When Rob Halford, one of the world’s most notable voices in heavy metal says, “You and I may be seeing Wickedtogether,” you might be just a little bit confused and a little bit star struck. I had the privilege of speaking to the Judas Priest front man the day before my birthday, and he asked me what I was planning to do to celebrate. Upon answering truthfully that I was going to see a play, we began our in depth discussion talking about our adoration of the theater and Broadway shows—specifically, Wicked. I just so happen to have seen The Wizard of Oz reimagined show on Broadway, as well as having read the books it’s based off of—just as Rob has; he was desperately trying to fit seeing the touring version of show into his schedule—prior to embarking on a tour himself.
If you couldn’t already tell, Rob Halford and I had a conversation that was bursting with energy, honesty, and creativity from start to finish—similar to that of his still-going-strong musical career with Judas Priest—50 years since they formed and changed hard rock music and the metal scene as the world knew it.
You have one of the most distinct voices in rock. When did you know you sing? Or, I should ask, when did you know that you had such a range and vocal ability?
Well, I didn’t really discover all the range and all of the possibilities that the voice has given me until I started kind of playing around in the beginning with the very early bands that I worked with. You’ve probably heard names like Hiroshima and Lord Lucifer and Athens Wood, and I think a lot of musicians, before they have the chance and the good luck and good fortune to become professional—no matter what you are, singer, drummer, guitar player—you all kind of find out what your abilities are in those early experiences. That is how it was for me, really, Debra. I’m probably talking about my late teens, before I went into the twenties. Those bands that I worked with weren’t metal bands, they were more like progressive/blues/rock bands, and so we did a lot of covers, but we also tried to write our own songs, as well. That is pretty much when I discovered the voice and what potential it had. Having said that, all of the wonderful producers that I’ve worked with since becoming a professional musician, including recently with Andy [Sneap] and Tom [Allom] and Mike [Exeter]… great producers will find things about you that are in you that you don’t even know exist. That’s why even the acts that have been around for the longest time need a unique producer, because a producer will get things from you that you won’t be able to find for yourself. That’s basically it. It’s a never ending journey, to be honest.
Oh, absolutely. Now, speaking of the bands that you were in before Judas Priest, did you take anything from those bluesy, progressive groups and those experiences and implement them into your career as a metal and heavy rock musician?
Absolutely! When I was a kid we had the old black and white TV in the house we would sit around as a family—there really wasn’t much going on the TV at the same, we only had one national television broadcasting company, which was the BBC and is still there, and there was one entertainment, commercial network called iTV on the British television, of whom are still there even though they morphed—but, generally, the weekends were known for kind of just sitting around the TV like families used to, and you would watch the TV. More often than not there would be an American movie on, and it could have been anything. Talking about Wicked, it could have been The Wizard of Oz or it could have been Meet Me in St. Louis. What I’m saying is that as a kid, you really soak things up when it comes to creativity and exploring… musicals and films and whatever it might be… all that visual stuff. My mum and dad were very much particular with their tastes, so I’m kind of quite grateful for them for my viewings, because I took it with me. I know I took it with me, because when you and I were just talking briefly about Broadway and show business in general, I was able to show that, yes, I love all of the great singers of the world of all genres; whether it’s Michael Bublé or Barbara Streisand or Michael Feinstein or John Cafferty or The Grass Roots or Barry Manilow, Elvis, Frank Sinatra. It’s all of it, you know? Whenever I talk with my friends about other singers, I always emphasize that it’s great to have a favorite rock or metal singer, but the human voice is a remarkable instrumental and you can do many, many things with it if you take off the blinkers and get out of the box and just listen to everything else that surrounds you.
Right, and being a singer doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to stick to the genre that you’re used to, or you like. You can mix rock with pop, folk, blues, and more to create your own sound.
Exactly, exactly, and this is the blessing of being in a band like Judas Priest, because, say, on this recent record, the guys took me on a journey with my voice; whether it was the intense performance of the “Firepower” track or the very emotionally demanding ballad at the very end of the record called “See it Red.” I loved to be in that world of different experiences, of different voices coming through, rather than one, full on, yelling and screaming performance…. Just to hear myself doing one kind of voice? I love to mix things up and to make it interesting for the band [and] for our fans.
On the topic of your latest record, Firepower, what was it like to go back in the studio and work with Tom Allom 20 years later?
Oh, it’s beautiful! You know, Tom knows everything about Judas Priest. He’s an expert. We see Tom pretty much every time we go out into the world and the idea about Tom coming back as a producer was born out of the idea that we had to kind of focus on all of these certain elements of Priest that Tom was involved with, so putting Tom with Andy, who is from a different kind of generation of producer, it was just remarkable to watch them do what they do sitting side by side. Tom knows everything. He knows everything about my voice, he knows everything about Glenn [Tipton]’s guitar tone, [everything about] Ian [Hill]… just in general. Working with Tom is a gold mine, it’s like a treasure. You mix those opportunities up and you get something special like we saw with the production of Firepower.
That’s fantastic. I think the creative juices really flowed fiercely between the producers and the band, which I personally think paid off.
Thank you, thank you! You know, we feed off of each other in this band. If I watch Scott [Travis] going crazy on the drums and doing these amazing drum patterns and seeing his efforts and determination, then I’m going to bounce off that. I mean, that is what is important about having the love and respect of your fellow players. We all have a job to do, but the best of that job comes out of the teamwork effort and being there for each other and encouraging each other. Much like every Priest album, the end experience is born out of a lot of important team dynamics more than anything else.
That’s a stellar outlook on being in a band and making music, especially over so many years. On the topic of older music of yours, do you ever go back and listen to some of your deep cuts? With a discography as unique and immersive as yours, I can imagine that there are songs that even you rediscover once in a while.
We’ve been doing that a lot recently, Debra, because we are trying to dust off the mantle of songs that we haven’t played in a while. There are so many tracks, but we’re mentioning certain tracks like “All Guns Blazing” and “Out in the Cold.” There are all of these incredible Judas Priest songs that you tend to forget, you know? You’re always out there showing of your latest creation, as we are with Firepower, and then you have to include the songs that your fans are ravenous to hear and are absolutely entitled to hear. So, once you start putting all that together, a bulk of the show has already made itself on the set list, but by the same style, there are always 45 minutes that you can utilize for some new adventures. That is what we’ve been doing recently, so, yeah I listened to Rocka Rolla, our first album, recently and I would love to do the title track live. I’m not sure why I feel that way, but there is just something very special about the Rocka Rolla title track that still resonates with me, and I would love to hear Priest play that track now, how many decades later. There are so many things to listen to and try out that I’m sure we’ll be able to bring to life by the time we come to your parts of the world.
I hope so! If you, yourself, find some of these songs so special even now, then I can only imagine how special it would be for fans to hear.
Yeah, because, first off when you make your first hit record, you think “That’s it. I made it.” [Laughs.] And, “Everything’s going to be great now!” Well, wrong! That’s wrong because that is when the pressure starts. You’re suddenly under limitations that you didn’t have before and so many things get out under the microscope that may have never been under the microscope before. So those songs, those very early Priest songs—some of which didn’t even make it to the first record—for lots of different reasons, you listen to them now and play them to perfection just because they mean so much to you in many different ways. I think listening to the first album shows that Priest was going to be a band that was going to take us all on this great journey together in heavy metal. It’s a good album, still, especially for a first.
Absolutely! Like you said, you’ve done a lot since then, too, but you’re still doing it in the ways that you want to, which I think is important.
That’s a difficult thing to work in, too, because when you do get success and when you do start to see things come back at you, there is a tendency to lose the focus of what you’re trying to be about. What I mean by that is that if you have a very, very successful selling record, there is an intonation that we need to make another one of those. That has never been the case with Judas Priest and our label, Sony, and even all going back to Columbia and Epic, CBS… our labels have been wonderful in giving us free range. They’ve always had a lot of faith in Priest and still do. They know that we are going to deliver the goods and every one of our records have kind of stood on their own legs and shown its own character, so it’s a good thing.
Of course, you’ve been known as the Metal God for decades now, but you’ve also been a hero to thousands of people with all different backgrounds and all walks of life. Your impact on the metal community, the LGBTQ+ community, and the music industry itself is immense. Do you feel—or have you felt any sort of pressure— over the years when it comes to being such a high caliber and influential person?
Oh, thank you! I don’t think that about myself, but those were very kind, generous words and I appreciate that greatly. Thank you, Debra. Here’s the deal, though: these things come along from your own making, but I don’t think you’re aware of them right away. When you start to see the accolades in the press and the praise from your fans and this award and that award, it makes you feel good, you know? It makes you more concerning to do better, to be better. That’s the thing with us in Priest, I don’t know if it’s with our British, working-class background or whatever, but, again, you have to be able to know how to deal with that change and those feelings. You know, the world is a different place than when I grew up. The music is still the same, but the world is a different place in terms of communication. I have a fairly decent social media presence and I see what the fans say, whether it be on my Instagram or my Facebook or Priest’s own Instagram and Facebook. I read what the fans say. I am aware of how they feel. How you digest that can be kind of tricky. You have to have a thick skin in some cases and in some cases, you kind of utilize the information that you’re getting back from them and put it to good use; which goes back to how you take it and how you use it to make you a better musician and a better person for yourself and your fans.
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