Interview by Ed MacLaren
Harkening back to the heavy metal heyday of the 1980s, Kentucky’s Hydrogyn are keeping the sound alive with its raunchy guitar crunch combined with the powerhouse vocals of singer Julie Westlake. On their latest release, “Judgement”, Hydrogyn keep one foot in the past while looking directly into the future, putting a modern spin on a classic metal sound. Julie took some time to talk to Femme Metal about image, the lasting influence of hard rock and how sometimes one good guitarist is all you need.
It’s clear from the opening riff of “Lost Reality” that Hydrogyn brought the metal on “Judgement”. The guitars are beefier and the overall tone of the album is heavier. You guys really mean business!
Yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t anything we did as a plan – it’s just the way it happened. Jeff Westlake has always liked the real heavy guitars but I don’t think until this recording we had the drummer he felt he needed to back that guitar tone up. He really likes Joe Migz’s drumming and he said it really helped to bring out the heavy playing to its full capacity this time around. I like the heavy stuff as well so for us this was a great blend of melody and heaviness so to speak.
Hydrogyn plays blues-based hard rock but you’re getting progressively heavier with each release. Even with the increasingly “metallic” influence, you’ve never compromised your hard rock core. Did you have a clear idea of where you wanted to take the music when you hit the studio?
No, not really Ed. We go into the studio with a theme in mind for every CD – we almost always have the CD title in mind before Jeff and the guys start putting the music together. We don’t do anything that is pre-meditated so to speak for the songs. Nothing like, this one’s going to be heavy or this one’s going be this or that. Jeff has many different sides to him as a writer, as do I, but we just have this certain thing we do as Hydrogyn and we let it take its course without planning in advance.
Are you still working towards finding the perfect Hydrogyn sound?
No, not really. I think we have established, as you stated earlier, our base sound. Outside of that, however, we are always looking to push the boundaries in different directions. One thing I’m proud of is the fact that we have not made CDs that sound like each other. Each release has progressed from the previous ones and has its own character and that’s very, very important to the band to be able to accomplish that on every recording. That’s something we do consciously in the process. Someone will say, that kind of sounds like such and such, a part from such and such a song and then we go…well that’s gone… on to the new part. *laughs*
You and guitarist Jeff Westlake are the nucleus of Hydrogyn (sorry, bad pun!). How would you describe your relationship? How has it evolved over the years?
Besides the fact we tend to fight like cats and dogs during the writing and recording process, we do pretty good together… *laughs*. We both are pretty intense at times and sometimes butt heads a bit. But for the most part, we’ve done well together over the years and have become a stronger team during the writing process and work really well together.
There aren’t many bands making the kind of music you’re creating right now. They’re either going in a more pop rock direction or towards a more extreme metal sound. There seem to be very few straight-ahead hard rock bands out there. Why do you think that is? What is the attraction of that style of music for you?
It’s just what we do. If you look at all the fans that go to the festivals and how people like Dio, Heaven and Hell, Maiden, Whitesnake – the list could go on – and continue to pack places, there’s a big call for it. I’m not interested in extreme metal and I’m not interested in pop music per se. I’m interested in good songs and something I can relate to. If something extreme would come up in the process, that’s fine if we can make it a great piece and the same goes for pop-oriented rock as well. If it works then it does but as for the screaming from beginning to end I can’t give that more than five seconds but I do think if you mix that extreme stuff in properly to what you do – like we do – it can work. Now this is strictly my opinion but I see those crowds of people packing places for that type of music – melodic heavy rock – and as we have seen with Ronnie James Dio’s passing, someone is going to have to fill that void once these guys are no longer with us and I would love to fly that flag. I’m not saying we’re like them – we have our own sound and that’s a fact – but we are a heavy band and if you strip the vocals away the band is killing it. The added vocals make it melodic, and that I love, as do the guys.
It’s amazing to listen to your vocals on “Judgement”. There are few singers that can command a vocal like you do. There’s real attitude in your voice –a power and vocal control that permeates tracks like “Self Destruct” and “Medicate”. But at the same time, you can give a track like “Gold Dust Woman” an emotional root that’s essential to the believability of the song. Have your vocals always been so confident? What has changed in your voice since the early days of Hydrogyn?
Thank you, Ed, for those comments. It hasn’t always been that way. The voice has always been there but it wasn’t until I met Jeff Westlake and Jeff Boggs that I really started taking singing in a big direction. I always wanted to sing professionally but hadn’t done so until those two pulled me into Hydrogyn. We’ve done a ton of music together over the past eight years but Hydrogyn is what did it.
I spent all of 2003 building my voice up in strength because Westlake said it had to be done. When we started doing that, I sang in a tuning that was much lower than the standard we work in now. Over 2003, I built that power and strength but I don’t think it really took hold until we went in to do “Bombshell” with Michael Wagener. My voice has gotten much stronger since then and now I feel like I can hang with anyone but it did take some time. Also, singing rock, you either do it or you don’t and there’s no hiding behind anything so it was sink or swim and sinking was not a choice. *Laughs*
Vocally, today’s women in metal and hard rock have arguably developed into two main camps: the corset-wearing soprano singers and the unbridled screamers. Your voice doesn’t fit into either group. It has power and an excellent clear tone – a distinctly American style – in company with vocalists like Pat Benatar and Anne Wilson. Do you ever see a resurgence of your “classic rock” vocal style?
I don’t know. Has it ever really gone away? I like Anne and Pat but I look more to Ronnie or Rob Halford for what I do. I’ve always heard that I don’t have the typical “girl” voice which is very cool to hear. I can also do a lot of different things but my voice is my voice. I didn’t try to be that way or model myself after anyone in particular. I released a solo CD in February of a bunch of stuff from country to rock to gospel just to show the different things I like and do but I love to rock. I am not much on the operatic stuff that is out there and I’m not about any pitch correctors on my voice either. I am just blessed with a clear powerful voice and I love it.
You perform and belt out your vocals like a true rocker. You would never think that your background is in country music. How does a country princess end up a metal queen?
*Laughs* Well, again, blame Westlake and Boggs. I’d stumbled onto Westlake in a studio in Ashland, Kentucky to do a demo and he was the engineer in there at the time. So I did the singing and he and I started working together on writing material but I was still in country. One day he and Boggs approached me and said we have a gig in 14 days and no singer –think you can try to do it? I said yes so they made me a CD of 40 cover songs ranging from AC/DC to Dio, Whitesnake, Priest, Heart and on. I was like, wow I don’t know. So what I did is learn the melody of the songs and then taped 40 songs worth of lyrics to the stage and did the show. It went over so well that I decided to keep going with it and here we are today. I love to sing anything but I love to rock the most.
With all the success of “Judgement”, in other ways it was a difficult year for you and Hydrogyn. You gained and lost a potential guitar match made in heaven with ex-Megadeth guitarist Jeff Young. It looks like the dust has finally settled from that failed collaboration. What have you learned from the experience?
That having one guitarist is plenty good enough *laughs*. You never know how things are going to work until you try it, and some may refer to it as a match made in heaven and others or myself may say hell. *laughs* Sorry. Needless to say, it just didn’t work for us, for me, for whoever. I’m just glad it’s over and we’re able to move forward with the release. Lesson learned. Why fix it if it’s not broken. We’ve been playing with one guitarist for a couple of years now and that’s how we’ll continue on for the duration.
Legendary producer Michael Wagener has been a great friend of the band since “Bombshell”. How has your relationship with him impacted the musical evolution of the band?
A lot of ways. Just his support has been enough but the biggest way is probably that Jeff Westlake has been mentored by him as an engineer and music producer since 2005. That has been the biggest impact of all I think. The last two releases, “Deadly Passions”, and the new one “Judgement”, have had three songs on each produced by Michael and the others by Jeff. Jeff has learned so much it’s amazing. Reviewers have said they can’t tell who did what because it all sounds so good and that’s huge for us and especially Jeff. Jeff is also building a new studio as well as he’s busy with other bands all the time so the relationship with Michael has been big on many, many levels but the bottom line is that we love the guy.
You managed to score Doug Pinnick of King’s X to perform on the track “Big Star”. How did he get involved in the “Judgement” project? You must have had some high expectations for the result. So how did he do?
Well, he did great! *Laughs* We’ve known him since 2006 as King’s X works with Michael as well so that’s how it came about. Jeff Westlake had mentioned it one day to Jeff Young and so Young contacted him and the rest is history. He’s unreal and soulful and a great player as well so he did the male vocal part and the bass line for the song. We love it.
You release regular albums with Hydrogyn and tour extensively. It doesn’t leave a lot of free time yet you still found time to record a solo album. Why did you decide to step outside your comfort zone with the band and do something on your own? Did you have a creative itch that couldn’t be scratched within the confines of the band?
Yeah, I do in a way. I’ve had so many comments made about the “country” background and friends and family asking me to do some stuff along those lines that I decided to do it. This solo CD is basically for them and I have another one on the way that will be more of what I want to do which again is different than Hydrogyn. Westlake and Boggs are working on a side project too called Ura-Kia and then Westlake has another one as well called Slave Train. These will all see release in 2011 and another Hydrogyn record as well. Now that’s a lot but it’s the way we love it. I really don’t have just one comfort zone. On the solo release, which is called If Ever a Day, I do country, rock, gospel and the title cut is a bit of a jazz/blues tune that I wrote so it’s a bit of everything. The next one will be more of a rocker.
You’re no stranger to singing cover songs – you’ve had at least one cover on each Hydrogyn album. As a cover expert then, what’s the attraction to putting a cover song on an album when you could be adding another original track?
You hear songs you like and you catch yourself singing them and then you go, “Wow I‘d like to do that!” So we do! On “Judgement”, we have fans asking for “Gold Dust Woman” as a lot of people have heard us doing that one in acoustic settings so we did it for the fans. “Assault Attack” from the Michael Schenker Group is done because I love the song and so do the guys, so we did it. We could always write another song to put on the CD but those cover tunes are for us and we enjoy them a lot.
What’s the criteria for selecting a good cover song? You’ve performed covers by everyone from AC/DC to Alanis Morissette to Fleetwood Mac!
Just loving the track. We did “Back in Black” in our live show when we met Michael and he said can we please record that and we said sure. I think the only cover song we have done that had some resistance to it is “18 And Life” because Westlake hates the song. Other than that, we have a vault of cover tunes recorded just waiting for their time, so to speak. Now “Assault Attack” was my idea but it took no time for the guys to jump and do it. That’s been one of Jeff‘s faves since it came out in 1982.
“Big Star” was part of your original “Best Served With Volume” demos from 2004. Why did it take so long to formally record?
We also recorded it for the “Bombshell” sessions and it made the live release of “Strip’em Blind Live” in 2007. We just love the song. Westlake wrote it in like 1999 and we said this song has never had an official release so we reworked it a bit and then got Doug involved and it just came out so good that it finally got the green light.
Do you have any other great tracks lurking in the Hydrogyn vaults that are waiting to see the light of day?
Yes. A ton actually and Jeff would kill me if I said what. We’ve been talking of releasing a cover CD so for now I have to keep mum.
Fashion alert! OK now, is that really the “Bombshell” outfit you’re wearing on the “Judgement” cover?
Yep, sure is. I thought that since the album title was “Judgement”, and that a lot of people have judged myself and the band since we started with the “Bombshell” album, that it only made sense to be viewed with the same outfit that started it all.
How much does your image play into your music?
I think this industry is a lot about image. So a big part of what we do with my image is about marketing. It really doesn’t have anything to do with the music; it’s just the role and persona I play on stage.
Look at any Hydrogyn album cover from “Bombshell” to “Judgement” and anyone can see that you play the role of the “rock vixen” to an extent. How much of that image is you merely expressing your own sexuality or a facet of your personality and how much is a product of women having to play that role in hard rock/metal music to be successful?
With the album covers, the pictures are supposed to represent the title of the album, not what or who Julie Westlake is. What I wear in the pictures on the covers is not always what I wear on stage. I don’t think it’s necessary that I have this particular image, it’s just the image I choose to represent each album.
Has your image had any negative impact on how seriously people respond to your music? Is there a stereotype you have to constantly fight against?
I wouldn’t say negative. Some people don’t like it but you’re not going to make everyone happy. I’m here to hopefully make people happy with our music, not with my clothes. If they don’t like the image, then they can close their eyes because the music is still good.
How do you see your image evolving as Hydrogyn becomes more and more established?
You never know. Again, a lot of it has to do with the album title and how it influences me. Of course, fashion is always changing, so you just never know what I will do next.
You’ve battled in the business and media trenches for many years now. Do you have any advice for young women aspiring to a career in music?
It’s really tough. You have to be willing to work long and hard for it. Don’t expect things to happen fast. It’s a long road and a lot of work and it’s important to create thick skin because people are always going to be tough on you no matter what.
When will you be hitting the road to tour behind “Judgement”? Is the focus going to be on the United States first and then head over to Europe?
Hopefully in the spring. We’re trying to focus more on the States this time around but also feel that Europe is such a strong area for us and we love our fans so much there. So, hopefully we will be able to hit both next year.
What can longtime fans expect to see in your new live show?
One thing you can always expect is a very energetic show. Our live show now consists of a variety of songs from all of our previous albums, as well as a few cover tunes along the way. And then, of course, we always take time after the show to spend time with our fans and we really enjoy meeting everyone.
(Famous) Last words?
I guess I would have to say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. In this case, an album. Let the content decide whether or not you’re a fan, rather than making assumptions based on an image of someone you’ve never met.