On a Wednesday night at The Garage in Islington, London, under an 80s-esque glow of bubble-gum pink and blue lights and amongst a sea of hands curled into hearts, there’s the gentlest mosh pit (if you even can call it that) at the front – packed with people hugging, dancing and probably crying all at once.
On stage is Pale Waves – the two goth-girl, two indie-boy band providing the soundtrack to our escape, their music switching between melancholic one moment and euphoric the next. Standing front and center is Heather Baron-Gracie, singing and playing guitar with infectious energy, wild black hair, and an epic Batgirl-like coat draped from her shoulders. She looks fucking cool and free as she performs, especially when, very occasionally, she performs this half-Michael Jackson “Thriller” half-puppet mannequin dance between lyrics.
“Oh god, to be honest, like it’s mainly because I don’t really know what to do with my hands like I just can’t control them. I do think I use my hands a lot to express myself and emphasize things, so maybe it’s a part of that. But also when I’m up there I just sort of forget that people are watching, so I just do whatever.” It’s difficult to understand how Heather could forget people are watching her because a lot of people are watching. Like… a lot.
In just a couple of years, Pale Waves have gone from playing to small numbers in small venues in Manchester to thousands in a sold-out show at New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden, supporting indie-rock megaband The 1975 on their North American tour. They’ve racked up millions of views on YouTube and thousands of social media followers off the back of their hugely successful EP All The Things I Never Said– and don’t look to be slowing down any time soon.
Up next on the agenda: finishing their debut album due for release this summer, playing a number of summer festivals and embarking on a world tour. It seems their feet won’t touch the ground, and as we chat to Heather about writing music, changing the industry and chocolate hobnobs, it seems the band wouldn’t have it any other way. But first, back to where it all began.
How did you find music and at what point did you think: “This is why I want to do with my life?” “My dad is really musical and I grew up listening to a lot of 80s artists like Prince and Madonna. He played the guitar a lot around the house and I learned too. I think I was 13 when I wanted to do it and I’ve not wanted to do anything else since. Literally, I couldn’t do anything else.”
On her mum’s encouragement to “get an education” she enrolled at BIMM in Manchester in 2014 (where the likes of James Bay, George Ezra, and The Kooks also attended), and it was there she met drummer Ciara Doran – they clicked instantly and started practicing together. Spending hours writing and rehearsing in between lectures, did they think about bailing uni altogether? “Yeah, we did. Our parents were like giving us money to stay on the course. We’d be playing music so much and then realize we had an essay due that Monday and think ‘Oh God, we need to get the essay in, we need to stop. My mum’s an intellectual, so she wanted me to see it through, but her and my dad have always been so supportive of the band. They’re so happy to see us doing well.”
With or without parental support, a standard for young artist-dreamers is constant rejection, to be told “no,” to be told to give up, that they should “get a real job.” But it was non-negotiable for the girls from the start.
“Ciara told me a story once of how she would tell people she wanted to play in a band full-time, and some of them would laugh in her face. I just think – what do you get out of doing that to someone? Or telling someone they can’t? Why would you shit on people’s dreams like that? I don’t get it.”
Well, we know who’s laughing now. Soon two became four, with Hugo Silvani (guitarist) and Charlie Wood (bassist) joining in 2015, completing the group. “We felt so much stronger with them, so much better. Those three are my best friends. I couldn’t ever see myself being as close with anyone else as I am to them.”
For the next two years, the group would spend time writing and honing their sound, before the release of their debut single “There’s a Honey” in April 2017, co-produced by none other than The 1975’s own Matthew Healy, who’d heard the song and wanted to collaborate. The next single, “Television Romance” was released a few months later in August, the music video also directed by Healy which has already gained 4.4 million views on YouTube.
Pale Waves were making waves, and quickly – they took fifth on the BBC Sound of 2018 list, one of only two guitar bands of sixteen hopefuls, and made the shortlist for MTV’s Brand New 2018. All this, while releasing an EP, starting on their debut album, and set their own world tour in place. For a band who only formed a few years ago, the rise isn’t just quick, it’s astronomical.
And for some reason I find myself wanting to ask, where do you guys actually live? We are literally out of a suitcase at the moment! Eventually, we’d like to based in London, but at the moment we’re sort of all over the place. When I get even two days off I’ll just go home to Preston to see family and stuff. But I don’t really get homesick, no none of us do really. Quite lucky actually.
But when you do go away, do you like any home comforts – like, hobnobs? I was just about to say hobnobs! Love a hobnob.
Chocolate ones? Yeah. Chocolate hobnob and a cup of tea. Perfect.
Does being reasonably displaced for a lot of time impact how and when you write? “I just need to get into the mindset to write – that space in my head. So I can do it anytime, anywhere as long as I am in that space. Literally, I don’t think I would get anything done if I had to write in one place! And my inspiration comes from everywhere really, and everyone: my friends, my family, people Iove, people I don’t like.”
Heather’s words are so involving. You can feel like you’ve been hit like a ton of bricks one second, or be rolling your eyes with understanding the next. It’s personal but relatable and it shows. The crowds at their shows are made up of people in their teens, twenties, fifties, and everything in between.
“I do think we have appeal to a big market. I guess it’s pop music at the end of the day, but the lyrics are quite emotional and we talk about real life things so I think anyone can relate to what we’re talking about. People have said we’ve helped them through things, or they’ve met people through the music they’re now best friends with. The fact that other people can relate to what we’re saying and find other people through it, it’s amazing.”
Do you always put a lot of yourself in the music? Yeah. And people write music because they’re emotional. I want people to understand why I write these songs and how much work we’ve done and how – I just want people to understand why we do this. Writing is such an important part of my life. I write from my heart. So it’s crazy when you’re at a show and people are screaming your lyrics back to you. It’s then that I realize we’re doing something good and affecting people.
Has your sound changed since the EP? What can we expect from the album? It’s a lot different. Obviously, it has the pop bangers but instrumentally it’s a lot more diverse, we’ve got a lot more R&B influences in there. It just goes deeper into Pale Waves and is quite a bit darker.
Is writing an album a different kind of storytelling to writing a song? Yeah, when you write an album you have to get in the mindset of “How does this work as a collective?” With an album, you have thirteen or fourteen tracks and can really express yourself and do so many different things whereas, with an EP, you’re more restricted because, with three or four tracks, you can’t really express everything that you’re feeling.
There are some songs on the album that are really relevant to what’s happening in my life right now. I think when people listen to it they will really understand me more as a person. They’re going to be able to analyze me more! But I’m so proud of it. But I still haven’t really grasped the idea that we have an album coming out. An actual album. It’s crazy and scary. I just hope people fall in love with it.”
One of the tracks, “Kiss,” is going to be on the soundtrack for the second season of Netflix’s hit series 13 Reasons Why.
How did you feel when you were approached to be a part of it? Oh my god, I know. It’s crazy. The others have binged watched it but I just haven’t had time. But I know it’s so popular and such an important show, but it’s mad when you have Netflix phoning you being like “We want to work with you.” It’s amazing.
Do you like taking risks with your music? I think it’s interesting to keep making people guess and keep them on their toes, keep throwing things in the water that shake them up. Like even when we were in New York, we just thought we would play this new song “Noises” like really last minute, and I think it paid off really well, and we were glad we took that risk. It’s just little things like that, I think.
What about personally? One of the biggest risks I took a while ago was chopping off a lot of my hair. Cause I used to have really long hair, like down to my bellybutton, and I just chopped it all off in like one day, and it’s as short as it now.
Did you just fancy a change or did you think it needed to go because it was too long? Yeah I just fancied a change. I did it and Ciara cried! She actually cried tears. I don’t know why. She loves my short hair now but yeah she got really upset, bless her.
Besides your hair, how do you think you’ve changed as a person in any other way from when you started out to now? Yeah, I’ve definitely grown in confidence and I’m still trying to find, well – not find my role – but I’m still getting used to the role that I have now. I definitely feel more pressure now, because there are a lot more people out there watching what I say and seeing how I look and commenting on the music than there was at the start.
So I guess there’s pressure to look good all the time, to not say the wrong thing. But if more people are watching it means more people are hearing Pale Waves. And we’re slowly becoming a way bigger band, which is happening so fast but it’s really exciting. And it’s all we want.
Is there something in the music industry that you would like to change? Yeah, I don’t think there are enough women in the music industry. At all. It’s very male-dominated. And a lot of the time, it’s even happened to me, that men have kind of looked down at me a lot and not thought I could play the guitar at all. It’s absolutely bullshit because I write most of the guitar parts. I just want the attitude within music to change, and for people to just appreciate that anyone can make music and play it regardless of gender. For them to just look at it equally.
With the upcoming tour, you’re heading to countries including Germany, Australia, New Zealand, the US, and Japan. Where are you most excited to go to? I’m really excited to go to Japan. I just don’t know what to expect I’ve heard a lot about the fans in Japan, they’re really enthusiastic! I’m really intrigued to see how much of Pale Waves is in Japan and how big is our fan base there. I actually hate going on airplanes though. It makes me really anxious. But I’m starting to accept it slowly because we have to fly so much now.
Do you guys have any pre-performance rituals? Yeah, we all get together and hug! Like a big group hug, just general hyping each other up really, but sometimes we’ll get to the point where we’re slapping each other’s bums then thinking right, we need to get on now.
Where do you see Pale Waves in the future? I just want to be one of the biggest bands the world has ever experienced. I see us taking over the world. But then again, I have such big ambitions. But I’m not gonna stop until I’m satisfied. I just want to play to massive venues and for Pale Waves to reach everyone’s hearts.
Words: Lucy Chappell Photography: Aysia Marotta Styling: Kelsey Ferguson Assisted By: Dylan Wayne Hair & Makeup: Amanda Wilson for Opus Beauty using Urban Decay and R&CO