On a recent Wednesday night, a group of Eugene Lewis's voice students have gathered in a Missoula basement to record. The young singers and musicians lounge on the floor and a couch listening, as Charlie Allin, the sound engineer who owns this equipment and basement, monitors recording levels. Bonnie Kimmel of the local rock and pop cover band Beyond the Pale, and one of Lewis's prime students, is singing "When You're Good To Mama" from the musical Chicago. For the last few hours, Lewis has been working with her on the song, getting her to breathe in all the right places, and by now she's in full control of the notes. With a full-bodied voice, she belts it out in the saucy style of the badass Matron "Mama" Morton character. Lewis beams.
"Bonnie has a big ol' giant voice," Lewis says. "I hear power, but I can also hear a raucousness. It's this uncontrolled beast. It's a lovely beast and it's an exciting beast, but it's a beast nonetheless—and it has a mind of its own."
Lewis is a vocal technician who's worked with everyone from The Dandy Warhols to little known singer-songwriters to metal bands to classical singers. He's been working with Candice Russell, who's currently on "American Idol." In the last couple of months, since he moved to Missoula from Portland, Ore., he's acquired a steady stream of students through Craigslist and word of mouth. The basement recording session illustrates how eclectic the students are. At one point, Megan Custer does a lovely rendition of "The Way I Am" and, later, Tracy Sullivan and Kara Joy Now record the ever-playful "Anyone Else But You" from the Juno soundtrack. Another student, Douglas Sullenberger, plays guitar and sings a dark song he wrote, called "Accidental." His voice is clear with just a touch of Ryan Adams-esque grit. He says he used to sing with a more mustered edge—until Lewis told him to sing as he speaks, to learn to breathe and enunciate before worrying about stylizing.
"I'm not trying to take away anything authentic about his voice," says Lewis. "Its really about stripping it down and then seeing what's there, which is always really lovely, actually, without all that makeup and drag on your voice. We build it up and make it healthy, and then we talk about how we can add that grit back in."
Lewis was born in L.A. He started singing under the tutelage of Linda Brice, founder of the Transformational Voice Training Institute, while he was in boarding school in Ojai, Calif., and spent his younger years between New York, California and Europe, studying opera and, especially, German lieder. Lewis got his undergrad degree at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he received his vocal technician training. He attended the prestigious Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, New York, for his vocal graduate degree.
Everything might have gone down the classical/opera route, except Lewis is anything but conventional. For one thing, he was in two punk bands while at Oberlin. And when he moved to Portland, he started working with what he calls "dude's dude band guys" who played in 1980s cover bands such as The Gentleman's Club. "They work to rock out," says Lewis, "And they will buy the tightest pants and pay for the best vocal coach to make it happen."
He spent an hour with Zia McCabe working on her voice before he found out she was the keyboardist for the Dandy Warhols. He also worked with musicians that seem even less likely to go to a vocal technician, such as bassist Aaron Beam and guitarist Bryan Giles, who sing in the metal band Red Fang, which recently played Missoula and has been on people's radar ever since the release of two heavy, hilarious and well-produced music videos for "Prehistoric Dog" and "Wires."
Under the guidance of Lewis, Giles learned to sing Brahms and opera, including "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini's Turnadot. "It's the big tenor song," says Lewis. "Bryan's a Viking metal singer, but he did it and it was a big deal. It was the best thing ever. The energy it takes to sing some of that stuff is very heavy metal. There's very little difference between the two when it comes to sound production. The body just knows you're at the end of your energetic limits and that it needs to sustain it."
Besides learning to sing something that they normally wouldn't, Lewis's students learn to scream (he recommends the "Zen of Screaming" DVD by Melissa Cross) and how to manage their breathing.
"The breath has everything to do with everything," he says. "Without it, you don't know what you're doing. That may be really cute and cool for some people...but when you're recording and you have to be reliable and you maybe like whiskey a little too much and other things a little too much, you need to stay as healthy as possible."
In Missoula, Lewis has been picking up new students, although he's barely settled in. One of his students here, Annalisa Ingegno of bluegrass band The Slow Falls, recently played at the Top Hat. Lewis went to hear her—"my baby," he calls her, and many of his students—while trying not to make her nervous by being there. Some of his Missoula students let him use their homes as a studio while he's figuring out a more permanent place. Lately, he's been teaching out of Twila and Ryan Olson's house on the south side of town. The couple has an eclectic cover band called The Perfect Jones, and though Twila has been singing for a long time, she says she hasn't been truly at home with her voice. The Patty Griffin songs she wanted to cover seemed insurmountable.
"I would sing back too far, so Eugene had me placing the voice more forward, more bright," she says. "Now, these songs that I had to fake my way through or not do at all I'm singing for real."
There was also a "prepubescent boy" sound that kept creeping into her voice. Lewis explains that it's the sound that people often make when they're afraid to let loose. She was, says Lewis, vocally possessed. "It's like you have to do some kind of vocal exorcism," he says.
"The thing is there's nothing wrong with the boy in her voice. He's just an element. But if he [takes over] the warrior in you, the priestess in you, this conjurer of all this power—where does she live? You have to give her a place to be inside you."
At shows and even at casual events like the basement recording night, you can see students look to him as they sing, searching his face to see if he's hearing all the little mistakes.
He is. But that's okay. That's what he's there for.
"I can listen to somebody for three minutes and tell you what they feel about themselves," he says." I can tell you what they're trying to produce with their voice and what's actually there."
"He's the voice whisperer," says Ryan.