It’s a new chapter for indie rock band Pale Waves, one that lead singer Heather Baron-Gracie tells HL will be one about authenticity and staying ‘honest to yourself.’
“We got so much shit for the first album,” Heather Baron-Gracie of Pale Waves tells HollywoodLife, “where people said that all the songs sounded the same, which really frustrated me.” That frustration is just one of the many motivating factors behind Who Am I?, the band’s sophomore release, out today (Feb. 12). Three years after debuting with My Mind Make Noises, Pale Waves – Heather, Ciara Doran, Hugo Silvani, and Charlie Wood – signal a new direction, both sonically and lyrically, with Who Am I? “I really wanted every song to have its own personality and to be super diverse,” Heather says in an email interview. “I wanted it to all exist within the same world, but I wanted each one to have its own identity.
“I had to branch out, and I had to take influences from very strong roots and combine them. I definitely wasn’t scared of trying new things,” she adds. This fearless exploration – in both sound and subject-matter – resulted in an album packed with unflinching emotion. Who Am I? demonstrates a more mature sound for Pale Waves, one that will surprise those expecting a continuation of the light synth-pop of My Mind Makes Noises. This follow-up carries more gravity with each song, and that makes those weighty moments heavier (“You Don’t Own Me,” “Tomorrow”) and those lighter touches (“Run To,” “I Just Needed You”) more euphoric when they soar high above the crowds.
This bravery extends into the album’s lyrical content. Who Am I? marks a lot of “firsts” for the band. It’s the first since three members of the band – Ciara, Hugo, and Charlie – were involved in a near-fatal bus accident when their double-decker slid off an icy road while traveling from Sweden to Germany (the wreck, as Ciara wrote later, would “stay with me forever.”) Who Am I? is also the first album since drummer Ciara came out as non-binary and the first since Heather went public with her own sexuality.
Never an easy task to open up such an intimate side of oneself to the world, Heather’s struggle of acceptance was beautifully captured in the video for the album’s second single, “She’s My Religion.” She tells HL that she felt “anxious” about making this video because it let the world “see me and see my personal relationship up close. I was letting them in to another section of my life that I was able to keep to myself, and now I’ve given that away.”
It’s a gift that many are already cherishing. NME’s review for Who Am I? credit the influence of 2000’s pop-rock in making an album that “capture(s) their optimism of a new life worth living, but never shy away from laying bare the challenges of doing so in times like these.” Heather doesn’t shy from expressing her love for these influences, professing admiration for Avril Lavigne, Courtney Love and other late-90s/early 2000s rock goddesses.
Heather tells HollywoodLife about these influences, the challenges of recording Who Am I?, which Pale Waves song she’d love to hear Courtney Love sing, and why she already considers this new album a success.
HollywoodLife: Who Am I? was originally slated for a 2020 release, but it was pushed back. Have you felt anxious to share this new album with the world, given the personal nature of the songs? Or has the unforeseen delay given you a chance to reflect on the work? Like, have you spent the last year falling deeply in love with each track?
Heather: A part of me is slightly anxious because I feel like, as an artist, when you’re opening yourself up, there is always some anxiety there as it’s self-confessed. You’re putting yourself out there to be judged and to be read by everyone. But at the same time, it’s all part of the job. It’s all part of being an artist. I believe if you want to be a true songwriter, then you need to stay authentic, stay honest to yourself, and express what is truly real rather than just writing for the sake of it. So, I’m ready for it. I’m not too anxious about it. I think the only thing that sort of made me feel a bit anxious was the “She’s My Religion” video, and that was because I was sort of letting the world see me and see my personal relationship up close. I was letting them in to another section of my life that I was able to keep to myself, and now I’ve given that away.
In a lot of the press about Pale Waves and the upcoming Who Am I?, the name Avril Lavigne is mentioned a lot. You’re not shy about her being a major influence, so I was curious – what do you think is your most Avril-esque quality?
I think my attitude is the most similar. Especially when she was younger, like around my age, she wanted to stand out. She wanted to not be the norm. She was ready to sort of call people out on their bullshit. I admire that so much, and I feel like I’ve really taken on that persona. I love artists and women like Courtney Love and Liz Phair because they have that same mentality. They have a sort of “don’t tell me what to fucking do” vibe. I love it.
Similarly, since you’re an inspiration for this current generation of music fans, what – if someone were to say, ‘I want to be like Heather Baron-Gracie because she’s _____,” what do you want them to say? That she’s fearless, that she’s cool, that she’s badass?
That she doesn’t shy away from who she truly is. That she’s real. That she embraces who she truly is, and that she’s not scared of being judged or of people saying nasty things because people say nasty things all the time. I just try and be me at all times because that’s what I want to stand for.
I mean, just yesterday, this musclehead guy commented on my picture saying, “Why are you so weird?” And I replied, saying, “Why you so rude?” And then he goes, “But you’re pretty though, tea or coffee?” Like, what?? So, you basically call me “weird,” and then you try to flirt with me? Like, how predictable is that behavior? Anyway, yeah, I would just hope that people see that I am who I am, and I’m not trying to be someone or something I’m not. I’m just me.
You’ve also cited Courtney Love, Alanis Morrissette, and Liz Phair as influences? What is it that draws you to this vibe, this frequency, this attitude?
I think they’re all really unapologetic within their songwriting and just their persona like we were talking about before. I admire that, and I love every single one of their songs, their songwriting ability, and the things they discuss. Alanis Morrissette’s concepts for songs are so interesting. Look at “Ironic.” I wish that I wrote that song. It’s literally such a timeless song and concept overall. She’s just such an intelligent woman. I’ve listened to various podcasts of her, and she’s so intelligent but also super talented at the same time.
Bonus question: If Dirty Hit said Pale Waves was putting out a 7” for Record Store Day where you covered a Hole song on one side and Courtney did a Pale Waves song on the other, which song would you cover, and which song would you want her to cover?
That’s so tough! I think I would cover “Awful,” and I would get her to cover “You Don’t Own Me.” 100%. She would be so good at singing “You Don’t Owe Me.” I wish that I had a voice more like hers because it’s just so badass.
I find “Run To” to be utterly charming. The pre-chorus use of piano to be brilliant. Were there moments on this album that you pushed yourself to try new songs – like, an “f-ck it, let’s break out the marimba” moment?
Yeah. We got so much shit for the first album where people said that all the songs sounded the same, which really frustrated me, so with the second album, I really wanted every song to have its own personality and to be super diverse. I wanted it to all exist within the same world, but I wanted each one to have its own identity. I had to branch out, and I had to take influences from very strong roots and combine them. I definitely wasn’t scared of trying new things.
Would you ever record an album separately, like you did with Who Am I?, ever again? You’ve said that recording during a pandemic “took all the art and fun out of making a record,” but have you come to see any pros with this trans-Atlantic recording method?
Obviously, in an ideal world, I would always record the Pale Waves records with every single member present in the room because everyone brings their own thing to the record. I write the songs, but I play guitar very differently than how Hugo plays guitar. Charlie is incredibly talented with the bass, so he has his own thing going on with that, and Ciara is really creative. I would always hope to record with the full band there, because I feel a lot of pressure when writing the songs, and it’s nice to have the pressure taken off with the recordings. I don’t really enjoy recording that much because I’m more of a writer rather than a player, so we all end up playing to our strengths. I tend to give all the difficult guitar parts to Hugo, which is what I think works best. I think he likes that too.
Recording the album separately definitely got it done faster because with less people in the room there are less opinions. I tend to think that, when people are recording their own instruments, they can really think about every detail. Hugo, for example, is very particular with good guitar sounds. He’s very intelligent with that. I am very much more just like, “Oh, that sounds good. Let’s do it.”
What would you say is the most “LA” element of Who Am I?, if you were to pinpoint such a thing?
I think, overall, this record is quite optimistic. “I Just Needed You” really contradicts the LA lifestyle, which is interesting because I’m really sort of discussing how materialistic things can’t bring you long-term happiness, but I feel like the record really has a sense of optimism sonically. I think it’s definitely the weather and the nature aspects of L.A. that really put me in a great mindset. I also wrote the tracks in L.A., so I was in a better headspace.
Who Am I? is, as you’ve mentioned prior, a celebration of yourself, a declaration of your once-hidden sexuality, and a mark of a new direction for your band. By that, is this album already a “success” in your eyes? Or is there something that needs to happen for it to achieve that distinction? What does success look like to you in 2021, after all that’s gone down?
On the first record, I was really focused on where the record fell in the charts and on how many we sold. I’ve really not paid attention to that this time around because I’m very much on the side of my mentality when I was writing “I Just Needed You.” I’m really proud of this album and all the hard work that we put in, so I’m not really focusing on where it lands in the charts anymore. People will connect with it if it’s good enough, and that’s all that I can really think about. I don’t want to put too much pressure on numbers or sales. I just know that I am genuinely proud of it, and that makes it a success in my eyes.
Who Am I? is out now.