Ever since being signed to Dirty Hit in 2017, Heather Baron-Gracie and her band, Pale Waves, have been reminding us that punk rock always finds a way of reinventing itself. Similar to their label-mates – Rina Sawayama and The 1975 – the band has reinvigorated the genre by ushering romantic queer narratives to the forefront.
Now, the band is back with its sophomore album Who Am I?, serving less electronic gloss and more grunge. The album expands from their debut, My Mind Makes Noises, and wrestles with the relentless state of the heart and mind. In an effort to get closer to the heart of the oh, so cryptic question, “Who am I?”, Baron-Gracie ventures through her ever-evolving self, sexuality, and spirituality.
Sincere tracks like “She’s My Religion” and “Odd Ones Out” embrace the solace in diverging from conventionalism, while closing tracks “Run To” and “Who Am I?” embrace the existential discomfort in the volatile self.
In the days leading up to the album’s release, LADYGUNN had the chance to chat with the lead singer and rhythmic guitarist about being a gay goth, being mentored by The 1975, and being best mates with Muse. Check out the full conversation with Baron-Gracie down below!
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us! You seem to have moved around a bit recently – where are you currently based?
I feel like I’ve lived in a lot of places. I spent the majority of last year in L.A. and then I traveled across America to St. Louis because my girlfriend’s parents live there, so we were there for a while. And then I came back to London in August, so I’ve been here since then. And then I plan on going back to America at the end of February. I can’t stay in one place…
I do love traveling. I feel like I haven’t found the right place that feels like home for me yet, and I don’t know where that is. I enjoy L.A. a lot because I enjoy the weather and the ability to be outside and in nature, but there are things about L.A. I don’t really like. So, I feel like I have to try a few more places before I commit.
How did you conceive the name “Pale Waves”?
For a while, we couldn’t decide on a name. We went through various names. They were all terrible. I found an old painting of my grandma’s. My grandma used to paint and draw, and it just was inspired by that painting. And we stuck with that. Kind of sentimental.
Who Am I? is your first very public proclamation of who you are and who you love. How does that feel?
I’ve been out for years. It’s just, I’ve never written a song about it publicly. I could’ve done that on the first record, but I didn’t entirely feel ready as a songwriter or as a person to expose more of myself to the world. And I knew that when I was going to do that, I wanted to do it in the right way. I wanted to represent the LGBTQ+ community in a healthy way…
“Who Am I?” was a song that required a lot of thought. It was a process. “She’s My Religion” is the perfect song. I can’t think of a stronger song that I could’ve written. People can see it as a negative song, but it’s actually a true love song because it’s basically me saying, “to love someone entirely you have to love the darkest parts.” So it’s me saying, “I love you for who you truly are. Every part. Your baggage is my baggage now.”
Speaking of “She’s My Religion,” your girlfriend Kelsi is in the music video and was a part of its creative direction. How did you two meet?
We met in Vegas. We met because Ciara, my drummer, was speaking to [Kelsi’s] best friend, Claudia. She came to meet Ciara, and Kelsi tagged along. [Kelsi and I] just hit it off – more so than Ciara and Claudia. They realized that they just weren’t going to work romantically at all. And then surprise, surprise, me and Kelsi hit it off.
Are you religious at all?
No, I’m not really religious. The reason why I wrote that lyric, “She’s no angel, but she is my religion,” is because I feel like – not everyone who’s religious – but religious [people] in general can sometimes really not accept same-sex relationships or same-sex love, so it was kind of a play off that. In general, I feel like a lot of people are religious because they find great comfort in it and it brings them strength. It brings them a sense of being, and that’s what this love has given me.
In “She’s My Religion” you also repeat, “She’s cold, dark, and cynical.” Besides those three, what other attributes do you find attractive in a partner?
Someone being creative. Like a huge part of mine and Kelsi’s relationship is that we’re really creative with one another, and I love that part of our relationship. I think that’s just the perfect thing for me in a relationship, is being creative with the person that I’m with.
During this journey of self-discovery through Who Am I? you’ve probably learned a little bit more about yourself. So, are there any three words you’d use to best describe yourself?
I would say I’m creative. I’m stubborn, which works in my favor sometimes, but then doesn’t. And then I’m also loving. There we go. There’s a balance. There’s a mix. Bad and good. I feel like it can’t all be good and it can’t be all bad.
“Change” was the first single off this album. It’s about someone being unable to change. So, how much would you say you’ve changed (or haven’t) within the past year, especially during quarantine?
I feel like I’ve changed pretty drastically, the biggest change I’ve been through in my whole entire life. I’ve really sort of realigned priorities and have been able to take time out from just being on tour and have that time for myself. I feel like I’ve spent years neglecting that, whereas in this year and a half, I’ve really embraced that and embraced a lot of parts of me. I feel like I have really changed as a person – but the core of me hasn’t changed. I’ve just made better decisions.
I’m embracing doing healthier things in my lifestyle – so journaling, or doing yoga, or painting. You know, just not being on tour drowning myself in alcohol every night and partying every night. I rarely drink now which has been a big change for me, but it needed to change.
“Easy” is another single, and it’s about how loving your current partner is so easy. Well then, what’s the hardest obstacle you’ve ever had to overcome in a relationship?
I think my mental health. At the start when I met Kelsi, my mental health was really in a bad state. It was going back to me drinking every night. I had a reliance on alcohol and I got in the habit of being drunk every night, and Kelsi viewed that as very toxic and not healthy. And I needed someone to show me that that wasn’t exactly normal because you can get really wrapped up in it, and it had a really negative effect on my mental health. It made me 10x worse and I feel like I needed to work on my mental health to make my relationship what it truly can be. It can be healthy. But when my mental health and alcohol comes into play, I can turn into this little monster.
How about breakups? Ever have a really bad one?
No, I’ve not actually. It’s surprising. People might think after hearing “Change” that I have, but the song was a combination of me being frustrated with people generally in my life – people letting me down, disappointing me, and me setting too high of expectations for people. But that sort of heartbreak element comes into play because I spoke to people in my life about their journeys through heartbreak.
I thought that I had experienced sadness through break up, sadness through letting go of someone, or of them being in your life every day and then turning into strangers. But after hearing people’s stories of heartbreak, it made me realize that I’ve never truly, truly been heartbroken. Like some of these stories where people couldn’t physically get out of bed…they were shattered as a person to the core…and I was like “Wow, I’ve never been that broken by heartbreak and I’m really glad I’ve not.” I don’t want to experience it, but I needed to experience it secondhand to be able to write about it. So I was like, “OK, give me every detail. Tell me exactly how much you cried. How long did you stay in bed for?”
The cover art for Who Am I? – is it inspired by Avril Lavigne’s Let Go album cover?
Yeah, it is definitely. I’m not going to lie. Avril Lavigne plays a massive influence in my life. When I was a kid that’s who I looked up to. That’s who inspired me to be a musician and represented that it was OK to be a tomboy. I’ve always been a little bit of a tomboy, especially when I was a kid. I didn’t want to dress up in skirts, or put on makeup, or play with dolls. I wanted to go out on my skateboard. I didn’t want to brush my hair. She sort of represented that it was OK to be who I was and those three albums that she first released just shaped me as a person…
Speaking of musical greats, you’ve worked with The 1975 and are signed to the same record label, Dirty Hit. How did you end up at Dirty Hit?
We played a show in Manchester and the head of a radio station was there who was close friends with Jamie [Oborne], who owns the label. He sent Jamie our music and was like, “I think you’ll really like this band,” and then he [Jamie] did, so he basically signed us. And that’s when The 1975 heard of us.
What’s it like being mentored by The 1975?
They’re inspiring because they’re from Manchester too, so it’s like, “Oh, that’s cool. A band from Manchester can make it really big.” And I enjoy going on tour with them because they’re actually a really good band, so they’re fun to watch pretty much every night. They’re just all amazing at their instruments.
You play some cool instruments yourself. What’s the name of that signature guitar you always carry around?
It’s a Vox Phantom. That’s my trademark. I actually got it built for me. This guy went to Italy and it took him six months. He was traveling around Italy to source all these parts because I wanted him to make me a custom guitar, so there’s no other guitar out there like my guitar. It’s pretty gothic.
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How did Muse contribute to Who Am I?
The studio that we were working in had a front room, and [Muse] were in that front room recording and writing. And they were really incredibly nice because they let us use loads of their equipment. And I actually recorded on Matt Bellamy’s vocal mic. He just lent it to me. He was like, “Yeah, you can use this on your record, you can take any guitars that you want, and you can come in here when I’m not in here and play my piano.” And it was so cool of him to just let me use whatever I wanted.
Is there any song in the history of your songwriting that just came super easy and felt really natural for you?
I think “Who Am I?” came really easy to me because I wrote it within an hour or so. I just locked myself in the bathroom and wrote it on my acoustic guitar and was done. It didn’t really require that much thought because I was just feeling really dark sadness and feelings just really overcame me. So, it was easy to pull all my feelings into music and that was probably the easiest song to write.
I like how “Who Am I?” is the very last track on the album. It’s very ominous but suitable. It just leaves one big, heavy enigmatic question for yourself and listeners, and that is, “Who am I?”
It couldn’t go anywhere else on the album. It had to go last…
It sort of leaves people like, “Oh shit, I need to figure this out.” A lot of interviewers will ask me, “Who are you then?” but I can’t tell you because I don’t think we as humans ever know that answer or can answer it truthfully. We’re evolving and changing every day. You can gather a good understanding of who you are and what you’re like, but we’ll never fully know ourselves.
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story / Ashley Simone Johnson