Student Profile: Tori Letzler
If you had asked Tori Letzler about her career aspirations a few years ago, she would have told you she wanted to be an opera singer—a seemingly logical path for someone who's been performing classical music professionally since the age of 7.
While a stint in Cirque du Soleil at age 14 afforded her the chance to jam with musicians from all around the world during downtime and piqued her interest in songwriting, still, she thought that would suffice as a side pursuit and continued to forge ahead with plans to attend a classical conservatory.
But a week at Berklee's summer Songwriting Workshop during high school completely upended that trajectory. Letzler bought a Berklee sweatshirt and wore it every day. Her musical paradigm shifted even further following a trip to Los Angeles, where she discovered how metal and classical can work together.
Having just completed her fourth semester at Berklee, Letzler is fully exploring that fusion, and finding a host of other connections between classical music and metal. She's in Berklee's original Metal Ensemble and cohosted a metal radio show on the BIRN. She also finds parallels between metal and film scoring; this summer she's interning for two composers through the Berklee Los Angeles Internship Program. We caught up with Letzler, who talked about how her musical transformation continues here at Berklee, the many iterations of metal, and the difference between "clean" and "scream."
Tell me about your experience discovering metal.
When I started writing music, it always had a very dark vibe to it. It was like gothic blues, with acoustic piano and voice. There's a band called Evanescence; in the States, it's the closest thing we have to symphonic metal. I thought, "This girl kind of writes the same music and sings like me." I guess this is an acceptable genre and an okay way to go.
Right after I came to the Berklee program, I was living in L.A. for a little bit. I graduated high school six months early. When I was in L.A., playing gigs and having fun, someone said to me, "Have you ever heard of this band called Nightwish?" I looked them up online and it was like this whole new world. People sang classical voice over these hard riffs, like really in-your-face metal. We have metal in the U.S., but not like this. From that point on, I discovered bands like Nightwish—all female-fronted bands with these women who have strong voices and use a lot of classical training. It was like taking the music I was writing before and the classical voice and kind of just smashing them together.
How have you furthered this interest at Berklee?
When I came to Berklee, I didn't realize there was a metal community. I didn't realize there were other people who really liked this stuff. I just started getting into metal about a year before I came here. Once I came here, it went kind of full throttle.
Tell me about your metal style.
There are two types of voices for metal. There's scream and then there's clean. I'm a clean vocalist. I can't do the growls. I wish I could. One of the other girls who was in the metal ensemble with me last semester, Annie Grunwald, is in a band with me and we ran a metal radio show on the BIRN, Cannibal Kitten. She does scream and also plays guitar like nobody's business. So we kind of do our thing together.
Do you find yourself trying to change people's perceptions of metal?
Oh, yeah. And even within the metal community. There's so much to learn, and that's what I love about it. The playing is so closely related—I know this is going to sound funny—to classical music. It's the same chops. Because you have to be so quick and so fast and so on top of what you're doing.
Do you think metal is becoming more of a presence at Berklee?
Absolutely. [Students] Ivan Chopik and John Forrestal started the metal ensemble last year. They worked toward it; it didn't just come out of nowhere. When I came here, metal seemed to be a very small thing. There was only one ensemble. It was built from the ground up, and now people are really respecting it more. Now that we're out there, we play a BPC show every semester.
Tell me about your own band.
I just started a symphonic metal band, and hopefully we'll be playing gigs outside. Before I came to Berklee I'd always been by myself singing. I worked with producers and stuff but never with a group of people being creative. I was determined from the moment I came here to start a symphonic band from the States. Last semester, a new group of metal ensemblers came in, and a lot of us really clicked well. Our entire gang is composed of people who have been in the ensembles, including two female vocalists. I'm doing lead vocals and Annie plays guitar as well as does harmonies and screaming vocals. There isn't a band that I know of that has two female vocalists in metal, especially not one who plays guitar. There's also a guy, Jason Lim from Scotland, who plays MIDI guitar, electric violin, and MIDI violin and keys—all at the same time. Our drummer's from Venezuela and our bass player and our other guitarist are from the States. It's like we're creating this genre of music. It's funny, because for people who tend to not know metal, it's just metal to them. It's in-your-face loud metal. But there are so many different sub-genres. We couldn't figure out what to even call it. We came up with symphonic tech death metal.
How has Berklee helped you grow your newfound passion?
There are two types of singers: singers who are singers and singers who are musicians—who really understand what they're singing and also compose and do lots of other stuff. I think before I came here I was a singer who was a singer. I think Berklee's made me a singer who's also a musician. I use my voice as a creative tool now. I can improvise. I can hear notes. I could never do that before. I didn't know anything about theory before I came here. Now I'm writing on my free time. I think Berklee's really given that to me—enjoying the art that is writing music for the sake of understanding it and loving it.
What made you decide to study film scoring?
Danny Elfman is a film composer who works with Tim Burton a lot. He did The Nightmare Before Christmas. I sang one of those songs for my audition for Cirque du Soleil. I've had a passion for film music my entire life and always composed. When I started getting into symphonic metal, I realized a lot of the writing that goes into that is similar to writing for film. I also have a love for film. It was taking all these things I love and combining them.
Since coming to Berklee, my passion for composing, as well as my knowledge of instruments and writing, has just expanded so much. It went from zero to sixty in two years.
As if that isn't enough...
I'm also in the Celtic Ensemble. I love world music, which is another reason why I love metal, especially symphonic metal, because it comes from Europe. I grew up singing in other languages, traveling the world, and then being involved with Cirque, influenced by other cultures. I love singing things where you get to improvise in weird keys and things like that. So, going into Celtic music, I love the scales and the types of music and the instruments. It's very old world to me and I love it. I'm very drawn to being in an ensemble where I can sing in Gaelic.
Tori's Top Five Metal Bands
- Within Temptation
- The Devin Townsend Project
- Dimmu Borgir