Even after a full day of press, and on the back of two profoundly strange years, Lzzy Hale and Joe Hottinger are easy company. Halestorm’s frontwoman and guitarist are well-oiled but friendly interviewees, with a degree of self-awareness that can feel absent in a lot of their contemporaries.
“I remember all the press before the [last] record came out,” Hottinger recalls sheepishly. “It was a new city every day and eight hours of interviews. We came home and [I had to] relearn how to not talk about myself…”
“It felt like there was nothing for a long time” Hale chuckles, “and then all of a sudden it’s: ‘Go, go, go, do all the things!’”
Something is different, though. It’s as if a wall had come down, very quietly. Hale still looks like someone who’s been eating rock’n’roll for breakfast since she could chew (all leather jacket, casual rakishness and dyed blonde crop), but there’s a looser edge to her appearance. Less gloss in her responses.
Following 2018’s incendiary Vicious album, in the year or so before covid entered our lives, Hale started going to therapy. When the world shut down, she found herself with a headful of demons and nowhere to put them, except in her songs.
Back From The Dead, Halestorm’s fifth studio album, is the result. Hard-riffing, often tortured and always uncompromising, it’s the sound of a band playing like it’s their last chance – and of one woman baring the darkest spots of her soul.
“I’ve been able to evolve myself since I was thirteen to be this best version of myself,” she tells us. “A person that I can look at and be like: ‘That person’s cool.’ Inside I’m not cool. I’m still a dork from Pennsylvania who was raised on a farm. And looking at yourself during lockdown… What I’m left with is not Lzzy Hale the rock star, I’m left with Elizabeth Hale in her pyjamas for the past three days, sitting on the couch and wondering what she’s gonna do with her life.”
She laughs. There’s a pause. “And that was a little scary.”
In March 2020, Halestorm found themselves with the rough, unfocused beginnings of a new record and a year of cancelled plans. They parted ways. Drummer Arejay Hale – Lzzy’s brother – and bassist Josh Smith returned to their respective homes, leaving Lzzy and Hottinger alone in their Nashville residence, which also houses the basement studio from where much of the band’s output originates.
The two of them have always been vague about their relationship. Part best-friend duo, part sibling-like survivors, part old married couple; they don’t address it directly but it’s not hard to see that there’s something like love between them. They drove for miles through Tennessee backroads, and over to Muscle Shoals. They had weekends in front of the TV. They hunkered down and dealt with their hopes and fears like the rest of us.
“I even got into golfing, with the guy that owns our booking agency,” Hottinger says, grinning. “He does Alice Cooper too, and he was like: ‘Hey, I got a set of Alice’s clubs that he gave me. You wanna come out and play golf?’”
As time went on, and the world remained closed, they began to embrace side hustles. A lot of side hustles. There were acoustic live streams. They wrote songs. They recorded a cover of The Who’s Long Live Rock for the documentary Long Live Rock … Celebrate The Chaos. Hottinger threw himself into photography, often using Hale as a model.
Meanwhile, the singer took part in 11 collaborations. She started a new gig as a talking head on AXS TV. Gibson guitars made her their first female ambassador. The band’s basement studio became the epicentre of this activity.
In early December 2020 they headed into the studio in Nashville with Vicious producer Nick Raskulinecz. By March they had a few songs recorded, but cabin fever was starting to set in. Ready for a change of scene after almost a year of just the two of them, Hale went to LA to thrash out some ideas with an old friend, writer and producer Scott Stevens. It was a refreshing change of perspective that reaped Back From The Dead’s title track, the tone-setting statement of intent for the rest of the record.
Next they wrote The Steeple, a catchy call-to-arms battle cry for Halestorm fans (and, indeed, heavy music fans) everywhere.
“The more personal you write, the more you realise that there’s millions of people who are going through the exact same thing you’re going through,” she reasons. “I see myself reflected in all the lyrics, but I know our fan base is going see themselves in these songs – I can guarantee it.”
From there on, Hale’s vocals were steering the ship. As a result, the bulk of Back From The Dead is built around her voice – unlike previous records, which often started with instrumentals.
“We have a lead singer,” Hottinger says. “It’s not like a shoe-gazer band where the lead singer is cool – and there’s a lot of bands where that is cool – but that’s not us.” He laughs.
Saying all this, it’s no one-woman show. There’s more of everything on Back From The Dead. More thunderous drum assaults from Hale’s caffeine-bomb brother Arejay. More screaming, furious guitar solos from Hottinger. It reflects the very real fear, shared by so many other artists as the cancellations kept coming, that this might be ‘it’. That they might not play live again.
“When the only weapon in your arsenal is to write and to record, you have almost no choice but to put those feelings…” She searches for the words. “And if we’re never going to do another show, if we’re never going to be able to say anything in front of people, we have to put all of this into this recording.”
She gestures to Hottinger. “And that’s why you hear hot-fingers over here [play] the fastest he’s ever done, and everyone’s on ten, I’m screaming my head off, Arejay’s bombastic. It’s definitely a product of the times.”
Lyrically, there’s a bracing directness to these songs. It makes for hard-hitting, not always easy listening – albeit with hooky frameworks that keep them from turning morose. Over lockdown, Hale fostered a new relationship with social media, one that fed into the raw, confessional weight that fuels much of Back From The Dead.
“It made me cry one day because I guess I got a bit vulnerable with them online. Somebody was like: ‘How’s your day going?’ I was just honest, and said: ‘I’m a little sad for no apparent reason,’ and then everybody was like: ‘This is for Lzzy, we’re raising our horns.’ I feel like I got to know our fans in a more personal way. I’ve realised it’s better to be unapologetically yourself and not try to put up this façade like everything’s perfect all the time, cos everything isn’t perfect all the time and that’s just life.”
One song, Strange Girl, came from this supportive sense of community, in response to one young fan’s heartbreaking home situation.
“She was living with her parents,” Hale explains. “She came out as gay a little bit before the lockdown, didn’t have anywhere to go, and she told me that her parents’ response was: ‘Well, death would have been better, we would rather have our child not be alive.’
“And this is a fifteen-year-old girl. So she’s all upset, and the only place she can really go is online – we talk a lot on Twitter or Instagram, so there’s this whole thing going on with the fanbase and everyone’s supporting her… I was trying to tell her that I’m in the same boat and I’ve been a very strange girl my entire life, and you have to own that as your superpower. Hopefully when she hears this song it’ll give her a bit of a boost.”
She doesn’t deny, however, that social media has equally destructive powers.
“You can literally make someone’s world with a simple, kind word ,” she says, “and you can also destroy their world with something stupid that you say online. A lot of young people think that online is the entire world, so you have to be extra-cautious about that.”
Elsewhere, Bombshell – a song that began with a firebrand riff that Hottinger had been working up – carries the sort of MeToo-era sentiments of which Hale had long been mindful but resisted addressing directly through song. On this one there’s no such resistance as she sings: ‘Be a good girl, play along/Wear your short skirt, sing your song’.
“That subject matter had been floating around in my head,” she muses. “I had written a couple of different songs with that subject matter and then with Joe. I had the title Bombshell, but the double-entendre of it being a woman as a bombshell and an explosive device.
“Also, a subject I don’t think I’ve poked at like that has been being a woman in this business,” she continues, “or in this world, where it’s a bunch of old white dudes trying to tell you what to say, what to wear, you’re too opinionated, now you’re not opinionated enough, now you’ve gotta think for yourself, don’t think for yourself, let me handle it… So this was my middle finger to that. It’s things I’ve talked about, but I don’t know if I ever consolidated into a rocker like that.”
If all this makes Back From The Dead sound a little preachy and po-faced, it isn’t mean’t to. Indeed, its uncompromising nature comes with a healthy dose of wry self-awareness – the sort of graveside humour we’ve probably all cultivated over the past couple of years. There’s dark sarcasm in Brightside, while Psycho Crazy is so unbarred it’s almost funny, as Hale roars: ‘If you want crazy, I’ll give you psycho’.
Zero fucks given, on a plate.
“Yes,” she laughs, “it’s an empty plate that used to be filled with fucks.”
“I ate them…” Hottinger deadpans.
“It was very similar to Back From The Dead,” she says, “where I was like: ‘God, that’s so dumb, we should use it.’ It’s right there in front of your face. There’s nothing overly clever about it, but you get all these people thinking that you’re nuts for doing what you’re doing, or crazy for how you think about things, or maybe you’re in a relationship with somebody… So it’s like: ‘You think I’m crazy? You have no idea.’”
With hindsight, are these songs really about the past two years, or further back than that?
“I think it’s a bit of both,” she concedes. “I was very much writing in the now, but I had started going to therapy shortly before lockdown. There were a lot of things I didn’t like about myself.”
She continues, with that self-awareness and honesty present throughout Back From The Dead: “I have a tendency to spiral out on things, or I found myself in bouts of depression where I’d realise that’s what it was, or little anxiety attacks or panic attacks that I haven’t had since I was a teenager. All of that stuff started coming back, so I had to deal with some of that, and I’m sure it leaked into the writing process.”
Halestorm were always a ‘smell the roses’ type of band. They relished what they did. They knew how fortunate they were. This wasn’t hard to notice, whether you saw them onstage, in an interview or behind the scenes. And although in some ways the past two years broke them – broke their frontwoman down to her deepest insecurities – they also restored their childlike lust for rock-band life; that attachment to the Peter Pan world of rock’n’roll that’s been keeping its inhabitants young for decades.
“There’s no feeling like playing music live,” Hottinger says, “putting yourself out there like that. Especially the way we do it: we don’t use click tracks, we just go out there, the four of us; we make a noise, we do a lot of improv in our show. That’s living, breathing music. I know I will do that until I physically cannot, even if that’s at the bar down the street.”
“I would still be doing this in my parents’ basement, if nobody cared,” Hale says, laughing. And maybe that’s what gets lost sometimes in this goal-oriented age, where polished images of our heroes are woven into our lives, through myriad news and social feeds on our phones. Success and recognition are great, but a love of the process – of actually doing what you love – is what really matters. Halestorm get this. It’s what’s kept them in this business for so long.
“Absolutely, we always say that too,” Hale says. “We’re still doing the same thing we did when we were teenagers.”
“We’re still mentally teenagers,” Hottinger says in agreement, laughing.
“We really haven’t matured at all,” Hale affirms. “There can be all this drama around us, whether it’s label people or the crew, and we never have any drama within ourselves. We’re the band and we’re the most immature people here!"
Back From The Dead is out now via Atlantic Records.