A different kind of love
Since 2017’s “There’s A Honey” first hit the airwaves, Manchester’s Pale Waves have been on a stratospheric ascent. The release of Who Am I? earlier this month is a bright spot for fans against the past year’s apocalypse-adjacent backdrop, with many tracks’ messages gaining layers of weight in this unexpected context.
For Heather Baron-Gracie, the band’s sophomore LP was an opportunity to share more of herself than ever before; something its title intentionally reflects. “We had 75% of the album wrote, and we still didn’t have the album title,” Baron-Gracie recalls. “I was going through various titles and none of them felt right. I was being pressured, time was coming to a close – it needed a title, basically – but I hadn’t got that feeling. I really feel things in my gut.
“We were on tour in Europe and I was mentally and physically exhausted. I needed a break. Touring can really have an effect on my mental health, because I need space, and I need to be in nature. When you live on a bus with 13 people, then you cram into a little tiny dressing room, share the same toilet and bathroom, then you go on stage to all these people… it’s not natural! I need to walk away from it sometimes. I hadn’t got that break in a really long time. On this particular day, it all got to me a bit too much. I had one of my classic mini-breakdowns, then I took my acoustic guitar into the bathroom locked myself in there. No one came in, ‘cause everyone avoids me when I’m in that sort of mood! They don’t want to get their head bitten off!
“I wrote ‘Who Am I?’ within an hour, and it really summed up the album for me. I’d gone on this personal journey of growth, and ‘Who Am I?’ is a song about wanting to find myself a lot more, wanting to figure out those directions: where do I go? How do I get from here to where I want to be? It felt like a great album title, that represented me and everything that I was writing at that moment in time.”
It seems surreal that the genesis of Who Am I? occurred during a time when touring and live music were available to us all, but large parts of the record pre-date the pandemic that has defined the past twelve months. “The whole writing process was pre-pandemic,” Baron-Gracie confirms. “We tried to get album two together for a while and it wasn’t working out. We were exhausted from touring and travelling constantly, and I went to LA to visit my girlfriend, Kelsi. I had the idea for ‘Tomorrow’ already done on my acoustic guitar, and got it together a little more in a writing session with Susie Shin. ‘Tomorrow’ was the song that created a pathway for the second album, and it became obvious that a very controlled studio environment is the way I like to work. When you’re on tour, you can get so distracted. It’s so easy to not be inspired in that environment.
“The recording process was really cool;” she continues. “The full band came out to LA. We recorded the first half in this amazing studio close to Venice Beach, with a great producer called Rich Costey. Then we went on tour in Europe with Halsey, and then the pandemic really kicked off. When people were aware of how serious it was, half of the band flew back, and myself and the producer carried on. Ciára [Doran, drummer/songwriter/producer] would come in now and again, and that’s how we managed to finish the record. It was quite a journey, really!”
As an album, Who Am I? embodies a significant shift in Pale Waves’ sound from debut “My Mind Makes Noises”. Baron-Gracie feels this reflects a change in the band’s way of working, and the free rein she was granted to write the music that comes most naturally to her. Where “My Mind…” garnered comparison to the many 80s bands it referenced sonically, “Who Am I?” fast-forwards to the turn of the millennium, blending the '90s and '00s sounds that surrounded Baron-Gracie and her bandmates as they grew up. “This [sound] is genuinely my love and my favourite genre – as well as country music – early 2000s alternative, throwing back to the 90s,” she explains. “‘Who Am I?’ is an album that my childhood self would absolutely adore. This album was always going to come out, it was just when it was going to come out!
“I got more creative freedom with Who Am I?,” Baron-Grace explains, “in the sense that me and Ciára took a break from writing with one another. I didn’t have to conform to someone else’s artistic taste – I got sole control over how the music was going to be and sound. When I write music alone, this is the kind of music I write, not 80s-influenced music.”
Another important shift in the album's campaign is Baron-Gracie’s decision to be open about her own sexuality. Where My Mind… saw the singer opt for gender neutrality in her lyrics about love interests, songs like “She’s My Religion” embody a desire to stand up and be counted as a member of the LGBT+ community. “I have a platform, it’s not the largest platform, but I can represent the community,” she explains. “If I can do that, and normalise same-sex relationships, and represent it in a healthy way – not just a playful or an overly sexualised or an experimental way – then I feel like I owe that to the community, being part of it myself.”
What was it that made Baron-Gracie sure it was time to share this facet of herself with listeners? “I wasn’t going to half-arse something on the first album. I knew that when I wanted to be open about my sexuality and display it, it had to be right. That’s why I knew I had to wait for the right moment and the right person.
“I met somebody that I felt proud of, and that I wanted to display my love of to the world,” she continues. “I don’t feel like I had that prior to this album. There’s different kinds of love in the world. You get a different kind of love from your parents, your friends, and the person that you’re in a relationship with. I’ve never felt this true, genuine, endless, timeless love from another person in a romantic sense before. It’s a whole new experience for me, and it’s made me become a better person. It’s made me become so much happier within myself, and more comfortable within my own skin – to see someone love every single part of you, even the parts that you really rejected and hated in the past. It teaches you to fall in love with those parts. The right kind of love can be the most beautiful thing ever, and save you as a person.
“Two years ago, I really struggled with a lot of parts of myself. I was always aware of my sexuality, but I never owned it. I’ve really grown into it and become comfortable sharing it with the rest of the world. As an artist, no one tells you how much of you to share with the world and how much to keep for yourself. I’ve grown a lot more comfortable with that.”
Despite societal progress in recent years, Baron-Gracie feels that the depictions of queer women in media are still lacking; at least in ways she finds realistic. She struggles to name any artists who have offered her the representation she seeks to share with her fans. “You know, there’s not many [artists] that represent [queer women’s relationships] in an honest way,” she muses. “I could call out so many people right now, but I don’t want to start shit! There’s so many people out there that are not even in the community and try and get a girl-on-girl video to get them more fame or get them more views, and I just think that’s appalling. You shouldn’t do that. It really sets us back even further. Especially a girl-on-girl relationship, a lesbian relationship. People tend to not take it seriously, and when artists represent it in a playful way, or ‘when I’m drunk I kiss girls’… you know… ‘I kissed a girl, and I liked it.’ It’s like, come on. Use your brain a bit more.”
Katy Perry is thrown out as a example of this trivialisation. “I Kissed A Girl” was released in 2008, and remains a touchstone in conversations such as this. Despite over a decade passing since the track’s release, and an apology from the singer – “She sees now that it was really awful” – Baron-Gracie makes it clear that progress away from flippant, stereotypical depictions is far slower than is acceptable to her. “She’s My Religion” is Pale Waves’ riposte to this problem. From the title alone, it’s obvious that the track is an expression of Baron-Gracie’s identity as a gay woman. The single was accompanied by a video described by DJ Annie Mac as “voyeuristic” – a window into Baron-Gracie’s real relationship with girlfriend Kelsi Luck. “The making of the video for ‘She’s My Religion’ was really fun,” says Baron-Gracie. “It was really natural for us, it’s just our relationship. It didn’t feel like we had to play another character or be anyone else – it was just her and I being ourselves with one another. Sometimes I feel like the best art is the art that feels the most natural. The most natural things that are created are those that people feel on edge by, or that they aren’t in the position to be viewing. I love how that makes people feel. I love making people feel awkward! That’s why I wanted it to be a video where it made the viewer almost uncomfortable that they were watching it, like they were peeping in.”
Luck’s role in the creation of “Who Am I?” was not restricted to muse and video co-star. Baron-Gracie expands on the experience of working with her girlfriend throughout the album’s creation and release: “Kelsi had a massive influence in this whole campaign and in the writing process. It feels like, in a way, it’s mine and her creation that we brought to life. We would discuss all the songwriting concepts in detail and dissect everything. That’s why it has a strong message, and why each song has its own personality and its own position in this world.”
"Society might view all these things as negative, but I think to genuinely love someone, and to love them as an entirety, you have to love every single part of them."
It’s moderately amusing, given her input on the record, that the depiction of Luck in "She’s My Religion” is, bluntly put, not the most flattering. The soaring chorus lists traits including “cold”, “dark”, “cynical”, and “forever angry at the world”. Baron-Gracie laughs when asked what Luck made of this character study, before explaining why she finds it more romantic than an airbrushed alternative:
“We discussed pretty much every song on the album, but this wasn’t really one that we discussed prior to writing, although she was like, ‘you need to represent the [LGBT+] community on the album’. She knew I was writing a song about her, then it came back and I showed her the demo. At first she was just staring at me like, ‘what the fuck? Why are you telling everyone this about me?’ And then I explained: I didn’t want to go with the cliché love song. I have that on the album – I have ‘Easy’, that’s the ‘I’m so in love with you’ moment. I wanted to do it in a different way. Society might view all these things as negative, but I think to genuinely love someone, and to love them as an entirety, you have to love every single part of them. Even what people view as negative, or what you view as negative. And then she got it: it’s discussing a person’s darker and negative sides and saying, ‘I even love those things about you.’”
She earmarks several key tracks on the record as having the messages she considers most important, including "You Don’t Own Me", "Tomorrow", "Who Am I?", and "I Just Needed You. The latter ties into some of the same themes of spirituality raised by “She’s My Religion”, but the tone is altogether different.
“‘I Just Needed You’ is speaking about re-aligning my priorities, realising that I can’t find temporary happiness within materialistic things,” Baron-Gracie explains. “I’ve become a lot more spiritual within the last two years. I’ve realised that a lot of things in my life were, in fact, quite toxic, and bringing me only moments of happiness. I’ve had to re-align a lot and remove a lot of things out of my life.”
Another track on which she is keen to expand is soaring single “Tomorrow”, which features a carousel of stories from people in Baron-Gracie’s life, both real and lightly fictionalised.
“Two of them are people in my life: Hayley and Kelsi,” she elaborates. “Hayley is one of my closest friends, who struggles with how society views her – her body image, her as a person. I’ve watched that struggle, and it hurts me to see her get so upset from other people’s comments. Obviously Kelsi is my girlfriend, and she struggles with depression. The other two… I know so many people like them in my life, but I didn’t feel comfortable with putting their actual names within a song. I didn’t know if they would be cool with it. A lot of people get funny about you writing about them and making the world aware of their insecurities! I didn’t want to give them the actual names of those people in my life, so I gave them a fake name, but that story does apply to many people in my life.”
Many of the stories Baron-Gracie is keen to tell relate to her gender, something that has shaped her experience as a musician as soon as she found herself in the spotlight. “The first record was like an introduction to us, so obviously everyone was getting their first judgement and opinion in there,” she recalls. “Even some of the biggest newspapers, when they would review our record, the first thing they would discuss was how I looked. I was like, wow, you’re meant to be reviewing the record, not reviewing my image.”
Whilst she is hopeful things will be different this time around, Baron-Gracie isn’t leaving anything to chance. New track “You Don’t Own Me” tackles this phenomenon head-on. “It’s about my experiences of being a woman, and it’s a song for women,” she states. “People seem to think that they can say whatever about me, or discuss my image down to the finest point. They feel some sort of ownership over me. You don’t fucking own me! I’m my own being. Don’t try and claim me. This is a really empowering song, and society needs to hear it. There needs to be more songs like this, because they adds to the fight, to women trying to get to equality. We’re still not there! There’s still sexism every single day, and there needs to be a constant reminder for men that hey, you can’t act inappropriate. We are your equal. See us as that. It’s not good enough – not for me anyway! I will chew and spit out any man that tries to own me. This song is a massive fuck you to all those men in my life.”
Whilst the target for “You Don’t Own Me”’s message is defiantly gendered, Baron-Gracie is swift to admit that men weren’t the only group to pass judgement on her as Pale Waves’ notoriety grew “The older generation of women criticise me for how I look,” she admits. “A while ago I remember going out, and this older group of people in their forties – who should have their shit together! – was shouting ‘Frankenstein’ at me! Wow. I’m literally half your age and you’re acting like a petty child. We need to re-programme their brains.”
When it comes to reprogramming, there is another issue about which Pale Waves have been vocal since the release of My Mind…. Bandmate Ciára Doran came out as non-binary in this period, and – as with her own identity – Baron-Gracie sees huge value in being their visibility and offering vocal support. “Obviously I’ve known Ciára for years. We have so much history together,” she says. “Through our friendship, Ciára would always say comments like ‘I don’t feel like a woman or a man.’ No one put two and two together – nor did Ciára, I don’t think. I always found those comments really interesting and wanted to understand, because I’ve always felt like a woman. Recently they came out as non-binary, and I think it’s really empowered them. It makes so much sense.
“Seeing Ciára now, in this present day, they’re so much happier than what they were a year-and-a-half ago. It feels like there’s been a release, and they’ve found their own identity. They’re growing even more each day. I’m just so happy for them that they’ve found their identity and they’re owning that. It’s really cool for us as a band that we can represent the non-binary community with the LGBTQ community, and our fans can relate to us even more. We’re not the typical band setup – a group of four straight people! I think it’s amazing, and I feel like Ciára is making a lot of people more comfortable with their own personal journey. It’s really lovely and inspiring to witness.
“More people are coming out as non-binary. Two years ago I was not aware of this at all, really! Ciára introduced me to it. I’m glad people are becoming more comfortable within their own skin, because everyone is different. That’s what’s amazing. Everyone is unique, and everyone isn’t the same. We have to keep telling people and society that we don’t have to be the same person.”
This reflection ties in very strongly to the over-arching message of Who Am I?, and the powerful personal growth Baron-Gracie and her band have experienced between albums. “I’ve gone on a journey where I’ve realised that a lot of things aren’t for me,” she tells me, in summary. “I’m quite unapologetic about a lot of things, and I am going to speak the truth and what I feel is right! I don’t want to offend anyone, but it’s part of my journey.”