He’s Matty Healy of art-pop heroes The 1975. She’s Heather Baron-Gracie of pop newcomers Pale Waves. The first time Matty heard Heather’s band he declared he needed to work with them. Two singles, a video and a mega US tour later, Pale Waves are on course to be your new favourite band. We meet the mentor and mentee in London.
The hub of The 1975’s empire is not, as you might expect, an airy, pink neon-lit, minimalist space with Rothkos hanging on the walls. It is, instead, a top-floor unit in a building on a courtyard trading estate in west London. The floor below has a place stocking Christmas supplies, and even on this humid September day, Santa’s grotto twinkles back at you through the open door.
Upstairs is the HQ of Dirty Hit, the record label founded by The 1975’s manager, Jamie Oborne, as a vehicle for the band he discovered as Cheshire teenagers. Now it’s home to some of the UK’s most exciting bands, from the established, such as Wolf Alice, to rising stars such as The Japanese House – whose ‘Pools To Bathe In’ EP was produced by 1975 frontman Matty Healy and drummer George Daniel – and new signing No Rome. There’s a particular up-and-coming band that Healy has really taken under his wing, taking them on tour in the States, co-producing their first two singles and directing the video for the second, ‘Television Romance’ – and that band is Pale Waves.
“I was just so excited to hear a band that was positioned in the left, an alternative band, that was so in tune with pop sensibilities,” says Healy, sat in Oborne’s office, the pungent smell of marijuana emanating from somewhere about his person. “It kind of reminded me of The Cure or The Primitives or bands like that – it’s the happy/sad thing loads of bands have thrived on. I saw them first at Dingwalls, and there was this truth in there. There’s a naivety and a purity to them and an honesty to them that kind of comes through in their music.”
Frontwoman Heather Baron-Gracie, who receives a warm, brotherly hug from Matty after plonking herself on the sofa next to him, puts it more succinctly: “I just love pop music, and when it makes you feel something, it’s even better.” Heather, 22, formed the band four years ago with her best mate Ciara Doran. Joining later were guitarist Hugo Silvani and bassist Charlie Wood. Two women, two men; two goths, two skinny indie boys – it’s a look that shouldn’t work, but it just does. “People say we’re like two sets of twins,” says Heather. “You couldn’t dress Hugo and Charlie up as goths because it just wouldn’t work. Well, we do the make-up sometimes and dress them up in my little skirts and things – but that’s just for us.”
Matty is at pains to point out the precise extent of his involvement in Pale Waves. “The songs were there, so my involvement in writing was only editing,” he says. “I always have a fear of being overbearing. I know what it’s like to be want to be prided on your own merits, and I would hate to be resented by an artist for feeling I’d strong-armed my involvement for my own personal gain.”
Mainly, the message is that Pale Waves are perfectly capable of writing songs on their own – Matty’s a facilitator, not a svengali. And what songs they are. The group’s two singles so far are the near-flawless sugar rush of 2016’s ‘There’s A Honey’ and the heart-melting crush of 2017 follow-up ‘Television Romance’.
The video for the latter was directed by Matty. What’s he like in director mode? “I’m very aggressive, but Heather gives as much as she gets so it’s all good,” he says. “We don’t do miming, we do have the track on at full volume. So I have to shout above the track, ‘LOOK SEXY!’ That’s pretty much the only thing that I shout: ‘LOOK AT THE CAMERA! LOOK F**KING SEXY!’”
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The video sees Pale Waves performing in an Ashton-under-Lyne council flat in that looks like a hipster’s wet dream – all retro furnishings and kitsch collectables. It actually all belongs to the 92-year-old woman who lives there. “She had no clue what was going on but she was loving it, watching videos of The 1975 on people’s phones,” says Matty. “She didn’t actually believe it was me in the ‘Love Me’ video, because I was there with my Spielberg cap on taking it all very seriously.”
The first time Heather saw The 1975, it was accompanying her cousin, who’d won tickets to a gig. The last time, it was when Pale Waves were supporting the band on their two-month 2017 tour of huge US venues. “The first night was absolutely mental. I couldn’t even look up because I was like, ‘Oh my god’. We went from playing to about 10 people in Ireland to 7,000 people in Phoenix. It was a bit unreal.” Did Matty have any advice about that? “Yeah,” says Heather. “He said, ‘Just get on with it!’”
Though they’re friends, the tour didn’t provide much time to hang out. Matty was frazzled from the months on the road, and trying to get his head around his own band’s next album. “I was quite busy and quite down and quite emo – I’d been on tour for so f**king long,” he says. “We were pretty much doing a show every day and then when you have a day off you’re in your own little hotel and the lights are out. But it was great to watch Pale Waves grow as a band.”
Heather often writes songs with US coming-of-age films playing in the background for inspiration – her favourite being ‘Adventureland’. That sense of the apocalyptic emotion of teenage life lives in her lyrics too. “Those films set you up for going to America, but when I went I was kinda like, it isn’t what I expected. Like, we went to Hollywood at midnight and I was so scared because there’s a lot of mental people just roaming about. I was going all, ‘Take me home!’”
1975 fans have already embraced Pale Waves, and not just on Matty’s say-so. The bands share a mentality for finding romance in the everyday, and each group is formed around a creative core based on a tight friendship: Healy and best mate George, Heather and Ciara.
“That’s the thing I identify with most, the duality between them reminds me of the relationship between me and George,” says Matty, who, post-success, bought a house across the road from his bandmate to make sure he’s only ever a short skateboard ride away. “I did notice on tour that they never really did separate, never one without the other.”
Heather found Ciara on social media before starting university. “I saw a picture of her in this big group chat and I thought, ‘She’s the only one who really looks like someone I’ll get along with’. The first day we got there we met up and haven’t really been apart since then. I get scared thinking that she might not be a part of my life one day.”
Though they formed in Manchester, Heather’s home town is Preston, a no-nonsense city where the way she dresses – Robert Smith of The Cure by way of Robert Smith of The Cure – marks her out as someone different. “When I go back home to Preston, they do not take to it very well,” she says. Needless to say, her look isn’t as big a deal to her as it is to other people. “Everyone who meets me thinks I’m in a heavy metal band,” she says. “I never really call myself a goth, but others do. I’m like, maybe I am a goth?”
Matty – who adopted his own take on Heather and Ciara’s style for NME’s cameras – says their commitment to it is a mark of their authenticity. “The make-up, the hair, the whole thing, it’s not a set-up for the band. I can see those two girls being like that and needing to be in a band to express that, needing to find each other.”
Though she stands out, Heather says her teenage years were about “keeping a low profile. I didn’t really find people that I got along with,” she explains. “At school I would go to a room to play piano when everybody else was talking in the cafeteria. I’m not really into that – I’m not really a massive social person. Ciara’s always telling me off for being socially awkward but I’m just like, ‘I can’t’.”
Heather has been writing songs since the age of 11. As a teen, she would write “kind of Avril Lavigne pop”; more recently it was “folksy, emotional and stripped-back acoustic stuff like Ben Howard – not very cool music.” It changed when she met Ciara. “She said, ‘Lets try something different, because I want to make people dance at our shows and not kinda just cry: they can cry and dance.’”
Right from that first week at university, Pale Waves became Heather and Ciara’s sole focus. The band rehearse daily, and dedicate every minute of spare time to music. University was a slog she had to get through. Jobs were another unwelcome distraction. “My parents tried to get me into this job entering numbers into a computer-based system for the NHS in St Helens, and I was just not doing it,” she says. “I went to the interview looking like this, but they offered me the job anyway. It was Monday to Friday with some weekends and my brain would just be fried.”
Heather’s days of keeping a low profile may soon be over. Even now, and particularly in Manchester, she’s recognised on the street by a growing band of obsessed fans. “They always call me ‘queen’. It’s dead cute. Or ‘mum’, I get ‘mum’ a lot,” she says. “I keep seeing girls dressed like me. They ask me about make-up – I’m not even that good at make-up! It’s quite scary having people look up to you. I don’t want to mess anyone up.”
The adulation looks set to grow as Pale Waves make their careful, precise steps forward. Later today, Heather’s back with the rest of the band in the studio recording an EP. An album will follow, but not for at least a year. “With the album, I think we’re just going to show another side to us which is a lot more emotional and not as – I don’t know how to put it… Just, like, a bit more intense.”
Matty perks up. “You mean like emotionally intense?”
“Good. That’s what I’m hoping for.”