- 02 Mar 21
From touring as the pandemic descended to seeing off the haters and re-thinking their sound, it’s been a tempestuous 12 months for indie heroes Pale Waves.
A few days before the world fell apart, Heather Baron-Gracie noticed a shift in the atmosphere.
“We were coming to the end of the tour,” says the singer with sad-eyed indie saviours Pale Waves. “And I saw that people’s attitudes had changed.”
It was March 2020. Pale Waves had spent the previous several weeks criss-crossing Europe supporting melancholic arena star Halsey. The tour had already proved hairy; on February 27 the Manchester quartet’s tour bus had rolled off the road en route to Berlin. Baron-Gracie had chosen to fly and so was fortunate to avoid the incident. But now, suddenly, all anyone could talk about was the c-word: Covid.
“There was a lot of discussion about just shutting things down completely,” she says. “People weren’t as freaked out as they are now. But there was definitely concern.”
As with the rest of civilisation, the pandemic would go on to waylay Pale Waves’ carefully laid plans. Shortly after the Halsey dates, they were due to return to the studio to complete their second record, Who Am I?, with producer Rich Costey of Sigur Rós, Frank Turner, Muse, Foster The People renown.
But now they and Costey were forced to collaborate remotely. Not that you’d guess: Who Am I?,which is just out, is empathic, emphatic and brimming with hooks: the perfect escape hatch from the Worst Time Ever we’re all living through.
It’s also one of those great second albums that is sure to change the conversation around the band. Pale Waves, and Baron-Gracie in particular, became acclaimed indie stars with their 2017 debut LP, My Mind Makes Noises. But in her early twenties, she found herself growing up in public to a degree. The experience wasn’t necessarily straightforward – it involved her coming out to her parents, for instance – and the new album is all about her taking stock, growing and making sense of an ever-changing world.
“I’ve travelled all over, met so many people, had so many more experiences,” she says. “I’ve grown up a tonne, I feel. I’ve come to terms with the realisation that I used to live a bit of a toxic lifestyle. I had to realise that things were toxic. It’s painful. I had to admit to myself that I want to grow. I wanted to be a better version of myself.”
When The Pale Waves emerged in late 2016 – Hot Press was among their earliest champions – they were forged from a heavenly mix of jangling indie pop and 1980s nostalgia. Songs such as ‘Television Romance’ unspooled like miniature John Hughes movies, brimming with vulnerability and heartbreak.
Who Am I? is nothing like that. It’s loud and shimmering. The John Hughes references are out the window as the group instead channel their passion for Hole’s ‘Celebrity Skin’ and for the catalogue of Avril Lavigne. It isn’t complicated: Baron-Gracie is a huge fan of the Canadian artist.
“I feel people did turn up their noses at Avril Lavigne. But it wasn’t the youth who did that. So many young kids grew up with her as their role model and have spoken about how important she is to them. It’s the older generation that tends to look down on her. I admire her.”
As a tomboy, Baron-Gracie saw in Lavigne someone who gave her a sense of ownership over her nonconformity. Lavigne didn’t fit in. So she didn’t have to either.
“She was my role model in that she didn’t live up to the stereotypical image of a pop star. As a kid, I loved going on my skateboard. It was very comforting to know she was being who she truly was and wasn’t conforming to society saying, ‘oh you’re a girl pop star... you need to dress like a girl and dance around’. She didn’t do that.”
With Baron-Gracie at the helm, Pale Waves have followed Lavigne’s example and taken their own path. Though a purveyor of unabashed pop, the singer’s dress sense is closer to the spirit of goth. She has tattoos, dark lipstick and piercings. For some reason, this whips complete strangers into a state.
“People struggle with the fact I have make-up and dark lipstick and I sing these songs that are pop. They can’t wrap their heads around it. It does baffle me how they can’t comprehend that. We’ve taken a lot of shit for it. Why are we still trying to put people in boxes? People get angry. I’m like, ‘why are you letting this affect you when there’s so much going on in the world? Why are you letting the fact I wear black lipstick offend you so much?’ It’s sad.”
Still, that’s not for Pale Waves to worry about. Baron-Gracie is proud of the new LP. And even more so of the fact it isn’t just a rehashing of their first album.
“I didn’t want to write the first record again. I love all kinds of music. I like 1980s music but it isn’t my favourite. So when I got more control in terms of the creative side of things, obviously I’m going to write music I love.”
• Who Am I? is out now.