A row of awards, including two Grammys, lines the mantel above the fireplace in the Nashville-area home of Lzzy Hale and Joe Hottinger. But what the Halestorm vocalist and lead guitarist really want you to take note of are a pair of crystal knickknacks on a nearby table, etched with the initials RJD.
“These were Ronnie James Dio’s bookends,” says Hottinger excitedly. “I bought them at a silent auction.”
The Dio mementos are just a fraction of the rock memorabilia scattered around the house. A framed black-and-white photo of Joan Jett greets you when you enter. A signed tambourine from Stevie Nicks rests by the fireplace. And Hale’s white baby-grand piano is in a corner of the room, with her Gibson Explorer (she has a signature line) hanging on an adjacent wall. Midway through a nickel tour, Hale reaches for the mantel and pulls down an old trophy the band won at a county fair in her home state of Pennsylvania. “This was the first time we played as Halestorm,” she says proudly.
Skip ahead to now and the hard rock group — 15 years together with the lineup of Hale, Hottinger, bassist Josh Smith and drummer Arejay Hale, Lzzy’s younger brother — are four albums into a major-label career on Atlantic. They released their most recent LP, Vicious, last week.
The follow-up to 2015’s keys-heavy Into the Wild Life, it’s the band’s heaviest and most personal record yet, with songs that allude to Hale’s battle with self-doubt; a fractured, fucked-up U.S.; and, more directly, sex.
“I like to come from a position of power with sex,” says Hale, 34, dressed all in black in jeans, a T-shirt and studded leather boots. She’s seated in a chair in the basement studio she and Hottinger, 36, have been building out for the past year, including a vocal booth insulated in red noise-dampening eggshell. About 20 guitars line the black walls, which are accented with prints advertising past Halestorm gigs and the framed envelope announcing their song “Love Bites (So Do I)” as the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance at the 2013 Grammys.
Hale likes to write about love, but especially lust. Which she does in earnest on “Do Not Disturb,” a steamy, rhythmic highlight of Vicious that Hale — who has spoken openly about being bisexual — wrote after a threesome in a Holland hotel.
“I think that we should make out … There’s a pretty safe bet you’ll never see me again,” she sings in the first verse, before leaving nothing to the imagination. “I love your accent/I wonder what it’ll sound like when you come.”
“I had a lot of fun in a foreign land about a year or so ago and it was awesome,” she says. “Sex is part of who I am, and this is one of those things where if I’m going to own it, I’m going to own it.”
“We have plenty of sex songs in the catalogue, but this one is in your face,” says Hottinger, who in his bare feet and Apple Watch, and with bass-fishing magazines stacked nearby, looks like the guitar-hero-next-door. “I can’t wait to see the reactions.”
With her anything-goes attitude and Hottinger by her side — the pair maintain a mainly under-the-radar personal relationship — Hale is bringing female sexual empowerment to hard rock. And it’s resonating with Halestorm’s wildly diverse crowds. Their most recent tour, with In This Moment and New Year’s Day, featured all groups fronted by women and a predominantly female audience.
“We were told by the third show that there were more females buying tickets than males, which in hard rock, we have never seen before,” says Hottinger. “What blew me away was these girls totally embracing these hard rock moments. Traditionally, you think heavy music and testosterone. That has nothing to do with it.”
“For the first time ever, we saw this heavy music being completely genderless,” says Hale. “And such diversity in the crowd. Not just female, but a lot of gay pride going on. It comes with that ownership of who you are. If you’re in a crowd of people who are very likeminded, we’re hosts to the party. They come and sing along, and some of them you talk to online and they’re having a hard time, so it’s not just about them buying a ticket. They need to be there.”
“In terms of representing women in rock, I don’t think there is anyone stronger than Lzzy. She can send a knockout punch better than most guys,” says Tom Kiefer, who re-recorded his band Cinderella’s Eighties hit “Nobody’s Fool” with Hale for a deluxe version of his 2013 solo album, The Way Life Goes. “But I try not to look at musicians in terms of gender. Lzzy is an amazing artist and I think that energy is much needed in rock & roll, be it male or female. To me, greatness is what always resonates.”
A superfan of Keifer’s, Hale knows what it’s like to engage with one’s heroes, and she interacts regularly with fans on social media, sharing remarkably personal details. It was on Twitter, in fact, where she revealed her sexual orientation in 2014.
“There’s a lot of truth to this record. I found a new comfort level with myself.” – Lzzy Hale
“That wasn’t this big ‘I’m going to announce to everybody!’ moment. I was having a conversation with someone … and ‘Oh, wow, I don’t think I ever told anybody that before.’ It’s kind of interesting to have that relationship with fans,” says Hale, who drew upon her online candor for the songs on Vicious. “There’s a lot of truth to this record. I found a new comfort level with myself.”
But first Halestorm hit a wall. With Hale fearing she was repeating herself, the band scrapped nearly an entire album’s worth of songs. Hale wondered if she was too focused on pleasing her label, management, even the fans. “There’s this misconception that as you have all this success, it gets easier. For me, it got harder. I started paying way too much attention to making everybody happy.”
Regrouping with producer Nick Raskulinecz, who oversaw the band’s Reanimate 3.0 covers EP, Halestorm jammed live in a Franklin, Tennessee, studio, rediscovering their heavy side while writing new songs. Album opener “Black Vultures,” with Hale screaming “black vultures circling the sky,” is appropriately apocalyptic. “Killing Ourselves to Live” is a defiant midtempo anthem about surviving the daily grind. And thrashing lead single “Uncomfortable” features Hale spitting out lyrics in rapid-fire succession:
I do it cuz you fight it and I know you don’t like it when I open up and talk about sex
I do it cuz you hate me, and I do it for the ladies
And with all of my good time friends
I do it cuz the whole damn world’s gone crazy
And fuck it, man, this is the end
While Halestorm are far from a political band, it’s easy to pick up on Hale and Hottinger’s doom-and-gloom diagnosis of the state of the country. In the marching “Skulls,” they write about the tendency to “blame the other side” and “make up another lie.”
“We don’t dip our toe into religion or politics because you can’t win,” Hale says. “But these things do creep in, especially the state of the world right now.”
It’s a tricky line to walk for a band working in a genre with a traditionally conservative-leaning audience. Even Hale’s benign social-media posts, like a photo of her piano with a John Lennon lyric, have received unexpected blowback.
“People got infected with outrage,” says Hottinger. “We found these cool original John and Yoko postcards that read ‘War Is Over If You Want It’ and we bought them. Lzzy’s got one on her piano and some guy was so mad that she was making a statement.”
“There was another time where I posted a pair of pictures of me in my high heels onstage, my hooker boots,” Hale recalls. “Someone said, ‘I can’t believe you’re talking about sex, and if you ever have kids, they’re going to see this picture!’ I’m like, it’s a pair of shoes.”
But Hale’s short skirts and “hooker boots” are just another manifestation of how, with her inherent musical talent, she’s commanding her sexuality. “I grew up in a household that never talked about limitations,” she says. “There was no ‘Oh, you’re a girl, you can’t do this.'”
At a Halestorm homecoming show in Nashville in May, Hale made that clear, as she and Hottinger strutted the stage like a coed version of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. And the mixed all-ages crowd — for every metalhead dude, there seemed to be two women — were caught up in the rock spectacle, proving Hale’s point that heavy music knows no gender.
“If you can go onstage every night and bring something to the table, it’s cool,” says Hale. “But if you’re building your empire on the looks of it all, those things go away.”