Just how difficult is it to transition from writing for Judas Priest and Cher to contemporary Christian artist Rebecca St. James or country songstress Kathy Mattea? For Bob Halligan, Jr. his love of music and passion for crafting songs are the tools that helped him translate success in several musical genres.Just how difficult is it to transition from writing for Judas Priest and Cher to contemporary Christian artist Rebecca St. James or country songstress Kathy Mattea? For Bob Halligan, Jr. his love of music and passion for crafting songs are the tools that helped him translate success in several musical genres.
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Halligan carved a successful niche writing hard rock and pop songs for numerous acts including Cher, Michael Bolton, Judas Priest and Joan Jett before moving to Nashville in 1995 and establishing a presence in both country and contemporary Christian circles. Since relocating to Music city, he’s also launched Ceili Rain, a Celtic-flavored pop/rock ensemble that has provided an outlet for the positive message songs he writes. The band has rapidly become one of the most popular bands on the Nashville club scene and is currently anticipating the release of their self-titled debut in April on Punch Records, a division of Power Entertainment Group, a nationally distributed rock label based in Nashville.
Halligan’s love of songwriting began in his teens and he was fortunate enough to have family that encouraged his ambitions. His cousin, Kick Halligan, was in Blood, Sweat & Tears during the band’s heyday and urged his young cousin to pursue the music business; therefore, Halligan began fronting a local band and writing tunes. Dedication to his craft paid off and he got a deal with United Artists publishing, aided greatly by the support of manager Barry Bergman. Though Halligan’s band didn’t land a recod contract, he found another ally in songplugger May Pang (known for her liaison with John Lennon). She believed in his tunes and helped Halligan land a song called “Take These Chains” on a Judas Priest album.
“It was on their biggest albums ever, Screaming for Vengeance and it was the only outside song,” Halligan recalls. “My wife Linda said, ‘They recorded one of your songs. You should at least write another one.’ I wrote another song called “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll.” They recorded it on their second biggest album, Defenders Of The Faith. Again I had the only outside song, written solely by me. So people viewed me as the genius of heavy metal songwriting. It was a little bit of talent and a little bit of luck. So then all the labels were flying me all over writing with and for all these different hard rock acts. Some came to bear fruit; some didn’t, but it led to cuts with Kiss, Blue Oyster Cult, Joan Jett, Night Ranger, Kix and a bunch of others.”
Halligan admits the role of heavy metal genius was not a comfortable title for him for many reasons, among them the fact that he didn’t want his lyrics to contain the negative messages conveyed in other songs on the albums, and because he was being typecast. “I realized I was being pigeon-holed as ‘Halligan, the hard rock writer.’ Since I grew up on The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and things other than rock, I never really listened to Led Zeppelin when I was in high school; I was frightened by it. I wanted to switch to more mainstream pop but luckily ran into Michael Bolton at a co-writers’ house and we wrote nine songs together, seven of which were recorded and six ended up on major records.”
Halligan’s first foray into a label deal and a chance to record his own songs came in 1991 when Atco released his album, Window In The Wall. Though political upheaval at the label kept the critically acclaimed album from finding chat success, it didn’t dim Halligan’s enthusiasm for the creative process. If anything, it shifted his focus to another musical mecca.
He made the decision to move to Nashville in large part because of the changes in the New York songwriting market. “In New York I had some great co-writers, but the scene kind of dried up and the styles of music that New York writers could write and hope to make a living from had narrowed to the point that it no longer satisfied my creative urges,” Halligan says. “It was kind of dance and hip-hop and that was it. I’ve always been basically a rock ‘n roll guy. So there was nothing to do. But I can’t say there was no scene at all and no great writers because I still treasure my co-writers up there like Phil Galdston, Arnie Roman, Martin Briley and Michael Bolton…I miss all those people, but down here it’s easier; you go into a bank and they don’t laugh you right out the door (most Nashville banks have Music Row divisions).”
The business community’s acceptance of songwriters is not the only appeal Nashville had for Halligan. “There are a lot of us (songwriters) and it’s competitive, but not obnoxious,” he says of the songwriting community.
“People like each other and clap for each other. The business is here and it’s just easier…I love it down here because there are great folks, songwriters and otherwise.” The way Halligan writes has changed somewhat since his move to Nashville. “I’m less of a co-writer than I used to be; I’m more of a solo guy. I will still co-write, but the last couple of years I got back in touch with my writing voice and Ceili Rain was really born out of that because I had to rediscover my confidence in writing on my own.”
When he first moved to Nashville, Halligan signed a publishing deal with BMG and credits them with easing his transition into a new city. Soon he found himself getting cuts by both Christian and country acts, among them Sierra, Rebecca St. James, Billy T. Midnight and Kathy Mattea. (He co-wrote the title cut of Kathy Mattea’s current album, Love Travels, with his wife Linda).
Halligan is currently signed to Benson Music Publishing in the Christian market and to Little Miss Magic Music for his mainstream tunes. Halligan readily admits his career has known different seasons. “I’ve kind of compartmentalized my career and the hard rock stuff is largely behind me,” he says. “Because of the alternative stuff, those guys don’t want me anymore. It’s more about self-expression now, and I applaud that, and cheer them on, but unfortunately they put me out of a job because there isn’t a need for hard rock co-writers anymore.”
Halligan admits he wasn’t raised in a rural setting and has a different perspective for a country tunesmith. But instead of trying to write songs about pickup trucks and honky-tonks, Halligan has opted to stay true to his craft, write what he knows best, and let the chips fall where they may. Halligan approaches writing for different genres in a different manner. “With heavy metal, I made my own lexicon of obnoxious verbs and nouns,” he says. “I had a list of words like ‘avenge.’ That was the language of those songs and I would write using the aggressive language, but have it be about a sort of benign subject, and be aggressive metaphorically rather than literally. With my Ceili Rain stuff, I just puke out whatever is on my heart and mind. With the Christian stuff, one has to be mindful of the vernacular. There are words you cannot use and in that ball game, it’s more that you have to make a list of the stuff you cannot use. I have not made an attempt to learn the buzzwords in Christian music because I don’t use them, and it wouldn’t be natural for me to write with them. But every genre has a whole different way of doing it.”
These days a major consideration when pitching tunes is what to keep for his band Ceili Rain, and what to let other artists record. “I write songs that I feel other people would enjoy singing or hearing and somewhere along the way it seemed the only reason to go forward was to do music that was contributing something to the planet, to the evolution of the species, even if it was only my evolution,” Halligan says. “I view it as medicine, but if you take medicine it always goes down better with honey on it…Hopefully there is some substance that bears repeated listening, that encourages self-exploration and that encourages [following the] golden rule, for people to care a little bit more about each other and feel it’s okay to be who they are.”