Pale Waves: ‘We give a voice to those who can’t be heard’

On last year’s Who Am I?, Pale Waves frontwoman Heather Baron-Gracie wrestled with love and her own identity. Now, with the brand-new Unwanted, she’s using pop-punk to take a swing at society’s arseholes. She tells whynow about her newfound confidence and being a gay woman in rock.

Pale Waves

Despite the fact she’s speaking over the phone, it’s abundantly clear Heather Baron-Gracie is grinning from ear to ear over her lot in life. “Seven-year-old Heather would be so happy right now!” she audibly beams from her home in Whitechapel.

When Heather was a kid, the only thing she wanted to be was Avril Lavigne. Now, twenty years later, she’s living the dream. She’s the singer and guitarist of pop band Pale Waves. And, since forming in 2014, the four-piece – rounded out by co-guitarist Hugo Silvani, bassist Charlie Wood and drummer Ciara Doran – have ascended the ranks of the UK’s music scene so quickly that they may as well have been shot out of a starting pistol.

A string of standalone singles in 2017 saw the Mancunians get named ones to watch for the following year by Alternative Press and the BBC, before debut album My Mind Makes Noise reached number eight in the UK Charts. Three years later, after tours with everyone from Halsey to The 1975, follow-up full-length Who Am I? made it to number three. Heather’s a pop star – and she’s enjoying a rare moment to sit down and relish that fact.

Pale Waves

“I used to put my headphones on at night and play an Avril song and picture myself on stage,” she remembers. “I must have manifested it, honestly. Sometimes you’re so busy that you don’t get time to reflect on what you’ve made happen. Young me would be so thrilled and sometimes you forget that.”

It’s no wonder that Heather rarely gets time to reminisce. Last week, not even eighteen months after Who Am I? came out, Pale Waves released their third album: Unwanted. Musically, it finishes what its predecessor started, completing its creators’ transition from clap-along synthpop to energised and nostalgic pop-punk. And it’s not shy about it, either.

Opening number ‘Lies’ knocks you on the head with swaggering guitar chords, while Heather’s melodic howls about love and loss echo Hayley Williams and, yes, even her early-2000s-ruling idol. ‘Jealousy’ goes even heavier with its angular blues rock riff, before ‘Clean’ practically screams for radio airplay with its infectious “na-na-na” chanting. According to Heather, the increasing injection of rock ’n’ roll was to enhance the live experience.

She explains: “I feel like you can really let yourself go a lot more on stage when you’re playing heavier songs. You can have more fun with it.

Pale Waves

“The pandemic really influenced where this record went,” the frontwoman continues. “We felt deprived. We hadn’t stepped on a stage for so long. We knew that, when we got back on tour, we just wanted to have the best time with it that we could.”

Without live shows to keep her busy, the pandemic was a time of self-reflection for Heather. On Who Am I?, her lyrics explored love (inspired by her relationship with singer/songwriter Kelsi Luck) and the struggle of discovering one’s place in the world. The title track asks over emotive pianos, “Where am I supposed to go when I feel like I’ve got nowhere to go?”, while ‘Wish U Were Here’ is a lovesick ballad.

“I feel like the pandemic forced people to reflect and grow,” Heather says. “I used that time to work on myself and I feel like a completely different person.”

How so? “I’m less insecure. I’ve learned to take care of myself, rather than needing to be lifted up.”

Pale Waves

Photo: Ami Ford

As a result, while Who Am I? sourced much of its happiness from, and almost deified, Heather’s partner, Unwanted is self-assured and, at times, a savage fuck you. ‘Lies’ opens with: “You called it love, but it never had that feeling. Ripped out my heart and left it bleeding. Do you feel happier yet? Did you say some things you regret? ’Cause I’m feeling better alone.” Similarly, the chorus of ‘Alone’ snarls: “I wish I could go back to the night when I met you, so I could tell you to go to hell.”

“The lyrics aren’t directed towards one person in particular,” Heather answers when asked who’s on the receiving end of Unwanted’s venom. “I think a lot of people are mistaking this for a break-up album, but that’s not the case at all. If anything, it’s other people around me. That line in ‘Alone’ is about my frustration at men not hearing when I say no. They have this sense of entitlement: ‘No, you should want to have a drink with me.’ It’s the ultimate rejection song.”

Now that her music falls squarely in the pop-punk camp, Heather is a gay woman in the world of rock: a genre long monopolised by cishet men. She fully acknowledges there’s a lack of LGBTQ+ representation in that form of music – and it’s a problem she’s driven to fix.

“There are obviously a lot of queer artists in pop,” she says. “You have your big drama queens like Lady Gaga, who’s amazing. But there’s definitely not a lot of representation in this area. I’m really glad we pushed in this direction, because, as Pale Waves, we give a voice to everyone who can’t be heard. I think branching off into this genre will be beneficial for the queer community.”

Pale Waves

Heather’s always known she’s gay. She famously told Vanity Fair in 2021: “I’ve always been gay. When I came out of the womb, I knew I was gay.” There was no moment where it “clicked”, nor did she ever feel the need to come out to friends and family.

“I forcefully didn’t want to have this big ‘I’m gay’ moment,” she says, “because why do we have to have those moments? It shouldn’t be like that anymore and it frustrates me. Straight people don’t need to have a coming-out party! It just shouldn’t be a thing.”

Heather’s queer identity – alongside a mutual fascination with music and fashion – is what made her and fellow Pale Waves co-founder Ciara Doran bond when they were studying at BIMM in Manchester. By the time Who Am I? came out last February, Ciara had started identifying as non-binary; in the eighteen months since, they’ve begun transitioning and taking testosterone.

“You can’t say to them, ‘I know what you’re going through,’ because you don’t,” says Heather. “Today’s society is a tough society for trans people, so I think it’s a huge thing for them to do this.

Pale Waves

Photo: Pip

“Since Ciara started transitioning, I’ve seen more trans people coming to shows,” she continues. “I’ve seen so many people come up to them and express their gratitude for them being so public about their journey. It’s made them feel more confident, which I think is great!”

And that’s Pale Waves’ mission statement: to make everybody feel welcomed and loved. Also, selling out some really big venues would be nice. “I think by the time Pale Waves call it quits, we’ll be playing arenas – maybe even stadiums,” Heather declares.

She doesn’t want to meet Avril though. “I know a lot of people that are friends with her, but… don’t meet your heroes, you know?”

Unwanted is out now via Dirty Hit.

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