Matt Akana

New Years Day & Their Well-Earned Momentum

Alt metal, goth rock, whatever you call the stylings of New Years Day, it’s always going to be great head-banging tunes at the end of it – Half Black Heart will be no exception to that.

After five years without a new record, New Years Day has returned. They released “Hurts Like Hell” and “Vampyre” in 2022 – a tease to something on the way – and their riffs were heavier than ever. Those songs are dramatic and emotional, and (as always) frontwoman Ash Costello is a powerhouse. Fans have been eager to hear what they were connected to and gearing up for, and they are a mere 48 hours away from finding out. 

The new era of New Years Day has finally arrived; Half Black Heart is available March 1 and it’s just the comeback fans have been anxious for. It signifies not just a new album, but a reinvented sound for the band. They are not holding back while still doing what they do best. We love that mindset, the new record, and this band, so having the chance to chat with their spirited vocalist for the conversation below was amazing.

Half Black Heart is out on Friday. What’s going through your head?

I feel good about it. I’m nervous as always. I think every artist is nervous to put out new music. You put so much time and effort into it; you just hope people like it.

For sure! It’s tough because this is a five year gap – half of a decade. 

It’s weird to hear that. It’s true, but it doesn’t feel like it. COVID happened! Those years don’t exist! It’s been five years, really? That’s crazy! 

Tell me what it was like to write songs in that time frame. How long did it take?

We didn’t write songs during COVID at all. When we did Unbreakable [2019], we did that record in the kind of situation where we always do records: you’re on tour forever, you find three weeks when you’re not on tour, and [the label] says, “We’re shoving you in the studio and whatever songs you come up with, those are the songs on the record.” It always felt really rushed. I always had to compromise what I really wanted in order to get it done and meet deadlines.  

With COVID I always felt like I was burnt out, so we took a two year break. We didn’t really do anything for New Years Day for two years, which is so weird to say, and it’s unfortunate because right before COVID I felt like we were really gaining momentum. Poor Unbreakable didn’t really get the day in the sun it deserved because all of that shut down. When I started back in the studio we were still at the tail end of COVID, so the first song we wrote for it was a song called “I Still Believe,” and that’s really just how I was feeling at the time. My producer, Scott Stevens, who is a genius, is really good at pulling how I feel out of me. He goes, “How do you feel?” I go, “I just don’t know if I believe in all this anymore. I’m so… floating in air with nothing to hold onto; an astronaut lost in space.” We developed a song based around that. “I still believe in this.”

To come off of Unbreakable where the whole message is “I’m unbreakable, we can do this,” and then the first song back is, “I Still Believe,” there is a theme of perseverance. 

Yeah, I really felt unbreakable at that time. When the next record came along I was like, “I don’t know if I got this! I feel lost. I feel totally breakable. I feel broken.” There’s a lot of themes like that on this record. 

You’re right, though – Unbreakable didn’t get its full record cycle. Is it weird when you’re touring to see fans experiencing two New Years Day album cycles in one?

I feel like, as people, we all have our days where we feel confident. We all have our days where we feel like we’re drowning in all of it: our thoughts, our voices, our insecurities just weighing on us. I’m glad there are themes from both phases of life that people can go through. 

Another thing I love about New Years Day is how every record has its own aesthetic visually. Going into Half Black Heart, how did you choose this dark, Halloween-y, ominous style?

I have always leaned that way naturally. If someone looks at the whole discography and all the different eras of New Years Day, there are always blood, hearts, occult themes, heaven/hell, and just a lot of that going on! I got to a place where I was going to really embrace it fully. “I’m going to embrace this hard with my full chest, so why not just call it Half Black Heart? That’s what it is. That’s what I am. That’s what we look like. Let’s just have the half red/half black clothes, have the half red/half black merch. Why don’t we run all the way home with it?” 

That’s another point I want to dive into. I believe it was in 2013 that you decided to get half red/half black hair. Watching that evolve into what it has become is insane. It’s so much more than a hairstyle now – it’s a symbol of the band. 

I think 2013 was the first record we debuted it on. I’ve actually had this hair since 2010 – we’re talking over a decade now. I don’t even know how I have hair on this side from bleaching it for so long! When I did it I remember calling someone at the record label (who is long gone now) and telling them, “I’m at the salon and I’m going to be dying my hair half red/half black.” He literally was like, “That’s going to look stupid.” That’s what he said! “Well, ok,” I said. “I’m doing it!”

That was a good lesson for me, though, because it taught me to listen to my gut instincts and not listen to the record label all the time. It taught me to have confidence in my decisions. It’s not something I did in the hopes of it being something for the band at all. I had changed my hair color a lot. I always had red bangs, a red streak, and it was moving around. When I landed on this, I loved it so much that I never got rid of it. Then it started catching on. We would start playing concerts and the first two rows were girls that looked better than me, at being me! It looked way better! It was amazing!

Do you have a specific memory or concert moment where you realized that? “Oh shit! This is catching on!”

Yeah, Warped Tour 2017. I had seen it before then, but Warped Tour 2017 was like, “Holy crap! There are hundreds of them everyday. This is crazy!” It got to the point where other bands were noticing it, too. They were like, “We saw some of your girls in the crowd!” Everyone knows now. I get to own this; I’ll always get to have that. 

Warped Tour 2017 was the first time I got to see New Years Day live! I remember what you’re saying. You could spot the fans. They wear it with pride. 

And they still do! It’s weird… I just go with the flow of life and trust it’s going to guide me and take me where it needs to take me, so far so good!

Fast forward to Half Black Heart – how did you know that this was going to be the album title? 

I knew I wanted that to be the album title first. I’ve always had this album title in my back pocket. I was just saving it, and I felt like this was the right record. I didn’t want to hold onto it anymore. It just felt right. It feels very us. 

In Unbreakable, specifically, our one main songwriter who had a huge part in coining the sound of New Years Day for Malevolence [2015] left the band. We never do big announcements when people leave. A lot of people assume it’s a bad split which it never really is. Touring is hard and sometimes people don’t want to do it anymore. We always understand, because it is really hard. Luckily for us he wanted to come back. He rejoined for the making of this record. I felt like the extra element, the missing ingredient from Unbreakable was back.

To me a song like “Vampyre” sounds like “Kill or Be Killed,” which came out in 2015, but is an evolved version of it. This whole album feels really evolved. On Unbreakable I had to do a lot of songwriting on my own and with outside songwriters. That was a new thing for me and I learned a lot. Going into this, I went in with a lot of ammo because I had learned so much about songwriters and how to express what I hear in my head. I’m not a musician; I’m more of a visionary composer/director kind of telling everyone what to play and what I want. The fact that we did it during COVID? I had the space and time to be nitpicky. I nitpicked every transition, drum tone, guitar solo, even the slightest bend in a guitar. “No, it needs to bend a millisecond longer.” I nitpicked to that degree. I’m sure everyone wanted to kill me, in fact I know they did, butI am so happy with the end result. 

To reiterate, during Unbreakable and without the extra help, you had to find your voice so you could amplify it on this record. I do want to ask about the Kiss of Death Tour in 2022 with Ice Nine Kills, In This Moment, and Avatar. What was that like?

Oh my gosh! We’ve toured with In This Moment for years – we probably spent a good total of three or four years touring with them. We are extremely close with them. I just spoke to Maria two days ago. She’s a soul sister to me. I feel so blessed to even be spoken in the same sentence as her because she’s such an incredible artist. Their show is so much fun to watch every night. Then with Ice Nine Kills; I have toured with them before and worked with Ice Nine Kills a lot – also very, very, very good friends. It was a family tour. Avatar we didn’t know and they kind of kept to themselves, but they were really cool! I have nothing but the sweetest things to say about Ice Nine Kills and In This Moment – they’re the best bands to tour with. 

That is so great to hear! You and Spencer [Charnas of Ice Nine Kills] have very similar interests. I’m a huge horror fan myself. You and I could probably do a whole article just about our favorite horror movies. Do you guys go back and forth recommending films?

Yes, we do! We actually really do! The second tour we did with Ice Nine Kills, it was us, From Ashes To New, and Ice Nine Kills. Spencer would just stop me in the hallway and start quoting a horror movie, but quoting it perfectly to the point where it was a little scary because it was obscure parts he shouldn’t know. I’m just looking at him like, “How do you know all this?” I can’t even quote back to you because you’re choosing the most obscure scene of this movie! It’s like some scene in American Psycho where I’m like “Wow, you’re crazy!” [Laughs]

That is so funny! American Psycho is a film you both paid homage to in music videos. New Years Day during the music video for “Shut Up” in 2019 and Ice Nine Kills for the music video of “Hip To Be Scared” in 2021.

Yes! His song was about American Psycho so that made sense. Me? I just wanted to do it because I love American Psycho. Mine was supposed to allude to American Psycho, kind of give you the vibe of it, but it was not my rendition of the movie because it made no sense with the song. When the record label goes, “What do you want to do for a music video?” if it doesn’t pop into my head right there, then it never comes to me. Most of the time music videos happen that fast. I go, “Boom! There it is. That’s what I want to do.” Right away, boom! American Psycho. They asked why and I didn’t know – I just wanted to. Halloween runs in our blood. We’re Halloween babies, all of us. 

Both are so good! Another question I’m curious to ask about: when you’re touring, do you want to be on tour during the Hallween season or not really? Do you want to be at home experiencing it or out on the road?

Here’s how I see it: to me, Halloween is September. Halloween season for me starts July 5 and then September is my Halloween time. Then in October I get depressed because October first is the countdown to Halloween being over [laughs]. I do all my Halloween shopping, decorating, events in September. I don’t mind being on tour in October because then I can do haunted houses around the country. I’ve seen so many terrible ones and so many great ones. Halloween is always the most depressing day for me. I don’t like to do anything on Halloween day. I just like to cry about it being over!

I’m very similar. When doing research, you said that one of the first songs that made you feel a deep emotional reaction was “I’m Not Okay” by My Chemical Romance. You’ve covered My Chemical Romance’s “Sleep” for the Rocksound Black Parade compilation. When you’re tasked to cover a perfect song, how do you do that?

It made me cry. I cried in the studio when recording that song. That song is really emotional and I choked up. You can hear that in the vocals. I just felt so honored because I wasn’t in a band. I was always in bands, but I wasn’t in New Years Day when I discovered My Chem. I would dream of being that… I didn’t have a crush on Gerard Way, I wanted to be him. 

A funny story is that we actually did a recording session with Gerard not too long ago. We’re writing a song that will never see the light of day, and it’s so sad. It sounds like a Danger Days song. It doesn’t sound like a New Years Day song unfortunately. It doesn’t fit the record. Maybe someday something could happen with it. As much as I wanted to make it work just to make it work, it just didn’t. I still have the experience, which was great! Gerard is in the studio and he goes, “Can you hit this note? What’s the highest note you’ve ever hit?” I say, “Actually, it’s a note from the song I covered from you. I covered ‘Sleep.’” He looked at me and went, “You did?!” “Yeah! There’s a whole compilation!” He goes, “There is?” He went into his office that’s adjacent to the studio and I heard him playing it. There is Gerard Way… listening to me… cover fucking “Sleep” by his band… with me in the other room listening. 

Wow! That’s intimidating. That’s tough. It’s like in school when the teacher reads your project to the whole class but worse

He came in and said, “Ok, you can sing.” He was busy working on Umbrella Academy for Netflix. 

Maybe that song will see the light of day! Singles are more prevalent than ever now. It doesn’t always have to be tied to an album.

Maybe! The song was called, “The Weapon is Me,” which is so Danger Days. He goes, “What do you want to write a song about?” I go, “I want to write a song from Kylo Ren’s perspective,” from Star Wars. He was like, “I love it!” 

You’ve had an incredibly long and amazing career where you got to work with a lot of your idols; interviewing Rob Zombie at the APMAs. You’ve had a lot of moments where you’ve met people you looked up to, but working with Gerard in the studio has to be surreal. 

It was at his house and Ray Toro was there. We had a lot of fun. We had long days, but we spent more time watching weird movies that they wanted to show us as opposed to writing. I forget the name – it was two weird Japanese movies that were bizarre. They made us laugh a lot. 

I collect taxidermy. Ray brought me this snake in a jar that he got when they were on tour in Vietnam. He was like, “My wife doesn’t like this, if you want it!” I said, “Yeah, I’ll take it!” We still talk about this to this day, Jeremy Valentine [guitar] was with me and Gerard looked at us and said, “You guys make a really good team.” Thanks, Gerard! And get this – the second day in the studio, Mindless Self Indulgence just dropped by! It was a lot of pinch me moments. There was one point where I told him [Gerard] that I lay on the floor and write my lyrics. He goes, “I still write my lyrics, too” because most people do it on laptops now. So we’re laying on the floor on our tummies, our little feet are kicking, and he was looking over at me going, “Oh, I like that line!” In my head I’m going, “What the fuck is my life right now? What is this?!” 

That is amazing! When you’re performing live, it sounds just like the studio. When you’re writing in the studio, are you mindful of the live performance? 

Yes. We specifically did that on this record because on Unbreakable it was, “How high can we push your voice? How far can we push your range?” Even in the studio on the song “Unbreakable,” so that’s impossible for me to sing live. That was because I had warmed up properly, had all the goos and potions, had the acoustics, the temperature inside the room was right, I was warmed up, and I was rested. We did several takes to get to that note. Even in the studio I was like, “How am I going to do this live? This is not going to be possible. Why did I do this to myself?” 

With this record, I specifically said, “I don’t want to push my range. I don’t care if you think it sounds more dramatic. I want to stay comfortable in a place that is powerful for me.” A lot of people say my voice sounds different on this record, because it does. It’s lower, the tone is lower, and it sounds more mature. That’s because I don’t want to push myself like that. I want to sing where my voice wants to be so I can actually perform it every night. A lot of people have noticed the difference. 

That’s a really great point. I imagine it’s not helpful when you’re touring Canada in the middle of January when the air is so dry. You want to hit all the notes the best you can. 

Even sleeping in a tour bus! There are fans in each bunk that blow on you every night. You have to keep the tour bus at 65 degrees because there are so many people in there and it’ll get really hot. Any vocalist will tell you that sleeping with a fan on you then going out in cold air will dry out your voice. Do that for 30 days by the time you get to the 29th show you sound like crap. Then that’s the video everyone shows and says you can’t sing. I had to be mindful of that this time around. 

As an artist you’re not always going linearly. You’re going to tour California one day where it’s 80 degrees and the next you’re in Jersey where it’s 20 degrees. 

That also affects your voice – chest congestion, throat, it affects your sinus cavities, which all affects your vocal cords. Yeah, when there’s extreme weather changes that also affects a singer’s vocals. If I’m playing Vegas in the summer as opposed to Florida in the summer, Vegas is much drier and Florida is much more wet. That affects your voice, too. My voice is always way better in Florida. In Arizona, Las Vegas, Utah… I have to use a personalized humidifier and breathe in it. You have to breathe in wet air. I have a thing I travel with that has all kinds of voice oils and voice lozenges.