Heather Baron-Gracie: “From day one I’ve had the grandest ambitions for Pale Waves, and I always will”

Having transitioned from slinky synthpop into the far punchier world of pop-punk with thumping third album Unwanted, globe-straddling Manchester quartet Pale Waves are long overdue their Slam Dunk debut this year. As vocalist Heather Baron-Gracie explains, arriving at one of the UK’s most riotous festivals is just the next step towards total domination…

Heather Baron-Gracie: “From day one I’ve had the grandest ambitions for Pale Waves, and I always will”
Sam Law
Kelsi Luck

Heather Baron-Gracie has come to love life on the road. It’s evident from the moment we sit down with Pale Waves’ inimitable frontwoman this morning, as our challenge to sum up 2023 in three words is eventually answered with the trio of countries her band have hit over the past 12 months.

A smattering of Australian dates last March brought the early sunshine and sound. Back home, they completed a victory lap of some of the UK’s grandest festival stages: Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Dundee, Sheffield’s Tramlines, Glasgow’s TRNSMT, and Glastonbury. Then a jaunt to Japan saw them smash Tokyo and Osaka’s gargantuan SUMMER SONIC fests. After busting ass for years, it’s been an opportunity to bask in their achievements and reflect on what comes next.

“It’s been a blur,” Heather laughs. “2023’s festival season has been the best ever for us as a band. To be able to go so far from home and play such amazing shows always makes you feel special.”

Currently moving out of an apartment in Los Angeles for one of her “multiple” annual migrations between California and England – she holds storage units in both territories – Heather exudes a longing for the simplicity of living out of a suitcase in the back of a bus. Wanderlust and the call of familiar shores trump even the dreary promise of setting sail towards British wintertime.

“When you have so much of something, you want a change,” she says, her Northern brogue thickening with each word. “Every day is sunny here. That’s amazing, but eventually you want a bit of rain.”

Hopefully it’ll be beneath blue skies that Heather and her bandmates – guitarist Hugo Silvani, bassist Charlie Woods and drummer Ciara Doran – are back on the weekend of May 25 and 26, mind. Having gradually shifted from the striking new-wave style synthpop that characterised their early career towards the Avril Lavigne-influenced twang of 2021’s Who Am I?, and on to the heavier, more strident pop-punk of 2022’s third album Unwanted, the quartet are finally due to debut at the late May bank holiday’s celebration of all things raucous: Slam Dunk Festival.

“With Unwanted, I really wanted to create an energetic set of songs,” Heather says, seeing it as a natural milestone. “With the pandemic, we hadn’t been able to play live. We released Who Am I? but, like everyone else, we couldn’t play shows. Missing that live aspect so much led us to writing songs with the goal that when we came back onstage, we would have a lot of fun.”

And when it comes to Leeds vs. Hatfield: North vs. South?

“It’s got to be North,” the Lancastrian shrugs. “No offence to the South, but I am a Northerner at heart. When a Northerner is around fellow Northerners, there’s just that sense that you belong.”

Belonging is still a big deal for Pale Waves. Having come of age under the tutelage of Matty Healy, frontman of ultra-trendy art-pop outfit The 1975, a degree of mainstream acceptance was guaranteed. And Heather’s megawatt star-power has drawn countless fans to their cause. But constant evolution has left them feeling like misfit inbetweeners even within the alternative world.

“If there’s a downside to playing shows like Slam Dunk, it’s that we have three albums out and only one of them has a purely ‘alternative’, pop-punk sound,” Heather expands. “We can also be a very dreamy, ’80s-style band, [with influences like Cocteau Twins and The Cure]. We mix a few different potions in our cauldron. So we really have to sit down and think about the setlist. Do we include some of our bigger songs, of that [synthpop] style? Or do we just play our third album in full?”

Finding the answers to these kinds of questions is integral to the appeal of shows like Slam Dunk. Yes, the influence of heroes like Matty Healy and Robert Smith are hardwired into Pale Waves’ DNA. But as they told us for 2022’s Kerrang! cover, so too are the generations of far less stereotypically ‘cool’ guitar bands who preceded them under the K! and Slam Dunk banners. Returning to a rag-tag world where metalheads bump heads with punk-rockers offers a reconnection to those roots.

“When you’re in something, you can lose track, or it can become difficult to see where you actually are as a band,” Heather continues. “Growing up, these are the bands we’d listen to, Kerrang! was the magazine we’d buy. So, getting to play Slam Dunk or be on the K! cover tend to be some of those real, ‘Wow, we’ve made it!’ moments. They help put things in perspective.”

Old genre boundaries are being eroded, too, with Pale Waves helping lead the charge.

“As time goes by, it feels like the lines are blurring,” Heather nods. “It used to be, ‘Okay, you’re an indie artist.’ Or pop-punk, or metal. Nowadays, people don’t want to choose just a specific thing and exclude themselves from others. They want to pick parts of each. We have loves in a lot of different genres. We don’t want to give ourselves to just one.”

Even aside from music’s shifting tides, though, there seems to be a revival of the pop-punk fundamentals. Away from Slam Dunk, genre progenitors Green Day will be headlining Isle Of Wight Festival while 21st century standard-bearers Fall Out Boy will be topping the bill for the first time at Download. It’s partially about the pendulum-swing of popular taste, sure, but also about the need to inject a little colour, energy, and fiery rebelliousness back into these increasingly dismal times.

“It felt like pop-punk died out for a moment,” Heather reasons. “But then it suddenly came back. For a moment, it felt like all we were hearing were synths and electronic beats. There were no real guitars. But once a few artists started doing it again, people fell back in love. I’m excited about that because this is the music that I love. I know a lot of other people are, too. There’s a real timelessness to pop-punk in that it doesn’t try too hard to be anything. It’s raw. It’s vulnerable. It’s not too flashy. You just plug a guitar in and sing.”

Pop-punk can be a deceptively cathartic medium, too. Although Pale Waves’ aesthetic effectively completed its adjustment from the gothy monochrome of their My Mind Makes Noises era into full colour on Unwanted, the topics tackled – anger, jealousy, revenge – were, by a distance, the darkest and most negative of their career so far. Heather is able to see the effectiveness of songs like You’re So Vain and The Hard Way in the enthusiastic responses of listeners around the world.

“We have a very committed fanbase,” she smiles. “They’re very emotional people. They loved Unwanted so much. It really gave them an outlet for their anger, and those negative emotions for which society doesn’t really allow outlets. I forget [the influence that we can have] sometimes. I feel like every show we play, every country we visit, we have an interaction that moves me in some way: people in tears, people talking about their sexuality and how they’re hiding who they are from the people they love, or about how we’ve saved their lives in ways by writing songs like The Hard Way or She’s My Religion. It can be intense to hear, but it’s very moving. I think it allowed our fans to grow closer to Pale Waves, which in turn makes me love being in this band.”

On top of that, the personal coming of age that Unwanted heralded continues apace.

“We take things a bit more seriously now,” says Heather, unpacking the lifestyle changes that have seen alcohol consumption curtailed and a greater understanding of when to stay in and when go out. “I’m just evolving and establishing better relationships with being a musician. It’s healthier for me, both in my body and in my mind – and I actually enjoy music more for it.”

Living with songs like Act My Age – the written version of that mindset – reinforces the will to improve yourself.

“When you’re having a moment of doubt, they can remind you of the reasons you decided to do better in the first place,” she says.

Although it’s too early to talk about new Pale Waves music in any real detail just yet – there might just be a fresh cut ready by the time they hit Slam Dunk – Heather does confirm a doubling-down on themes of self-belief.

“I’ve started to really love myself, after years of neglect,” she says. “Only now have I started to realise that I should love every inch of myself. I’m a lot more comfortable and confident in who I am, where I am in life, my sexuality. I don’t mind being on show anymore. So all of my attention and energy is going into writing and recording our best album yet. Ultimately, that’s about building a world that feels like Pale Waves, while also feeling completely different to anywhere we’ve inhabited before. We’re creating another universe for our fans to explore, and for us to live in for a moment.”

But that doesn’t mean there’ll be any slacking when it comes to real-world domination, of course.

“2023 was quite relaxed by our standards,” Heather reflects with a knowing grin as we wave farewell. “I’m ready for [2024] to be completely flooded with things. From day one, I’ve had the grandest ambitions for Pale Waves, and I always will. I want this band to be the biggest that we can possibly be. For us, ‘The Dream’ is still very much the biggest dream.”

Don’t bet against it coming true.

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