I’ve heard a lot about Pale Waves over the past year (and have seen even more of them via social media), but they’ve remained somewhat of an anomaly to me. Playing pop music that repeatedly gets compared to their label mates, The 1975, under a goth guise seems counterintuitive, but maybe that’s why they’ve blown up like they have. They’re the unofficial cool older siblings that so many teens idolize — opting to don their own eyeliner and scrawl lead singer Heather Baron Gracie’s lyrics in inky black in the margins of their notebooks (if the kids still use those). Passing a line around the block of losing their shit, impressionable, desperately-searching-for-meaning-and-acceptance youths, I met up with the band pre-show at Music Hall of Williamsburg. But it was in the midst of another band’s soundcheck. Yelling over that and the ice machine being refilled, in addition to embarrassing attempts at miming, we somehow managed to get shots of the group together before I sat down with Heather to chat. Offstage, she appears younger than I had initially thought, but with a comfortable, warm confidence about her. Right off the bat she inquires about me and my background, so we start talking about Seattle—
Heather Baron Gracie: It reminds me of the UK a lot
Really? Just cause it’s —
Heather: Really gloomy and dark
But like in the best way
Well speaking of where we’re from — I found that when I was growing up a lot of my style choices were influenced by the kind of music I was listening to. I’m sure you hear this all the time, but pop and goth are not a likely combination. Subverting the fashion norms with your music — is that a conscious or unconscious decision?
Heather: We definitely made an intentional decision to be like, “Let’s dress really dark and gothic,” cause that’s gonna really sort of take people off guard when we come on and play pop music. That’s just what we both [drummer, Ciara Doran, and I] have genuinely been into from a young age. I grew up watching Avril Lavigne and she would wear baggy pants with like chains and a white vest top. Me and Ciara sort of developed our fashion sense together and it’s just gotten more and more extreme as time’s gone on.
Sort of as a way of self-expression or rebellion?
Heather: That’s just honestly what we prefer to dress like, how we feel most comfortable dressing. Kind of dark all the time. Velvet, silk. No flowers in sight.
Your music is very personal and honest and vulnerable. Do you feel like the amount of vulnerability your art and performing demands affects the relationships you have and the relationships you hope to pursue with other people? Those in your life already or those you haven’t met yet?
Heather: Well with our music, because I am so honest, a lot of people think that they know my already. Which in some way, they do, 100 percent, because these are my little stories within all of these songs. But I feel like sometimes people rely on that a bit too much. It’s a bit overwhelming for me when people are so forward. They feel like we’ve already met in a way because they know a lot about me. Sometimes that can scare me a bit when people are a bit too overbearing. It does affect me, being a songwriter, because a lot of people don’t want to be wrote about and they don’t want other people to know about the secrets which I have between me and them. A lot of people find it quite uncomfortable, I think. Especially in my songwriting — it’s very obvious. I’m very descriptive and I tell it like a story so when it is about somebody else that’s not me, I feel like it’s very easy for a person to identify when it’s about them.
Would you rather the people who come into your life, whether that be as friends or romantic interests, have no idea what you do, what your music is like, what you write about, and have it be this whole new introduction, or do you want them to have an idea so they know what to expect?
Heather: That’s really tricky… cause I don’t need to do so much of an introduction when people know what I do, what I sing about, about Pale Waves, etc. But it’s really genuine when they don’t. You can see through some people who just sort of want to talk to us because they want to be associated with us or they want to be seen in a picture with us and that makes me like — AH — not cool. It’s like half and half really. Depends on the person.
Performing on Late Night with Seth Meyers
I feel like there are a lot of UK acts that are alt-pop or fringe-pop, that aren’t what we usually expect from pop music, but that are very successful. Right now in New York, it’s a lot of bands that are sub-genres of punk or seventies infused rock n’ roll. Have you noticed a cultural difference in how pop music is perceived and made in the US versus the UK?
Heather: Pop music has this reputation of “Oh it’s easy to write,” by a lot of people. Or a lot of people don’t take it that seriously or respect it or give it that sort of pedestal that it should have because pop music is hard to write. Pop music is what is popular. You’re trying to appeal to a mass audience. It’s what gets played on the radio so much and with it being on the radio so much there are rules you have to sort of respect and take into consideration. No one will really play a 4 minute song, well on mainstream radio. And obviously we love pop, that’s just what we listen to the most, so we obey those rules. I feel like America loves Hip-hop music and rap music, especially on the radio. Like the radio is just Drake, basically, or that’s what I’ve heard so far. So maybe pop is taking a bit longer to spread. Whereas on Radio One, which is the mainstream main radio in the whole of the UK, it’s mainly all pop.
Do you think that people are intimated by the genre since it is inherently “popular music” there’s a connotation that you have to make it big?
Heather: Yeah! Or sometimes radio stations don’t want to play it. They want to seem cool. This goes back to the attitude “pop’s not very cool” blah blah blah. But people love pop! Respect the pop!
Right! I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people lately and it’s like, at the end of the day, a lot of times I just want to listen to something that is pleasing to listen to —
Heather: That makes you feel good! That’s not really sort of complicated. I love it when you get a song and you can sing the hook back immediately after one play. I think that is genius. That to me is harder to write than a song I can’t remember.
In terms of your songwriting process, do you write mostly when you’re looking back on these visceral memories or when you’re experiencing these things in the moment?
Heather: I guess it depends. Something could happen and an hour later I’ll be like, “I need to remember this in the way it’s just happened.” Because sometimes when I reflect on something, a memory can dilute in my brain. And I love little details in songs like, this is what you said to me or you moved your hand a certain type of way. I love giving the listener imagery to the song. So I do tend to write about quite a lot of recent stuff. But when I’m talking about myself or my family I seem to reflect on a time period of years. Usually with romantic interests I talk about in the present moment
I feel like it’s very difficult to accurately and effectively portray what you’re feeling to an audience. How do you overcome that hurdle and work through that when you’re writing a song?
Heather: I just try to be as honest and real as I can be. Straight to the point. I think it’s working because our fans are always like, what I love most about your band is the lyrics because it’s so relatable. So I feel like it is working, but it is difficult. And it’s scary because I’m worried that my point isn’t going to get seen the way I see it, and sometimes that happens. And luckily Ciara tells me when I’m not being as obvious as I should be.