While all of us have had to navigate through the unpredictable and unchartered water of a worldwide Pandemic over the past 14-months, along with both collective and individual challenges that have been left in its wake, for musician Todd Michael Hall 2020 marked a year of both triumph and tragedy.
After achieving worldwide attention and acclaim from his appearances on the hit TV series The Voice in early March, which was the culmination of notoriety for the 51-year old singer & songwriter, COVID-19 hit and suddenly the world, along with the focus of our attentions shifted. Moreover, shortly after the lockdowns, tragedy struck again for Hall when his brother Jon unexpectedly passed away.
Together the two brothers had formed the heavy rock band Harlet back in 1986, which marked Todd’s original music debut at the age of 17, kindling a passion for music that has allowed him to sparkle in the spotlight ever since.
Taking all of this in context, it is entirely fitting that over the past year since his appearance on The Voice, Hall has been holed up in the studio co-writing a new album of original rock tunes with guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof from the band Metal Church. This new (and appropriately titled) release, Sonic Healing, will be released on May 7th through Rat Pak Records, and explodes with a passionate release of joyous abandon that harkens back to the Golden Age of Classic Hard Rock when groups like Van Halen, Queen, and Foreigner ruled the airwaves.
One of my favorite lines in Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical film Almost Famous, which is centered around the fertile and glorious days of 1970’s Rock music, is when the late great Rock critic Lester Bangs says, “You arrived at a precarious time when the industry is set to squeeze everything that you loved about it right out of the music.”
With this in mind given all the attention Todd received after appearing on The Voice, did he gain much traction from being in the bright spotlight of national exposure?
“I would answer with a qualified ‘Yes’,” he reflects. “When you get that much intense exposure, everybody is talking about you and once the video from my blind audition was knocking on the door of 4.4 million views, suddenly you’re famous and everyone knows you. But this is also why pop culture is so fickle. When you’re in that spotlight and gain all these followers, once it passes it drops quick. Even when you’re gaining all these followers, do they necessarily translate into people buying your music? With the release of the new video accompanying Sonic Healing, I had 9000 views in one week, but not 1 million views, so I think The Voice is like a machine. Quite a few people get an opportunity to appear on that show and they all can’t become rich famous stars.”
Given that his latest project Sonic Healing was inspired by classic rock artists who lit the creative spark within Todd at a young age, coupled with the fact the entire album was written and recorded during this long winter of isolation, discontent and separation, with musicians being isolated from their audience and one another, people from all walks of life have been reflecting back upon experiences from the past that took them to where we are today. What was it about those classic rock bands of his youth that touched Todd and made him want to dig into this latest project?
“I love music and growing up there were different albums that became a soundtrack to my life and touched me so much that it inspired me to create my own,” states Todd. “I’d like to feel I create music that does similar things to people and I think that’s ultimately the goal - to touch people with music. I get messages from people telling me how my music impacted their lives and that’s what’s special for me, not the dollars but the impact you have on people. Some people are fortunate to blow up and become huge, but then they have to keep that going and live with that pressure.”
“Back in the 1970s and early ‘80s if you look at my first band Harlet, we were a heavy metal band,” continues Todd. “Those formative years have caused me to still be influenced by Heavy Metal. People think of me and my blind audition on The Voice doing Jude Box Hero by Foreigner, but that was more old school rock than it was hair metal, so that’s what I was shooting for. I didn’t want to do a heavy metal album.”
“It wasn’t just the bands or the artists but more the time and place,” he reflects. “It got me thinking back to times when Rock was on the radio and bands came to venues and everybody was excited to go to shows and tickets were so cheap. Everybody wanted to go the party back stage and knew the names of every band member. There was energy and excitement to the music. I remember going to high school dances and hearing Led Zeppelin and dancing with some girl and all these memories associated with this music - so much energy and positive vibes and not a lot negativity. At this point in my life I totally get the tortured artists out there and the need for solemn and reflective material; and am not saying never go there; but at this point I just want to be fun and upbeat and that’s what I was going for on Sonic Healing.”
“I remember silly stuff like how the stereo in my parents’ home on Woodbridge in Saginaw was basically a huge piece of furniture with built in speakers and how my brother and I would listen to Queen or Styx on it; or how my brother would be jamming Ted Nugent. That era and feeling was what I was shooting for in terms of inspiration for the album.”
Given that entire experience performing with Harlet as a teenager what did Todd take away from that stretch of time that he feels was fundamental and early ingrained into his DNA?
“It’s hard to say,” he confesses. “Part of it feels so long ago When I started with Harlet I was 17 and my brother Jon was 21 years-old. We were just kids, really. So what I associate with it is that true passionate love for music and how we were going to conquer the world with our songs and dreaming the whole 9 yards. Now I come from a totally different spot with 30-years of life experience. Harlet brings forth that notion of primal passion and love for the music that started it all. It’s funny, because sometimes I say to myself, ‘I’m gonna be 51 this year but I still have a passion for music, so at what point am I supposed to not do this anymore?”
When asked about his collaboration with Kurdt Vanderhoof writing & recording the material for Sonic Highway, Todd notes that this was the first time the two worked together and it was an equally fertile and enjoyable experience. “I met him in person back in 2015 when my band Riot played in Switzerland and opened for his band, although I had known about him for many years. My older brother Rick was always a big Metal Church fan and I’d heard a lot of their music over the years. They even had a song called Watch the Children Pray that was in rotation on MTV.”
“While I was on The Voice and the Foreigner song was doing so well I contacted Joe O’Brien from Rat Pack Records about doing a solo album and said I wanted to do a rock album, especially after being on The Voice and seeing how people liked this old school rock stuff. I’d written 27 songs but the thing is, I write on acoustic guitar and don’t think I can write hard rock that well - my material is more singer/songwriter stuff.”
“So I asked Joe if he could hook me up with someone to transform my original songs into hard rock songs and he suggested I work with Kurdt because he loved old school rock as well,” continues Todd. “We met and are both Christians and had this strong connection. I loaded all the demos up for him while he was finishing something up in Seattle; and then he called and said, “You have some great stuff, but let me just start by writing some new songs and see what we come up with.”
“About a week later Kurdt sent me music he came up with for five or six of my songs and they sounded pretty nice. He was on a roll. Every day I received another song and we went back and forth together and over 21 days he wrote musical arrangements for 18 songs. It was one of the most amazing experiences. Over a week I had written vocals for six of them and because of the lockdowns I had this total focus on music and the magic of the songwriting was totally there.”
In terms of the rollout for Sonic Highway it’s slated to be released on May 7th and available digitally on all the major streaming sites along with Vinyl, CD and even cassette options. “While Rat Pak is not the biggest label in the world they are a niche label that focuses on people who still like physical product,” notes Todd.
Although no touring plans are set yet, Todd says he would definitely like to take the musicians that worked with him on Sonic Highway out on the road to tour behind the release. “I’ve been approached by The Temple Theatre, but for me realistically with Kurdt and most of the musicians from Southern California, we need to see if there’s some following to justify the expense of a tour. Both Kurdt and I are excited to play this music live because it’s the kind of music designed for live performance, but to feasibly tour we need to be able to draw some people, so we’ll see how things transpire and what we can do.”
“I would also like to thank all the people that have been so supportive, not only from my appearance on The Voice, but also with condolences from the recent passing of my brother Jon. He was kind of a quiet guy and it was amazing to hear people tell me so many great stories about him. I love Saginaw and appreciate all the support and want to thank people for that.”
To watch the first video/single release from Sonic Highway, you can click this link:
If you want to learn more about the creation of the album, here’s the link to a cool introduction video:
Lastly, if you want to pre-order the album, you can find a few different options at this link: