Longtime hard rock/metal veteran Todd Michael Hall (Riot V, Reverence, Jack Starr’s Burning Starr, Entice, Harlet) came to national attention in 2020 when he turned heads with his vocal dexterity on TV’s “The Voice.” Now he’s embracing the classic rock of his youth for his first proper solo album, “Sonic Healing” (Rat Pak Records, May 7, 2021), written and recorded with Metal Church guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof. On the day of the record’s release, Live Metal’s Greg Maki caught up with Todd to discuss “Sonic Healing,” his time on “The Voice” and more.
LIVE METAL: Today is a big day for you, release day for the new solo album, “Sonic Healing.” Are you going to do anything special to mark the occasion?
TODD MICHAEL HALL: Yeah, I’m gonna work all day (laughs). No, I guess I don’t have anything special, because my family’s like, “Yeah, whatever, it’s just another day.”
This album is a bit different from the previous solo material you’ve released. What inspired you to go in this direction for this album?
I think what’s happened is I have some solo material out, and really, I have technically a first solo album. It’s called “Letters from India,” and it was really a bunch of songs that were inspired by my pen pal relationship with my wife, before we were married obviously. She’s from the northeastern part of India, and that was kinda like just acoustic guitar Todd and a bunch of ballads. I released the album independently, and it went to charity and stuff like that.
We’re kind of considering this one really my first solo album since it’s on a record label and it’s the rock ‘n’ roll Todd. And I think the difference here is when I’m left to my own devices, because I mostly play with acoustic, I tend to write singer-songwriter stuff. With this album, I had a desire—I’ve been telling Joe at Rat Pak that for a few years, like, “Hey, I want to release an old-school rock album,” I was calling it, something classic-rock inspired. For me to do that, because I don’t play electric guitar as much, I really need a complimentary writer. I told him, “Look, I’ve got 25 of my own songs. Can you hook me up with someone that can help me turn them into more of a classic rock vibe?” And he’s like, “Well, I think I got a guy.” And then he came back, “So OK, I talked to him. Yeah, he loves classic rock, too. It’s Kurdt Vanderhoof. Do you know him?” And that’s how we got hooked up together.
I think, for me, the inspiration to do this kind of music has been there for a while. I think what really precipitated it is when I went on “The Voice” and I did “Juke Box Hero,” it seemed to hit. It seemed to ring with a lot of people, and I thought, “Well, Joe, come on, let’s do this.” Because originally, Joe was like, “Well, you’re in Riot, and if you’re gonna do a solo album, we should do something metal.” But for me, first of all I’ve done like seven heavy metal albums in the last 10 or 12 years, since 2009. So I’ve got a lot of that out there. But also, being in Riot, I really don’t want to put out an album that’s gonna sound like Riot, because I’m in Riot. So I wanted to do this, and I don’t know, I just wanted something with this kind of energy and this kind of vibe. I feel like Kurdt and I really bonded, and he loved the same kind of things that I did. So I feel like we really hit the nail on the head.
What are some of your big classic rock influences?
When I think of classic rock, when I think of the ’70s into the early ’80s, really what I think about are virtuoso musicians and incredible singing. There’s so many bands, from Jefferson Starship to Boston. There’s a little Led Zeppelin in there earlier, but they were earlier in the ’70s obviously. But REO Speedwagon and Styx and Foreigner and Rush and Triumph. And then you just take it right into the ’80s, and obviously it’s starting to transfer into what I would call heavy metal, but a lot of those vocalists, like a Geoff Tate or someone like that, the days of the virtuoso singers and the high voices and the big ranges and all that—it was the glory days. So to me, that is my youth. Starting as a pre-teen to being a teenager, my youth was taken up by these singers that were just—you remember when they would have a magazine and it would have “Rob Halford versus Bruce Dickinson”? It’s stuff like that, that it was just the glory days.
And so I think that’s really what was inspiring me and making me want to go to that type of feeling and sound. But I dug a little deeper, though. In Riot, we joke, because Riot’s been around for so long, we have two types of music. We have what we call left-to-right music, and we have up-and-down music. The power metal is more you’re up-and-down, you sit and bang your head, whereas the older school Riot, a little more your left-and-right sway type of stuff. And that’s where I was leaning on this album. I wanted the left-and-right sway kind of stuff.
Who are your favorite singers? Your top five, if you can do that.
Oh man, it’s so hard because there were so many good ones throughout the years. The thing is, my really formative years when I was like 14, 15, 16 and trying to learn how to sing with my head voice again—because I sang really high when I was younger because I hadn’t gone through puberty. And then when I went through puberty about the age of 14, 15—I was a late bloomer—my voice changed, and I had to relearn how to sing high and access my head voice and my upper registers all over again. At that point, the big singers for me, Geoff Tate from Queensryche, Eric Adams from Manowar, Tony Harnell from TNT, Tony Mills from Shy. Michael Sweet from Stryper was certainly in there. But the reality is, though, if you look at people like Tommy Shaw and Brad Delp from Boston and all that, they were part of my formative years, too. So there’s just so many. Ronnie James Dio’s in there, and Bruce Dickinson’s in there. So it’s hard, but I will say high at the top was Geoff Tate and Eric Adams from Manowar. Those were my most favorites when I was 15, 16.
The songwriting, you said you had a bunch of songs already written, and then you brought those to Kurdt. Did he add to those and collaborate from there?
That was the unique part. I was telling Joe, “Look, I’ve got all these songs already written, and we should be fast and easy.” Well, Kurdt listened to them, and he’s like, “Hey, you got some great stuff, but tell you what, let’s do this.” I never experienced it, but he’s like, “Let me just get in the zone, and let me just start writing some stuff. And then I’ll churn out some stuff and we’ll just see what comes out.” So he was finishing up some stuff up in Seattle or wherever, then got back to Southern California where he was living, and he’s like, “Alright, I’m gonna start now.” And I’m telling you, not even a week later, he sent me pretty polished demos for like five or six songs. And I was like wow, OK, and then every day, he was loading another one. He wrote 18 songs over the course of 21 days. During that same time, I started listening to them and sending him back demos with lyrics and vocal melodies on them. I could really put a lot of time in because I had closed my business down. So it was like boom, I had this full-time focus. So over the course of one month, he had those 21 days, and I think even a week longer, I got back to him and I had written lyrics and vocal melodies for like 15 or 16 of those songs.
So it was just this really magical time that I’ve really never experienced something like that. I’ve had songs come together fast but not a whole album. It was amazing. And so we actually never went back to my ideas that were my own ideas, so to speak, solely mine, because the stuff he churned out and then I ended up working with him on turned out so good that we were like, “This is right where we want to be.” So everything here for “Sonic Healing” is just a brand new song that was written on the spot.
This all happened last year, during the pandemic?
Yeah, it happened probably latter part of March through April, really.
Did world events influence the writing at all?
What the reality is, it was a very dark time. There’s a pandemic and the lockdown—it was a dark time and a stressful time for me with work and things. I run a factory for a living and having to shut it down and worrying about my employees and worrying about going out of business and all that kind of crap, there’s a lot of stress. When Kurdt and I first met, I just told him, “Look, I want this total positive energy vibe about this music.” Then obviously, the more you get into the pandemic, the more it’s like aw man, and what really helped me is Kurdt was just churning out that kind of music. It helped me stay focused and stay where I wanted to be, and I purposely chose not to go to a negative place on the music. So yeah, world events were definitely impacting me, but I did not allow them to impact the writing of this album.
That kind of goes right into the title of the album, “Sonic Healing.” Is that how you see music, as a form of healing?
Oh yeah, for sure.That was a title that came about later. After we listened to it, we were like, “Man, this is really fitting for this collection of music.” And that song in general, when I wrote it, I remember listening to it, and it has kind of a subdued nature to the verses, and then all of a sudden it just opens up and becomes energetic. For me, it was a metaphor for how you’re kind of floating along with life and sometimes it’s just blah and not so much or sometimes even negative and you’re down, and then all of a sudden you have this great source of energy that comes when the music picks up and just fills you full of energy. That’s really where my inspiration for that song came from. Just listening to it, it was filling me with that kind of vibe when all of a sudden the chorus opened up like that.
In addition to the classic rock, throwback-type sound to the music, there seems to be a nostalgic theme to a lot of the lyrics, most obviously on the last song, “Long Lost Rock & Rollers.” Were there specific people that came to mind when you were writing that song?
Yes and no. I’m a bit of an older guy—I’ll turn 52 this year—so I can look back and be nostalgic. But I think really the inspiration for the album was thinking about the music of my youth, and so there is this nostalgia vibe to it, and definitely with that one. I think, for me, with “Long Lost Rock & Rollers”—what’s funny is I didn’t go into any of these, I had no lyrics, no nothing, to start it. I would just listen to the songs and they would sing to me, and then things would just start coming out. “Long Lost Rock & Rollers,” it was really that phrase. That phrase just came to me when I heard the music of the chorus, and so I just started to cater the song’s lyrical topics about that phrase. And for me, what it was making me think about was my youthful days and we had the Saginaw Civic Center (in Saginaw, Michigan), and I remember being like 14, 15 years old and getting dropped off by my mom to go see a concert with my buddy Bob and stuff like that, and just the energy around all the people going into this thing.
I know there’s a lot of that still today. It’s just that back then, that music was all over the radio, too. You didn’t have social media, so you didn’t really get to experience the artists, and when you did finally get to see them on stage—did you ever notice you think everybody’s really tall, then you meet them and they’re short a lot of times? Because you have this larger than life view of them when they’re up on the stage. I think that’s what I was thinking about. So if you listen to those lyrics, that’s what it’s all about. You would get the album and you’d sit, and while you listen to it in your bedroom, you’d be reading along with the lyrics and you’d be kind of studying the album cover, and you’d read the magazine to find out more about them. Nowadays with social media, you know what they had for breakfast that morning. You know more than you probably ever wanted to know, but back then it wasn’t the case. That song wasn’t necessarily like I was thinking of, say, Styx or anybody. It was like I was just thinking of that era and all the bands that used to blow through town, and come in and out, and bring that energy with them. It was an exciting time.
Also, to me, it’s a call to action to, like you say in the song, not let this be forgotten. What can we do to keep it alive?
I think that’s a tough one, and to me, what it’s all about is live musicians playing music with instruments. Even though, in ways, hip hop kind of gets a bad name, you can see some of that. You see where when they go play on “Saturday Night Live,” or when they play live, they do have a drummer and they do have musicians playing along with them. It’s not all just tracks.
You saw that a little bit with Greta Van Fleet, which coincidentally is from Frankenmuth (Michigan), which is like the next town over from me, which is kind of funny. Although I don’t know the guys personally, I did see them play when they were quite a bit younger. You can see that there’s a hunger for this. And I think what happens is with Greta Van Fleet, because they were younger guys, they were able to inspire younger people. I think it’s harder for me as an older guy to inspire 15-, 16-, 20-year-olds. I do see some of it, but a lot of times, the reason I see it is because their parents listen to this type of music, and so there’s some of that influence going on.
I think what we really need for it to stay alive, though, we need younger people to be into it. You’ve got to be able to attract the younger people to do it. The band Ghost that came out and I think Greta Van Fleet, they were starting to increase guitar sales again, because for a long time guitar sales were just decreasing, decreasing, decreasing because kids didn’t want to play guitar anymore. There’s so much electronic music, they don’t necessarily feel the need to. You’ve gotta somehow inspire people to want to play instruments.
When it’s possible for full-on touring to resume, do you want to go out on tour with this solo material?
I would absolutely love to. These songs, to me, are just screaming to be played live. When we went for the mix, we went with what I would call your basic mix. There’s no keyboards all over the place, there’s not layer upon layer guitars. In some of my other solo stuff, I would put layers and layers of backup vocals. I went for more of a stripped down approach with this one. There are two-part harmonies in some places and things like that, but for the most part, we keep the harmonies there and you can hear them, but they’re fairly subdued, and it’s just that main vocal out front.
I think this is the kind of music that would translate live really well. All the songs are pretty energetic. There’s not a bunch of ballads on the album or anything. So I think it would be a great live show. I know Kurdt is excited about the thought of being able to play it live, and so am I. So it really comes down to COVID conditions and then there being some desire. I don’t have a big enough head to think that I could go out and tour by myself, like I’m gonna draw people with Todd Michael Hall, the name. But maybe there would be an opportunity for us to open up for somebody that would compliment us well. It would just be awesome to get a chance to play a few shows, see what people think and just feel a little more like a real band and not just a project.
Aside from the exposure to millions of people watching on TV, how did you benefit from your experience on “The Voice”?
I think that ultimately, it was more of an experiential thing. Like if you take a tremendous vacation or get to meet people and stuff, it’s more of an experiential thing in my mind. Obviously, you have the bump in the notoriety and all that. I got introduced to a lot of people, so I think that would be the obvious benefit. But I think the takeaway for me is I can stand here and look at a picture of me and James Taylor and Blake Shelton with each other on the wall and say, “Oh, I did that, and that’s interesting.” It’s not like I’m running around bragging about it, but it’s just one of those great memories you get to have to help you feel like you’ve lived a full life.
Was there ever any concern that because the show is so mainstream and more pop-oriented that maybe rock fans either would look down on it or not take it seriously?
I felt like there was a possibility that people could think that way, but it was hard for me to imagine, like, if you’re a fan of Riot V and I go on that show, are you gonna be like, “Well, screw that guy! I’m not gonna listen to that guy anymore!” For me, it was hard to believe that. Then also, anyone that is a fan of me personally, they know that I have a pretty strong Christian faith. They know I’m a touchy-feely guy. I walk around after the shows and I hug every sweaty dude I can find that wants a hug. That’s just the kind of guy I am, and I’m a sensitive guy. So I think anybody that really likes me is not going to be bothered by something like that. So I really didn’t worry about that.
I did see some comments posted, though, and people that thought, “Why did you go on that? That makes no sense.” But I’m a performer, and I love to sing in front of people, and I got to perform in front of four Grammy Award-winning artists. I got to meet James Taylor and sing a song twice for him and have him tip his hat and tell me that my range was a rare gift. I don’t want it to sound like I’m bragging. And then ultimately, there were millions of people that watch the show. The video’s been seen four and a half million times. Why wouldn’t I want that? (laughs) And I got to sing “Juke Box Hero,” which is an awesome song from an incredible band, and I got to nail the really high notes at the end of the song that a lot of people can’t. I can’t see the negative meaning there. The only negative is OK, well, when I went out in the knockout round, I had to go out on kind of a lame, ballady song. But I mean other than that, I can’t think of too many negatives. I don’t know, I thought it was a great experience. I’m really happy I did it.
On your website, it says that you are going to be recording vocals for a new Riot V album this year. Where does that stand now?
We have written like 14 or 15 songs. We’ve demoed them all out. I’ve done demo vocals on all of them. So really, what it is, I’m waiting for some final music to come at me so that I can sing to the final music. I don’t want to take the demo tracks and have my vocals on the final music, because it’s just timing things and feel. So that’s what I’m supposed to do over the course of the next few months or so. I think with Riot, we’re kind of taking our time because we really didn’t, especially Donnie (Van Stavern) and Mike (Flyntz), they really didn’t want to put an album out that they couldn’t go out and then play shows to support. Because it takes a while to put together an album, and we don’t want to put all that time and effort in and then be like, “OK, I guess we’ll write another album now and then go tour.” We didn’t want to do that. But yeah, so that’s gonna be my task over the next half of the year, to get all those vocals nailed down and get it ready to release. I think we’re shooting for release now probably more like in 2022 so we can get ready for some shows that might happen that summer.
During the past year in this pandemic, aside from working on music, have you picked up anything new? Any new skills, new hobbies or anything like that?
Actually, my brother John passed away in March of 2020. He owned a guitar shop, and we sold all the guitars out of his guitar shop, and he had a bunch of guitars on his own—a lot of beautiful Les Pauls. At the end of the year, it just started to strike me as foolish that I don’t know how to play electric guitar well. Since like around Christmas, I have committed to practicing electric, because I only play acoustic and there are certain techniques associated with electric—speed, accuracy, muting of strings, palm muting and stuff—that you don’t really do so much on acoustic. So that’s my thing I’m trying to get good at. I’m not particularly good, but I did have Zoom meetings with Kurdt where he taught me how to play most of our songs and jam along to those, and practice scales and different things. So that’s the one thing I’m trying to pick up. I don’t know if I’m particularly good at it, but I’m having some fun anyway.
Is there anything else you’d like to say right now?
Just thank you. It’s really hard to make a dent in this world. There’s so many distractions for people, not even just in music but in life in general with all the news and the things. You’re just an important part of helping get the word out for me, and I appreciate you taking the time to interview me. It just means a lot.