Like any good musical conversation in 2019, my talk with Sheer Mag frontwoman Tina Halladay eventually works its way around to Lizzo.
“I think she’s amazing,” Halladay tells me over the phone. “She’s just so beautiful, and I’m glad that she exists. To see that sort of person succeed in the music world is awesome.”
Halladay and I are discussing representation in music and what that looks like in 2019. For instance, does she think the music world has become more accepting of women with different body types?
“I think people are starting to take these conversations more seriously,” she says. As a larger girl growing up in Long Island, Halladay tells me she was scarcely able to find an artist that looked like her — especially in the male-dominated landscape of the garage rock that she so frequently listened to. Instead, she looked to influences outside the rock world for inspiration.
“I think the first time I saw a fat girl being cool was in John Waters’ original Hairspray,” she tells me. “I just remember her [lead actress Ricki Lake] just dancing and being so unafraid.”
Nowadays, Halladay is starting to see herself as a bit of a role model in the rock world. It’s easy to see why. Sheer Mag, comprising Halladay, along with Matt Palmer on rhythm guitar and brothers Kyle and Hart Seely on lead guitar and bass, respectively, has been releasing some of the best hard rock out there over the last five years.
It all started at State University of New York (SUNY) where Halladay, Palmer and the Seely brothers met one another. After their respective graduations, the members found themselves living on Philadelphia’s south side. The group eventually moved into a three-story apartment together where they began to rehearse and put on the occasional basement show for friends.
After playing together for a few months, Sheer Mag released its first 7” in the fall of 2014. Composed of four biker-bar-friendly nuggets of hard rock, the EP, simply titled I, was the perfect showcase for Halladay’s fuzzy megaphone screech of a voice.
The band put out two more EPs over the next two years before releasing their first proper record, Need To Feel Your Love, in 2017. It was to be the band’s breakthrough, and for good reason. On it, the group not only homed in on what made them special in the first place, Matt Seely’s fiery licks, an air-tight rhythm section and Halladay’s delivery of lyrics that read as everything from a love letter to a post-inauguration call to arms, they also added flecks of disco and punk to the mix.
“The last record just felt so scattered,” Halladay says of it now. “That’s why for this album we really wanted to go in a more hard rock direction. We wanted to keep it as concise as possible.”
The album Halladay is referring to is A Distant Call, the band’s follow-up to Need To Feel Your Love, which was released late last month. You can hear that hard-rock focus on opening track “Steel Sharpens Steel.” The song begins with a fervid howl from Halladay, and its chugging guitar and call-and-response chorus between the lead singer and her bandmates perfectly splits the difference between Judas Priest and the Runaways.
Sonically, it’s the band beefing up what was already in place. Power chords sound meatier, and the drums have a bit more snap, but this is quintessential Sheer Mag. Look to the lyrics, though, and you’ll see a subtle, more personal evolution in terms of songwriting as Halladay and Palmer spent time crafting a set of tunes built around a dark time in the lead singer’s life.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s the direct story about me or anyone in the band, but you naturally draw from your own life pretty heavily,” says Halladay. “We actually talked about making it into a real concept record about a year ago, but Matt and I decided that something a little less concrete would work better.”
You can see the threads of a concept on A Distant Call. The record settles on a protagonist going through what could be referred to as a bit of a rough patch. The character struggles with alcohol (“Silver Line”) and has to deal with the breakdown of their relationship (“Hardly To Blame”) and the death of their father (“Cold Sword”). However, Halladay ultimately views the record as a positive one.
“I think a lot of the record is just about this realization of not wanting to mess up the opportunity that this life is,” she says. “After the death in ‘Cold Sword,’ the person realizes that they really have just one chance to make the most of it; that’s something death makes you realize.”
Which brings us back to Lizzo. I tell Halladay that listening to “The Right Stuff” from the album’s back half reminds me of the Minneapolis rapper — albeit with a lot less flute — because of its lyrics that promote body positivity and recognizing that beauty standards are ultimately a capitalist fabrication. Halladay says she hopes that’s what women, especially bigger women, take away from it and realize they have the power to do whatever they want.
“There’s just a lot of things that seem harder to do when you don’t see an example of someone else that looks like you doing that thing,” she says. “Once you see fat people doing cool stuff, you start to realize that they are cool. Etta James is cool. Aretha Franklin is cool. Meatloaf is cool,” she says, before adding “even though he’s a bit of a dipshit now.”