There is nothing stereotypical about vocal dynamo Militia Vox. She commands attention as soon as she enters the room. From her artistically wild afro hair down to her studded boots. A self-confessed metal head, there is also a hint of vulnerability about her fierce persona, particularly evident when she talks about her pet dog, Bella, a tiny Chihuahua. Known for her passionate vocal prowess, her eight-octave range never fails to impress on the big, or small stage.
The Judas Priestess lead vocalist’s talents doesn’t end there, she also releases solo material and is the principal singer/songwriter of progressive hard rock band Swear on Your Life.
iSing: Tell us a about where you are from originally.
Militia Vox: I am from this town called Columbia, Maryland. Kind of seemed like an interracial safe haven for interracial couples like in the 70s and 80s. And, it kind of still is, I think. It was very natural that like every other couple on my street was a mixed couple. When I left there and found out that’s not how the world is, it all really sucked. [Laugh]
iSing: What was the music scene like there?
ML: Nothing. [Laugh] It was nonexistent really. I was the only person playing music out of my friends and the people in my school. No one played music. And, the only one that felt passionate about it was me. It was really like being in a bubble. And, I just got into like being alone and doing it on my own terms and in my own way.
I have been a classically trained pianist since I was seven. I was playing solo concerts and I just excelled really quickly at it. I was playing at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and winning competitions and it got to like a certain point where I was pretty bored. It was no longer exciting and I thought, ‘How long am I going to play dead composer’s music?’ There was nowhere to go with it.
I was scared to death of singing even though I really wanted to do it. I hadn’t found my voice yet. You know, I was just kind of imitating what I heard on Broadway recordings and stuff like that. My dad gave me records as a kid so I was listening to the likes of Led Zeppelin and King Crimson, psychedelic 60s rock music, but it was mostly metal voices. I wasn’t thinking to emulate them that much but I would try. Really it started with the musicals because that what I would see on TV.
iSing: What was your voice like then?
MV: I really admired Janis Joplin, but I didn’t know how to sing like her yet. I hadn’t discovered blues yet I guess. So I started doing musicals and choir in high school, my voice was really lyric soprano sounding.
It took years of incubating what I wanted to sound like and what I was physically capable of. I really had to make a hard transition from doing lyric soprano work to being an alto voice. You wouldn’t believe the things that I did to get there! [Sheepish laugh] Like smoking. I started smoking to lower my voice and to sound raspier. I wanted that like aggressive raspy voice. And I didn’t have it. My voice sounded like sunshine.
iSing: Were you having any voice lessons at that point?
MV: No. But I was doing concert choir.
iSing: How did you then take the next step?
MV: Well bands and doing musical ways seemed a far off, distant, glamourous thing that like people in Hollywood did. It just seemed so far away from where I was. I didn’t know how to get there at all. My piano teacher was pretty disturbed that I was throwing away everything that I had worked for in the piano world. But, it was just too limiting for me.
So, when I got to high school and started doing musicals my drama teacher said, “Oh you may consider going to a theatre school.” And I said, “You can go to college for musical theatre?” Like, I had no idea.
‘I wanted that like aggressive raspy voice. And I didn’t have it. My voice sounded like sunshine.’
iSing: Where did you go to music school?
I ended up going to the Boston Conservatory, and it was great training, even though it was like a really tough program. I was definitely considered rebellious in nature. I got thrown out two weeks before graduation for being rebellious.
And, you know I kind of just did everything the opposite way. I didn’t really fit in to their rules. I just came across like a space alien and I was always on my own, a lone wolf.
But, when I was at school I met my boyfriend at the time. He was in a band and went to the Berkeley College of Music. I didn’t even know Berkeley existed, in hindsight I probably should have gone there instead of going to Boston Conservatory. But, he had a band and they were looking to get rid of their female singer. And he said, “Well why don’t you come and sing a part?”
I was like, “Me? Why would you bring me in? Like I don’t even know how to do like Rock n Roll?” And he was like, “Yeah you do”. I sang on a demo that they had and that was it. I was in a band. Like it just started that way.
It was pretty exciting because I was the only person in my school that was in a band. Now, I am sure there are plenty of students that are in bands, but back then no one did that. If you did musical theatre, you were only there to do musical theatre. And, if you did anything else it meant you weren’t serious.
But thank goodness they brought me in because I got so much release from it. You know, and I was able to do what I wanted on stage and play live shows in front of an audience and that band was doing really heavy industrial dance music kind of like, My Life at the Thrill Kill Kult type thing. And it was really chaotic and fun. Since then I’ve been hooked.
iSing: Were you thinking about the all-female band set up at this stage?
MV: I moved into a band called Vulgaris, It was a revolving door of members, and at one point it was all girls. And I was like, “Yeah. I always wanted to be in an all-girl band.” You know, I always thought girl bands were really exciting. I was listening to Hole and L7 and Bikini Kill and the Riot Girl Bands, Babes in Toyland, all that stuff in high school.
That was probably the moment in musical history where I really felt like I identified with what was on like mainstream radio. The Grunge era was really eye opening for me. As the 80s were so full of Unskinny Bop and like this whole like Cherry Pie, like L.A. Sleeze Rock thing; which was fun and I liked it, but I always felt like I was invited to the party.
But, when Grunge came out I felt like so relieved. I was like wow here is something I really understand. The whole alienation and the aggressiveness of it. I really took to it. Listening to all of that music was you know helped me decide what I wanted to do musically.
iSing: What kind of music were you attracted to and why?
MV: I knew I wanted to make aggressive music. So, when I did Vulgaris it was like a shock rock band. It was pretty brutal actually. It was like very grind, core heavy female vocals and the singer was a performance artist. I was playing bass and I was the screamy voice.
iSing: Do still scream?
Now I can do it and it doesn’t hurt me at all. I know how my machine works now. But, I listened to some of those old recordings and I just go, “Damn, I know that hurt,” [Laugh] But you kind of just have to do it or else you never learn how to do it. You can’t like half-ass a sound like that.
Not everyone can do it.
iSing: How did you get to work with Sandra Bernhard?
MV: I literally got sucked into the world of background singing because I never intended to do it; like it wasn’t even on my radar at all. I did a European tour of Jesus Christ Superstar for about a year and to this day it’s the longest tour I have ever done. They were going to renew my contract.
One of the guys that did the show with me was selling merch’ for Sandra Bernhard, the comedian. And he was like, “Oh you gotta meet Sandra, she’ll love you.” I am half-Jewish so he thought that was a big selling point to her; which it was. [Laugh]
Next thing you know I’m singing backing for her. And then like she is like, “Oh I like the way you do your makeup”. The next thing you know I’m her makeup artist too. I’m just like how did this happen that you get a two-for? But, Sandra is always the gal with an eye for a bargain.
iSing: How long did you work with Sandra for?
MV: Oh, it went on for a long time. Years. Let me think, that must have been 2002. I only recently stopped that. I stopped in like 2009-2010.
My tribute band Judas Priestess was taking off, and I was to starting to get identified at Sandra’s shows for my band. “Oh my like you are the singer of Judas Priestess.” And I’m singing Tell It to My Heart. So, I was kind of like I’m like is this a conflict of interest.
I was really unsatisfied for a long time I was just doing it because obviously the name attachment and you know when you are singing back up for a celebrity you live the life with them on the gigs. You are staying in the four-star hotels. You are going to the awesome parties. You are meeting all of these great people. And then you are befriending someone that is famous and really talented.
I was staging all these shows, and thinking why don’t I just do that, but for myself?
So, like finally when I worked up the cojones to do it, it just felt so good. I was like “wow a girl could get use to this. Do I ever want to look back? Probably not.
iSing: Did you put Judas Priestess together?
MV: I wish I put Judas Priestess together. [Laugh] I can’t take credit for it. I was brought in. But, I always admired Judas Priest and I remember I got British Steel when I was in college because I thought the cover was so cool with the razor blade and all.
Rob Halford [from Judas Priest] had these power vocals that were similar to mine. You know it was still kind of high, but really loud and powerful. I thought that singer is kind of a parallel to my voice. I really enjoyed studying how he made sound over heavy music.
One of my friends had told me that they were putting together an all-girl Judas Priest tribute band. I e-mailed them and they were pretty rattled that I had responded because of my resume. They were underground punk and metal musicians. And, I was coming in with these pretty like big mainstream credits and they were just like, “Oh we got to get ready for her”. So, they rehearsed for like months before they even brought me in.
When I came in it was jaw dropping how great they sounded. I knew when I walked into the room. You pretty much know when you walk into a room how it’s going to be and if you are going to gel with people.
But, we just celebrated our five-year anniversary on the 13th May and you know we are going strong. We are like kicking ass and taking names. So, it’s cool stuff.
Judas Priestess – Grinder (cover)
iSing: Are Judas Priest aware of you?
MV: Oh yeah. Oh they definitely know about us. We met Rob Halford when we first joined. We went to the set of That Metal Show on VH1 and he was there as a guest. He came out and he hugged us all. It was so amazing.
And during the break you know he was talking to us and he asked, “Well who is the singer?” And I’m like, “Hi”. I had been going to his autograph signings and fan stuff for years, so, he was like, “Oh I know you!”
So, yeah he was pretty stoked and really embraced us, gave us his blessing from the get-go. I send videos over to his people, I hope he watches them. He’s such a great vocalist. It’s just an honour to try to even come close to what he has created.
iSing: What do you think the skills, abilities and character traits of being a great metal singer are?
MV: Well, I know there are a lot metal singers that try to sound like other metal singers. And that’s definitely a trap. I don’t know how many singers I have seen that try to sound like Phil Anselmo. It is more important to foster your own sound and it takes a long time to do though I know it’s a lot easier to emulate someone else.
If you can find what makes your voice unique that is so important, – it’s infinitely more powerful as a metal singer. A seriously underrated voice in metal I would say is Julie Christmas. She was in a band called Made out of Babies and Battle of Mice.
You know if you are a great screamer that’s awesome because it is hard to do. But, if you can mix it up I feel like you can do more. Like Cory Taylor from Slipknot.
There is a band called Pallbearer that I really love that does Doom Metal. Brett the singer sings so clean and it’s majestic and gorgeous. Or, look at Ozzy Osbourne. Yeah, Ozzy is like one of my idols. I really love what he has done with the genre. I would say that Ozzy was able to take metal and make it popular.
I would say the most important thing is that you have to know yourself. You know it because my thing on stage depending on what the music dictates to me is how I perform. You know, so like I try to physicalize the music. So, if I am doing Priest a lot of it is very active. I use my body through the whole thing to accent the music.
I just always connected with that even when I didn’t know what I was doing. So, it’s important to be the music. You have to be the music. There are some singers that I see that like they are that channel and they don’t even have to move at all. You know, like Patty Smith has the channel. Her channel is like wide open. It’s not metal, but it’s an example of a singer that’s not even technically a great singer, but her channel is open, and she is the music. See, that’s what’s exciting. That’s what they don’t show on shows like The Voice or American Idol.
I feel to be a great singer it doesn’t even matter if you got notes or not. It matters if you can be the music and your channel is open and you connect with the audience. That’s what being a great voice is to me.
iSing: Are you ever concerned about vocal damage?
MV: No, the last time I went to the ENT they said that my cords were a little thicker in the middle. And that was it. So, I have never had any kind of nodes or anything like that or any paralysis of the cords or anything kind of stuff like that. And, it’s like pretty amazing, because I have definitely let it rip plenty of times.
iSing: What about the smoking and the drinking?
MV: Well, I quit smoking just because it was time. I hit 30 and I always said that I was going to quit by the time I was 30. It gets to a point where it’s just like not sexy anymore. [Laugh] And it does things to your skin and it does things to your breathing. Drinking. Can’t say that I quit that so much, [Laugh]. But, I know what I need to do. If I have got to sing I can’t have more than a drink the night before.
iSing: Tell us about your more recent solo work?
MV: Honestly, like recording now is probably the happiest time of my life to date. [Laugh] It just felt so good to finally just do it. I have been planning this album for a year and change. Had been incubating for a really long time.
I basically created a list of songs that I liked that were influential to me and I posted them on Facebook and my Social Networks and I asked my friends and supporters. “If you can hear me sing anything on this list. What would it be?” Then I tallied up the votes over a week. I put the top six songs on the album. So, I let the people pick it.
I really am into this supply/demand thing. I’ll make the supply if there is demand. But if there is no demand then it’s very masturbatory you know? It really ended up being like a platter of songs; which I feel like as a vocalist you can get away with making platters like that.
It’s an EP, six songs. I didn’t want to do any more than that. I feel like the public’s attention span is so short that to do anything more than that without like a huge budget is insane. [Laugh] Especially for someone like me that’s DIY.
I’m excited about this project because it’s something that like, I needed to do. This is the step one of The Villainess Project. The Villainess is a two-part concept project with this EP being the first one.
iSing: So, you did your own arrangements?
MV: Yeah. There is a lot of arrangement liberties that I took on it. Some more than others. But, it was important to me to make everything sound modern and heavy.
You either have to make it sound different or, you have to make it sound better than the original.
With these songs I didn’t want to do anything that had another voice on it, but my own. So, like Waiting for the Night comes from a very personal place. I’m very exposed on it vocally. It was so raw. Rid of Me is like that too. It’s just like I’m laying out my true voice on those songs in particular.
Rid of Me – Militia Vox
iSing: Can you tell us why you’ve done a part one and two?
MV: Part one is basically just like to warm people up and get them ready for The Villainess which is going to be all originals. And being someone that has done originals for a long time and didn’t get a whole lot of attention for them; I always got more attention for the covers. I feel like a lot of people get that too, the new artists.
So, I wanted to basically like capture attention. You know, there is a whole other side of women that is constantly ignored in the media. Definitely in music, because I feel like a lot of girls feel like they have to be this way that is expected of them, and its bullshit. You know, the guys don’t have these expectations on them.
I was asked to be on American Idol. Randy asked me personally. I turned it down and when I said it to him he stood there in shock. I said to him, “I don’t want to be America’s Idol.” He was like, “What?” [Laugh] And, I was like yeah. The singers that I idolize would never even be on a show like that. They wouldn’t make it passed the auditions. And I would have to do what everyone else is doing. You know and sing those pop songs and whatever is what they do. And it’s not me.
iSing: Tell us about your image and brand.
MV: It all comes from a very real place. I’m doing a lot of opposite things that are expected of people of my type. And, I find a lot of power in that.
iSing: What is your type? And what would be expected of it?
MV: Well, as a black female singer a lot of people expect me to say, “Oh I sing R&B and soul,” when I tell them I’m a singer. And so, you know I pride myself on being the opposite of my stereotypes. So, like that’s my flag to wave is that I am the opposite of my stereotype.
Disgrace your stereotype, that’s like my mantra. I put it on t-shirts. It’s on my website. You know I mention it often because I really believe your image is what you make of it.
I’m sorry, I don’t wear extensions. This is all real. It’s how it grows out of my head, save some color choices. I’ve turned down every record deal I have ever been offered because they wanted to change me into what they thought I should be.
And, there was moments where I was just ‘Did I just turn my back on what could have been a promising career?’ But, no because I wouldn’t have been into it and then it would have collapsed.
So I know now I don’t need that to make the music I need to make. That’s why I’m like DIY and proud. Because no one else can take credit for what I have built except for me.
iSing: The difficult thing about music in this day and age is everything is so categorized. If you can’t get into an iTunes category, how are they going to sell you?
MV: It’s no wonder. I remember when Mariah Carey came out and did Vision of Love. I thought that was her best vocal ever, that song.
She also looked like herself. Now, all of the sudden we are, who is that? And it just goes to show how the machine can really convince all sorts of things that you are not.
Look at like someone like Nicky Minaj, who she is a very powerful female, except for the fact that only until now she is starting to shed off her layers. But, when she first came out she was wearing a blonde wig and blue contacts and like she looked like she was calling herself ‘Barbie Doll’. I was like you are sending like the weirdest message to people.
I look at magazine newsstands and see what is considered beautiful right now. You know, Kate Uptons and the Brooklyn Deckers. Like yeah, they are beautiful, but it’s like when did that become like the ideal female only?
Diversity is so much more exciting. This is like a weird thing to say, but, there is more beauty in National Geographic than in Vogue Magazine, because you can see the diversity of the planet, and it is so much more intriguing.
iSing: How does your sponsorship work?
MV: I have been lucky that some companies that I have liked and admired ended up liking and admiring me back. I met Tish and Snookie from Manic Panic, which has been a Punk Rock hair color company since 1977. They have had that company longer than I have been alive. [Laugh]. Those two have that rebel spirit, if you have that spirit you identify it in others as well.
I have been dyeing my hair with Manic Panic since I was a teenager. They endorse me now as a Manic Panic artist. It’s great because you know I get to bring them on certain projects. For example, there are little Villainess gift sets that they made for me for my album.
I also have a whiskey sponsorship, which is kind of random. They actually made me my first drink this October. They have a Militia drink called Militia’s Macabre that just came out. It’s pretty awesome.
iSing: How do you fund your projects?
MV: From singing. [Laugh] I sung as much as I could and got paid for it as much as I could and I put it back into myself. That was it. I don’t work like a day job. I don’t work in other industry. I’m a singer full-time.