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Chris Barron: The One-Armed Juggler

Photo by Jesse Dittmar

For a variety of reasons, Chris Barron is thrilled to talk about this new album Angels and One-Armed Jugglers. It wasn’t that long ago when Barron lost the ability to sing and could barely speak due to a paralyzed vocal cord. To make matters worse it was the second time that he dealt with the condition.

Prior to working his way back to normalcy, the Spin Doctors frontman took the initial steps towards making his fifth solo release. With the extra time to plan its creation, he changed the approach from a solo acoustic recording to a full band effort for what would become Angels and One-Armed Jugglers. The differences can be heard on the bouncy “April and May” and Bourbon Street brass arrangement on “The World Accordion to Garp.”

Although he is able to sing again in the studio and onstage, Barron’s getting by with a matter of will over matter. His vocal cord isn’t resurrected but all his work to fix the problem brought his voice back.

“I’m basically the one-armed juggler. I’m singing with one vocal cord, but I sound as good or better than ever. It’s crazy.”

JPG: In 1999 you had paralysis of the vocal cords and then you had it for the second time last year. You’re not a guitarist like Joe Satriani where it doesn’t matter all too much if he speaks onstage. You’re a singer. So, when it happened again, how did you react? Were you freaked out and depressed or just thought, “I beat this once. I’m gonna do it again?”

CB: I was devastated. It really was like an existential crisis because you have a 50/50 chance of coming back from it. And it was almost worse because it’s not supposed to happen to you twice. It’s not like you get it and then you’re prone to this condition kind of thing. It’s supposed to be like a broken arm. Just because you broke your arm once doesn’t mean you’re going to break your arm again.

My doctor specializes in paralyzed vocal cords. He was at a conference with more than 50 other doctors who all specialize in paralyzed vocal cords, and it’s very rare. He was like, “Incidentally, I’ve got a guy who is having this for the second time. Anybody ever see it happen on somebody twice?” Some of these doctors are pretty senior practitioners; they’ve been around a long time. And out of more than 50, only two of them have seen it happen to somebody twice, which bummed me out. I was like, “Why me?” (slight laugh) “Why is this happening to me twice?”

I did a lot of thinking. Is it psychosomatic? Did I somehow bring it on myself? What the hell is going on?

But, I dug in and I did tons of acupuncture. I went to a speech pathologist. People think a speech pathologist just helps you with speech impediments but they help you with the whole vocal apparatus. I continued to take voice lessons. I did a lot of yoga. I got in really good physical condition. I was doing Alexander Technique.

When I have a problem, my approach is…I call it Throwing the Book At It. Everything that could possibly help I just start going after it.

Actually, it was really emotionally troubling for me. I felt like my body had betrayed me. And for better or for worse I’m one of those people who identify, maybe, a little bit too strongly with my profession. Being a singer is a big part of who I am as a person. When you’re occupation is so physical, it’s hard not to incorporate it into your identity.

JPG: Did you completely lose your voice and you had to walk around with a notebook and pen because you couldn’t say a word?

CB: I could only whisper. Right away, my doctor started me on prescription steroids to jack the nerve back into working again.

I did something that I considered the first time around but the procedure has been updated and refined since then. I opted not to do it the first time. This time I got a collagen injection into the musculature alongside the vocal cord to move it over so that…the two vocal cords had some contact and my doctor said that they had found that people who got this procedure had a higher incidence of their voice returning because it kind of neurologically tricks your brain into thinking that the voice is working, and a lot of times it helps the nerve to come back.

After that I could talk like the Godfather. Basically, I could make myself heard. I could even sing a little bit. I continued to take voice lessons but I had a very thin, raspy reedy Godfather tone.

I actually got my voice back and was singing, did a Spin Doctors show, which is very vocally demanding. I did a solo show. Went back to the doctor and he was like, “This is amazing. Your voice sounds fantastic. Let’s scope you and see that vocal cord.” He did the scope and was, “Oh. Your vocal cord is still largely immobile. Your vocal cord sits in your throat like a V that’s lying on its side, and the V closes together when you make a noise, the two vocal cords vibrate against each other. And they stretch to make the different pitches. Vertically, the stretching motion is back but your vocal cord is not moving laterally.” Basically, I learned how to brace the paralyzed vocal cord, using the musculature outside of the vocal cord. I’ve learned to brace against the other vocal cord.

JPG: It is but at the same time that’s great. Just to wrap up that period of your life. How long was it that you barely had a voice to getting the full range of your voice back again?

CB: It was nine to 11 months.

JPG: I’m glad that you mentioned you had a slight, raspy voice because it seemed as if you had no voice whatsoever. With that in mind I couldn’t understand why you’d bother taking any voice lessons.

CB: Well, that was really cool because through my voice teacher, she had me standing on one of those half spheres so I had to balance with the spherical part down and singing scales. It’s weird, that balancing action is done to brace your vocal cords together. She had me pulling an elastic band while I vocalized. I was also doing Alexander Techniques, so I never knew you could take that kind of control over the musculature of your throat. I sing differently now.

I didn’t realize that I was doing this. I thought I had full mobility with the vocal cords. It felt like I had full mobility. In spite of the fact that the vocal cord itself isn’t that mobile, I might have more mobility than I did to begin with in my vocal fold because I’ve learned to use the musculature instead of the actual vocal cord itself. It’s pretty weird.

My wife was bemused. She’s like, “You are the king of mind over matter.” She was exasperated. “Only you would lose a vocal cord and then learn to sing without it.”

Then, I had written “Angels and One-Armed Jugglers,” the song, before I lost my voice. It was just a line. I was thinking about this old neighbor of mine. When I got my first nice apartment in New York, she lived next door to me. She was a chorus girl, and I was just wondering about her because she was in her late 80s when I knew her. She’d be 120 or something now. She must be long gone.

That line, “angels and one-armed jugglers/sword swallowers and smugglers/good old Adelaide/she must be long gone,” just popped into my head. I wrote that down when I was driving on the 59th Street Bridge. (slight laugh)

It wasn’t until I lost my voice then got it back, and I was making the record and listening to a playback of that song and thought, “Holy crap! I’m the one-armed juggler.”

JPG: When you were working your back to having a voice, I imagine you were working on songs during that time. So, did it represent to you a goal or an exercise to keep you busy?

CB: It’s actually funny. I only wrote a couple tunes while my voice was gone. I journaled a lot, which was part of my process of getting better, although I do that anyway. Part of my process of life is I write three pages of stream of consciousness stuff first thing in the morning; not every day but I try to.

For me songwriting is this constant process ever since I was 14 and my guitar teacher was like, “You take a couple chords, strum ‘em, and sing da-da-da-da-da doo-doo-doo-doo-doo. Do that long enough and that turns into words. You write those words down in a notebook with the chords and that’s how you write songs.” I was like, “Wait! What? Are you kidding me?” I always had this penchant for creative writing. At that point I was already writing poetry and stuff.

In seventh grade I had this amazing English teacher and he’s like, “Chris, give me a simile.” I said, “In the distance a bell tolls like a lonely sentinel of a happier time.” He said, “Is that Faulkner?” “No.” “Well, who is that?” “That’s me. I just made that up now.” I saw his eyes go up into his head. He read everything, and he didn’t find it in his memory bank.

I’ve always been a strong writer from an early age. So, once it was revealed to me that songwriting was a process, it’s become part of the way I synthesize information. People who do something creative are so lucky because you synthesize these emotions into other emotions. If you’re lucky, you have some kind of activity that you can funnel these emotions into but a lot of people are like, “I feel sad about these memories that I have and I’m just going to be really angry and drink a lot,” but if you’re a painter or a songwriter or a writer you’re lucky because you take all that stuff and synthesize it. We’re all constantly synthesizing our memories and our emotions and our worldview into something.

I trained myself a long time ago to turn it all into songs. The same that gardening isn’t all about picking vegetables, there’s a lot of different activities going on when you’re working on a garden. Songwriting is like that, too. I practice guitar a lot, and I work on my singing and I write tons and tons and tons of crap in notebooks. I mean, tons of crap. I have three shelves of notebooks. I have somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred notebooks that I’ve filled with bullshit. I sit down to write every day and I give myself permission…if I have to sit there and be like, “You’re an idiot. You’re an asshole. Why are you even alive? What are you doing? This is stupid. You’re stupid. This notebook is stupid. This pen, I don’t like the color of this ink. Look, there’s my cat licking its paw.”

JPG: I like the idea that you write something just about every day and that you have a rule of “no judging” until later when you edit it for song lyrics.

CB: Well, you’re practicing. You watch an athletic event and you see somebody do some incredible athletic feat. For every time you see a wide receiver catch a ball or somebody make an amazing golf shot behind that activity there have been hours and hours and hours, thousands of hours, of stuff that you’ve never watched of them lifting weights and doing conditioning.

Writing is this process in my life. So, not only do I have bits and pieces all over the place in all these notebooks and my computer and in my phone and written down on scraps of paper but while I’m doing that every morning it’s like doing writing push-ups. I’m a big believer in perspiration over inspiration but when inspiration strikes I’m in mid-season form and all my writing faculties are strong and sharp. When I have a really good idea for a song I can sit down and I can come at it with my knives sharpened.

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