Waves hello and goodbye

Heather Baron-Gracie has drawn on some childhood influences for the second Pale Waves album. But the Preston-born frontwoman is preparing to move on to a grungier and angrier phase – and back to LA

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Heather Baron-Gracie hasn’t had chance to get bored in lockdown. She’s been so busy with Pale Waves’ second album and on top of that she’s spectacularly flouted international advice and restrictions to go travelling – through both space and time.

“I feel like I’m speaking more openly, you know, about sexuality or about society.”

First, she headed to early noughties Canada and the US to draw on the pop-punk sounds of Avril Lavigne and Paramore. Once she and her bandmates had seamlessly woven them into the fabric of Who Am I? Baron-Gracie headed further backwards, looking for a more raw, grungy sound and finding common ground with nineties female artists like Alanis Morissette and Courtney Love, who are giving her lessons in writing angry songs. When she’s done there, who knows, maybe she’ll head to the southern states and indulge her love of country – all the time maintaining the woke sensibilities of a 26-year-old woman in 2021, of course.

Preston-born Baron-Gracie ponders the logistics. “My band members don’t really like country, so I have a problem here. Maybe, when times aren’t as crazy busy, I’ll go off and write a solo album and just put it out there. Then I don’t need to upset them but I get to fulfil my country little love.”

Before that though, the priority will be channelling her inner Avril and actually touring the current album.

“I took all of those influences that I had as a kid and wrote Who Am I? If I was to give this record to the kid version of me, I know that I would have loved it. I would have loved finding comfort in a girl being just themselves and being unapologetic, being out there, having a bit of an attitude. And that’s what I liked about Avril Lavigne – she had attitude.”

But while Lavigne sang about prim ballet dancers muscling in on her Sk8er Boi (but inevitably getting knocked up, don’t worry) and Complicated relationships with boys who act like somebody else around everyone else, Baron-Gracie is singing about worshipping a woman despite her imperfections (She’s My Religion) and refusing to be a monogamous trophy girlfriend (You Don’t Own Me).

“I took it in more of a direction where I feel like I’m speaking more openly, you know, about sexuality or about society. If you look at those Avril albums, and artists around that time, there wasn’t really much of that. It was really dominated by songs about love, which I do have on this album, because love is such a universal feeling, but I feel like I’ve just moved along with the times – being more open and honest and leaving more of a message in the world.”

Pale Waves have evolved too, from 2018’s debut album My Mind Makes Noises, with its 1975-produced double A-side singles There’s A Honey and Television Romance, to Who Am I? whose songs are more transparent, confident and frank. While Baron-Gracie is visibly still drawn to the gothic, with a look that lands somewhere between The Craft and The Cure, colour and pop have been injected into the second album’s aesthetic. She’s swept the black curtains away from her face a bit and is taller when she strums her guitar.

“I’ve evolved in everything that I’m standing for and my message throughout this second album, through my song writing and as a person.” she says with self-assurance. “Naturally, they coexist. You evolve as a person and your art evolves and you become a lot more comfortable and confident with the message that you want to portray.”

The video for She’s My Religion was filmed in Hastings with Baron-Gracie and her real-life girlfriend Kelsi Luck. It features intimate scenes of the pair that are both passionate and poignant and it climaxes in a moment of emotional healing.

“I wanted to portray that a same-sex relationship is just as normal as any other relationship,” she says from her home in London, where she’s been living with Luck throughout this leg of lockdown. “People tend to really over-sexualise them or play them off as playful or experimental and that’s not the case.”

Baron-Gracie thinks she’s achieved her aim but shifting the male gaze was not easy even with her clear agenda, a gay female director and a predominantly female crew because “you know how straight guys can be sometimes”.

“A few people involved wanted to take it even further and me and Kelsi actually had to fight for it not to be. I just wasn’t comfortable with that. We had to remind people what it was about and what we wanted to portray and us getting down in our underwear and rolling on top of each other was not something I was down for.”

The filming itself, the singer says, wasn’t difficult. “It was actually really natural. It was just me and her being ourselves. If anything, it was quite fun, where some video shoots can be quite tiring because you have to keep a character up.”

But she admits she felt vulnerable, intimidated and scared at revealing such a personal aspect of her life.

“As an artist you don’t know how much to give away and how much to keep for yourself, so that was the tough part for me. But then I knew that I had a platform to represent same-sex relationships in a healthy way, so I felt sort of obliged to do that.”

The decision to be more open extends to Pale Waves’ drummer, Ciara Doran, who in February came out as trans/non-binary, citing a period of reflection throughout the pandemic. In a handwritten letter to fans entitled How I Feel and posted on Instagram, Doran said: “I was finally forced to face myself, without distraction or other influence. I was given space when I finally opened my eyes and saw what could be. Maybe I could be somebody I love and recognise.”

Baron-Gracie believes they have been bolstered by their fans who, through social media, have a direct line to the band. They dispel any outmoded music-industry wisdom that artists should conceal their sexuality for fear of alienating those fans.

“It’s been a long time coming and people in general are becoming a lot more open-minded and a lot more honest. It’s amazing the way we’re moving forward and not being in fear of being judged and I knew that I had to play my part in this world,” says the frontwoman. “We have a very gay fan base and I receive messages daily from kids struggling to come out to their parents or telling me that I’ve inspired them in coming out to their parents and their friends, and being naturally who they are, which is amazing. So I have to represent the community.”

Because of their direct line to fans, Baron-Gracie feels Pale Waves, a fourpiece rounded out by guitarist Hugo Silvani and bassist Charlie Wood, haven’t suffered too much during the pandemic. They had just returned to LA from supporting American singer Halsey on a European tour, to record the second half of Who Am I? with producer Rich Costey (Foo Fighters, Muse), when the severity of the situation hit home. The rest of the band flew home to the UK but, with her girlfriend also based in LA, Baron-Gracie stayed on and continued working on the album alone, while her bandmates recorded their parts remotely.

“I knew exactly how I wanted everything, all the parts were written, but the fun and the life were stripped away because I wasn’t being able to record with my bandmates. When I was recording I had to be on the other side of the room in a mask and gloves – it was really sterile.”

Videos were shot between lockdowns, facilitated by social distancing and Covid testing everyone on site. And in terms of touring the time was right to take a break. On the final leg of that European tour in 2020 the band – excluding Baron-Gracie who had taken a plane journey with Luck to avoid a long drive – were involved in road accident. Their tour bus hit black ice on the way to Berlin and rolled off the road.

“I was in Berlin eating ramen and Ciara had called me a few times and I actually said to Kelsi, I bet they’re drunk and they want to FaceTime me, so I called them back and Ciara’s voice is something that I’ll never forget. It was absolutely awful. She screamed ‘the bus has crashed’ and my cynical mind went to the worst fucking conclusion. I was just like, is everyone alive? And somehow everyone made it out alive and didn’t really suffer any major physical damage, but it definitely messed them up mentally, especially Ciara and Hugo.

“Hugo’s doing a lot better now, but I know Ciara is still battling with it. But they’ve all come so far.”

A step back from touring has consequently been a positive, “in particular for them three because I don’t think any of them would have benefited from jumping back on a tour bus right after”. She is concerned that going back on tour, when they are able, will be “triggering” for the band but is hopeful “we can give them the love and support that they’ll need to be able to carry on if we just take it one step at a time”.

Dynamics between band members, who first came together as students in Manchester in 2014, have also changed in the past 12 months.

“We are all incredibly close and they’re my best friends, but we’ve all done so much growing up over this past year and a half, for various reasons like the bus crash and the pandemic, and we’ve all established our own lives a lot more.

“It feels really healthy, our relationships with one another right now. We’re not consumed by each other 24/7, which we were at a point because we were on tour and we didn’t really have our own lives established. We didn’t have our own homes and we didn’t have our separate lives to Pale Waves. Now we’ve all achieved that and it feels really good.”

Baron-Gracie is as uncertain as any of us about what 2021 holds but, restrictions or not, she’ll be doing some travelling. First there’s her move back to LA, which she calls her second home. By the time of publication she should already be unpacking her California gothic wardrobe. And then there’s some time travelling through song writing too.

“I’m ready to move on to the next piece now. I want to go a bit more grunge. I feel like the messages within the third album will be even more important. I want to get some more angry songs on there.”

A year in passing

One era Pale Waves won’t be revisiting any time soon is the seventies. The band was initially propelled into the limelight by Dirty Hit label mates The 1975, supporting them on their 2017 US tour and playing a sold-out Madison Square Garden. The 1975 also had a hand in the production of Pale Waves’ debut album and frontman Matty Healy took creative control of their earliest videos. It was a collaboration that culminated in an NME cover featuring Healy and Baron-Gracie, the latter appearing very much in the former’s image.

“It was a friendship. It was really natural. It wasn’t a corporate decision like, oh, can you put your name on this because this is going to advance this new band,” says Baron-Gracie. But the decision not to involve Healy and The 1975 on Pale Waves’ second album, she adds, was a deliberate one.

“Originally there was going to be a song with The 1975 on this album, but I’ve just grown tired of being in their shadow. They are amazing and they’ve done so much for us as a band and really helped us in so many aspects of this career, but at the same time people, press and literally everyone just associated us with them, constantly at one point. I was getting called the second Matty Healy and I’m just like, oh my god, give me my own identity!

“It became really draining and it’s not their fault – it’s just how big they are – but we needed to have our own identity as a band and we needed to show that we are worth it.”

As an indie label Baron-Gracie says Dirty Hit does encourage collaboration among its artists and she can see Pale Waves helping out other artists. “I want to actually start writing for other people in the future,” she adds.

Of the current roster Baron-Gracie is a fan of the grungy 20-year-old Filipino-born British singer-songwriter Beabadoobee and new signing Viji. “She’s just got a really cool aesthetic and her music sounds American, which I kind of like.”

Heather Baron-Gracie has drawn on some childhood influences for the second Pale Waves album. But the Preston-born frontwoman is already preparing to move on to a new grungier and angrier phase – and back to LA

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