Pale Waves: “We’ve become the most resilient band we know”

How the Manchester four-piece pulled through trials and trauma to craft ‘Unwanted’, a bright and breezy album that serves as a paean to their enduring friendship

It is not often that an interview feels akin to a group therapy session. However, when NME meets Pale Waves backstage at Community Festival in London’s Finsbury Park, their compact dressing room quickly becomes a space for us to collectively unpack the band’s whirlwind past few years.

“You have to have a healthy relationship with your past, or else you’ll just crumble,” says vocalist and guitarist Heather Baron-Gracie. Her heavyweight jewellery glints like a sparkling disco ball, illuminated by sun beams searing through the small, single window. “And being sat here, talking about it all together, just puts everything we’ve gone through as a band into perspective.”

The indie four-piece – Baron-Gracie, guitarist Hugo Silvani, bassist Charlie Wood and Ciara Doran on drums – are back in the UK for just one day this summer. They’ve spent the past few weeks working through an eye-wateringly busy tour itinerary, which has seen them trek across North America supporting Australian rockers 5 Seconds Of Summer in between performing their own headline shows. Many of the gigs were at outdoor amphitheatres, in the desert heat: “It was intense for us goths,” Doran quips. It seems perfectly right, then, that even in the leather-heavy stage outfits they’re currently wearing, they should admit no surrender to today’s sweltering conditions.

Pale Waves' Heather Baron-Gracie
Heather Baron-Gracie. Credit: Joseph Bishop for NME

Pale Waves are here, with sleepy smiles from a red-eye flight, to discuss their new album, ‘Unwanted’. Embellished with sprightly riffs that glimmer, twist and turn, many of the songs engage with strikingly personal themes such as enduring and accepting trauma, and learning to face life’s misfortunes: the record feels like the sonic equivalent of a mass of stormy clouds building and breaking, eventually allowing a sliver of light to shine through.

Perhaps this is down to the fact that ‘Unwanted’ draws from a well of life-changing experiences that the band have shared together in recent years. In February 2020, while they were on tour with Halsey, their tour bus – with Doran, Silvani and Wood onboard, plus their crew – was involved in a near-fatal road accident as the vehicle slid into a ditch while travelling between Sweden and Germany. They all escaped without any severe physical injuries, but the distressing images of that night still loom large: today, Baron-Gracie says she still carries “real guilt” about being away from her bandmates at the scene of the crash – wary of the icy conditions, she had chosen to take a flight with her girlfriend instead.

“We have had to push ourselves to become mentally stronger, and I think that’s a journey that’s reflected in the new music”, she says, pausing to look knowingly at her bandmates. “You can’t force people to understand your situation, so we’ve become the most resilient band we know,” Silvani says, with a firm nod.

Pale Waves' Heather Baron-Gracie
Heather Baron-Gracie. Credit: Joseph Bishop for NME

Last year’s Top Five album ‘Who Am I?’, which mainly took its influence from the distorted guitar sounds of ‘Let Go’-era Avril Lavigne, was the toe-dipping exercise Pale Waves required before diving headfirst into ‘Unwanted’’s heavier direction. The band wanted to ramp up the BPMs and make the new songs more aligned with the high energy of their live sets, and pop-punk soon became a shared language of catharsis: “You picked me up when I was down on the floor,” Baron-Gracie sings on ‘Reasons To Live’ over a tumbling, nimble melody that reads as a paean to the band’s friendship. “You showed me how to love myself a little more.

Baron-Gracie says working on ‘Unwanted’ represented “the first time I’ve ever enjoyed recording”. It’s an attitude shared throughout the band after some enforced time apart during the pandemic. “Lockdown was our time to completely recharge after the crash and incessant touring,” says Doran. “It sounds crazy, but it was also the longest we’d remained in one city for years: I had to learn about how to live in a house once again, and use a wardrobe and cook for myself…” Baron-Gracie jumps in: “That break was the best thing that could have happened to us.”

“You have to have a healthy relationship with your past, or else you’ll just crumble” – Heather Baron-Gracie

You would never know Baron-Gracie and Doran – who have each others’ names tattooed – had spent much time apart at all, given the way they finish each other’s sentences. Their chemistry, like their output, is always evolving: ‘Unwanted’ finds the pair’s friendship – which has long been the emotional core of Pale Waves, who met at music college in Manchester eight years ago – thriving off a new lease of life. Having been the band’s lead songwriters since they uploaded early demos to Soundcloud in 2015, their collaborative process broke apart for ‘Who Am I?’, with Baron-Gracie heading to LA to write the majority of the album alone.

They have since reconciled and grown closer, and saw ‘Unwanted’ as an opportunity to merge the influences that they initially bonded over when they met as teenagers. The emotive belting on the title track and ‘Jealousy’ allows the songs to crackle like pop-punk fireworks à la early Paramore, while ‘Lies’ treats emotional turmoil like rocket fuel, racing along on rapid yet dexterous drum patterns that Travis Barker would be proud of. The blink-182 drummer, Doran explains, is the reason they started drumming – and he was even set to appear on an ‘Unwanted’ track, before scheduling conflicts got in the way. “I know our paths will cross one day, though,” says Doran, crossing their fingers. “I’m sure of it.”

Pale Waves' Hugo Silvani
Hugo Silvani. Credit: Joseph Bishop for NME

Five years ago, Pale Waves could be seen donning blown-out hairdos that stood as tall as totems, accompanied by heavy makeup that mixed black lipstick and pale white face powder. Largely inspired by the aesthetic of goth-rock overlords such as The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees, the band had carved out a striking visual identity, which was formally introduced to the world through a photoshoot for an NME cover in October 2017 with The 1975 frontman Matty Healy.

Healy had become a mentor figure to the band, directing the music video for early single ‘Television Romance’ and offering a hand in production on their 2018’s ‘My Mind Makes Noises’, an assured debut encased in a shimmering, ‘80s-influenced sheen. Pale Waves’ friendship with Healy began to flourish after they had signed to Dirty Hit – home to The 1975 and Beabadoobee – in early 2017 and they soon became a fixture on UK festival lineups and heading out on their own extensive headline tour across the country.

Pale Waves on the cover of NME
Pale Waves on the cover of NME

But the deeper they dug into this heavy aesthetic – which was at odds with the slacker-style indie-pop they were making – the more lost they became. The band’s image was a shield, Baron-Gracie explains, for the insecurities each member was dealing with respectively as Pale Wales became something bigger than themselves in a short period of time. “I don’t actually listen to The Cure anymore,” she says, bristling slightly.

“You aren’t necessarily yourself at that age,” Silvani adds. “You are still trying to find out who you are, while trying to feel comfortable in your place in the band.”

Pale Waves' Hugo Silvani
Hugo Silvani. Credit: Joseph Bishop for NME

“At the start, we were so young and just doing the best we could,” explains Baron-Gracie. “But we needed room to breathe, and time to figure out what we wanted as a band.”

While Wood says that when Pale Waves, early in their career, embarked on massive tours with The 1975, “it felt right, because that’s what we all wanted to do,” the band admit that life on the road took its toll – as it has for many artists before them. Of a North American tour in 2019, Silvana reveals: “We didn’t know what normality was. We just knew hotels, tour buses, and dressing rooms. When you start to repeat that cycle year after year, it starts to really grind down on your mental health. You begin to crave stability.”

“We didn’t know what normality was. We just knew hotels, tour buses, and dressing rooms” – Hugo Silvani

Doran, meanwhile, started to spiral into periods of consistent alcohol consumption. “I look back and understand that I drank so much because I was uncomfortable, and as a band, we were tired all the time,” they say calmly, but with a vulnerability to their voice. “For me, [drinking] almost became a ritual. I had these voices in my head that would say, ‘You won’t be as good on stage without alcohol.’

“I didn’t realise the drinking had gone that far. Most people in this environment, particularly in other bands, are doing some kind of drug or are consuming a lot of alcohol. It’s normalised to cane it every night – it’s assumed, almost.”

Pale Waves' Charlie Wood
Charlie Wood. Credit: Joseph Bishop for NME

Doran says that, recently, spending time around 5 Seconds Of Summer – who they describe as being “committed to sobriety on the road” as the band tour with personal trainers and a nutritionist – taught them the importance of staying on the straight and narrow. Knowing when to go out and when to stay in, as David Bowie once taught us, is clearly important for a band whose past half decade panned out as Pale Waves’ has.

“The thing is, we could be snorting so many fucking lines and doing all sorts of drugs, but the amount of times we’ve said no [to drugs], and people still push us… It’s like, ‘Oh my god! Give us a fucking break,” says Baron-Gracie, cracking a smile. The room starts to feel lighter.

Pale Waves' Charlie Wood
Charlie Wood. Credit: Joseph Bishop for NME

Doran traces the roots of their previous alcoholism to the “discomfort” they used to feel with their identity. In February 2021, in an Instagram post, the the drummer came out as transmasculine non-binary, and and explained that, from then on, they would be using they/them pronouns. “When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see somebody I recognised,” they wrote at the time, “and years of touring and lots of alcohol ‘helped’ mask my insecurities.”

For Doran, the process has since been imbued with hope and wonder: they’ve recently found a home in LA with their girlfriend, a place where they can access their testosterone prescriptions with ease. Therapy sessions, which were initially daunting, have become startlingly emotional. “There’s a big trans community [in LA]. Everyone is very friendly, and also aware of diversity there. I’m very happy at the moment,” they note.

“I really look up to Elliot Page. I think he’s very brave” – Ciara Dora

It means that Doran is also now on more solid ground expressing themselves online. Inspired by The Umbrella Academy actor Elliot Page, who has been consistently vocal about their transition in recent years, Doran recently began sharing post-top surgery pictures, which they say has given them “a new strength”. They add: “[Elliot] made me feel like it was OK to get top surgery. I saw a picture of them and was like, ‘Damn, he looks ripped!’. I really look up to Elliot – I think he’s very brave.”

Doran hopes that some of Pale Waves’ fanbase will be able to draw strength from them speaking out about their experiences of transitioning; Doran, meanwhile, has turned to Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace, and Claud, the Chicago singer-songwriter signed to Phoebe Bridgers’ Saddest Factory label, as role models while navigating these changes. “I still struggle with my identity, and I understand how disorientating finding yourself can be,” they say today. “But if young trans people can see me being a successful musician on stage, then it may help a lot of others finally find themselves.”

Pale Waves' Ciara Doran
Ciara Doran. Credit: Joseph Bishop for NME

A couple of hours after our chat wraps up, Pale Waves’ performance on the main stage comes off as a dress rehearsal for a future headline slot. With the thick, sticky humidity and blistering sun finally yielding to early evening, their music expands outwards: they tear through a mix of early material and highlights from ‘Unwanted’ like a pack of greyhounds bolting down the track. Baron-Gracie and Silvani lock their guitars into a battle as the searing chorus of ‘Jealousy’ achieves lift-off. An effusive Doran plays the drums with such passion and vigour that the raised platform they’re positioned on begins to shake.

Baron-Gracie is a magnetising leader; one who makes commanding attention look like child’s play. She raises her mic stand before her, sprays the front rows with water liberally as though she’s tending to a flower bed, then instructs the crowd to “show us your fucking Pride flags”. A spectrum of colours are immediately held aloft, reflecting the diversity of Pale Waves’ audience. Baron-Gracie clearly feels the power of this visibility, wrapping herself in an orange, white and pink Lesbian Pride flag thrown to her from a fan on the barrier.

Pale Waves' Ciara Doran
Ciara Doran. Credit: Joseph Bishop for NME

‘She’s My Religion’ – a soaring ballad that seeks to uplift and honour LGBTQ+ relationships – gets the loudest response of the set, and Baron-Gracie makes eye contact with Wood as if to say, ‘Holy shit – this is amazing’. “That [song] sounded huge,” Wood says to NME as we leave the stage area after, while he removes his in-ear monitors and begins to come back down to Earth. “I even recognised some fans on the barrier from our previous London shows – they’re making a real community together.”

Baron-Gracie used to drink before every Pale Waves show to hide her nerves, but these days she prefers to be lucid and entirely present. As she confidently struts around in lipstick red platform boots, NME is reminded of our conversation earlier this afternoon, during which she attempted to physically recreate her previous “shy and awkward” stage presence.

“I recognised fans from our previous London shows – they’re making a real community” – Charlie Wood

“Around the first album, I was always like, ‘Cover me up, please,” she said, wrapping her arms around her front. “I wanted to hide away all the time, and I didn’t accept the person I was. I just wanted success so badly [at a young age] that I would say yes to everything. I wouldn’t ever want to be in the mindset that I was in around the first album again.” Asked if she learned to show compassion for your younger self, she replied, with a gentle smile: “That’s a work in progress.”

‘Unwanted’ closes the chapter on Pale Waves’ toughest ride. The upshot is that they survived it, and have become experts in getting inside their older songs, re-decorating them and building themselves a brand new home – together. Crucially, too, you get the sense that they still have something to prove as a band. In the dressing room, Silvani paused to consider all we’ve discussed: “Not to sound hippy-dippy about it, but we haven’t lost our magic. The core of the band is still the same.”

“People have been able to come on this journey with us, and they’ll continue to: our fans are adaptable, and they want to hear new things in our music. We’ve learned that when you take time apart, that’s when you start to feel like individuals…”

Baron-Gracie finished off Silvani’s thought: “And we’re finally present in ourselves, and as a result, closer than we’ve ever been.” She raised her chin and offered a conspiratorial nod. Pale Waves are all about saying what you like, doing what you like and flying loud and free in the face of trauma. Now isn’t that something to live by?

Pale Waves’ ‘Unwanted’ is out now via Dirty Hit