Hayley Williams looked around her Nashville home and realized it might not be healthy keeping so many dead things. Dead things like dried, hollow flower stems and skeletal petals decorated her hallways and bookshelves, necessary vessels through which to both confront her pain and extricate herself from it, as evidenced with last summer’s Petals for Armor. But as the global pandemic drug wearily into fall, and now enters its second year, it became crystal clear Williams had some more pruning to do.
“I’m still having to remind myself that you just don’t write a song and then you’re through it,” she tells American Songwriter over the phone last month. Songwriting, like therapy, isn’t a means to an end; it’s a life-long, never-ending expedition to cull sour roots and tangled weeds that stretch back decades, often popping up now as odorous ragweed and leaving faint traces throughout one’s life and relationships. “It keeps happening to you, and with you, and for you, in some cases,” she reflects. Williams will be putting in such mental, and likely musical, work for the rest of her life, so she simply pulls up a chair and gets “cozy with it─it’s just life.”
Once she discarded all those dead flowers, leaving vast, empty vases scattered in their place, she struck upon an epiphany: it was time to breathe vitality back into her life. She needed to go grocery shopping anyway, so she scrawled the words “flowers for vases” at the bottom of her shopping list, below items like oat milk and granola. She didn’t think much of it at the time and quickly shuffled off to Trader Joe’s. Much later, when she flipped through a stack of papers and scrambled notes, her eyes fell upon that long-forgotten shopping list.
Flowers for vases
“It had this weight to it,” she says. “It was time to put new life in these vessels and carry that forward, instead of carrying around these dead little skeletons of flowers.”
Williams’ second solo effort, FLOWERS for VASES / descansos─the record bears two names, the second a reference to road-side memorials and embroidered crosses marking personal tragedies─finds her strengthening the tiny muscles around her heart. She firmly keeps its throbbing core soft, a welcome invitation for the full breadth of human emotion born from simply living. She gleaned such a simple, but wholly brilliant, concept from none other than Dolly Parton, who’d appeared on Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast last November. In the 45-minute conversation, the iconic singer, songwriter, and consummate businesswoman discussed “how she balances all of her feelings,” both in her professional and personal lives, and those words ignited a fire in Williams’ belly.
“I’m still learning how to strengthen those muscles around my heart, which give me boundaries and the means to discern certain situations,” adds Williams.
Such clarity spills profusely over onto the new record. Fourteen songs, on which Williams plays all the instruments, pulse with trace amounts of Petals for Armor, yet bound far and away from anything she has ever accomplished in her work so far. A book called Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by author Clarissa Pinkola Estes, fueled not only Williams’ personal revolution but the album’s taut, provocative threadline.
“The author talks about how we make our own descansos when we have little deaths throughout our life,” she muses, “[and how] we have to leave something behind but we keep living. We honor where we were, and then we move on.”
Williams collects and binds “all of love’s delusions,” as she establishes with “First Thing to Go,” through threadbare arrangements, giving her voice even more agency. The record bursts open with such a sobering revelation and summons the listener to tag along with her on a path to self-preservation. She dredges “up hurtful moments and ways I may have failed myself” to memorialize them so she can “continue to grow, live better, and love people and myself better.”
She then sets fire to her memories, permitting polished veneers and coats of paint to disintegrate, revealing the truth she’d buried beneath her “nostalgic, sappy, and sentimental” personality. “I tend to paint my memories, even bad ones, in this rose-colored tint that everything was actually so romantic,” she says. “I have to remind myself that things are in the past for a reason, or yeah, something might have been really sweet but look where you are today. I create this more beautiful setting for some of my life’s hardest moments. That can get a little sticky.”
“My Limb,” for instance, emerges as Williams’ most brutally visceral act of contrition, an arsenic-laced incantation in which retools a Bible verse into a twisted, life-sustaining ritual. “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell,” reads Matthew 5:30 (King James version).
She handles its core message with a bit of an acidic drip. Guess we were collateral damage, kissing in the crossfire / Limpin’ over dead leaves, I wish that they would cover me, she hisses. Within a spooky musical framework, one of her most striking compositions, she takes a proverbial axe to her tendency to “be one of those people that cuts my nose off to spite my face or I just throw the whole face away,” she says with a laugh. “I wish I could write lightheartedly. That’s what’s so great about Paramore─there’s a juxtaposition at least. Music tends to be one way and my lyrics are as dark as they need to be.”
My limb, my limb, my limb, my limb, she chants with its witchy chorus, on which she completely “sucks all the poison out” of her body and “locks it into a horcrux that is a song.” Self-love needs to be ruthless sometimes to sever dead, useless “limbs” (see: behaviors) for the health and well-being of the whole. “I’ve given myself, and my friends have given me more, tough love as of late,” she says.
With “Trigger,” Williams then posits perhaps all the pain had a purpose, she sings through shimmering folk layers. When the “novelty of being home wore off” last year, one thought exploded in her brain: “shit, here comes the quiet.” Quiet can certainly be deafening, suffocating even, like fireworks detonating in sprays of color on the Fourth of July. Paired with quarantine, and nearly impenetrable isolation and loneliness, she became increasingly “scared of what I might find” through such unavoidable self-reflection. But her songwriting soon proved things would be OK. “I’m still here. The sun is shining. I can go outside and put my feet on the ground,” she offers.
For all the beauty she’s uncovered, Williams holds herself accountable, especially in her darkest, most harrowing moments—emotionally and physically. “Good Grief” plays upon far more than her psychological state, digging into the very real, often frightening, physiological effects of grief that we often ignore. There’s no such thing as good grief / Haven’t eaten in three weeks, she sings. Skin and bones when you’re not near me / I’m all skeleton and melody.
In its countless forms, grief can wreak havoc on the body, from an inability to get out of bed to forgetting to eat, and Williams’ awareness of her own cycles has been illuminating. “It’s hard for me to have perspective on my own grief when I’m going through it. I’m so thankful I’ve been home and that I have a family that’s honest,” she says. “My mom calls me out on things with love. It’s the same with my small circle of friends. We’re honest with each other. We tell each other when we notice somebody’s slipping.
“I wouldn’t go as far to say I have an eating disorder. When I’m really sad, I’m not hungry. It’s amazing what depression or various forms of grief can do to a person. You do forget how physical it is. When I’m talking about mental wellness, you have to look for physical signs, too,” she continues. “Your body is usually such a wise instrument. It’s so technical, and it can tell you things and reveal things to you. When I’m disconnected from my physical body, that’s when I’m not connected mentally either.”
Williams’ emotional daring has always been the backbone of her songwriting, yet FLOWERS for VASES / descansos feels special, and alarmingly so. Life began in seventh grade / When me and mama got away, she sings later on “Inordinary,” mulling over one of the most monumental moments of her life. When she was just 13, her mother packed up the car and set off for Tennessee, freeing them both from a “tumultuous” and “unsafe” home away from her mother’s second husband. “Seeing her stand up for herself was an awakening for me. I continue to carry that,” reflects Williams, now 32.
Over three decades, she has witnessed the ravages of divorce from drastically different perspectives: both parents have been divorced twice (but are now in very healthy, happy marriages), and Williams is still reeling and recovering from her own. “It felt like it was a sickness that ran in my family, like a genetic disease,” she says. “It surprises me how much I feel my life really started when I got to Nashville.”
Life is never as you expect it to be. It’s so much more. Throughout FLOWERS for VASES / descansos, in the run-up to “Descansos,” Williams puts her pain to rest and rediscovers what it means to thrive in the world. On the title track, arriving as a moment of enveloping calm, she finally exhales─and it seems appropriate there are no words. Originally written with lyrics, which no longer seemed to resonate, she discarded them to make way for the music to soar and not “disappear into the ether.”
Williams is no longer disappearing either. Instead, she stares down her trauma and shows up for herself. FLOWERS for VASES / descansos, also recalling “memories and sweet moments” from her life via VHS tape samples of a Halloween many moons ago, appears like a specter in the night. It’s an emotional manifestation of all the work she’s done, feeling at times quite draining─but always necessary.
“I lived those feelings. I don’t know if I need to whip myself with them over and over again,” she says, confessing she’s only ever listened back to the record once. And that’s quite alright. What’s done is done, and all she can do now is forge a brighter, healthier, and self-assured future.