Heather Baron-Gracie Knows Who She Is

The Pale Waves frontwoman talks female icons, finding love and queer representation on their upcoming sophomore album, ‘Who Am I?’

WORDS Madeline Reid
PHOTOGRAPHY Pip

“I feel like I’ve fully adapted to the pandemic life, in a way,” Heather Baron-Gracie confesses. It’s a Thursday, we’re in week unknown of another neverending national lockdown, and the Pale Waves star is locked up in her West London flat with her girlfriend Kelsi. Filling her days with at-home yoga sessions and doom-scrolling dream homes in Nashville (“I’m realising that the grey skies and the cold just isn’t for me,” she declares), the Manchester-born musician admits she’s settled into this new normal. “I’ve gotten used to not being able to socialise that much or go to bars, but I’ve been so busy with the [album] campaign talking to new people every day, I’m really grateful for this chance to interact with people.”

After their tour bus suffered a near-fatal crash on its way to Berlin last March, immediately followed by the issuing of national lockdowns as COVID-19 spread throughout Europe and the US, Pale Waves were forced to delay their album release and complete the record remotely, with Heather residing in LA while her bandmates recovered from the accident with loved ones in the UK. It’s been a tumultuous journey leading up to this release, and one Heather is relieved to be over.

“It’s been a long time coming,” she says, “I’ve had these songs for over a year and a half now. It’s interesting because when you’re an artist you’re working on something for such a long time, and then when it finally gets released it’s really weird to be in an environment where it’s new and you can see people’s reactions because it’s existed in your world for so long.”

She’s quick to assert that she’s still excited for the release, and says she’s been listening to their latest single on repeat: “When new music gets released I tend to get slightly obsessed with it again because I want to experience what the fans are experiencing, even though I’ve probably listened to that song a thousand times.”

When new music gets released I tend to get slightly obsessed with it again because I want to experience what the fans are experiencing, even though I’ve probably listened to that song a thousand times.

‘Who Am I?’ sees the group graduate from the ’80s-inspired synth-pop influences of their 2018 debut, ‘My Mind Makes Noises’, to new genres, fusing the fury of Alanis Morrisette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’ with ’90s pop-punk-inflected guitar riffs and Avril Lavigne-inspired angst. But there are also more unexpected inspirations, including that of American country music singers.

“I tend to love country music – there’s something about it that’s so sincere, so real and authentic,” she gushes. “I connect with country artists the most because I don’t feel like they pretend to be something they’re not, they don’t desire all this ‘fame’. They do music because they fucking love music and I think that really shows through their songwriting.”

It’s clear that authenticity is paramount for Heather, who took a break from collaborating with songwriting partner and Pale Waves’ drummer Ciara Dornan for the first time while writing this record. Taking the helm, she describes her desire to channel her icons: “I’ve always been drawn to big female alternative artists – Liz Phair, Courtney Love, the Dixie Chicks, even Kelly Clarkson – I love huge choruses, and I’m captivated by powerful women because the way they write songs is so unapologetic and they don’t shy away from anything. They have the most risky lyrics and I really wanted to channel that.”

This is perhaps most apparent on, ‘You Don’t Own Me’, the group’s latest single release. The track hears Heather kicking back against the patriarchy with punk grit and biting wit, asserting “I’d rather pull out my teeth / than be what you want me to be / I know that it’s hard to believe / you don’t own me.”

She says, “It’s an angry song, but it’s not just an angry song, there’s depth to it and it has a strong message. It’s not just three-minutes of me thrashing a guitar and screaming “you don’t know what it’s like to be a fucking woman!” – and don’t get me wrong, those types of songs are really cool – but I wanted to explore it in a way that would make people really think.”

‘You Don’t Own Me’ is an angry song, but it’s not just an angry song, there’s depth to it and it has a strong message.

It’s just one of a number of topics that are fresh territory for Pale Waves to tread via their record. Elsewhere on the album, the band battle against homophobia, capitalism and societal expectations of gender expression. “Society really struggles with realising that not everybody is the same person, whether it’s sexuality or image… even if I wear dark make-up it appals some people and that’s just make-up!” she sighs. “I see it all the time online with the band, we like to wear gothic clothes or wear black yet the core of our songs are quite poppy, and some people just can’t cope with that. If you write pop music they want you to look a certain way.” 

“And society’s views on women,” she continues, “criticising women and analysing everything that we do, our body image, thinking we need to look a certain way or act a certain way… there’s so much shit wrong with society, but then there’s so much beauty in it too. I feel like my generation and the younger generation are the ones that are really going to change that, and that gives me hope. I really wanted to tackle those themes on this album, and I’ll continue to be even more political through my art, but I have to feel like I know enough about a subject to be able to write on it.”

Having the confidence to express your opinions is one thing, but remaining resilient in the face of public scrutiny is another, and Heather confesses to battling imposter syndrome while writing their debut record. “I needed those years to grow, to educate myself and feel comfortable and confident enough to be able to deliver these messages through our music and have it feel powerful enough. I wouldn’t ever want to try and write a song about being a woman in the world today and it not be that good. It needs to be strong and convincing and real, and I feel like when I hit 25 I was finally able to do that.”

I needed those years to grow, to educate myself and feel comfortable and confident enough to be able to deliver these messages through our music and have it feel powerful enough.

‘Who Am I?’ also sees her explore her queer sexuality for the first time in her music. In 2018, an adolescent Heather was still holding back from expressing herself fully, fearful of the repercussions of an often unkind Internet, and rejection from those around her. It’s a far cry from the young woman facing me on the Zoom call now, who breaks into a beaming smile as I ask her about the album’s romantic themes.

“Love is the strongest feeling of all and can push you to the extremes. It’s wonderful and beautiful when you find the right love, the healthy kind of love, it’s the most amazing thing in the world. I’d definitely consider myself a romantic – I mean, I wrote ‘Easy’ for god’s sake!” she laughs.

Lots of songs on the album are about her girlfriend Kelsi, she admits, although when asked she assures me that this doesn’t cause problems for them. “She’s very aware of what is required with being a writer, and knows that if you’re in a relationship with a writer then you’re going to be written about,” she says, her eyes darting offscreen for confirmation. Heather says Kelsi wants to write a poetry book, so she’ll have her chance to return the favour. 

In December, Pale Waves released their second single ‘She’s My Religion’, including a music video featuring the couple. Adding to the long list of firsts, this was Heather’s fledgeling experience sharing herself being so intimate. It’s also the first time the band has used pronouns in their songs at all.

“On first listen I think people can mistake it as a negative song: “she’s cold, she’s dark, she’s cynical,” but that wasn’t my intention at all. I wanted to write a love song that expressed my sexuality, using the pronoun ‘she’, but I wanted to do it in an interesting way – I didn’t want to write a song about just loving someone’s ‘good’ bits. I think to love someone you have to love them entirely which includes their darker sides. You have to appreciate everything about them,” she says.

It’s a stark contrast to the depictions of queer female relationships that have formerly graced the charts. While some progress has been made in LGBTQ+ representation on major music label rosters, a startling number of straight artists continue to peddle homophobic stereotypes and sexualise female queerness in their lyrics, including recent examples by The Weeknd, Rita Ora and Liam Payne. 

I’m not just another straight woman kissing a woman in a music video for the sake of it – this is my real relationship, this is as real as it can possibly get.

It’s a painful cliche, and one that Pale Waves’ music serves as a much-needed antidote for in British pop music. “I’m not just another straight woman kissing a woman in a music video for the sake of it – this is my real relationship, this is as real as it can possibly get,” she attests. “I think that’s why it hit our fans so hard, they reacted to the ‘She’s My Religion’ song and video more than they’ve ever reacted to anything because they finally felt like they had a healthy representation of the queer community when, in the past, there’s not been much of that.”

Expressing the raw emotions of her relationship within her music comes with its own risks, but there’s an assertive confidence in her response that suggests she’s achieved the right balance. “I’m not a person who wants to share all of myself with everyone, I like to save parts of myself,” she says. “Some songs on the first record, they weren’t entirely from my experience or entirely truthful because I wasn’t ready to give myself away fully. It took me a few years to be able to feel like every song on the record is really truthful and meaningful.”

Pale Waves’ ‘Who Am I?’ is released on Friday 12th February 2021 via Dirty Hit Records.

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