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Cover Story: Halestorm: “Never Give In”

| May 31, 2022

Halestorm 2022

It’s a question without an answer, a paradox rooted in an ancient Chinese fable about a vendor selling both a spear that was impervious to attack and a corresponding shield that could never be pierced. What happened when you employed them against each other? No mere mortal could ever conjecture, leading to the latter-day rephrasing of What would occur if an irresistible force ever collided with an immovable object? Lzzy Hale — the veritable force to be reckoned with that powers the megawatt outfit called Halestorm — thinks she might have stumbled across an answer to the age-old conundrum because that’s exactly how she felt when all her usually nonstop kinetic energy ground to an unexpected halt when Covid shut her down in March of 2020, it was deadening to the Nth degree.

Of course, we all experienced similar depressing constrictions during the lockdown. But for this combustible bundle of non-stop activity — who was working on a flurry of diverse passion projects at the time — the circumstances hit especially hard. This was something entirely new, the coronavirus, an immovable, immutable object that couldn’t be rationalized, reasoned with, or slipped past in an elusive way. It was how Holmes viewed his foe, Moriarty, in their plunge to deliberate death, and how Heath Ledger’s Joker character saw his arch-nemesis Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight reboot — as two forces locked in an inexorable battle, a problem only solved by mutually-assured self-destruction.

And the pandemic, sighs Hale, finally back in full fighting spirit again, was a worthy opponent. And for a while there, it almost won. And the knock-down-drag-out is duly documented in Back From the Dead, Halestorm’s aptly-dubbed new magnum opus.

Just to speak to this Grammy-winning go-getter in casual conversation is to get caught in her effervescent slipstream, the wake of her whirring inner-motivational turbines. Even when discussing the past two oppressive years, she talks excitedly, rapidly, in a flurry of quotable thoughts that communicate nothing but optimistic energy — irresistible to a fault. Almost as if they never went down at all.

First of all, Hale admits to not only staring hypnotized into the abyss, frozen but to a fondness for the famous Nietzsche corollary that The abyss stares also. “Oh, my God — that is one of my favorite quotes!” she exults. “And it’s sooo creepy — I’m like, ‘Stop looking at me!’ It’s so crazy. So I know that I wasn’t the only one going through this, but it’s interesting because when, all of a sudden, your mission or your identity — your armor, so to speak — is no longer there?” She pauses, allowing the gravity of the concept to wriggle in and settle. “I mean, just talking about the band, I’ve been in this band since I was 13, and it goes beyond, way beyond…this is my life’s work, my purpose, and it’s part of my identity. So when all of that is stolen from you, you are looking at yourself in a completely different light.”

Initially, the Nashville-based artist felt no fear when the lockdown boom was lowered. “When the whole world shut down, we all thought, ‘Oh, this is gonna last a month — it’ll be fun! We get a vacation!’” she recalls. “And then when everything started getting dark, and there was no foreseeable future, nothing to be had, the only weapon in your arsenal is to fucking write through it. So this particular album for me was kind of the journey of doing that, although I didn’t realize what I was going to be facing through a lot of that.” Conclusions to which she quickly arrived? Ever since she and her guitarist brother Arejay started Halestorm as teenagers,  she explains, she had always had something going on, always had something scheduled to look forward to, be it touring, recording, or even designing her own bustling lines of jewelry and clothing. And to dial that dance card back down to zero overnight? It was a shock to the system, to say the least.

“This was the longest I’ve ever gone without a show,” Hale harrumphs good-naturedly. “Because even when I was 13, 14 years old, we had a bowling alley gig twice a month, you know? And I would have taken that gladly. So you’re kind of displaced, a little bit, and what ended up happening to me, personally, was, there were a lot of things that I had to face that maybe I hadn’t faced since I was a teenager. So I got reacquainted with some panic attacks that I hadn’t had since high school, and there was a lot of anxiety. And I did go through some depression, where I wasn’t necessarily sure what I even wanted to do about it.” Reluctantly, she woke each dismal day and forced herself to commit her feelings to journals, then poetry and songs. She calls this the silver lining to those ominous horizon-obliterating storm clouds.

“And you couldn’t help but feel the weight of the world on your shoulders,” Hale adds.  “And you’re observing everything and all of the anger that goes with it, and all of the sadness that goes with it. And through all of it, you’re just trying to maintain your faith in humanity, which is very difficult these days. Just looking at it that way, you’re internalizing a lot of things, and you don’t really have any other outlet to put that out there, and you no longer have that reminder of you being your best self.” She used to look to her fellow band members for that daily reassurance, and she saw the larger-than-life coliseum-rocking avatar she became onstage as that apotheosis. In 2020, ’21? No longer. All the guard rails keeping her on track had been broken, all the guidelines severed. “And I hadn’t really been faced with looking at myself in the mirror, in a different way, and realizing that I still have some serious issues that I’ve got to deal with. I was able to get to a dark place that I hadn’t seen in a while because I’ve always had this — this band and my guys. Because when all the distractions disappeared, I was kind of left with that — I wasn’t Lzzy Hale onstage anymore; I was Elizabeth Hale, just sitting through lockdown on the couch. And I hadn’t seen her in a long time.”

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates was once supposed to have said. And Hale — along with her percussionist kid brother Arejay, with whom she first began performing as a kid back in Red Lion, PA — has lived quite a spectacular one. Some pieces of her past haunted her in a good way; all through lockdown, she wished she still owned a comforting family dog, as she did in childhood, and she’s currently in pooch-purchasing mode, trying to fathom the possibilities of taking a furry new friend along on the already-crowded Halestorm tour bus (with Arejay, bassist Josh Smith, guitarist Joe Hottinger, plus stage crew). “But I grew up on a small 20-acre farm, with sheep and chickens and dogs, so there were always animals around, and I kind of miss that,” she says wistfully. “But in Nashville, where I was holed up, the great thing is that I **do have a lovely house with a studio and all of that, so that really helped because I kind of got busy. I did eleven collaborations, and obviously, I was making demos for songs. But there was a point in time where I really needed a distraction, so I started hosting some shows and trying to record some stuff in my basement, just trying to keep my hands busy.” She can’t stifle an ironic cackle. “What’s the old saying about idle hands being the devil’s workshop? It’s very true. You’ve got to keep ‘em full of something!”

Some spirits the singer exhumed weren’t nearly as friendly. Her younger sibling contracted Covid post-vaccination; she did not. Thankfully, Arejay’s proved mild, and its aftereffects passed quickly. Band bassist Smith, however, caught the coronavirus on a UK tour, possibly from one of Halestorm’s rabid overseas following. “Everybody that had seen us on the last day caught Covid, everybody that was in the front row at our final show,” she notes. “They were all of our super-fans that were going to every single one of our shows in the UK, and they all travel together, and they’re just awesome. But I told Joe (Hottinger) that they all caught Covid and said, ‘I dunno why this hasn’t happened to **us yet! We keep getting put in these weird situations where it really should have happened.’ But hey,” she adds, loudly knocking nearby wood in her room for luck, “so far, so good. But obviously, (the pandemic) is still going on, and I’m triple-vaxxed, so if something happens, it hopefully won’t be that bad. But it’s scary. It’s scary for a lot of people right now, still.”

The more the shut-in focused on herself during the lockdown, the clearer her focus became on the Big Picture — that humanity has basically learned nothing from a tragic universal experience that should have united us all on the same climate-change-respectful page, and we’re basically hurtling even faster toward our own well-deserved extinction. On the eve of Roe v Wade’s being struck down by tired old Conservative white men who know nothing about a woman’s body, Hale, now a wise, seasoned 38, pauses thoughtfully before addressing the subject. “It’s hard,” she decides. “It’s hard to keep that faith in humanity. It’s hard to look at the world and see how we’ve taken these ginormous steps back. It’s 2022, and people are still fighting over all this petty bullshit, this world shit that doesn’t matter, but there isn’t going to be any world to fight for! And it’s like, ‘Come on, people! This is ridiculous! We’re not looking at the things that actually matter!’” And yes, she adds, she’s seen Adam McKay’s brilliant climate-change-ignoring allegory Don’t Look Up, and she loves it, particularly its (spoiler alert) final scene with Jonah Hill as the rubble-scrabbling #LastManOnEarth, desperately casting out his cellphone signal for #followers. “It was an amazing film and really funny, but at the same time, you just know that that would be exactly the way it happens,” she sighs. Indeed. Most assuredly.

This is perhaps why Hale looks so who-forgot-to-brew-me-my-coffee-this-morning fanged and ferocious in the “Back From the Dead” cover art. Or perhaps it’s dusk, and her coffin has just creaked open with no waiting chalice of Lady Bathory virgin’s blood waiting on the nightstand. Either way, make no mistake — she is pissed off. And the record wastes no time in jumping right for the jugular in the buzz-sawing opening title track, wherein Hale convincingly snarls, “Save your prayers, don’t bless my bones/ Don’t waste my name for my headstone…I’m back from the dead, alive/ Hell couldn’t hold me.” Halestorm hit on a winning compositional formula back in 2013 when its signature anthem, “Love Bites (So Do I)”

It won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance, and the group has maintained that perfect rock/metal equilibrium ever since until now, five albums in, it’s positively perfected it. Every number here is a rousing singalong, made even more memorable via the roof-rattling rasp of Hale’s singing voice. You can’t help but believe her as she touches on The Crucible-era witches (“Strange Girl”), her faithful fan following (“The Steeple”), and their shared, almost sacred devil-horn-fist-signifying ritual in the album (and likely concert) coda, the piano ballad “Raise Your Horns.” In between, she caroms through “Brightside: (“I can’t look on the bright side of life/ Because it only gets darker,” she laments), “Terrible Things” (“I see a sickness in a world on its knees”), an ominous “Psycho Crazy” (“If you want crazy/ I’ll give you psycho,” she cautions), and her case-summarizing “My Redemption,” in which she coldly confesses, “I lost my faith and found release…I took back my life in an ocean of tears.” If Jonah Hill stumbles across his Burgess-Meredeth/**Twilight Zone dystopian wanderings, you reckon “Back From the Dead” would provide the perfect don’t-give-up-**just-yet soundtrack for this cowboy’s last terrestrial roundup. And of course, the LP comes in a special colored-vinyl edition described as ‘Coke bottle clear” — an Immovable Object-level paradox in itself.

Hale, in the cathartic process, has now returned to being the same old irrepressible, Irresistible Force she always was, pre-pandemic. During the lockdown, she and Halestorm helped launch #RoadieStrong, a fundraiser for Live Nation’s show-worker-aiding arm Crew Nation. Currently, she’s juggling so many diverse projects she can barely keep track of them all. She recently: Sang on violinist Lindsey Stirling’s “Shatter Me”; provided the vocals for Corey Taylor, Scott Ian, and Dave Lombardo’s theme for the Netflix movie Thunder Force; hosted AXS TV’s “A Year in Music”; and will anchor a novel new TV singing competition called No Cover, which insists on only original material from its contestants. After the suicide of Huntress frontwoman Jill Janus, she also launched the mental-health-awareness-stressing #RaiseYour Horns, and her band will soon break through into graphic novel format via Hyde Manor, a spooky haunted-mansion tale written by twins Brittany and Brianna Winner, and sketched by artist Sara Scala. Hale — whose constantly-evolving mane is blonde now, no longer her traditional raven black — can barely believe how wicked-cool she looks in comic form. Or, as Jessica Rabbit once put it, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

“A graphic novel, man! It’s awesome, and I love seeing myself as a cartoon character,” enthuses the spiritualism fan, who has attended seances, visited spectral sites, and even performed in a haunted venue where a ghost actually put on an inexplicable light show every night after closing. “It’s something that we’ve always wanted to do — we’ve actually wanted to do it for years. And it just so happened that during the lockdown, we were meeting up with all the right people, and it was just time to do it.”

What conclusion has Hale come to, now that she’s managed to nimbly skirt that old Immovable Object? She thinks about it for a minute, then offers some optimism. “I think that there still is a shred of hope, and I do believe that people are inherently good,” she swears. “And there are obviously some people we’re experiencing right now that definitely don’t have any heart or soul. But there is power in putting out that love and that positivity and trying to fight all the hate-for-hate’s sake, petty bullshit that’s going on. There are still people that want to stand up and fight and never give in!”

-Tom Lanham

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