Heavy metal might not be music to everyone's ears, but for Salem-based mezzo soprano Haydee Irizarry the driving, often misunderstood genre is her chosen form of expression. And it has been most of her life.
Throughout the pandemic, though, Irizarry had time to do something she hadn't done in years — she sat down at the keyboard in her bedroom studio and went down a nostalgic rabbit hole rediscovering songs from her youth. She filmed and posted those intimate performances on Instagram.
“I always go by feel, so today I feel like I want to sing an Otis Redding song,” the 26-year-old vocalist says during our interview before crooning the opening lines from the 1965 hit tune, “I've Been Loving You Too Long.”
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Irizarry remembers how her family listened to everything from Redding's soul to their Latin culture's salsa when she was a kid in Chicago. “I went to a private Lutheran school,” she recalls, “so that automatically threw me into classical music and choral music.”
Then, Irizarry also became enchanted by the much brasher musicality in rock and heavy metal. "And when I was 8 years old, I was like, 'I want to be a metal vocalist," she says marveling at her child-self, "8 years old!”
Metal's often over-the-top theatricality, rapid-fire drums and face-melting guitars drew Irizarry to charismatic frontmen and iconic bands including Ronnie James Dio, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.
When asked what attracted her to the harder stuff, Irizarry says metal offered release and salvation as she struggled with her parents' divorce, an abusive brother and her mental health.
“When I was getting started, I really connected to the aggression because of all the things I was feeling at the time,” she explains. “I was feeling a lot of dark, intense things that I didn't really quite know how to express outside of music.”
Irizarry went on to study jazz, classical and contemporary music at Berklee College of Music in Boston where she also became lead singer in her classmates' death metal band, Aversed. There Irizarry honed a style that vacillates between what's known as “clean singing” and the guttural vocals some metalheads affectionately refer to as “the Cookie Monster voice.”
“It really is like a switch in my mind,” the 26-year-old says, adding the varied voicings help her tap into an unfiltered, limitless palette of textures and emotions.
“If I were a painter, I could choose just the cool colors — that would be the pretty sounds,” she says. "But I'm choosing all of them and expressing really aggressive things that I feel with an aggressive tone. So how I would describe my voice is just all-out on the table.”
"How I would describe my voice is just all-out on the table.”Haydee Irizarry
Irizarry's range and arresting stage persona have earned her a few novel nicknames including Haydee the Hyena, Metal J.Lo and Metal Selena.
“I love the Metal Selena and Metal J.Lo because I like to embrace my culture,” she says, “like wearing my hoops.”
Irizarry is Mexican-Puerto Rican and she also wears a lot of black leather, spiky studs and bold colors on her eyes, lips and nails. In performance, she strives to deliver what metal fans expect at live shows.
“Definitely getting in their faces,” Irizarry says with a laugh. “That's what metal is all about."
Irizarry's booming voice and larger-than-life stage presence are captivating, according to guitarist Cody Michaud. After seeing one of her shows with Aversed in 2017 he asked her to front his Salem-based, stoner/doom metal band Carnivora. Irizarry is the group's first female lead singer.
In the band's Lynn practice space, Michaud explains how Irizarry's agile meshing of raw metal vocals with her refined singing transcend their genre.
“In all honesty — at least in the metal scene around here — I feel like there's a lot of talented vocalists, but really not too many singers who are trained professionally and have the actual ability to really sing on a top-tier level,” he says. “And she is one of the only ones I can think of.”
Michaud points to "Bogdweller," the first song and video Irizarry made with Carnivora that's garnered more than 18,500 views on YouTube.
Michaud believes Irizarry is helping Carnivora evolve in a more sophisticated, more accessible, less testosterone-fueled direction. She acknowledges metal can be intimidating, and hopes to demystify the form so more people will give it a chance.
“If you're a fan of folk music, there's folk metal, and there's symphonic metal," she says. "It doesn't have to be the Cookie Monster screams. It isn't always aggressive. It can be very beautiful.”
But Carnivora's move to became a female-fronted metal band has attracted some critics. “There's always the internet trolls who say, 'oh, she's just a token-piece, marketing strategy type thing,” Irizarry says.
“The face of metal is shifting a lot towards women and women from all different countries that look so different. It's awesome to be a part of that change.”Haydee Irizarry
The heavy metal community is still learning to talk about women in the genre, which can be frustrating because Irizarry says bands with female lead singers often get lumped together even if they're creating radically different sub-styles.
"I've seen people label it as a genre: 'female-fronted metal,'" she explains. "That is not a genre."
Even so, Irizarry is ok with the moniker. Metal has long been a genre populated by male, largely white musicians, but she adds, not anymore. “The face of metal is shifting a lot towards women and women from all different countries that look so different. It's awesome to be a part of that change.”
Early on, Irizarry didn't fully embrace her Metal J.Lo and Metal Selena nicknames — but now she does.
“Yeah, I do carry that with a lot of weight and pride with hopes to inspire people,” she says. “Like, I can be Latina and really brutal at the same time. Those may seem like two opposite worlds, but they can coexist.”
Looking ahead, Irizarry dreams of touring the world with Carnivora and of being able to make a living from her art without having to work a day job. It's been rough without live shows throughout the pandemic, but the band has been able to release videos and singles. She's also been able to explore her softer side through a collaborative solo project called Zahra Lux. And Irizarry finally finished an R&B song she started writing at Berklee back in 2015.
But be warned: the metal-ista is returning to rocking people's faces off with Carnivora at New England music venues this fall, including the Worcester Palladium in December, and she can't wait.
This segment aired on September 20, 2021.