What Makes a Great Singer? Judas Priest's Rob Halford Weighs in | Revolver

What Makes a Great Singer? Judas Priest's Rob Halford Weighs in

An exclusive excerpt from Metal God's new book 'Biblical'
rob Halford judas priest SHINN, Travis Shinn; grooming by Morgan Teresa
photograph by Travis Shinn; grooming by Morgan Teresa

Judas Priest icon Rob Halford just released his new book, Biblical: Rob Halford's Heavy Metal Scriptures, the follow-up to 2020's Confess: The Autobiography. In this exclusive excerpt, he talks about his job: singing.

There is only one job that is of Biblical importance to me. A job that I love so much that it defines me, a job that is my very essence. It's being the singer in a heavy metal band.

Ever since I got clapped for "The Skye Boat Song," I've lived for singing. It is a soulful, spiritual experience for me. Always has been, always will be. The human voice is an amazing instrument. There's simply nothing else like it.

When you strip it right down, singing is such a brilliant feeling. Such a wonderful way to express yourself. That goes for whether you're onstage belting it out to thousands, like me, or some bloke singing out-of-tune down the pub on a Saturday night. I think both are equally valid.

What makes a great singer? First of all, and this may sound funny, your heart has to be in the right place. You have to mean it, and it has to be pure expression, or it just won't sound right. You must find the unique identity and character of your own voice.

When you've found those characteristics, you experiment like mad and come to understand how much you can do with your voice. How far you can take it. You're always learning as a singer, and the process, and the journey, are never over.

Having said all that, you generally start out copying other people. Trying to emulate them. I certainly did. When I was a kid, I listened to all sort of amazing vocalists—and I started at a very early age.

When I was about ten, my dad's sister, my Aunty Pat, gave me her old, red-and-cream Dansette record player as a present. I lifted the lid to find three singles inside it: "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley, "Good Golly, Miss Molly" by Little Richard, and "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis.

Of the three, it was Little Richard that really got to me. I'd never heard such musical expressiveness before. He was belting it out, not holding anything back, and totally baring his soul. I still remember thinking, Oh, my God! This guy's singing from the heart!

As I got into my teens, and more into music, I grew heavily into people like Robert Plant, Janis Joplin, and Ian Gillan. I think it is fair to say that that one common factor unites all of the vocalists that I love. It's a technical term: they like to give it a bit of welly.

I was attracted to Plant because of the extreme places that he goes to with his voice. The way he sings is so unleashed, and primitive, and primordial, and exciting. Hearing Robert Plant gave me the push to see just what my own voice could do.

Plant's female equivalent was Janis Joplin. I loved how she went onstage and just let it rip. There was so much angst, but it wasn't in the words she was singing, good as they were. No, it lay in her incredible wailing and screaming.

It was the same with Ian Gillan. I loved his high-registered stuff, but it was all about the texture and the intensity of his performance. There is something about a singer going all out in the way Gillan does that shows you they love what they do. That makes you love it, too.

I loved all sorts of voices: Sinatra, Elvis, Shirley Bassey. I went through a teenage phase of listening to soul singers like Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Sam & Dave. But the ones that get me, every time, are the ones that get into the upper reaches and go for it. Singers that give it a bit of welly.

The thing about metal singers is that you're always competing with that big, unholy noise all around you. Put simply, you have to be as loud as the band or nobody will hear you. I had no idea if my voice could do that when I first started out. Well, I know now that I can!

I've never had a singing lesson in my life. Maybe I should, because I occasionally hear horror stories about people needing operations on their throat because they're singing with the wrong technique. They're constricting their vocal cords and it ends up giving them nodules.

I've been lucky. I've never had anything like that and, touch wood, I hope I never will. I'm totally self-taught as a vocalist and I think that the vast majority of metal singers are the same. Is that a good thing or a bad one? I haven't got a bloody clue!

Sometimes, I'm not even sure if I'm singing from my stomach or my throat or my mouth. It varies. "Painkiller" comes from my throat and my chest. The ballads seem to come from the stomach. I never analyze the physical process. It just seems to happen naturally.

When I look at our set list before Priest go onstage, I know that once one song is finished and I go into the next one, I will need to do an entirely different style of vocal performance. I am mentally prepared and I'm running on instinct. As the sportsmen say, I'm in the zone.

I never analyze my voice, but there are plenty of people who do. If you venture onto the internet and type in "Rob Halford vocal coach," you'll find a whole load of singing experts who've taken it upon themselves to dissect my technique.

They're mostly classically trained singers and they sit with a cam- era trained on them as they listen to, and react to, my voice. Some of them are hilarious. "How does he do that?" they'll ask, eyebrows raised, as I scream my way through "Painkiller." "That's not humanly possible!"

These experts will go into the specifics of my phrasing and timing and explain how I hit the notes: "How does he get from here to there?" I've never met them, but they dissect my voice with forensic precision. Thankfully, they're usually complimentary.

A typical example is a young lady called Rebecca Ray, who analyzes singers on her Rebecca Vocal Athlete YouTube channel. She gives my vocals on Priest's version of Joan Baez's "Diamonds and Rust" a good theoretical seeing to.

"I love the vibrato to his voice—very theatrical," she says. "His diction is absolutely fantastic and his tonality is so clear and crisp. He's so in control, like a puppeteer with the musicians and audience. They don't even know it.

"He has got impeccable breath technique! I love the way he works with dynamics and he has this great range to work with. He's not over-doing it. You're not sure where he's going to go with his voice—he's such a confident performer ..."

It's a funny thing, though. These vocal coaches gush and praise me to the skies on YouTube... and I bloody hate it! I can't even watch them. It's too close to home. They make me too self-conscious.

As the saying goes: It's not them, it's me. I have been lucky enough to get many compliments for my voice over the years, and yet I never know how to receive them. They make me feel uncomfortable. I don't know how to react.

Just the other day, I read that James Hetfield from Metallica put me at number three in his all-time list of metal singers. It means a lot to me, coming from James, and it's lovely to know—but, as well as making me proud, stuff like that also makes me feel awkward.

I've never been good at taking praise. That reticence is definitely rooted in my downbeat Black Country nature. If someone praises my singing, or anything else about me, my natural reaction is to reply, "OK, cheers, mate!" and quickly change the subject.

People sometimes come up to me, usually in America, and say, "Oh my God, I love your voice! You are the best singer ever!" Or, in extreme cases, "Rob, your voice saved my life!" And, well, what am I supposed to say to that? Where can the conversation go?

That kind of comment has always made me feel so uncomfortable... but I've got a little better at dealing with it. A little. For years, I used to just feel embarrassed. I wanted to give them a punch on the arm, blush, and say, "Oh, shurrup!"

Now, I've realized that a compliment is a beautiful thing. That person has reached out to me and, as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict myself, I understand the healing power of music. It can get you through so many difficulties and challenges in life.

Maybe they might have been suicidal then heard a Priest song that made them feel better? Maybe they were down in the dumps, went to one of our shows, and got enthused? So, now, I try to accept praise in the spirit that it is given. I'm older and wiser and it's become easier.

And yet, for me, the ultimate irony of people praising my singing to the skies is that—I have said this a million times, but I'm still not entirely sure whether anybody believes me—I hate the sound of my own voice.

I always have. When I hear my singing back, no matter what my performance has been like, I feel vulnerable. I have put so much into it that I feel as if I'm naked. There's always a question going around my head: Should I really be doing this?

When Priest make an album like Firepower, I work like crazy on my vocals in the studio. But then, when I play the album back, I don't listen to me. I focus on what Richie is doing on guitar, or how Ian is playing bass. That is what grabs my attention.

I'm not particularly unusual in that. I think a lot of people in the creative world are the same. I saw a fantastic interview with the actress Maggie Smith, who was brilliant in Downton Abbey. She got asked if she watches her films, and said, "Good God, no! Why would I want to do that?! Why would I want to watch myself work? It's finished!" And that is kind of how I feel. Do it, and move on.

In any case, I still sometimes wonder if, at heart, I am just a frustrated opera singer. I worshipped Pavarotti. I can sing along with him on "Nessun Dorma" and roll the notes around my head, but when he hits that top C—my God, it's monumental! It blows me away, every time.

I can't conceive that a human voice is able to do what Pavarotti did. It is just so glorious. And that's what I think every time I see vocal coaches lavishing praise on me on YouTube: Yeah, yeah, but I'm shit compared to Pavarotti!

I'm grateful for my voice, but I'm never going to wax lyrical about it. The other day, I got out of bed and checked my social media. Someone had posted "Lightning Strike" and "Spectre" from Firepower. I listened to my voice on them for about a minute and thought, Oh, that's not too bad.

Don't get me wrong—being a metal singer is the best job going. It has brought me success, fame, riches, and joy and I wouldn't change it for anything. But if you want my honest verdict on how well I do it, here it is:

I'm not bad. But I'm no Pavarotti.

Excerpted from Biblical: Rob Halford's Heavy Metal Scriptures by Rob Halford. Copyright © 2022. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.