Hayley Williams: “Women’s rage has been such a catalyst for beautiful things”

NME finds the Paramore star on bracingly candid form as she reflects on death, divorce and her fiercely vulnerable solo album ‘Petals For Armor’

“I love flowers,” says Hayley Williams, one of the most distinctive vocalists of her generation. The firebrand singer of Paramore is, after a series of very public personal and professional crises, striking out alone with her first solo album, the fittingly titled ‘Petals For Armor’. “They’re the oldest metaphor for rebirth and resilience.”

Like most people, Williams is holed up at home due to the lockdown. “I like my house to look like an English grandma with a cute garden might live in it,” she beams, giving NME a makeshift tour and showing off various bouquets – hydrangeas from outside, fresh blooms in the kitchen, a dried bunch she received for her 31st birthday – over video call. Alf, her adorable goldendoodle, snores nearby on the floor.

These ideas of rebirth and resilience are at the centre of Williams’ new record – released today (May 8) – the title of which offers a striking image of becoming stronger by wrapping yourself up in delicate, feather-light flowers. It’s about wearing your vulnerability on the outside, plain for all to see, a concept she excavates atop uneasy, tangled pop. Even in the album’s most immediate moments – the wonky hooks of ‘Dead Horse’, for example – darkness casts a shadow on every sugary note. After years of putting on a tough front, Hayley Williams is done with hiding.

hayley williams nme cover interview
Credit: Lindsey Byrnes

Paramore formed as teenagers in Franklin, Tennessee in 2004 and quickly became darlings of the alternative rock scene. First emerging as the bright new hope of alternative label Fueled By Ramen – home to the likes of Twenty One Pilots and, at the time, Fall Out Boy – the band were quickly propelled into the mainstream; their incendiary pop-punk travelled from the Warped Tour circuit to the top of the charts.

And, yes, behind the scenes Paramore have weathered more than their fair share of storms. In 2009, after the release of their third record ‘Brand New Eyes’, the Farro brothers – drummer Zac and lead guitarist Josh – dramatically quit the band, sharing a bitter exit statement in the process. Four years later, hot on the heels of the group’s lauded self-titled album, bassist Jeremy Davis left. That same summer even Williams secretly quit. For a time, guitarist Taylor York was the only remaining member of Paramore. Williams later described 2015 as “the worst year” of her life.

“From the outside, ‘Paramore’ was our most successful record,” she says now. “We won a Best Rock Song Grammy for ‘Ain’t It Fun’ and I got engaged – all this insanely cool shit was happening.” All these milestones left Williams feeling empty, however. “I spent most of my life trying to be so bulletproof and callous,” she shrugs. “I learned more from becoming pretty helpless after that.”

“Your deepest sorrow and your brightest joy – all of it can happen together”

With Paramore’s most recent album, 2017’s ‘After Laughter’, which saw Zac Farro return to the band, Williams began to confront that pain. Paramore crafted a new wave-inspired, neon-hued record that clashed light melodies with crushingly dark lyrics.

“I would say for a good half of that album, I was really in denial of my depression,” Williams says. As if she hadn’t had enough to contend with, she was also in the midst of a divorce from Chad Gilbert, guitarist in the pop-punk band New Found Glory. Touring ‘After Laughter’ became an intense and often gruelling experience. “God, there were a couple of times where I was bawling my eyes out before the show,” she admits.

Still, Williams held onto the positives during that tour (and particularly remembers one night in Berlin, when the band and crew “rallied around me to get me through the night”, after she publicly announced her divorce). “What always amazed me,” she says, “was that when the lights went up – even if I could still feel the heaviness – real joy would set in. It was confusing! Only now, in hindsight, can I understand. I was just starting to learn that as humans, one of the toughest and most vital lessons is: learn to hold both of those extremes. Make space for your deepest sorrow and your brightest joy. All of it can happen together.”

hayley williams paramore nme cover interview
Hayley Williams on the cover of NME

Three years ago – the same month in which Paramore released ‘After Laughter’ – Hayley Williams moved to the cottage that she’s speaking to NME from today. She wanted to start afresh. It was in a bad way when she first pitched up, but she was drawn to it all the same. “This house was infested with bats, it was dirty…” Williams says. “It was like me at the time.” She laughs wryly. “It needed a lot of exorcism.”

On arriving, she didn’t know what she wanted her life to look like. Having moved out of the farmhouse she’d once lived in with her ex, Williams was faced instead with a blank slate. “I had bought [that house] because I thought: ‘This is going to be my life, and maybe I’ll have children here’,” she says now. “I was really gonna get domesticated.” This place, she adds, “resonated with my spirit a lot more”.

Off-camera, there’s a sudden yapping disturbance – Alf has woken up. “What are you hearing, buddy?” she asks him. After a brief ruckus, she frees him into the garden. “Jeez,” Williams exclaims afterwards, flopping back onto the sofa. “And now the neighbours have woken up.”

It certainly seems as if Williams has created her own sanctuary, freed from the weight of what other people expected from her. “Yes,” she nods. “It wasn’t about trying to fit into this role of who I think I should be. There’s more texture here, a bit more grit. There’s something for me to take care of.”

hayley williams paramore nme cover interview
Credit: Lindsey Byrnes

‘Petals For Armor’ puts forward something of a love song to this new home – ‘Cinnamon’ details quiet and contented days spent talking to Alf, spicy smells wafting from the kitchen, and eating breakfast naked and alone, just because she can. “Home is where I’m feminine,” she sings. And as a whole, this new project has a lot to do with Williams tapping into a raw, threatening sort of femininity – where rage is not just valid, but necessary.

“What our bodies do by nature is barbaric,” she points out. “Having a personality of sweetness that is safe to people? That’s not femininity. Femininity is so much more dangerous than that.” She grins. “I live for that part.”

Williams adds that a French folktale called Bluebeard “changed my life”. The tale concerns a young woman who has been married off to a controlling man. Disobeying him, she opens up a forbidden door in his house. Inside this fairy tale room, she finds the gruesome truth – Bluebeard has murdered all of his previous wives. She’s next. And so with the help of her sisters, she kills him instead and inherits his castle. The story is an allegorical call to question and disobey patriarchal rules.

“As a woman I felt it was important to distance myself from ‘Misery Business’”

Bluebeard changed my entire perception of why I had to leave a toxic situation,” she explains, “and why I needed to figure out where my voice was coming from – what it sounded like, what it tasted like. People don’t really like angry women. But angry women have brought about so much wonderful change for society. It gets judged so quickly, but women’s rage has been such a catalyst for beautiful things, and it doesn’t need to be depicted as monstrous.”

In making her first solo record – 17 years into her musical career – she also found herself grappling with other expectations around what a frontwoman making a solo album should look like. Shortly before they released ‘Brand New Eyes’, still riding the final waves of their 2007 breakout album ‘Riot!’, Paramore supported No Doubt on their US tour. Comparisons between the two bands have persisted ever since. No Doubt and Paramore have one thing in common – they’re both fronted by women, the former by Gwen Stefani – but that’s about the extent of the overlap.

Referencing Stefani’s 2004 hit, Williams admits: “What I thought that people would predict [from my solo work] was another ‘Hollaback Girl’. To be really candid – and I don’t mean this in any offensive way – I really didn’t want to be like Gwen.”

She continues: “I felt a lot of anxiety about… do people want a crazy big pop record? What if this isn’t that, and it’s a letdown? When I ended up writing some songs that were poppier and dancier like ‘Dead Horse’, it was like, ‘Oh shit – am I a sell-out?’”

hayley williams paramore nme cover interview
Credit: Lindsey Byrnes

Ultimately, she says, she feels trepidation about releasing music under her own name: “Either way it feels like you can’t win because the position that lots of women are put in in this industry is that you can’t convince everyone what kind of artist you are. You just have to go out and be it.”

And so instead of penning a big pop record, she cast her ear back to artists who made her fall in love with music in the first place. Williams lived in Mississippi until she was 13. Her parents divorced when she was young and she later moved to Tennessee after the breakdown of her mum’s second marriage. “There’s a section of my life that I often forget, because it was shrouded in a lot of not-good stuff,” she says. “I loved listening to R&B and soul: Missy Elliott, Erykah Badu, TLC. I was inspired by them even though I knew my reality was very different,” she says.

“It’s interesting to be 31, and to have written all these songs drawing from that well,” she observes. “I remember walking into Good Vibrations, a record shop in Mississippi, with my dad when I was about eight. I heard [British soul band] Sade for the first time and that moment has never left me. Sade’s grooves are so sexy, but they’re tough: there was an overt feminine nature to them, but there were teeth, too.”

And by extension, Williams is also “honoured” when artists that sound nothing like Paramore cite her band as an influence. In particular, rapper Lil Uzi Vert’s love of the group “means a lot to me”, she says. “I am inspired by bands and artists that sound nothing like Paramore, too, and it goes into the soup that makes us who we are.”

hayley williams nme cover interview paramore
Credit: Lindsey Byrnes

For all her anxiety about what people might expect from her, Hayley Williams ignored her initial concerns about her solo record. When she was writing ‘Petals For Armor’, she felt like she was in the passenger seat as another force took the wheel; the songs kept tumbling out by accident. Instinctively, she knew that these were not Paramore songs. It was time to strike out alone.

Though the album certainly digs deep, its spade striking some uncomfortable truths, warmth seeps out of every note. The slinking and sparse ‘Leave It Alone’ has a melodic air of Thom Yorke or Warpaint, and confronts the most unpleasant sides of grief. It’s one of the darkest songs Williams has ever written, and at times wears a strange smirk. “Don’t nobody tell me that God don’t have a sense of humour,” she quips with the opening lines, “‘Cause now that I want to live, well, everybody around me is dying.” It speaks concisely to the kind of bleak, gallows humour that can only be known after being battered with grief.

“Paramore are my favourite band”

Williams wrote the song after her grandmother almost died after a fall a couple of years ago – she survived the accident, but was left with serious head trauma. “I hadn’t lost my Nana physically, but mentally and cognitively, it’s not the same existence,” she explains. As she looked mortality straight in the face, a bleak outlook began to creep in. What’s the point of loving someone if you’ll lose them eventually?

“That’s the simplest, most concise way to sum it up,” she says. “It’s a fact of life, man, and I hate that. I still want to love someone and I still wanna be loved; I still wanna experience joy with people that I love, you know?” ‘Leave It Alone’ is all about “fighting that pessimism, that fatalistic view,” she explains. “I have to remind myself that even if the dark parts are this long” – she flings her arms out wide, before closing the gap, “and the joy is this long, “it’s all worth it.”

hayley williams paramore nme cover interview
Credit: Lindsey Byrnes

The peppy-sounding but searingly candid ‘Dead Horse’ lays things equally bare, referencing the affair that kickstarted Williams’ near-decade long relationship with Gilbert. “I got what I deserved / I was the other woman first,” she sings. For a while, Williams was hesitant to be this brutally honest.

“I did not want to write about my past that way,” she admits, “I really didn’t. I’ve never had a problem singing about the things that make me mad. I’ve done that with Paramore our whole career, but I’ve learned how to articulate it in different ways as we’ve grown up.”

Pushing herself into uncomfortable territory, however, led to a breakthrough. “My angst and rage has been a protective layer for the softer sadness and shame that I feel,” she says. “‘Dead Horse’ came just after ripping off the last band-aid. It was about finding this bubbling lava underneath a hard stone. It was like digging up bones. It kind of feels like my 21-year-old self wrote that song. I silenced her for a long time and covered it up with angst. I needed to get some of that shit out; a splinter of shame needed to get pulled.”

hayley williams paramore nme cover interview
Credit: Lindsey Byrnes

Talking of songs written by a younger Hayley Williams: Paramore have, in recent years, also been reassessing some of their older hits. The singer penned one of their best-known singles, ‘Misery Business’, when she was still in high school. One particular lyric – “once a whore, you’re nothing more / I’m sorry: that’ll never change” – was plucked straight out of her diary. For years, the band were conflicted: while it was arguably their biggest song, they felt uncomfortable about putting another woman down. “For us it was always a bit like… ‘Hmm’,” winces Williams. “‘This doesn’t feel right’.”

And so, at the end of 2018’s ‘After Laughter’ tour, Paramore decided to retire the song for a while. Earlier this year, Williams doubled-down by objecting to the track’s inclusion on Spotify’s ‘Women In Music’ playlist.

“As a woman I felt like it was important to take responsibility and make a bold statement like that,” she says. “Now I’m doing this project which is so rooted in my discovery of my own femininity. I feel like giving people a break to think about why we made that choice was the first step. We grew up in such a fun scene, but I don’t think a lot of the girls realised what we were inundated with day in, day out. I don’t hate anybody for it – I was part of it. I just want to grow from it.”

“What our bodies do is barbaric; femininity is dangerous”

Williams admits she didn’t feel much of an affinity with the emo scene Paramore was originally associated with: “I can say pretty comfortably in hindsight that I don’t think we ever felt like we fitted. We really gave into it with ‘Riot!’.” That title of that record – which featured ‘Misery Business’ – referred to a chaotic outpouring of emotions, and shot Paramore into the mainstream. They soon became associated with emo bands such as My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco. Subsequent albums saw Paramore move away from their breakthrough moment, becoming poppier – a deliberate shift.

“When I go to Paramore’s Spotify and I look at ‘Fans Also Like’, I don’t really relate to any of the artists,” she says. “It’s no disrespect. A lot of those people I know, and have grown up with. It’s more like, ‘Oh wow, we didn’t listen to anything that sounds like this’.”

Still, she acknowledges that she first noticed the influence that so-called emo music was having on the mainstream when Rihanna and Eminem released their supremely dark 2010 single ‘Love The Way You Lie’. “I thought, ‘Whoa – these sound like lyrics I might have written for Paramore back in the day,” she says. “Rihanna has recorded a lot of songs with a deep, twisted pop lyric. It’s fascinating. I remember when our [alternative] scene was putting out [similar] stories, they weren’t really okay for pop.”

hayley williams paramore nme cover interview
Credit: Lindsey Byrnes

And there’s yet more forward-motion at the top of the agenda for Williams and the band. “We’ve thought about [the next Paramore album],” she explains. “Taylor’s mentioned things like: ‘Oh, God – I miss guitars. We’ve found ourselves listening to a lot of older music that we grew up being inspired by. T and I liked stuff that was a bit more ratty sounding: The Rapture, Yeah Yeah Yeahs. All three of us loved Queens Of The Stone Age’s ‘Songs For The Deaf.’”

The guitar sound will be an about-turn from the new wave-y ‘After Laughter’. “It’s a summer / winter thing,” says Williams. “When it’s winter you can’t wait to be sweating your balls off, and in the summer you’re like, ‘Fuck – ‘I hate this!’ After making ‘After Laughter’ it’s like, ‘Okay, we’ve tried this on and it actually fits and feels great. Now lets see what else we can do to fuck this up’. That excitement and curiosity that keeps us a band. We won’t let it happen unless we think it’s the coolest thing in the world, I mean, Paramore’s my favourite band. How dare I ever ruin it?”

Perhaps inevitably, this leads her to reflect on Paramore’s shifting dynamic over the years: “God, getting older is such a weird thing. It’s very nice to be able to grow up with these guys. We screwed around for a long time, and we made each other’s lives miserable for a time there, but we make each other better people. I’m pumped.”

“Paramore was miserable for a time, but we make each other better people”

Ordinarily, Hayley Williams would be getting ready to head off on tour round about now. Instead all live dates are postponed and ‘Petals For Armor’’s roll-out has taken a twisted path. Adapting to lockdown life, Williams has been releasing individual songs, bit by bit. At the cottage, she’s been busy filming a tongue-in-cheek workout music video for the single ‘Over Yet’ (which went viral) and posting covers of songs by artists such as Phoebe Bridgers (who incidentally features on the record with boygenius bandmates Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus). For once, ironically, social media has been keeping her sane.

Much of what ‘Petals For Armor’ turns over is particularly valuable at the moment. Embracing vulnerability as a source of strength, celebrating softness, treating yourself and other people with kindness – these are just some of the guiding ropes that can lead us through the pitch-black. Still, as Williams puts it: “I just can’t wait for us to all be able to reach across a table and high-five or some shit.”

Hayley Williams’ ‘Petals For Armor’ is out now.