Pale Waves’ first album came with a lot of buzz and lots of time on the road. Its follow-up has been far from an easy affair, though. With changes made and lessons learned, Heather Baron-Gracie reveals a band who have grown to be comfortable with who they are.
By: Ali Shutler. Photos: Jordan Curtis Hughes.
Pale Waves got “a lot of shit” for the tracks on their first album sounding the same. At the time, they found the criticism funny, but “looking back, listening to ‘Television Romance’ and ‘There’s A Honey’ now, I can see the similarities,” says vocalist Heather Baron-Gracie on the phone from her parents’ house. Aware that you can have too much of a good thing, their second album shakes up everything you thought you know about the band.
From the moment they released their debut single ‘There’s A Honey’ at the start of 2017, Pale Waves were swept up in a tidal wave of expectations. There was an arena tour with The 1975, despite the baby band only having one song to their name, and they stayed on the road for three years after that playing every festival, support slot and headline show they could possibly squeeze into their schedule.
A chunk of their hyped-up debut album was “written in a state of pure panic” as they entered the studio with just two-thirds of a record, and two weeks before the release of ‘My Mind Makes Noises’ Heather was sat backstage at Reading Festival telling us about their plans to follow that record up with an EP in the coming months. “People want more and more, and we have a lot to give,” she explained, trying to please as many people as possible.
But the new songs they’d written never saw the light of day. “They just weren’t strong enough.” The band kept trying, eager to keep their fans fed, but more weeks on a tour bus and days backstage in windowless rooms found Heather uninspired. “You do worry that people will lose interest if you don’t release more new music to keep them interested, but I felt like we were going round in circles, just rewriting that first album.”
Despite her eagerness to make other people happy, she was always adamant. “I’m never going to put anything out there if I’m not fully invested in it and my heart just wasn’t in the new stuff we were writing. I didn’t feel confident, and I didn’t feel comfortable.”
The pressure to keep up with demand finally got too much. Feeling like the clock was ticking and worried they’d exhausted the songwriting partnership that had always been at the core of Pale Waves, Heather and drummer Ciara Doran decided to take a break from each other, willing to risk their friendship to protect the band.
“This album feels like it’s written for the teenage Heather”
It might sound like an egotistical power-grab with Heather getting too big for her leather boots, but doubting her own abilities, “I really didn’t trust myself at the start”. She listened to those around her though and gave it a go. “Our usual method of writing wasn’t working and really, what’s the worst that could happen?” Turns out that belief was well-placed and while Ciara carried on working as a producer and songwriter for other artists, new Pale Waves songs poured out of Heather. In two months, the ballsy, direct ‘Who Am I?’ was written.
Despite racking up support slots with Muse, Halsey and The 1975 in huge venues, Pale Waves’ second album doesn’t see them chasing an arena-ready sound. It’s gritty, urgent but with a pop sparkle. “I never want to be that artist who only writes songs to get them on the radio,” Heather considers. “I want to stand on stage and sing things that actually mean something to me.”
Recorded in LA during the midst of the pandemic – guitarist Hugo Silvani and bassist Charlie Wood stayed at home, sending their parts to Heather and Ciara via email – ‘Who Am I?’ is being released as soon as possible. “We can’t wait on the world going back to normal, people need to hear it now.”
Taking influence from the 90s alt-rock that made superstars of The Smashing Pumpkins alongside the sugary pop-punk of the early 00s, ‘Who Am I?’ is a world away from their 80s pop and hip-hop-inspired debut. Without a co-pilot, Heather “didn’t have to conform to someone’s artistic vision” and the end result is 100% her. “Ciara allowed that, which was amazing of them. It was tough for them, but it really was the right decision for the band. I don’t know how we’d ever have made a record that we believed in otherwise.” Drawing from her own coming-of-age soundtrack, “this album feels like it’s written for the teenage Heather.” The same could be said of the lyrics.
New to the spotlight, Heather was on the fence about how much of herself she wanted to give away on that first album. Sure, ‘Noises’ and ‘Karl’ were both super vulnerable as the vocalist bared her soul about loss and fluctuating mental health, but the likes of ‘One More Time’, ‘Drive’ and ‘Red’ danced with youthful naivety. It made sense at the time, Pale Waves were barely out of their teens and Heather simply “wasn’t ready to share myself with the world”, but that’s changed for album two.
Now nearly 26 and feeling “a lot more confident” after spending months educating herself on self-love, the state of the world and spirituality, Heather isn’t holding anything back. Those years of intense touring had left her exhausted, but they also exposed her to a world of new experiences. “I felt a lot more comfortable in what I had to say, and I knew what message I wanted to leave the world with. I criticise society a lot on this album. I have a voice, and I have opinions, so being more vulnerable and revealing myself to the world felt a lot more natural.”
Full of gay anthems, romance, acceptance and summoning the strength to push back against the expectations of others, ‘Who Am I?” is an album that refuses to hide.
“Going in, I knew I wanted to write a song about what it’s like to be a woman [‘You Don’t Own Me’], a song about being confused about who I am as a person and what I want from life [the title-track]. I wanted to write a song that comforts my mum and lets her know that I’m not a complete mess, because I’m sure she thinks that I am [‘Run To’]. Then I wanted songs about the right kind of love [‘Easy’] and the wrong sort of relationships [‘Change’ and ‘Fall To Pieces’], while ‘Odd Ones Out’ is about being true to yourself. It’s good to be different. We’re all completely different human beings, but I feel like society tries to make us the same, and it’s exhausting. Then there’s ‘I Just Needed You’ which is about me realigning my priorities and realising that external things can’t bring you true happiness. I’m really happy with how it turned out because all the topics that I wanted to talk about came to life.”
Despite the heartbroken goth bangers that littered their debut, Heather avoided using pronouns because she didn’t feel comfortable singing about loving women. “Sexuality is a long journey. You can be comfortable with your sexuality, but it’s about owning it as well, and I just wasn’t ready to be vocal about it yet. I wasn’t ready as an artist to come out into the world and talk about my sexuality because I had so much more to explore and figure out,” she explains, admitting that a part of the reason she decided not to use pronouns was that she “wanted those songs to appeal to everyone.” There’s none of that on the second record as Heather “became more selfish. I needed to write songs like ‘She Is My Religion’ to become comfortable with being vocal about my sexuality.”
“Just by singing ‘sexuality isn’t a choice’, it can reassure people that they aren’t wrong for being gay”
Not only does the second single from the record see Heather make it blatantly obvious exactly who she’s singing about, but her actual girlfriend stars in the video with her. “With that video, I had to question if I wanted to put my real-life personal relationship on display, there are parts of me that I do want to keep for myself. Sexuality is a complicated thing, but you should be proud of it, and you should never feel shame about it. The more I can put that out there, the more it normalises it and what better way than by celebrating a real relationship.”
Growing up, Heather never really had a gay role model in music “to be comforted by and look up to,” she says. “I wish I had, though, because music is the one thing in the world that makes me feel less alone.” So, she’s decided to make sure her fans never go without.
When the band played their biggest headline show yet at London’s Kentish Town Forum, Heather wore a customised leather jacket that had the phrase “sexuality is not a choice” sprawled across the back. It felt like a real declaration of intent and the song ‘Tomorrow’ (which features that line) sees Pale Waves meaning inclusive business. “I really do believe that sexuality isn’t a choice. Some people view it as a decision you’ve made, there are conversion camps that think you can beat the gay out of you, which is awful. I hate that people can be so misguided.”
“[My DMs are full of] young people whose parents don’t accept them for who they are, which is really damaging. It tricks the kid into thinking they’re strange for being who they truly are. I have so many fans messaging me every day about the struggle of coming to terms with their own sexuality and how they’re petrified about being honest with their family about it. As an artist but also as a human being, I felt like I had to say something. I do have a platform, and maybe it’s not the biggest, but it’s a place where I can be as honest as I possibly can. Just by singing ‘sexuality isn’t a choice’, it can reassure people that they aren’t wrong for being gay. I want this album to be a comfort blanket for them.”
While a lot of ‘Who Am I?’ was written by Heather to answer that question, ‘Tomorrow’ is for the fans. “It’s for everyone who feels like giving up on life. I know how difficult it can be, and I know how hard it is to find the positive in things right now. I’m really glad I wrote that song because the pandemic is affecting a lot of people’s mental health. I’ve already received so many messages from fans saying it has helped them and it’s sort of kept them alive… and they’ve only heard live versions on YouTube. I hope that these lyrics really resonate with people because I was just trying to be as honest as I possibly could.”
Elsewhere on the record, there’s the rumbling fire of ‘You Don’t Own Me’. “[It’s about] just being a woman. In this industry, especially, I’ve had a lot of experiences where men look down on me or treat me differently because I’m a woman. I see it happening to other women on a daily basis as well, and it’s outrageous that in this day and age, women are still fighting for equality.
“There’s still such a journey ahead of us. I feel like you could ask pretty much any woman in the world if they’ve had to listen to a sexist remark, been in a situation where a man has made them feel uncomfortable, grabbed them inappropriately or even worse. I guarantee they’d all have a list of shitty experiences, that’s how horrible this world can be sometimes.
“[That track acts as] a fuck you song to men but also, a fuck you to those older generations of women who refuse to let progress happen. I’ve had older women criticise me for my makeup or how I look, which is bizarre. I remember Ciara and I went out in their hometown, and these 65-year-old women were shouting ‘Frankenstein’ at me. I didn’t say anything back, but Ciara was ready to fight.
“Obviously, there is a lot of anger within that song, but I didn’t want it to be a rant. I wanted it to be smart, and I wanted to write it in the appropriate way.” Live, Heather reckons that song will give the band their best moments and because Pale Waves are often one of the few groups on festival bills that aren’t all blokes, it sees her taking on the responsibility of being that voice. “I needed to educate myself and grow up to be able to write these songs on the second album. I hope they bring people great comfort, make them feel less alone and feel normal in the best way possible.” Some things will never change though, as Heather once again tells us “We’re going to aim to do an EP after this record comes out.”
With the band growing into who they are as individuals – including surviving a horrific bus crash that could have cost Hugo, Charlie and Ciara their lives as well as enduring a hyper-intense first album campaign and navigating a pandemic to finish their second record – Pale Waves have understandably changed a lot since Dork first put them on the cover at the close of 2017.
“I was talking to Hugo about the bus crash the other day.” Heather had decided to fly to Berlin for their next show with Halsey instead of driving. “He said how he wouldn’t change a thing about it, because it taught him such a massive lesson. They’ve all grown as people and become better versions of themselves.”
The pandemic gave them all a chance to recover, without having to throw themselves back into the turbulence of international touring. Going forward, Pale Waves are going to be approaching their live schedule with a bit more care. “I felt like I was playing a show every night of my life, which is very demanding. The pandemic is the only reason I got a break, and I’ve learned that I probably shouldn’t be pushing myself to the point of physical or mental exhaustion. I’m not going to strain myself as much as I did on that first album.”
So after all that change, does Heather have a better idea of who she is? “I knew this question was going to get asked, but I couldn’t give you a defined answer. I know that I’ve come such a long way mentally than where I was before I wrote this album. I’m a lot happier now, a lot more sane, and a lot more comfortable with my sexuality. I feel like who I am now is such a better version of myself, and I’m excited to continue that journey.” She is done living up to other people’s expectations. Or as she sings on ‘You Don’t Own Me’, “I’d rather pull out my teeth than be what you want me to be.”
“On the first album, I cared about what people thought of me a lot more. But now I’ve really grown up and accepted that happiness comes from within. It’s not about validation from other people, or how many likes you get on an Instagram post, it’s just about being who you truly are. Find the things that bring you joy and eliminate things that are toxic in your life. I know I was trying to please other people too much on that first record, but with this new one, I let go of all those chains that were trying to hold me back. Now, there are no fucks given.”
Pale Waves’ album ‘Who Am I?’ is out 12th February.