Pat Kane: Risks of that labour of love

While most singers will be happy to perform as often as they can, it will take its toll, something they and their managers should be monitoring very closely

It’s been a year of spectacular vocal failures in the pop world. Right at the apex of her American success, the young London singer Adele announced in October 2011 that she had suffered a “vocal haemorrhage”, requiring surgery and a long period of complete rest from performing and touring.

George Michael’s pneumonia, contracted while on tour, has resulted in a tracheotomy that may scar his voice permanently. In the US, major acts like Keith Urban, John Mayer and Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon have had surgery or other vocal treatments to deal with collapsed voices.

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I’ve been watching all these stories – and many others, it’s a regular occurrence at all levels of pop – with much sympathy, but also a sense of disquiet. It’s a truism of the contemporary music business that there has been a shift towards live performance as the main money-maker. Now that the internet has enabled free digital downloads of music – which used to be sold on plastic discs at a high mark-up – one of the few places where payment can be guaranteed is behind the closed doors of a gig.

The upside for many artists is that the priority is now on what many of them love to do best, which is to play live for real fans. But the shift of economic gravity has also meant that – especially with the bigger acts – tours become longer, shows in themselves become more spectacular and demanding, and the promotional media schedule now often involves three or four acoustic performances a day, in addition to the evening gig.

No undue tears for the over-worked rock star, please. But I would beg a little indulgence for the lead singers at the heart of this process – who can’t put their instrument in a case at the end of the day, and whose collapses can unravel the carefully constructed masterplans of svengalis and corporate music moguls alike.

Vocal coach Sean Jeffery said on a BBC website recently that “when you’re building up your career, you maybe only play two or three gigs a week, but when you get a record deal the pressure is on…I would consider opera singers are the Olympian weight lifting champions of the vocal world, but not even they can perform 280 gigs a year like pop stars are sometimes required to do.”

So do we need a Singers’ Lib movement, defending the precious tissues in our throat from the punitive demands of a profit-hungry music business? Or is there, perhaps, something that these butterflies-broken-on-a-wheel can also do for themselves that might help the situation? From my own experience, as a singer in a band for the last quarter of a century, I’d say there are at least two sides to the story of why singers vocally blow it, often at the very height of their success.

I remember when my voice completely failed me, in front of 8,000 people at the Glasgow SECC, on 26 November 1989. I was 25, promoting a second hit album with me and my brother’s band Hue And Cry, completely full of it on the outside. But on the inside, particularly on the inside of my throat, I knew something was wrong. My favourite metaphor of the time was “the fog will clear”. And no matter how whispery I was on each morning of the tour, a singing voice would return by the soundcheck, and something loud and proud would emerge at 8.45pm every night.

But on the fateful Sunday morning, it felt like I’d had a rusty iron bar shoved down my throat. In retrospect, I can’t believe how badly I was treating myself. Everything that subsequent vocal coaching has told me not to do, I was doing in spades.

Talking nine-to-the-dozen all day, via interviews and band banter, and especially just before and after performance? Check. Drinking alcohol (the ubiquitous Jack’n’Coke), both to prepare and wind down? Check. Acidic foods and caffeine in copious amounts, which inflame and desiccate the vocal cords respectively? Check. Never mind the fact that I’d rejected all vocal training after my first session a year earlier. A prissy West End teacher had urged me to sing light opera for a while, and “lose those West of Scotland gutterals”.

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So when I went onstage that night, not having dared to even test the voice, disaster was ready to happen. For a singer, it doesn’t get any worse. The spotlight’s on you, the home crowd is waiting, the band thrums magnificently behind you…and nothing, nothing, comes out. I couldn’t even croak out much of an apology before I left the stage, traumatised top to toe. As I remember it, my problem was much the same as Adele’s. “A little bleeding there”, the private throat doctor said, as my management waited nervously for his assessment (to placate the gig’s insurers).

I’ve never had such a dramatic blow-out since – but until about six years ago, I didn’t grasp the nettle of what I could be doing about the “vocal problem” myself. Until then, I was something of an exemplification of the old changing-the-lightbulb joke about lead singers. (How many does it take? Just one – he stands there in the room, and lets the rest of the world revolve around him). In my head, I felt I was basing a professional career on a delicate, easily crushed flower of vocal folds and tissues. Not a recipe for good mental health, as Frasier would say.

My remedy was meeting a London-based singing teacher called Jo Thompson. Jo is one of an elite cadre of voice trainers that have come to public notice via talent shows like The X-Factor and American Idol. What she did for me, via a few lessons and her brilliant book Find Your Voice, was to build a bridge between traditions – that is, the technical expertise of classical and stage singing at one end, and the intuitive, emotional reasons for wanting to sing like your jazz-and-soul heroes (or in my case, like my dad) at the other.

Traversing that bridge has become a strange but fascinating journey, in the later years of my singing career. When Adele explained her difficulties in a blog posted in October 2011, she described her new regime of diet, vocal exercises and warm-ups as “very necessary but insanely grim”.

She’s right: there is something grim, or at least ascetic and monastic, about the self-discipline required to build a voice that’s capable of regular, high-level performance. The necessary mindset is to think of yourself as a vocal athlete. Regard the endless scales, the roadie-frightening siren noises, the absurdly early nights and the polite herbal-tea sipping as time spent in training – so that when you explode on to the track, you will always get close to your best time (or hit that killer high-note in the chorus). The exhilaration is still there – but it’s one that edges towards a feeling of mastery, rather than a desperate, scrabbling triumph over your encroaching limitations.

And it’s much more than just a technical or physiological adjustment. As Adele says in her blog, her recovery will mean she has to “start building my overall stamina in my voice, body – and mind”. It becomes an exploration into why one sings in the first place.

Stress is one of the key factors in tensing up your vocal cords – and the aforementioned pressures of modern promotion, rushing from studio to bar to local radio station, are hardly an oasis of equanimity. So one way for lead singers to be resilient is to actually embrace their cliched image as the spaced-out solipsists of the music business. That way, you maintain an attitude of non-attachment to the chaos, urgency and neediness around you, rather than get sucked into the rabbit-hole.

From a girl who once prided herself on her 30-fags-a-day, hard-drinking-and-partying, girl-from-the-streets image, it sounds like Adele might have gotten the message about what it means to be a contemporary pop singer – which is to be the reliable energy core of a fast-moving system of media, performance and promotion. And to be someone who can begin to imagine doing this, and doing it better, in 20 or 30 years time, if they learn the right lessons early.

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This is also the year when Amy Winehouse – her fellow Brit School graduate, and her equal if not superior in vocal talent – died alone from alcohol poisoning, fatally weakened by her emphysema and years of headline-grabbing excess.

That’s surely enough of a tragedy to point all singers, and the star-making machinery behind the popular song, towards a vision of sustainable vocal stardom. It might not be sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. But it might give us more of the singers we love.

• Pat Kane is the lead singer in Hue And Cry, whose new album, Hot Wire, is out in mid-March (