Todd Michael Hall came to popularity to the general public in 2020 when he appeared on the 18th season of the US version of the vocal talent show The Voice and proceeded to make it past the blind auditions and go on to join the team of Country superstar coach Blake Shelton, but most of us within the circles of melodic metal knew of this guy and his insanely great voice years before he ever stepped foot on that stage. From his body of work with the likes of Reverence and Jack Starr’s Burning Starr to his current position as lead singer for classic metal act Riot V, I would dare say most anyone that enjoys melodic metal was already well aware of Todd and his legacy within the music industry.
My first personal interaction with Todd came a little over a year ago when we started discussing doing this interview. In our many chats since then I have found him to be as down to Earth, humble and nice of a fellow as you could ever hope to speak to. The interview was first put off to await his newest solo record being released and then things just kept getting in the way but we were finally able to get our ducks in a row and get it done. As it turned out it ended up having to be a written interview so you will notice some overlapping with questions and answers.
Sit back, read and enjoy.
MMR: Todd, thank you so much for taking the time to do this man. I really appreciate it. I know we have been talking about it for some time now so it is great to finally get around to it. First off, how are you? Are things opening back up there in Michigan again?
TMH: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview also. I appreciate you helping me get the word out about my music. My family and I are doing well. My work running a manufacturing company has been a little stressful, because the material sourcing market is inflationary and inconsistent, but my family is healthy and happy, so we are counting our blessings. Things are opening up nicely in Michigan and it does seem things are on their way back to normal.
MMR: So I know that I have mentioned this before to you in our chats but my first introduction to your voice came many moons ago. A friend of mine who was responsible for introducing me to several bands over the years back then put on a record by the name of ’25 Gets A Ride’ by an unknown to me band by the name of Harlet. Now I will just be honest and say that musically it wasn’t really my thing but what did impress me was the voice of the singer and your voice is what kept me following your career since that day. Tell me a little about that beginning time for you if you would. I believe Harlet was your first band that released a record but were you in others before that and how did that band come about?
TMH: That is an interesting story. It sounds like you go way back with me. Harlet was the first band with which I wrote, recorded, performed, and released original music. My brother Jon was four years older than me and he started playing in bands when I was about 10 or 11 years old. They would practice in the basement of our home, so I was exposed to the idea of being in a rock band at an early age. When I was 15 years old Jon needed a singer, so I joined his covertune band, Wrought Iron, and performed with them for about six months. I took a break for a year or so and then joined forces with Jon again after he formed Harlet and decided he wanted to pursue original music. During my break from the band I had learned how to use my head voice, since I was heavily influenced by the high singing that was popular back in the 80’s. We recorded and released a five song demo tape called ‘Virgin Wings’ when I was a senior in high school and then a year later, we recorded and released the full-length album, ‘25 Gets A Ride’.
MMR: You released an EP and the full length album with Harlet before eventually changing your name to Pulling Teeth and releasing an independent record under that name. Why the change of band names at that point?
TMH: We actually recorded three times as Harlet, because in 1990 we recorded a four song demo tape that was never really released. However, those four songs were included in the 25th Anniversary reissue of ‘25 Gets A Ride’ released on Skol Records back in 2013.
The last time Jon and I wrote and recorded original music together was in 1994 when we released the self-titled Pulling Teeth album that you mentioned. Things had changed so much in the music industry and we were much different musically as well, so we thought a name change made sense at the time.
MMR: I believe the Pulling Teeth album released in 1994 and correct me if I am wrong, but you didn’t have another record until 2009’s ‘Defiance’ with Jack Starr’s Burning Starr. Were you active musically during that time and why the 15 year gap between records?
TMH: Jon and I split ways musically in 1996, because he wanted to pursue more aggressive music and I was not capable of singing in that way. We actually reformed Harlet in 2006, but only to play cover tunes, so we never wrote original music together again. I had a fairly long break from performing, because I was not in a band. I was really busy working in the family business during that period, but it also seemed as though my style of singing was not in demand. I started taking guitar lessons in 1996, so I was playing and writing song during this time, but just on my own.
In 2004, my other brother Richard, told me about Jack Starr’s plans to release a new album on Magic Circle Music (owned by Joey DeMaio of Manowar). I sent in some of my prior recordings and received a call from Joey. I flew out to Magic Circle Studios in Auburn, New York to meet Joey in person and sang for him in person. He let me now during that trip that he wanted me to be the new singer for Burning Starr, so I actually got started up again in 2004, but it just took forever to get Defiance recorded and released. I guess I can credit my brother Richard and Joey DeMaio for reviving my music career that I had long thought was over.
MMR: I have always liked Jack, he is an immense talent and those three records you did with Burning Starr are just killer. How did you end up getting that gig because if I am remembering correctly ‘Defiance’ was his first record after reforming the group after disbanding back in the late ‘80s.
TMH: I think I answered this question above, but it is interesting to note that Jack had selected a different singer. Obviously, everything was not set in stone, but Jack and Ned Meloni (bass player for Burning Starr) had been talking to Scott Oliva and thought he was going to be the next singer for Burning Starr until Joey, who was set to produce ‘Defiance’, let them know he had selected me instead. Jack and Ned obviously liked my singing too though, as you can tell by the fact that we went on to do two more albums together. Incidentally, Scott Oliva went on to become the new singer for Reverence after I parted ways with both Burning Starr and Reverence after my obligations with Riot V used up all of my free time.
MMR: I wanted to touch on Reverence because the two records are probably my favorites in your discography, certainly up until that point in time, and ‘Angel In Black’ is just one of my favorite songs you have ever done, it just flat out rocks and that chorus is so catchy. I think it was you and one of the guitarists, Bryan Holland that started the band?
TMH: Back in the days of MySpace, Bryan Holland, who had most recently been playing with a reformed version of Tokyo Blade, heard a couple of songs I had posted and reached out to me about putting together a band. Burning Starr was not taking up that much of my time and I liked the idea of a band where I had more creative control. We started writing songs together and had enough material for our first album, ‘When Darkness Calls’, in a reasonably short amount of time. We put together a few live shows to support WDC and then plowed right into writing more songs for our second album, ‘Gods Of War’. I am really proud of both of the Reverence albums and was a little disappointed they did not catch on more than they did.
MMR: You had two fantastic records together and then in 2017 we sadly lost Pete Rossi who was one of the guitarists of Reverence and I have always been curious if losing him was, at least in part, what lead to you leaving the band? I say leaving the band because I believe they have released an EP since that time.
TMH: As I eluded to previously, I ended up leaving Reverence, because I started playing a lot of live shows with Riot V and I could not take more time away from my family and work responsibilities. I had actually told Bryan and Pete that I would not be able to play live with Reverence anymore before we finished recording GOW. They were very disappointed and we almost parted ways at that time. However, Bryan and I decided that we were so close to finishing GOW that it would be silly not to finish it and release it. I am forgetting the exact timing of events, but I believe I was already out of the band when Pete passed away. It was a very surprising and tragic event.
MMR: I guess it was probably 2012-2013 that you got the call to join Riot? Tell me about that because that had to be huge for you. I mean you already had a music career but come on, it’s Riot! I dare say anyone who likes melodic metal knows the band.
TMH: Bart Gabriel (owner of Skol Records in Poland and married to Marta Gabriel from Crystal Viper) had produced the Burning Starr ‘Land Of The Dead’ album and even helped arrange some live shows for us. Burning Starr performed at the Keep It True Festival in Germany 2013 (Marta was our second guitar player) and I met Bart in person for the first time. Bart was in discussions with Donnie Van Stavern (bass player for Riot) about possibly producing their next album and was also assisting Donnie with locating a singer for what would become Riot V. Bart contacted me and suggested I reach out to Donnie. Donnie and I started talking. I recorded demo version of three songs from ‘Immortal Soul’. Donnie liked how they sounded and had me work on two new songs (‘Metal Warrior’ and ‘Ride Hard Live Free’). Donnie and Mike Flyntz (guitar player for Riot) liked what they heard and selected me to be in the band. We were already writing new music together when they made the official announcement in November of 2013 that the band would be called Riot V and that I would be the new singer.
I was really excited to get the opportunity to be in Riot V and it definitely seemed like we would have more opportunities to play live, which proved to be true. I ended up playing so many live shows with Riot V that I did not have time to be in Burning Starr or Reverence.
MMR: Correct me if I am wrong here but wasn’t Mike Tirelli with Riot for a few years before you joined up? I thought that was interesting because he was the vocalist for Jack Starr’s Burning Starr at the tail end of the 80’s when they broke up before coming back years later with you.
TMH: Yes, Mike performed quite a few live shows with Riot also, after their fourth singer, Mike DiMeo left the band. Since Mike Tirelli never recorded a studio album with Riot, I am considered the fifth “official” singer, which gives us the Riot V (i.e., fifth chapter of Riot) name.
There are more ties than that though. In 1984, Jack Starr released a solo album called ‘Out Of The Darkness’. I had bought the album on cassette way back in 1984 and that is how I knew Jack. I was not that familiar with Burning Starr. Anyway, Rhett Forrester was the singer on ‘Out Of The Darkness’ which gives Jack more ties with Riot.
MMR: You have had the chance to play Waken, tell me about that experience. Is has to be pretty incredible to play that festival in front of a crowd that size. What was that like?
TMH: I was really looking forward to that show, because I had heard so much about it. It felt special to be a part of the show and they had a great set up back stage where we got to hang with quite a few other artists. I felt similarly special when we played Rockfest Barcelona, because we went on right after Judas Priest. We were on one stage setting up and getting ready to perform while Judas Priest was playing on the second main stage right next to us. Five minutes after they finished, we started to play. It was a bit surreal.
MMR: You have played to some pretty large crowds, such as Wacken, and as such have experienced something that only a small amount of people ever get to experience, so what is it like to step out on the stage to a crowd that size, is that a feeling that you can put into words?
TMH: It is very difficult for me to put into words. When the crowd gets into it, they give you so much energy. And when they start singing along, especially to songs I have written, it really warms my heart. This type of energy happens whenever the venue is full and the crowd gets into it, even if it is a small club that only holds 200 people. In fact, the energy they impart on us is so much that I have trouble falling asleep when I finally get back to the hotel.
MMR: Okay, so I have to say something about your time on The Voice but also I understand that you have done about 100 interviews since being on there and have said pretty much all there is to say so I will just ask this, as a seasoned artist with years of experience what, if anything, did you learn from your time on the show?
TMH: It was an incredible experience. Even if I did not necessarily learn a lot, it was still really interesting to experience music television production on a national level like that. I don’t think I learned much about actually singing, but I did get some nice takeaways about the importance of thinking through my performance in advance. Especially, in a situation where you only have 90 seconds. Although, I’m not sure when I will be in a situation like that again.
MMR: One thing that seems to happen on the show, and I am fully aware that it is a TV show and as such is highly edited and the most TV worthy moments are used etc, but one thing that always appears to be the case is the camaraderie between contestants. Is that truly how it is or is that something that is edited to make it appear that way to the audience?
TMH: The friendships I developed with other contestants were actually one of the greatest treasures I have from my time on The Voice and it was a surprise for me. The way the show is produced, I got to spend a quite few weeks with the other contestants, which helped me form nice bonds with quite a few of them. And even if you do not get really close to someone, you still have that shared experience, which gives you a unique and lasting connection.
MMR: Your blind audition was ‘Jukebox Hero’, and what a masterful job you did of it by the way. I know you have said that you performed that song from the beginning of the audition process. What made you choose that song? I mean a bold choice. Everyone knows the song but it seems a daunting task to cover Lou Gramm to me. For my money I don’t know that there have ever been better rock vocals recorded then those that Lou was laying down at that point in time.
TMH: I have always loved ‘Juke Box Hero’, ever since my brother Rick used to jam it on my parents’ living room stereo. I particularly love the ad lib high part on the end, which fits very nicely with my voice. Lou Gramm has an incredible voice. In addition to having a great range, he also has a unique tone with a touch of rasp. I don’t think I sound better than Lou singing the song, but I was hoping the coaches would at least be impressed with my range.
MMR: I have your first solo album, ‘Letters From India’, and it is quite different from anything you had done up until that point. I know it was inspired by your time of being pen pals with your wife but can you tell me a little about how the record came to be?
TMH: I mentioned previously that I started taking guitar lessons in 1996 and it was in the later 1990’s that I wrote most of the song on ‘Letters From India’. Since I am mostly just a strummer on the guitar, my songs tend to come out sounding like singer-songwriter pop. I never really thought I would release them.
I met Francisco Palomo while recording the ‘Defiance’ album. Francisco was playing keyboards for Holy Hell (and for Manowar during live shows) at the time. He is incredibly talented and years later I contacted him about turning one of my songs, ‘The Best I Can’, into a choir arrangement. [NOTE: For fun, I sometimes record SATB choir pieces where I sing all four of the parts.] Francisco created a beautiful piano line and choir arrangements. The song turned out nicely, so I did a second song called ‘From The Father’. The second song turned out great also, so I asked Francisco if he could record bass and drums also and we started working on these songs I had written back in the 90’s. I ended up writing a couple more during the recording session and the result was ‘Letters From India’, which is mostly a gift to my wife that I decided to share with the world. All of the proceeds from the sale of LFI went to a local Christian-based relief organization in my area called the City Rescue Mission.
I am incredibly proud of the album and it is deeply personal to me. It is definitely not hard rock in the slightest, but I think people that enjoy lighter music can sense the passion that went into writing and recording it and thus find it enjoyable.
MMR: My favorite song from the record is the opening track, ‘The Best I Can’, and I think you said that is actually your most streamed track on Spotify. It is a lovely song and I love the vocal harmonies on it. Can you tell me a little about that particular song?
TMH: It appears that ‘Overdrive’, my first single from ‘Sonic Healing’, has now overtaken ‘The Best I Can’ as my most streamed song on Spotify, but ‘Sonic Healing’ received quite a bit more promotion, so perhaps that explains it.
I don’t have a huge audience, so we are not talking really large numbers, but it is interesting to see how ‘The Best I Can’ continues to get regular listens even now, four years after it was released. I originally wrote the song on my guitar may years ago. I cannot remember exactly when, but I think it was the early 2000’s. I think the words to the song are meaningful for people, since they speak of our individual struggles to live our best life and the incredible gift of grace that God gives freely to each of us.
MMR: You have several songs that have a Christian theme to them and I know the proceeds from that first solo album went to a Christian run charity so I am guessing you are a Christian man yourself. If so then how has that affected where you have gone with your music career, or has it at all?
TMH: I am definitely a Christian. I was raised Catholic, but moved away from regular church attendance after high school. I started up again in 1997 after asking my wife to marry me. She wanted to be married in her church and her pastor preferred we were both of the same faith. That seemed like a good idea to me too. I ended up joining an American Baptist church (yes, my pen pal from India was raised American Baptist – it turns out 90% of the Christians in Nagaland are American Baptist) and have been attending that same church ever since.
Since the music I write is a product of the person I am, I am sure my Christian faith has always influenced various aspects of my writing. Although, in more recent years, I have definitely preferred to focus on positive topics and I am not sure if that is a product of my Christian faith or really more just a sign of where I am at this stage in my life. There is a lot of negativity out there and I prefer not to be a part of it. I would rather do my best to bring joy to other people’s lives.
MMR: A couple of years ago now you released four EPs, ‘Fire’, ‘Water’, ‘Earth’ and ‘Air’. The songs were much more in line with what you did on ‘Letters From India’, more acoustic driven and just kind of laid back, mellow songs. What is the story behind those and, to my knowledge they were never released in physical format, is that something that could eventually happen at some time?
TMH: After releasing ‘Letters From India’, I had an incredibly productive period where I wrote about 30 songs over the course of two years. I wanted them to be recorded in a light rock style with electric guitar, so I worked with Andy Reed from Reed Recording Studio in Bay City, Michigan to bring the songs to life. I was not sure how I would release them, since they are so much different than my hard rock/metal music. In addition, being on The Voice made releasing them and promoting them more difficult. I ended up deciding to release them digitally so that I would have some new music out while I was on The Voice. I thought I might promote them more when I was done with The Voice, but I ended up getting inspired to release a classic-rock inspired album and immediately went to work with Kurdt Vanderhoof on ‘Sonic Healing’, so I guess I am in a different place now.
Actually, I have another 14 songs from the recording sessions with Andy that are almost finished, so I will probably release some more before too long. However, I struggle with what to do, because my eclectic nature might confuse people that prefer my hard rock/heavy metal side.
MMR: Well let’s talk ‘Sonic Healing’. You and Kurdt Vanderhoof of Metal Church made this record and from what I understand it was all done in kind of record time? Tell me a little about the songs there, I believe Kurdt wrote all of the music while you wrote all of the lyrics.
TMH: Kurdt and I started writing together during the start of the pandemic lock down and we had an incredibly productive time. I explained my desire for a classic-rock inspired album and we bonded over our shared love for classic rock music. Kurdt listened to a lot of my ideas, but decided to start writing music from scratch. He wrote 18 songs over the course of 21 days. As he shared the songs with me, I immediately began writing lyrics and vocal melodies for them and had about 16 songs finished within about a week of him finishing his last song. When I was younger, the rock music popular at the time brought so much positive energy, so it was my goal to do the same.
MMR: What is your process for writing lyrics? I think I had read that Kurdt sent you the music and then you sat down and wrote the lyrics for the songs, is that right? Do you find it is easier or more difficult to write lyrics when you have the music already present and have to try to shape lyrics around the musical concept that is already there?
TMH: In my mind, lyrics are associated with melody. I sometimes think of lyrics first, but when they come to mind, it is normally with a melody also. When this happens, I can map out the melody on a keyboard, determine the key, and then write chords and riffs around it. They other way it works for me is to write the music in advance or receive music from a writing partner. When this happens, I let the songs “sing” to me and if all goes well, the lyrics and vocal melodies start popping into my head.
I know that some people journal their thoughts and then try to turn them into lyrics, but it doesn’t really work that way for me. Consequently, having the music in advance is probably the best thing for me.
MMR: The record is very old school metal, which I love, and the whole thing is simply superb but my favorite track is ‘Like No Other’, it is just such a great, rocking song with a wonderful chorus and amazing vocal delivery by you. What can you tell me about that song?
TMH: I remember really enjoying that song when I first heard the music and after a few listens, the phrase “you love me like no other” popped into my head where you hear it now in the song. The rest of the lyrics and vocal melodies came fairly quickly after that. Kurdt thought we should try something else, so I wrote a completely different set of lyrics, but we ended up coming back to my original concept. I don’t know if it sounds this way to others, but the singing, especially in the verse sections, reminds me of ‘Empire’ era Queensryche, which is perhaps not the “classic rock” that I was shooting for, but still pretty cool.
MMR: Now let me see if I have this straight, in the one take vocal of the song you say in the notes that you had Kurdt replace the main vocal line with the live recording, so the version we are hearing on the record itself is actually a one take performance from you?
TMH: No, I guess I confused people with that description. The studio version was recorded like all of the songs on the album, with me recording takes and doing sections over until I felt I had the performance that I wanted. However, for the one-take vocal performance video, I had Kurdt replace the studio recorded vocal line with the one-take vocal line I recorded while making the video. Consequently, the vocal line you hear on the video is not the same vocal line you hear on the album. Although, I am pretty consistent, so most people probably don’t notice the difference.
MMR: What are you favorite moments on the record?
TMH: I am really very happy with all of the songs on ‘Sonic Healing’, so it is hard to pick a favorite. If I were to list my favorite moments, I would probably mention almost every song on the album.
MMR: What is in the future for you? I think Riot V has a new album somewhere in the pipes when might we see that coming out?
TMH: We have a bunch of songs written for the new Riot V album and even recorded rough demos for them. Currently, we are finishing up the music and then I will record final vocal tracks. We are planning to have the new album released during 2022 when we can book some live shows to help promote it.
On the TMH side of things, I have a fantasy that I will be able to play some live shows with Kurdt, but I am not sure if we will be able to make that happen. Kurdt and I are both interested in working together again, so we might record another album somewhere down the line also.
MMR: You have done a few guest spots on albums for the like of Entice and Timo Tolkki’s Avalon, what does it take for someone to get Todd Michael Hall to sign on to their project? What is your criteria for accepting an offer? Good song, good lyrics, etc.
TMH: I really enjoy recording vocals, so in the past I have been pretty willing to say yes when people ask. However, more recently, I am worried that I am spreading myself too thin and taking too much time away from my family, so I have said no to some people lately. A friendship connection is probably the easiest way to get me to say yes, but some great music really helps too.
MMR: If I may circle back to The Voice real quick, since your time on there have you noticed any heightened interest in not only yourself but Riot V or any of your back catalogue?
TMH: I definitely received an intense amount of attention during my time on The Voice and I know I have more followers because of it. At the same time, it only lasts a little while and most of it falls away. Being on The Voice alone is not enough to make someone a star. It is really just a nice stepping stone and then it is up to you what you do afterward.
MMR: What is your vocal range? I mean you sing high rather often but every now and then you just reach up into the stratosphere and pull out a note like on ‘Love Rain Down’ or the end of ‘Until The End’ from the ‘Land Of The Dead’ record.
TMH: When I was much younger I wanted to have the biggest range and to be able to hit the highest notes, but I grew out of that. Now, I am mostly interested in writing a great song. Don’t get me wrong though, I still love to hit a high note. I love how it feels to do it live and how people in the audience respond when it happens, but that sort of thing is secondary to the song in my mind.
The highest note I have ever hit in a song is a B5 (the end of ‘Evil Never Sleeps’, recorded live at the Magic Circle Festival in 2008), while an A5 tends to be more my “money” note, because I have done it on quite a few songs. I have made a C6 come out of my throat before, but it is not very practical to put that into a song. Most people think the really high notes are tough to do, but it is much more difficult to sing consistently and with strength at the break between your chest voice and head voice, which is quite a few notes lower than your highest head voice note.
MMR: What do you do to keep your voice in shape? I realize you aren’t out touring for 10 months or anything but the vocals you are doing have to be rather taxing on the vocal chords and though you still sound the same vocally it’s not as if you are 20 anymore.
TMH: Some people think of singing like exercising muscles and perhaps it is that way for some people, but it has not been like that in my experience. I do not practice singing – at least not loud singing over top of a rock band. Quite the opposite, the best way to maintain my voice is to not spend time singing over a loud rock band.
The key to keeping my voice great shape is to first, keep myself healthy though proper nutrition, exercise, and restful sleep. Second, to not abuse my voice through yelling, screaming or talking too much. This applies all the time, because even working a trade show where I talk loudly all day is really bad for my voice. Third, is to be very disciplined when on the road about not over doing it when on stage and then not talking much afterward (in addition to eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep).
Ultimately, when performing live I have to sing with a bit less force. I am proud of how I have performed live so far. I think I am able to sound a lot like the studio, but the reality is that I cannot sing live the same way I do in the studio, because my voice would not last. I have done as many as 27 songs live with Riot V in one night and that would not be possible if I were belting it out exactly like I do in the studio.
MMR: One of the things you have to deal with in this day and age is phones and cameras and filming at shows. I know some folks, and I won’t name names, who have their security going around and stopping people from filming while others seem to embrace it. What is your stance on that? Does it bother you to look out and see the crowd in their phones?
TMH: There are two things about it that are bothersome. First is that when people hold their phone in the air, they are disturbing the view of people behind them. Second, is that when people are recording something, they are less able to be “in the moment” during the show.
That being said, I am not really bothered by it and actually appreciate the fact that people are often capturing some great moments which they then load up to YouTube for others, including myself, to see.
MMR: As someone with many years in the industry are there any bands out there now that you are excited about, that you feel are really the next generation of rockers and carrying on the torch?
TMH: This is a tough one for me to answer, because (unfortunately) I don’t spend a lot of time seeking out and thus discovering new music. I work full time, have a family, and exercise regularly, so I have limited time for music. Consequently, most of my “music time” is spent working on my own music.
MMR: I really appreciate your time today Todd and I wish you all the best with your continued career. Last question, what would be your advice for young artists today trying to make it in the melodic metal field, or really the rock genre at all?
TMH: This is a tough question, because it really comes down to the individual and what their goals are in life. I have an incredible passion for singing, song writing, and performing, but at the same time, it has always seemed like a fantasy to think I could support myself financially with a career in music. It seems even more difficult today, but this might not be the case for younger people that are more used to the new ways of doing things.
Knowing that I wanted to have a family and thus desired some financial stability in my life, I finished high school, got a college degree, and started working full-time in our family business by the time I was 21 years old. Perhaps doing so prevented me from becoming more successful in the music industry, but I would argue the other side, that it has given me the ability to pursue my passion for music, even though it is not profitable to do so.
I guess the ultimate advice I would give is to think of music as a passion and not so much as a career. Pursue it with vigor, but not to the exclusion of other avenues that will help you support yourself financially.