Hayley Williams – sweetheart of the country music rodeo? Or radio? Hey, it could have happened, chuckles the plucky Paramore vixen, whose life story has already had some surprising twists at the tender age of 24. Not the least of which was surviving the 2010 departure of two founding band members, guitarist Josh Farro and his drumming brother Zac, to make the triumphant new 17-track epic, Paramore, which just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. But there was a time not so long ago when she easily could have become the next Taylor Swift. “Because I actually did a couple of things that I don’t know if a lot of people know about when I first moved to Nashville,” she reveals.
It happened like this: When Williams and her mother first moved from Meridian, Miss., in 2002, after her parents’ divorce, it felt like they were on the run, she recalls. But they soon settled into their new environment, and her mom took a teaching job to pay the rent. Summer was fast approaching, and the antsy youngster – then only 13 – declared that she wanted to do something to while away the free hours. Something fun.
Appearing: 5/9 at Chicago Theatre (175 N. State) Chicago with Kitten.
“So it wasn’t really like a ‘starting-out’ thing – it was more like a ‘me, after-school, extracurricular’ sort of thing,” she explains. “So I started doing country demos for fifty bucks. So I did that, and that’s how I met some random people, and I was like, ‘Yeah! Let’s write some songs!’ So I found really quickly when I moved to Nashville that I just liked being around creative people that did music, in any shape or form or fashion. And I guess I really quickly discovered how much I loved writing songs.”
What tear-in-your-beer demos did the kid drawl? She laughs. She doesn’t remember all the awkward titles, she admits. “But there were some pretty great ones, and I definitely remember being a little embarrassed – I definitely didn’t want to show them to anyone.” As an ugly-duckling teen, this future proto-punk swan was constantly bullied. “So I ended up in home school tutorial, because I didn’t make it in public school very long, and that’s where I met the guys [the Farros],” she says. “So when I finally had friends, I was like, ‘Uhh, mom? Don’t talk about the country demos, O.K.? Don’t tell them – I want to make friends, not lose them!'”
Within a year, Williams was signed to a two-year pop production deal. Soon, she landed a solo contract with Atlantic Records. It was the era of Avril Lavigne, she recollects, and every manager and record label wanted to sign the next smoky-eyed musical minx. “And I guess I looked the part,” she says. “I was the girl singer-songwriter who could play guitar, and I had written some songs. But little did they know that I was in a band, and I had my own sort of agenda and my own plan – that me and the guys had already set in motion. Which basically meant that we were practicing in the garage once a week. So by the time labels started calling me, I had already made up my mind that, “Yeah, I can write on my own. I could probably do this on my own. But why would I want to do that?'”
The vocalist pauses, thinking back to that era, in which she was hobnobbing with much older professional songwriters. She’d even paid her soulful dues in an all-funk cover band, where she met future Paramore bassist Jeremy Davis (who, along with more recent addition, guitarist Taylor York, comprise the core of Paramore today). “It’s crazy to think about that now, because at the time, I didn’t imagine that those people were all that older than me,” she says. “I just thought, ‘I want to play songs tonight!’ or ‘I want to sing a Chaka Khan song tonight!’ You know, my dream my whole life was . . .” She trails off for a minute, then decides to reiterate.
“I remember being in second grade and assigning friends instruments,” she continues. “Like, ‘We’re going to be in a band! We’re going to do this!’ I just have always wanted to be a part of this, and I just would much rather play music with my friends. So I got lucky that I somehow made a good case for myself and people listened. And the guys and I got to go on this ride and be Paramore.” Another judicious pause interrupts her thoughts. “And to be honest with you, there’s no way that ‘Hayley Williams’ would be around as long as Paramore’s been around. It just would never work. I think people want what’s real and what’s genuine, and what’s genuine for me is being the singer of this band. It wouldn’t be selling my name on a billboard or on the cover of a CD – that just wouldn’t be me.”
Cut to that other strange twist of fate: the recent exit of the Farros, followed by a nasty online spat where Josh characterized Paramore in a blog post as “a manufactured product of a major label.” Williams doesn’t have any clear-cut answers when it comes to explaining the drama.
“Quite honestly, the story that we told from day one is still the story today,” says Williams, who stayed busy during the upheaval by collaborating with Weezer (“Rainbow Connection” from Muppets: The Green Album); B.O.B. (the smash international hit “Airplanes”); and Mewithoutyou (“All Circles” and “Fox’s Dream Of The Log Flume” from 2012’s Ten Stories). “They [the Farros] weren’t happy, and we aren’t in the business of forcing people into doing things that they don’t want to do. So Taylor and Jeremy and I, we sort of had a few talks about it without actually having talked about it, and we decided that we weren’t finished and that we still wanted to move forward as Paramore. And that we had a lot more to say, just as human beings on the face of the planet. And that’s how album four came out. So I guess I feel like – and it’s super-cliché – but everything does happen for a reason. And if Josh and Zac weren’t happy, well, it made Taylor and Jeremy and I realize that we are absolutely happy doing this. So I’m pleased with everything that’s happened.”
— Tom Lanham