Ella Fitzgerald (“I’m obsessed with Ella Fitzgerald at the moment”), Nina Simone, Scott Walker, Michael Stipe, Billie Holiday, and Tom Waits. He notes that Waits’ “Tom Traubert’s Blues” and Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist Of Fate” are the two songs guaranteed to make him cry. There’s so much more in there — it might be the best interview with Yorke I’ve ever read. Check it out.
The Singers Talk: The Greatest Singers of Our Time Discuss The One Thing They’re Never Asked About: Their Voices is out now on Permuted Press.