Pale Waves Finds Equilibrium Coming off the Release of Their Latest Album ‘Unwanted’
PHOTOGRAPHY by KI PRICE
A clanging sound reverberates around the upstairs of a terrace house (and former chandelier factory) in London’s Soho, followed by a dragging noise across the wooden floorboards worthy of a horror movie. Poke your head around the door, though, and you won’t find ghosts or monsters but Pale Waves’ singer and guitarist Heather Baron-Gracie striking an intimidating pose for MARVIN’s camera, huge metal chain in hand. Moments later, next door, drummer Ciara Doran gets on the action by taking a hammer for their macabre prop.
“The memes that are gonna be made with those photos!” Heather laughs once the shoot is over, tucking into a plate of avocado toast at the much less grimy Soho House. She and her bandmates are in good spirits and for good reason. We’re meeting a week before the release of their third album, Unwanted, a record that finds the four-piece—completed by guitarist Hugo Silvani and bassist Charlie Wood—stronger than ever.
Unwanted is Pale Waves’ most personal album yet, with principal songwriter Heather delving into everything from her relationship (“Reasons to Live”) to regrets (“The Hard Way”). But getting to a place where she could write comfortably and openly about these aspects of her life has been a journey for the musician.
“I really struggled with it,” she explains. “I’m quite a reserved person as it is. God knows why I chose this job! But when you’re a kid, you don’t really think about everything that comes with being a musician. You don’t really think about interviews and press, or even touring, in a way.” After learning to handle the extraneous parts of the job, she also got more comfortable in her own skin. Once that happened, she immediately found talking about her life in interviews and writing about it less intimidating. “I know who I am and if people like it, they like it. If they don’t, that’s totally fine.”
As for most of us, the frontwoman has had plenty of time to reflect on just who she is over the last couple of years, thanks to the pandemic taking the Manchester- born band off the road for the longest period since they signed with the label Dirty Hit in 2017. Hitting the pause button might not have been in Pale Waves’ plans back in 2020 but it turned out to be much needed for them.
“I was at a breaking point right before the pandemic,” Heather recalls. “My mental health was so fragile. We’d had four years straight on tour, and I didn’t know what stability was or what waking up in the same place was like.”
Having normality—or at least some facets of it—not only helped her feel more at home with herself but also made her realize the band’s mode of operation needed to change.
We said ‘yes’ to pretty much everything at the start. We were like: ‘we want to be successful, and this is the way to do it, so we’re gonna do pretty much everything.’ But I’ve gotten to an age where I can’t push myself like I used to. I need to be more fragile with myself because I really pushed my body to its ultimate limits, hence why I’ve gone sober.
These days, she has a new motto to live by: Strive to be the best you can, but don’t overshoot and make yourself sick. It’s just not worth it.
In the past, Pale Waves going so hard commercially led to the singer feeling more like a product being pushed than a human being. It left her questioning her future in music. “I’ve battled with myself a few times [about that],” she says, a wry smile spreading across her face. “Do I run away and live a nice little life in the woods in a cabin? I’ve had moments of ‘this is too much for me.’ I’m happiest when I’m in nature and when I’m isolated but I’m happiest when I’m playing music too, so it’s a constant battle.”
The cabin hasn’t become reality yet but both Heather and Ciara have upped sticks and left their native England behind. They now reside in LA. The former to be with her girlfriend, the latter to take comfort and find acceptance. Ciara came out as trans and non-binary in February 2021 and has been sharing their experiences with transitioning with fans online since. “Ciara loves it in LA,” Heather says fondly. “With their transition and their journey, they feel more accepted there, and there’s more of a community there. They’ll never move back [to the UK]. I can’t say that for myself, though. I haven’t really found a place that feels like home yet.”
The last few years might have helped Pale Waves find peace in themselves, but Unwanted isn’t sunshine and rainbows. Instead, it tackles some ugly emotions: jealousy, vanity and rage among them. Typically, these aren’t feelings women are given the space to express in modern society; which is exactly why Heather filled the record with them.
There’s such a difference in how we perceive the genders. A woman gets angry and she’s ‘a bitch’; a man gets angry, and he’s ‘confident’… he ‘knows what he wants’…he’s ‘not afraid.’ A man gets jealous, and that’s attractive or romantic because he’s being ‘protective’. I wanted to break down barriers of those traditional ways of thinking and just say, everyone’s equal. You want to be jealous? Be jealous and let that person be jealous instead of labeling them as crazy.
The raw, vintage rock n roll of the track “You’re So Vain”—which boasts tinges of Joan Jett—opens with the singer purring in hushed spoken word: I’m a princess, so gimme my crown/Yeah, I’m gonna bring you, gonna bring you down/I tried my best to bite my tongue / But I listened to your shit for far too long. It’s quietly, thrillingly, seething and if you’re the target of its ire, probably a little daunting too.
“That song is just a collective of experiences with people in my life that I’ve run into or are currently still in my life,” Heather explains. “Especially in the music industry, I feel like I’ve met a lot of people where I’ve just thought: ‘God, you’re such a dick’.” She rolls her eyes and pulls a look of disbelief. “Bring the ego down! Just because you’ve got a lot of followers doesn’t mean you’re the queen. A lot of the time, I just think, ‘I wish you could be knocked down a peg.’”
Pale Waves are the latest in a new wave of particularly female artists who are reclaiming these kinds of frowned-upon emotions and expressions. Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album Sour coursed with spite, pettiness and intense teen rage. Halsey’s 2019 single, “Nightmare”, furiously railed against the idea that women should be smiling and happy all the time. For Heather, being alongside them is important to her. “I want to embrace [that movement] because there’s still such inequality in everyday life and I don’t want that to be there anymore,” she sighs.
Unwanted also taps into the energy of the pop punk resurgence while heading into darker, heavier territory than fans of their sparkly 80s-indebted debut album could have expected back in 2018. This sound isn’t the final form of the band yet, though. “We’ve got a strong identity,” their frontwoman nods. “But I feel like it’s almost a new identity. The first album was very 80s, the second was very 90s and 00s, and this is very alternative rock/pop punk, but has that pop sensibility. I feel like when we go to the fourth album and push even more in that direction, then we’re gonna solidify the identity even more. I want to take it more like “You’re So Vain” rather than pop punk.”
As the plates are cleared around us, Heather keeps her focus on the future, ambition surging through her words. “I want to be in big arenas. I want to headline festivals,” she says. Pale Waves might not be at that level exactly yet, but she’s confident it won’t be much longer until they are. “From our second album, we’re at a pretty good point, and we’re gonna grow even faster now because this album is our best album. Hopefully, our next album will be even better.” It seems foolish to think otherwise. @palewaves