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Cover Story – Pale Waves

| January 31, 2021

Pale Waves

If anyone didn’t know it when she first got into showbiz as a wide-eyed, small-town British naif, they know it now — Pale Waves front-vixen Heather Baron-Gracie pulls no punches, suffers no fools gladly, and always shoots straight from the hip. She’s justifiably proud of her newfound industry acumen, and she’s even developed an alter ego to do the dirty work, a no-nonsense persona she’s dubbed with the deceptively charming moniker of Victoria. “So I’m just sitting in my bedroom right now, chillin’, and Victoria isn’t around,” reports the singer, phoning to discuss her band’s panoramic new sophomore outing, Who Am I? Given that leading album title, how does one know exactly which entity they’re addressing? She laughs coquettishly. “Oh, she only comes out when she needs to come out when I need to feel like a bad bitch; Victoria will definitely come out!”

Ergo, if Heather is mousy Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice, Victoria is Ryder in — ironically — Heathers: Tough, assertive, maybe borderline homicidal. Feel her emerging? You’d best back the fuck up, lads. This gal means business.

Even the friendly folks at Dirty Hit Records, the imprint run by Jamie Oborne, who first signed Baron-Gracie’s longtime benefactor pals. The 1975 and Pale Waves have grown accustomed to getting occasionally slashed by Victoria’s claws because she’ll stand up to any male workplace oppression whenever Heather is too shy or well-mannered to do it. “So I have gotten into many arguments with people, and sometimes it’s escalated to bigger arguments,” she concedes. “But I don’t let people push me around. Or tell me who I am or what to do. If anything, I do the opposite, and I think I cause more havoc than anyone at my label.” Naturally, her latest equally-direct album finds her seriously questioning her own identity, or — more particularly — how showbiz itself was starting to transform her, mentally, emotionally, even existentially. She took a long hard look at herself in the mirror, and its reflection — even though countless young female fans had begun copying her haunted Clara-Bow-meets-Metropolis look in adulation — did not please her. Not in the least.

Sure, it was flattering, staring into concert audiences and seeing hundreds of fashion-copying lookalikes looking back, while Pale Waves was touring the world over the past three years, opening for The 1975, Muse, The Cure. And on later headlining jaunts of their own, especially in America, the effect grew much more intense. Baron-Gracie was a true sparkling original on the staid music scene and a veritable whirling dervish of a punk-powered guitarist onstage, and young girls sensed it and were exponentially inspired. “But sometimes, I have to do a double-take, because I’m like, ‘Wow! You look more like me than ME! Would you like to come up here and do my job? I really need a break!’” So the birth of Victoria was the most logical next step, psychologically, she explains. And Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, even Garth Brooks did it long before her. “So it’s sometimes helpful for artists to do that because it’s really not the most natural thing to be an artist, and put all your thoughts and feelings on display for the world, and then go on stage and perform them to multiple — sometimes thousands of — people each night, with them just staring at you.”

Indeed. And if you sense a reflective, past-exhuming therapy session coming on, you’re not far off the mark. But truthfully, Baron-Gracie set the stage for this psychoanalytic inquiry on Pale Waves’ dazzling 2018 debut, just in its title alone — My Mind Makes Noises. And if you listen closely to what she’s singing in her charismatic, arena-huge, hiccup-punctuated voice, the songs, despite being monstrous OMD-meets-Modern-English anthems, are rife with uncertainty and self-doubt. “I feel like I’m slowly losing myself/ I’m afraid that I need help,” she confesses on the bass-heavy “Noises,” wondering if anyone else has noticed with “What do you see when you look at me?” In an Echo-and-the-Bunnymen-with-handclaps “There’s a Honey,” she falters in front of a lover (“I would give you my body but I’m not sure that you want me”); “Black mascara, that’s what you used to call me/ That’s all I’ll ever be,” she notes with chagrin on the finger-popping “Loveless Girl.” In the huge celebratory rocker “Drive,” she notes that “I like to be alone most all the time / Talking to myself with nobody else/ And that’s the way that I like it,” but waits for the chorus to confess “I drive fast so I can feel something.” Eventually, she uses a shattered relationship as a metaphor for the album’s ultimate quandary: “When Did I Lose it All?”

There was no Victoria around to help the kid cope with the increasing demands of fame. And that’s one fact that has to be clarified from the outset — Heather Baron-Gracie will be a huge name-in-lights rock star. Nothing will alter her meteoric arc, not even the coronavirus clampdown, which only put the fiery display on pause for roughly a year. And as luck would have it, a year was all she needed to clear her head, rediscover her innate talents, begin a much healthier lifestyle, and feel completely at ease with her sexuality. Dollars to doughnuts, every Goth guy in Pale Waves audiences watched this ghostly-gorgeous dynamo onstage bemoaning her “Loveless” plight and thought, “This amazing girl can’t find a boyfriend? REALLY?” Sorry, dudes. As Gloria Steinem once declared, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” The singer is openly lesbian now and so happy about her equally-attractive new girlfriend, Kelsi Luck. She penned a devotional last-minute addition to Who for her, “She’s My Religion.” It was just issued as a single and prominently featured Luck in the track’s decidedly steamy video. With matching shoulder-length black haircuts, nose piercings, and black nail polish, they make a stylish, photogenic couple, and they appear incredibly happy together. Which only serves to cement Baron-Gracie’s freshly acquired wisdom that you can’t really love anyone else until you first learn how to love yourself.

No pun intended, Baron-Gracie chuckles, But Luck had everything to do with Who Am I? The lovers met roughly a year in Las Vegas through a mutual friend of Pale Waves drummer Ciara Doran and their longtime partner. The sparks were instant, and high-combustion and a slight age difference helped; the wise, metaphysical-minded Luck turns 30 this March, while her still-learning paramour is 25. It isn’t exactly a guru/disciple relationship. “But she taught me real love and showed me how to love myself, something that I feel like I’ve never experienced before,” she swoons, totally smitten. “She is so artistic and has such a unique mind — she’s just amazing, and our love has blossomed into something beautiful. And she has influenced this album massively.” The lady Luck proved to be Baron-Gracie’s sounding board on personal plaints, like “You Don’t Own Me,” which is not the Lesley Gore classic but a similarly-defiant take. “On so many songs, we would stay up late talking about then, so I feel like her, and I kind of co-wrote this album more than anyone,” she sighs contentedly. “It’s like our masterpiece, together.”

Baron-Gracie has come a long way in four dizzying years. In 2017, when this writer first spoke to her, she seemed cocksure, full of piss and vinegar, even though Pale Waves was only three singles old. The idiosyncratic singing voice was already there, alongside her unusual thrift-shop-based, mostly ebony fashion sense, which — along with her signature white face powder, black lipstick, and Munch-“Scream” eye shadow — gave her the look of an old silent film star. She didn’t so much appear onstage as flicker onto it like an otherworldly projection from German Expressionist cinema. It all smacked of brash, almost swaggering self-assurance. But now, in — ahem — 2020 hindsight, it was more like an act, the small forest animal puffing up its fur to look more fierce and ferocious to predators.

At the time, the whippersnapper still understood where she was coming from. Namely, the tiny town of Preston, where she instinctively kept to herself in school. “I’m just not a very sociable person,” she ceded at the time. “I just don’t seem to click with a lot of people, so I don’t have too many friends. I actually have just four or five best friends, and that’s more than enough for me.” Fortunately, Doran was one of the first kindred spirits she met while attending the BIMM Institute in Manchester. Like mad scientists, they set about discovering their own sound, pouring sonic test tubes into percussion-fortified beakers. Early Baron-Gracie solo experiments resembled Avril Lavigne; Her first with Doran — after the addition of guitarist Hugo Silvani and bassist Charlie Wood — pulsed with an ‘80s-retro playfulness, simultaneously tapping into Goth, Punk, New Romantic, and even gentle, diary-honest folk, as well. All with a modern but emo-morose modern twist.

“I listened to a lot of depressing music, and Ciara listened to a lot of upbeat pop,” Baron-Gracie recalled in 2017 of Pale Waves’ genesis. “So then, as one, we fused the pop music with my depressing lyrical content. Plus, I was into a lot of acoustic music, like Lucy Rose and Ben Howard, so I was intrigued by different tunings of the guitar, and now I love songs in an open tuning.” And as for stage garb, she added, “People always say we look like we walked out of a Tim Burton movie, and we think that’s really cool.” The band had already been taken under the wing of The 1975 anchor Matty Healy, who helped get them signed to Dirty Hit and then invited to open for his stadium-big band on tour. By 2018, they’d won NME’s prestigious Under The Radar Award and finished their My Mind Makes Noises bow, which debuted in the UK Top 10. Pale Waves was on its way. But where?

That’s what the new Who seeks to address. Recorded mostly in Los Angeles with savvy American producer Rich Costey (of Muse/Sigur Ros/Biffy Clyro renown), the disc is all about restraint and thematic focus, as it gleefully bounces through more romantic paeans, like the rubbery shuffler “Easy” (“I can’t believe that you’re alive at the same time as me”) and the fluffy “I Just Needed You,” wherein Baron-Gracie lists all the things (fame, money, fast car, big house) she’d wrongly equated with the real deal, true love. But Pale Waves’ instinctive gale-force cacophony never once drown out each cut’s emotional wallop, as on the sinewy “You Don’t Own Me” (“I don’t need you/ ‘Cause I’ll be whoever I want to”), the synth-rocking “Tomorrow” (“Sexuality isn’t a choice/ Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong”), a buoyant, finger-popping “Change” (“I wish I’d never seen your face”), and a closing thesis summary of a title track (with a poignant chorus of “Who am I/ Does anybody know/ How do I live a lie/ Where I don’t feel this low”). At some points, the record sounds like a collection of old Primitives outtakes; at others, it reaches for the Ariana Grande rafters. But mostly, it’s got the comfortable, neighborly familiarity of a missing-John-Hughes-movie soundtrack. Call it “The Brunch Club,” as they once described brunch on The Simpsons – “It’s not quite breakfast, not quite lunch. But it comes with a slice of cantaloupe.”

Baron-Gracie is happy to stretch out on the therapeutic couch and chew the note-reviewing cantaloupe. “In the past three years, I’ve traveled around the world, I’ve met so many people, and I’ve had so many experiences and moments that evolved me into who I am right now,” she sighs. “And there were times when we were just on tour, every single night, and it felt like my whole life was touring. And as amazing as playing shows are, when you’re playing a show every single night, and you’re constantly traveling somewhere, it can get really, really tiring. So there were a lot of recurring moments where I had to take myself aside and be, like, ‘Wow. This is a LOT. And I don’t think I can deal with it.’ So I needed space, and I needed some time away from that environment, to really work on myself and become a better version of myself.” Gig after desensitizing gig, getting trashed after shows—and sometimes before, just to muster Victoria-unleashing courage. She had had enough of such aberrant behavior, a truth underscored by a chilling tour bus accident she narrowly dodged last March in Europe, where Pale Waves was opening a soon-to-be-canceled-by COVID-19 tour with Halsey. She and Luck flew ahead to Berlin while her bandmates chose to make the theoretically scenic winter drive. “But traveling through bad conditions in Sweden, the bus slipped on black ice and flipped over, and they were all involved in a really serious accident. It was really brutal, and it messed them up mentally, but they’ve come out of it really strong. And I felt really awful that I wasn’t involved, that I wasn’t on that bus. But, as they would say, the fewer people on that bus, the better.”

Hence the united front Pale Waves presents on its Who album cover, where they resemble a New York subway gang from Walter Hill’s The Warriors, even down to Baron-Gracie’s less-theatrical, street-smart new look. And when Wood and Silvani jetted back to England as the coronavirus coiled tighter last year, and she had the opportunity to remain in L.A. with her galpal, mid-Costey-session — as Doran did with her America-based significant other — she grabbed it. And the mind-expanding consciousness she drifted into is certainly New-Age-Californian, by definition. It had been a long time since the vocalist had a few days off in a row, let alone the weeks, then months that the pandemic lockdown extended this downtime into. “Looking back at myself only a year ago, I was a bit of a mess,” she says. “Mentally very unstable, emotionally all over the place, very cynical and negative. And I realized that I had to change that around, so having time to breathe, away from the pressure of being on tour, I wound up in a steady routine, and that gave me the sense of living a normal life. I didn’t have to go do interviews; I didn’t have to go onstage — I could just devote the day to working on me, Heather. And it really changed my outlook on myself and as a person. I started to read a lot, and I found comfort in doing new things, like yoga and meditation and eating healthy, and really looking after my body, physically and mentally. And now I feel like a totally different person.”

Luck and Baron-Gracie resided in a cottage in Venice Beach, and their daily routine kept them sane and centered during the lockdown. Each morning began the same way, with good coffee at 9 AM, followed by a half-hour of yoga, a half-hour of meditation, then a home-gym workout or a neighborhood run, then, at last, a much-deserved breakfast. Next: writing new music, perhaps reading a book (she swears by all the zen-like, transformational tips she’s soaked up from Swiss-born British philosopher Alain de Botton), then perhaps a relaxing nature walk or a drive through sunny Malibu. “Then we’d come back, cook a good meal, and then just watch a movie or play a game of chess,” she says. “It was such a good time in my life, and I really needed that break.”

Now Baron-Gracie can casually allude to lofty de Botton treatises like Art as Therapy, The Architecture of Happiness, and Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and how they can apply to everyday situations, even those of a Grimaldi-somber Goth-pop star. “He really educated me on emotional intelligence, and his words really impacted my life drastically — he really changed my perspective on myself as a human being. So I feel like I’ve got a much more spiritual outlook on life, and that’s really helped me.”

Now that she’s worked through her problems, this self-starter — like any good mathematician — was happy to show her work on every equation for Who Am I? “Tomorrow” was the first track she penned for the record, she explains, and it was bristling with gritty guitar. And that set the spunky tone for the proceedings. So as much as she still loves the synth-rippling pop music from “My Mind,” she says, “On this album, I really wanted to switch it up. I really wanted it to be authentic to the childhood Me, the childhood dream that I had. So this time, the music is very guitar-driven — it’s not really dressed up in a lot of production or a load of synths. You can take any of these tracks and just play them on acoustic guitar, and it would sound amazing. And I knew that that would change the Pale Waves sound, but that’s what I wanted.”

There’s only one thing Baron-Gracie has yet to figure out. Folks around here will know when Victoria is on the prowl, she says, because havoc will follow in her vengeful wake. “And I think sometimes I make my crosses too brutal to bear, but that’s just who I am as a person  — I don’t want to talk nonsense, I just want to get straight to the point. But if it’s in a text, I have to admit that it comes across as quite rude — sometimes, someone will suggest things to do or offer me help, but in a text, I can just shut them down completely, and they can get really upset, just like any human being.” So she’s working on her delivery, she’s working on it. But after all, it’s Pale Waves that she’s always fighting for, she adds. “And I do want the best things for us, so I will always be the first one to say, ‘No, that’s not good enough!’”

-Tom Lanham

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