Raz Kennedy is San Francisco Bay Area's premiere vocal coach/producer, who has worked with the likes of James Hetfield and Robert Trujillo from Metallica, Stephan Jenkins from Third Eye Blind, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, Davey Havok of AFI, and more. As a singer, he is credited as a founding member of Bobby McFerrin's Voicestra and a background vocalist on recordings for Whitney Houston and Al Jarreau, as well as on stage for Sting and Santana. He is currently preparing for his highly anticipated return to the stage after a decade long hiatus. In one afternoon, Raz radically changed my definition of what it means to be a professional singer. Find out why.
Click below to watch the Industry Innovators | Raz Kennedy video segment.
First of all, you are a mind-blowing singer. How did you discover your gift?
Believe it or not, I am still in a process of discovering just what it is I tap into when expressing myself vocally. At the age of 8 years old, a neighbor complimented me on what a nice sounding voice I had. She had overheard me singing while I was performing chores outside of my home and expressed her pleasure in listening to me. That was the first time I became aware of the fact that I had singing talent.
You are the first call of many decorated artists in the music industry as a vocal coach and producer. What makes you unique as a vocal educator? How does your own artistry and vocal expertise play in your teaching methods?
As a vocal instructor, my unique gift is that I have the ability to quickly uncover the underlying cause as to why a singer is struggling with a particular challenge, be it pitch, constriction, sound color, agility... I follow up this diagnosis by providing a tool for the singer to address said challenge in an expedient and efficient manner. I can achieve this goal without compromising the character, style, personality and essence of the singer's sound and vibe.
Because I have significant experience as a professional singer, I have the advantage of understanding the range of challenges performing artists encounter. This gives me a greater capacity for empathy and know-how to enlighten each singer I work with.
Bobby McFerrin is regarded as one of the most innovative singers of all time. What are the most important things you learned as a member of Voicestra? Can you share a behind the scenes story from your world tour?
Bobby taught me how to listen. When I say "listen", I mean listening not only with the ears, but listening to how things feel emotionally. By listening with the imagination and to how something might be envisioned. By listening with the heart and to sensations in the body. It was such an important awareness that proved to be a significant tool in my evolution as an artist.
On tour with Voicestra, it never ceased to amaze me how, by hanging out with incredibly inspired personalities for extended periods of time, one could be so fundamentally transformed. This experience made it possible to see how personal goals, previously thought to be unattainable, suddenly became achievable.
You have had the pleasure and privilege of working with the legendary James Hetfield of Metallica. Can you tell us about a vocal coaching breakthrough you had with him?
I am continually impressed by James' work ethic, high standard of focused discipline, and his unrelenting ability to push projects through with endless stamina.
Singing at a high level takes a lot of energy and stamina. How do you typically advise singers to condition their bodies and care for their instrument?
Singing requires awakening the body energetically. Most any aerobic exercise discipline (dancing, bicycling, jogging, basketball, soccer, swimming etc.) is conducive for dynamic and expressive vocal performance. It is necessary to mitigate tension and uncontrolled constrictions in the face, neck and jaw while connecting balanced support to the voice. Pilates is a wonderful physical discipline to acquaint the singer with the delivery systems in the body, that provide a balance between resistance and movement in the support.
You sang on Jason Becker's Primal from his album, Perspective with Steve Perry of Journey. How did this collaboration come about?
Initially, Jason had Bobby McFerrin in mind as the feature for this song. When Bobby was unavailable, Jason acted on procuring who he felt was the next best alternative. Next thing you know, I'm in the studio providing the performance that Jason had dreamt. I cannot find words to express the thrill I experienced being on board for this rare opportunity. An honor and very special privilege, indeed.
In your experience, what is the number one misconception in the field of voice right now?
What should always be remembered is that singing is nothing more than ornate speech. Communication is the underlying function and purpose of singing. It's not about how high or low you can sing. It's not about how long one can sustain a tone. It's not about how loud one can sing or how many licks and runs one can execute. It's about getting a message across and sharing something that matters to the singer with a wish that it will resonate with the listener.
You vocal coached Adam Duritz of Counting Crows for many years. What did he learn from you and what did you learn from him?
I began coaching Adam during his formative years. During that time, he studied my approach to maintaining healthy and safe vocal practices in order to sustain a strong, unhindered voice despite his rigorous performance schedule. From Adam, I learned his art of delivering the emotional essence of a song with believability and authenticity.
Due to the digital disruption of the music industry, singers are put under a lot of pressure to tour more than ever before to monetize their art. What are the primary techniques that touring singers need to know to remain strong and effective?
It's imperative for singers to understand and adhere to the rules and parameters of the range of dynamics deployed in performance level singing. Specific and exacting aspects related to vocal settings, balancing the support, vowel migration, volume, sound color, etc., must be understood and implemented to vocalize, both expressively and safely. Of course, sufficient rest, hydration, aerobic exercise, and a stress-free atmosphere is vital, as well.
Last year, The City of Berkeley honored you for your achievements in the arts. What was going through your mind when you accepted the award and what did that moment mean to you?
It was a beautiful moment in time. I received so much love from my community and was honored to be bestowed with a proclamation from then mayor, Tom Bates and an official Raz Kennedy day. At the ceremony, the first thought that crossed my mind was "So, this is what it feels like to be famous"!!!
Can you list the seven most difficult vocal techniques to accomplish?
Singing high in the range with full density and volume.
Safe and healthy implementation of vocal effects, such as distortion, rattle, and growl.
Maintaining volume, resonance, and vocal presence in the very low range of the voice.
Vocal ornamentations performed with speed, clear articulation, and accurate intonation.
Maintaining vocal cohesion throughout the entire range of the voice while mitigating unintentional breaks
Gradually changing volume from loud to quiet on a long tone without any vocal hindering
Sustaining very long tones and phrases with an airy vocal effect with consistency and control
Your song "Duet" is an incredibly profound and beautiful piece of music. Can you tell the story behind its conception? If the song had lyrics, what would they convey?
The song came about quite spontaneously when I was asked to write music for ODC co-founder and choreographer, KT Nelson. Lyrics might be, "Cease with the other-ing. There is only one".
You performed "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" for Undercover presents the 50th Anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band this past June at The UC Theatre in Berkeley. How did this opportunity come about and what was your experience like?
I got wind of this project through my association with the guest music director, Joe Bagale. When he was putting together the lineup, he invited me to participate, with the concept of a vocal ensemble in mind. I couldn't refuse. Joe is a world class musical renaissance man. Nearly a decade ago, he came to me for vocal rehabilitation. I helped him overcome polyps and avoid surgery.
In collaboration with Nick Milo, I flipped "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" into a gorgeous jazz arrangement featuring myself singing lead, supported by nine background vocalists and tasteful piano accompaniment. The live show was sensational and a highlight of the year. I was delighted to share the stage with such a diversity of Bay Area talent, paying homage to such an influential work of art. Extending props to Joe, Undercover Presents, the fantastic musicians, and the beautiful people that came to support local music.
You coach, produce and collaborate with a broad diversity of Bay Area talent. Who are some up and coming artists in your midst that you consider "ones to watch"?
Bryan Noah of The Helmets
The Brothers Comatose
Ezekiel McCarter of Con Brio
Pitch correction technology is at the forefront of music today. How do you feel about Autotune and Melodyne? How can they contribute or take away from a vocal performance and artist development?
I like the option of being able to tweak a somewhat suspect pitch when the performance is otherwise brilliantly executed. Every pitch requires a different level of energetic investment in order for the note to deliver its full intonational value. Be advised that there are limitations of using pitch correction as a tool. Simply tuning a note is not substitute for an energized performance sung with accurate intonation.
In your opinion, what are the components of an unforgettable vocal performance?
Did I feel anything or was I moved in some emotional way? Did I get goose bumps? Did a tear drop from my eye? Did my heart tremble? Do I want to change the world?
What are your plans for 2018 and beyond?
Teaching and performing. To inspire. To be inspired.
Catch The Raz Kennedy Show for one night only on Saturday, September 9th at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley.