Pale Waves: “I’ve been hiding who I am for so long now. I don’t wanna do that any more”

A near-fatal bus crash and a global pandemic can’t stop the band’s sexual and spiritual awakening on their Avril Lavigne-indebted second album

We’re sitting with Pale Waves singer Heather Baron-Gracie in the lobby of the Dorsett Hotel in London when the concierge gingerly approaches. “Excuse me, madam, you left this bag in your room,” he says, holding up a drawstring bag that has seen better days. Her eyes flit nervously between NME and the concierge. “It’s alright”, she replies, “you can chuck that away”. He insists that he wants to return the items, but Heather has no interest. It’s a weird, tense moment.

When he skulks off with the bag in hand, Heather turns back and reveals that she left it there on purpose. Her eyes drop to her feet. “It’s full of stuff that got ruined in the crash,” she sighs.

Pale Waves Big Read 2020
Credit: Jenn Five for NME

Ah, yes. The crash. It’s hard not to frame Pale Waves’ second album ‘Who Am I?’ around such a devastating moment. In February 2020, the band’s tour bus was involved in a near-fatal road accident, their double-decker skidding off an icy road and rolling into a ditch as they travelled between shows from Sweden to Germany. The band – Ciara Doran (drums), Hugo Silvani (guitar) and Charlie Woods (bass) – survived and escaped any life-altering physical injuries, as did their crew.

We first meet the band in early March, a day after their return to the stage at The O2 Arena in London, supporting Halsey on her European tour. NME was scheduled to fly out to meet them on said bus in Munich, where the group were driving to at the time of the crash. Instead, we catch up with a relieved but shaken Pale Waves at their hotel in London. They have the right to be apprehensive. In recent years, similar bus crashes on the road have tragically claimed the lives of British bands such as Viola Beach and Her’s.

Heather wasn’t on the bus that night. She’d flown ahead with her girlfriend to the next show, who was wary about the drive; she had implored the rest to do the same.

Pale Waves Big Read 2020
Pale Waves on the cover of NME

“I will never forget the sound of Ciara’s voice after the crash,” Heather tells NME in the first of several interviews over the course of this year. “I’ve known Ciara a very long time and we’ve been through so much together – I’ve never heard their voice like that ever.” (Ciara goes by the non-binary pronouns they/them.) “You know how in movies where someone is dying and the blood is coming out their mouth and they’re trying to talk? It sounded like they were that person and I was like, ‘Oh my God; they’re gonna die.”

Did it cause tension between the band that you were not on that bus?

“They’ve never made me feel like that, but I felt like I should have been on the bus too. I felt guilty, for sure. I am very much the leader of this band. Everyone follows me and I respect them for allowing me to have that control, so I felt that as the leader and the sort of person they look to for guidance a lot, I should have been there to help. And I wasn’t.”

Pale Waves Big Read 2020
Heather Baron-Gracie. Credit: Jenn Five for NME

The launch of ‘Who Am I?’, wasn’t supposed to be like this. Originally slated for earlier this year, but now set for a release in February 2021, it is a collection of songs about embracing previously untold parts of your life. This is not a record to be soured by a traumatic event and a global pandemic. Calling it a textbook ‘difficult second album’ is an understatement.

Though the coronavirus outbreak allowed Ciara, Hugo and Charlie to recover from their injuries – physical and mentally – it threw a spanner in the works for the album’s rollout. In support of their debut, 2018’s Top 10 goth-pop triumph ‘My Mind Makes Noises’, the band were grafters, touring non-stop with their own shows, festival appearances and support slots, all of which are currently taken away from them. Pale Waves played their last live gig in March.

“People change and evolve and this album is me evolving” – Heather Baron-Gracie

It has all the makings of a disaster. But there’s always been a slither of hope in the group’s writing; light and love occasionally burst through an otherwise doomy exterior. They’re a spritely, funny bunch still bound together by the ties they’ve forged in their rise from their days together in Manchester.

“I can look at this pandemic and think that one good thing came from it is that it gave those three a break,” Heather tells NME on Zoom six months after our encounter at the hotel. “It gave them time out and we didn’t have to rush straight into a tour and onto a bus. They all needed that space and time to process what happened and heal from it.”

Pale Waves Big Read 2020
Credit: Jenn Five for NME

“We met a few weeks ago and they look so much better. They were laughing again and they seemed like their old selves. I think it’ll be something that will stay for them forever. I don’t know how it will be when we get back on a bus and I think it will be a gradual process, but all three of them seem to be in a good place right now, if not the best place they’ve ever been in.”

It’s fitting that the artwork for comeback single ‘Change’ is that of a butterfly, proudly spreading its wings after a gruelling period in the cocoon. That song and the remainder of ‘Who Am I?’ serves as a rebirth for the band in every sense; lyrically, stylistically, and, crucially, emotionally.

‘My Mind Makes Noises’ was a solid start that built on the success of breakthrough debut single ‘There’s A Honey’ and that seriously dreamy chorus. Much of the material they worked on at the time, partially with their labelmates and mentors, The 1975’s Matty Healy and George Daniel, fit the description Heather relayed to NME back in 2018: “I want to make people dance at our shows and not just cry.” Ensuing singles ‘Eighteen’, ‘The Tide’ and ‘Television Romance’ landed on the right side of a tearful breakdown – just about.

“I will never forget the sound of Ciara’s voice after the crash” – Heather Baron-Gracie

Despite still being proud of it for what they did at the time, she suggests that the collection is now a bit “naive”. A band dismissing their older material is par for the course when they’re plugging a new album, perhaps, but you get the sense that Heather’s doing so only because of the band’s current confidence.

“I felt like we were just sort of beginning to find ourselves or at least wanting to find ourselves on that album,” she says. “Not just me – all four of us have come a long way in our lives and we’ve discovered more and become more open.”

While Pale Waves previously drew on synth-pop tricks cribbed from their heroes The Cure and The Cocteau Twins, ‘Who Am I?’ embraces the pop-rock sensibilities that have brewed since their teens. Imagine Taylor Swift and Courtney Love belting Avril Lavigne’s ‘Complicated’ at a karaoke dive bar, egged on by Alanis Morissette and ’90s indie icon Liz Phair, who are necking shots at the bar. It sounds an unlikely combination – but also fun, right?

Pale Waves Big Read 2020
Credit: Jenn Five for NME

“I know there are a lot of my fans that love Avril so I know they’re gonna dissect my album and know what I’ve pulled from Avril,” Heather laughs. “But I went back to my roots with this album with someone like Alanis as well. She’s just unapologetic, and I wanted to be like that in this album.”

To tap into that no-fucks-given spirit, the band had to embrace themselves fully. Since the release of that debut, Heather has come out as gay, while Ciara now identifies as non-binary. “I was 23 when we did that first album, and I wasn’t confident about myself or with my sexuality,” she says. “I’ve stepped onto a path of wanting to explore myself and I feel confident in myself and proud to own my sexuality. I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”

She looked to best friend Ciara for inspiration: “I was hiding my sexuality and keeping it a secret because I didn’t want people to judge me. My relationship with my family was closed off for a long time, and I saw Ciara’s family and how they interacted with their parents and I was like, ‘Well, this is nothing like mine’. Ciara was so open about being gay and they were so confident about and so proud of it and I looked at them and thought, ‘I wish I could be like that.’”

Heather says that her family dynamic also shifted dramatically when older brother Tristan revealed to her a long-kept family secret: they had different fathers.

“I feel confident in myself and proud to own my sexuality” – Heather Baron-Gracie

“My brother said to my mum, ‘If you don’t tell her by the time I’m 30, I’m going to tell her’. I thought it was a sick joke he was playing at first. [My mum] didn’t tell me because she thought I’d treat Tristan differently, but I’d lived my whole life with everyone around me keeping this secret. It started to unscrew the bottle top of all the secrets. Everything started to come out and we started to become more vocal as a family. It completely switched.”

This period of intense self-discovery is evident all over ‘Who Am I?’ On ‘Tomorrow’, Heather fiercely states that “sexuality isn’t a choice”, while ‘Change’’s tales of lust (“Now you act like I’m nobody / But you still wanna go down on me”) are a far cry from their debut album’s first-base fumbles.

Heather’s battle with her body image has also been a constant throughout her life. She lives with the repercussions of serious spine surgery undergone as a teenager, as well as navigating the grind of performing night in and night on tour.

Pale Waves Big Read 2020
Ciara Doran and Heather Baron-Gracie. Credit: Jenn Five for NME

“I was drowning myself in alcohol because I was too nervous to go on stage,” she says. “I didn’t have confidence in myself. I was so mentally on the edge. People would say to me, ‘I love your confidence; I wish I had it’. Maybe I came off as being bold, but I had a lot of moments where I just hated myself or I couldn’t stand to look at myself. People think they know you just by what they see when you perform, but I would have to put on a different personality to impress and convince people.”

She says that if she was a teenager now, someone like Billie Eilish and her wardrobe of striking colours, baggy sweatpants and designer shades, would help her come to terms with herself a lot earlier: “She just embraces who she truly is. Her fashion style, too, because I felt like I wanted to dress weird but people around me wouldn’t allow me or they would shout at me or constantly say stuff to me that would really put me back into my shell. The world needs more of those sorts of people; especially women.”

Pale Waves Big Read 2020
Credit: Jenn Five for NME

After such a soul-searching period, it’s cruel timing for a pandemic to nearly derail a record written out of liberation and freedom. The band’s planned summer – stuffed with festival appearances – went down the shitter, and its absence has marked the longest time in which Pale Waves haven’t played a show since their formation.

There was more drama to navigate, though, as the writing duo of Heather and Ciara was broken for ‘Who Am I?’ when Heather said that the songwriting needed a shake-up. Since meeting at the BIMM (British and Irish Music) Institute in Manchester as teens, the pair had penned almost every song together – Heather taking on a writing role, while Ciara focuses on production. This album, however, sees new songwriters and session musicians coming into the creative process.

“Writing alone was uncomfortable at first… [But] I want to achieve as much as we can” – Heather Baron-Gracie

“When you do the same thing over and over again for years, you start to fall into dangerous patterns and dangerous habits and I felt like that’s what me and Ciara had done,” she says. “It wasn’t like I went, ‘I’m just gonna write this whole second album alone’; I did it for everyone’s careers and the fact that I wanted to make a fucking amazing album.”

Breaking up an established songwriting partnership with your best mate must have been… awkward?

“I didn’t do it for selfish reasons,” she rebuts. “It was uncomfortable at first because I’ve never been in a room and made or written music with anyone apart from Ciara before. But I did it because we’re a band and we need to carry on our career. I want to achieve as much as we can and we weren’t gonna achieve it with those first songs.”

What remains on ‘Who Am I?’ is something far gnarlier. ‘You Don’t Own Me’s gritty riffs sound like they’re peeled from the tables of trashy bar they were conceived in, while ‘I Just Needed You’’s dream-grunge picks up where Smashing Pumpkins left off. Their pop leanings are never abandoned though, with ‘Run To’s spritely chorus and ‘She’s My Religion’.

Pale Waves Big Read 2020
Credit: Jenn Five for NME

Barely a month after the crash, the band rushed to Los Angeles to frantically piece together the record to beat Donald Trump’s hastily arranged travel ban. But with quarantining being observed closely in the state of California, they ended up having to wait several weeks to get recording. When Charlie and Hugo started to become restless after being separated from partners and family, the pair headed back to the UK, while Heather and Ciara remained stateside.

“It was so sterile in the studio. It was like, ‘Don’t come near me let’s only talk and be close when we need to be,’” Heather says. “I was masked-up and could hardly breathe. There was hand sanitiser everywhere, it was so strange. It took all the art and fun out of making a record.”

As the band approached the finish-line, producer Rich Costey [Biffy Clyro, Muse] upped sticks and moved across the country to Vermont; yet another set-back to manage. “I was getting so emotional and burnt out by it all. I’ve had too many emotional breakdowns over this record,” she says.

Pale Waves Big Read 2020
Credit: Jenn Five for NME

With each obstacle, you don’t just feel exhausted for them, but pretty vexed too. Yet Heather and Ciara continued finding innovative ways to complete the album; Hugo and Charlie, meanwhile, did their bit by recording parts from their bedrooms and sending them over to be incorporated into the record. The world continued to throw up challenges, but the band’s willpower and belief in these songs helped them overcome.

‘You Don’t Own Me’ is perhaps the perfect example of the band’s collective maturity. It’s a three-minute thrasher on which the band exorcise their run of bad luck and the frustrations of lives previously repressed, all the bullshit flung Heather’s way as a young woman is torn to shreds. “A pretty face like yours should really learn to smile more,” she sings, “No one-night-stands for you or they’ll think you’re a whore”. As with Heather’s attitude to that destroyed black bag from the bus, the band are keen to embrace the future and not dwell on the trauma.

“That’s a real ‘Fuck you’ song,” she says with a smile. “It’s me saying, ‘Stop telling me what to do, stop telling me how to look, stop telling me how to smile – I’m my own person’. People might say that they prefer the sound from before – well, people change and evolve and this is me evolving and I’m not going to feel bad for that. I feel like I’ve been hiding who I am for so long now. I don’t wanna do that any more.”

Pale Waves’ ‘Who Am I?’ is out February 12, 2021 via Dirty Hit