By Flora Pick, Deputy Music Editor
Pale Waves have had a more turbulent year than most, which is saying something.
The band had aimed to record their sophomore release, but being severed from one another in the midst of a pandemic is hardly conducive to an easy ride. Yet, from these less-than-ideal conditions, lead singer and guitarist Heather Baron-Gracie has managed to grow as a musical leader while maturing into her hyper-visible position as frontwoman.
When I speak with Heather, Pale Waves have just released the music video to accompany their most recent single, ‘She’s My Religion’. On an appropriately gothic road-trip, Heather and her girlfriend dance and kiss their way through a mansion and flames. Though she came out in a tweet back in 2018, this marks the first time that the singer has permitted her fans access to this aspect of her life in the band’s music.
We discuss the difficulty in sussing out where boundaries lie with fans: not only in terms of sexuality, but in granting access to her real-life relationship, all while taking on the responsibility her visibility affords. Heather shares how she reached a point where she’s comfortable: ‘With the first album we were so naïve, especially me. I was still 23. I hadn’t the experience at that time – it was gained in a 3-year period between the first and second album. I grew so much more as a person, had so many new experiences, met so many new people, travelled the world, and I just basically grew up. I became a lot more comfortable with myself, with who I am and what I wanted to display to the world.
‘At the start of Pale Waves I felt very uneasy about how much I ‘give away’ and how much I keep for myself. And it still does bother me’ – she reflects on the recent music video – ‘I thought ‘do I really want to give away my actual, real relationship, and do I want to let people in even more than I already have?’ There’s no one to tell you how much you should give away and how much you should keep for yourself.’
It's unlikely such a video would be thinkable without the host of LGBT fans Pale Waves have had a tendency to attract. An unabashedly pop band with an off-kilter aesthetic, there’s always been a certain sensibility that has attracted queer fans. ‘It’s pretty intense. I try to speak to my fans on a personal level as much as I can, because I want to provide comfort as much as I can. I feel like I receive so many stories a day of kids struggling with their sexuality, struggling to come out to their family because their family isn’t exactly open-minded. I feel I have a lot of baggage put on me daily — but that’s just a responsibility of being an artist and representing this community. A lot of people, especially young fans, come to me because they want to find comfort in me.’
Despite the emotional toll, of hearing stories of unaccepting families and being relied upon as a role model, Heather explains how ultimately, she’s grateful to be able to step into the position she occupies: ‘I want to be that person I was looking for when I was younger. I feel, with time, that people have sort of expanded and become a lot more open with music and what they want to speak about; back then it was kind of restricted with artists, they weren’t as open as we are now - I don’t ever remember seeing, y’know, a gay woman.’
Even when representation does crop up, it tends to disappoint: ‘a lot of the time [artists are] displaying it in a playful, experimental way, and it’s exhausting. It’s like – wow – can you not just represent this in a real-life situation? Do you have to oversexualise it? Represent it for what it truly is. It feels like a lot of people, a lot of women, try to put a girl-on-girl video out there just for views.
Just like the Katy Perry song — ‘I kissed a girl and I liked it’! Did you really? Come on! I didn’t want to represent it in that way, I wanted it to be really truthful and honest. I knew that I was never going to do a video that was with, like, an actress - I’m not a good enough actress to fake chemistry anyway. It’s just not me as an artist. I try to be as authentic as I can be; the only time I was going to do that was with someone that I adored and loved.’
With the upcoming release of their newest album, Who Am I?, Pale Waves are just as willing to wear their early 00s, mall goth influences on their sleeve, just as they wore their 80s nu-wave sensibility on their first. The cover immediately calls to mind Avril Lavigne’s 2002 teen angst-ridden classic Let Go. As the pandemic has many indulging in nostalgia as a salve, I wonder what it is that inspired Heather to turn back to these icons of childhood: ‘It’s just the album that I would have wrote for my younger self, the music I really love. I don’t necessarily love 80s music — the first album was very 80s, that was more so Ciara (Doran, the group’s drummer) than me. Ciara wrote the majority of that music and I wrote the songs, pretty much.’
‘I didn’t want to write another record that was just an 80s album. I had already done that. I wanted to take it back to my childhood roots and Avril Lavigne was a massive influence for me - maybe not her new stuff so much, but the first 3 albums of hers I just adored. I was a tomboy growing up, I wasn’t a girl who played with dolls and wanted to put makeup on - I wanted to go out and skateboard with messy hair that hadn’t been brushed for a week and roll around in the grass and play football and play on my electric guitar. She was the first representation that made me feel like it was ok not to fit the norm and I really latched onto her. She played a massive part in my life. She has influenced this second album because I’ve been so dominant on the whole thing, the music this time too. Every little piece of this campaign and album has stemmed from me.’
This newfound influence over the band’s sound is partially the result of what Heather describes as an ‘artistic break’ between herself and drummer Ciara, as the latter is off on their own project, co-writing and producing for other artists: ‘They’re really homing in on their craft while I’m writing these songs, and I’m really enjoying it too.’
While Heather and Ciara were in LA over lockdown in order to stay with their (‘We love our American girls!’), the guys travelled back to be with their families in the UK; the band didn’t see one another for months: ‘It was only in August when we came back to London because we had to start this campaign. When ‘Change’ came out, the video shoot was the first time I’d seen them in so long! It was really weird. You go from spending pretty much every day of your life with these people when you’re touring - you fall asleep, they’re there, you wake up, they’re there, you take a shower… they’re there. Literally. And then you don’t see them. But you stay in touch.’
Who Am I marks not only a return to music for Pale Waves, but a return to each other’s company. Its difficult enough releasing a follow-up album in which you’re even more willing to flay yourself open for critical and fan consumption, and such difficulties are only compounded by the distance and isolation of COVID.
Heather tries to remain optimistic in striving for connection against the odds: ‘I feel like we have to be even more active on social media. I think we’re going to do livestreamed gigs of the full album around the time of release. I’ll be as active as I possibly can, even though social media is not my favourite thing in the world, but you have to do it if you want to be a musician. Just staying connected, for it to feel personal.’
Featured Image: Ian Cheek Press
Who Am I?, Pale Waves' sophomore LP, will be released on Dirty Hit on February 12th.