A guttural growl straight from the deepest pits of hell has just emanated from the throat of Melissa Cross, who follows it up with a giggle.
"See, that didn't hurt at all. But you should see the looks I just got!"
That's because the chipper, red-tressed, late-fortysomething voice instructor is screaming, er, speaking via cell phone from a train between her native Manhattan and Long Island. She's trying to illustrate that there's a right way and a wrong way to howl -- a lesson she tries to impart to the dozens of extreme metalcore, screamo, punk and hard rock singers who come to her studio looking for ways to bellow bloody murder without shredding their vocal cords.
Trained in London as a classical singer, Cross was drawn to punk rock in the late '70s and began fronting a string of bands, opening for the likes of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. "I was screaming my guts out at CBGB, but I was studying opera, and what I ended up doing was throwing all that classical technique out the window in order to get the sound I wanted, and I injured myself. But in researching speech pathology and speech therapy and the mechanism of speaking, I figured out how to heal my vocal cords and then discovered ways to scream without hurting myself."
In the mid-'90s, a friend in Connecticut who was producing a number of underground metal acts implored her to teach her pioneering techniques to some of the singers he was working with who were destroying their larynxes. Hatebreed's Jamey Jasta was slated to be her first student -- he didn't show up, but once word got out that Cross was the guru of growling, members of Slipknot, Sick of It All, Thursday, Shadows Fall, and even Andrew W.K. and Melissa Auf Der Maur eventually showed up at her door. Currently, Cross is one of a small handful of vocal coaches in America working with this kind of clientele, and by far the most prominent and sought-after. "In the beginning, I was a little frightened," she admits with a laugh. "I felt like a little old high school teacher around a bunch of hoodlums, and I thought they were gonna make fun of me, but it was never like that. They're absolutely the nicest guys I've ever met -- they're pussycats."
The feeling is mutual. "Most of her clients are roughneck, tattooed metalcore dudes like me," says Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe, who began working with Cross two years ago to expand his range and protect a scream he once figured was indestructible. "But she has this very nurturing thing that sets you at ease."
"Some of them walk in and they're kinda scared because they're afraid I'm gonna be a stuffy voice teacher that's gonna tell them not to do what they're doing or to get rid of their vices," Cross says. "But I'm not a Nazi about their lifestyle. I don't care what they drink, eat, smoke, whatever. I say, 'You wanna scream? Here's how you do it.'"
Her myriad vocal and breathing techniques -- which bear names like "The Dump," "Strapless Bra," and "Over the Pencil" -- appear on her new, self-produced DVD The Zen of Screaming, which is legitimately valuable for any extreme screamer-in-training and entertaining as hell, especially if you wanna see the burly dudes from the hardcore band Madball doing "Eee-e-e-e-yah" warm-ups while seated alongside the piano, or Blythe doing tongue exercises that might make any potential groupie wriggle with excitement.
"Man, I look like a freakin' idiot on there!" Blythe says, laughing. "At first you feel stupid, but eventually you forget about all of that and realize, 'Okay, this crazy lady is telling me to do all this freaky shit, but it works.'"
Even though virtually all of her clients swear by her teaching methods, Cross says she's run into a handful of detractors who say that vocal coaching is antithetical to the punk and metal ethos. "Some people say, 'Oh, if you have training, it's not real.' I had that situation recently where a client of mine would go through the motions and do all the exercises and then get back onstage and do the same old thing, and I found out that he had a problem with the whole concept of applying any kind of vocal training because he felt it was dishonest. But he couldn't do the shows because he kept blowing out his voice.
"Finally, the record company said, 'This is it, we're dropping you, you gotta step up,' so I made it happen for him that he could be real and still do it right," she continues. "You do need control to perform any kind of expression with your voice. Any time you use your voice, you need help, and it's vital that these guys learn how to do it without injury."
Cross' interaction with her clients isn't limited to her studio -- many times she's called upon by either the bands or the labels to go to concerts and troubleshoot, whether that means watching the singer onstage and determining the root of any problems (oftentimes they'll try to move around, bend over, or stage dive while singing, throwing off their breathing and technique, she explains with a chuckle), or even leading warm-up sessions backstage before the show. In case you were wondering, Cross says she loves the music, "especially the sincerity and the passion and the power of these genres." And, she adds, through working with these vocalists she's developed a bond that's often akin to a patient-therapist relationship.
"There's something very vulnerable about showing your voice -- it's like showing your underwear. So when I'm working with someone's instrument of expression, it can get really deep. Sometimes they're like, 'I can't stop drinking, what am I gonna do?' I get that thing, I get that 'My girlfriend is bugging me' thing, or 'I don't think I'm cut out to be this lead singer, I don't wanna do this . . .' And a lot of this stuff goes into a person's performance. So I just listen and I try to relay a part of my own experience. I mean, I know what it's like to be onstage, I know what it's like to play in a club with three people and nobody cares, I know the lifestyle they're living, I know the feeling that your life is only as good as your last gig, and I try to get them out of that mindset. My dad was a psychiatrist and my mother was a nurse, so it's in the blood."