Pale Waves Sketches Emotional Journey Of New Album ‘Who Am I?’

Heather Baron-Gracie lives fearlessly these days. Frontwoman of Pale Waves, the singer-songwriter takes ownership over her body—from the emo-pop aesthetic to her sexuality and mental health. The band’s second full-length album, Who Am I?, combs early-aughts influences like Avril Lavigne to fuse with the glistening synth-pop style of their first record, 2018’s My Mind Makes Noises.

It’s the kind of musical leveling-up that feels wholly organic, directly tied to Baron-Gracie’s “emotional growth as a human being,” she says, marking the album’s moniker as a no-brainer. Across 11 songs, produced alongside Rich Costey (Foo Fighters), she strives “to become the best version of [myself] and to grow up and figure out what [I] want to leave this world with and how [I] can live a healthy life.”

From the addicting buoyancy of opening track “Change” to spitting in the face of the patriarchy with “You Don’t Own Me” and admitting her mental health still isn’t great (“Run To”), Baron-Gracie exposes the darkest parts of herself with the hope of helping someone else. Who Am I? is as much about her own ongoing journey as it is inviting the listener to reconnect with themselves and be honest with who they are and what they’re going through.

Below, Baron-Gracie walks American Songwriter through the record’s emotional threadline and the songwriting journey.

“Change”

“Change” was a song that appeared a lot later down the line, in terms of the writing process of the album. “Change” is a combination of my personal experience and then other people’s experiences in my life. I’ve not really done a lot of songs like that. I usually just write from my own personal experience. It was really cool to involve other the people and their stories. “Change” is about heartbreak, and how… that disappearance of love and that person leaving your life can sort of break you down and you have to learn to build yourself back up and that you’re bigger and better than that. That was the whole thought process behind “Change” — being heartbroken and going through the same sort of continuous pattern, but then realizing that sometimes people just aren’t ever going to change and they’re not the right person for you if you are wanting them to change.

“Fall To Pieces”

Originally, the lyric that started this song was: “I love your mouth, but hate what comes out of it sometimes.” I wrote that long before I wrote “Fall to Pieces,” and that lyric always stood out to me. I always wanted to make a song around that lyric and “Fall to Pieces” is about being in a relationship. We all know how difficult relationships can be and the sort of obstacles that can get in the way of relationships sometimes. It’s really easy to fall into the same vicious cycle of the same arguments, and the same sort of frustration, and that’s what “Fall To Pieces” is about. It’s about going through the same argument and the frustration behind that, but there’s also a hopeful element to it. It’s about wanting to get out of that circle and make a better relationship but, in the moment, knowing that you’re still going through that same vicious pattern. I wrote it from my own experience, and I was just striving to get out that cycle.

“She’s My Religion”

“She’s My Religion” is the first song where I’ve been so open about my sexuality. I didn’t want to just do an easy pop song. I already have that on the record. I already have “Easy.” So, I wanted different songs that sort of display my sexuality and hold a deeper meaning and not just be straight up love songs. Some people have been a little misled about it; if they listen to the chorus, it doesn’t exactly describe who I’m singing about as the most positive person. It describes things they feel that society labels as flaws, you know, “She’s dark, she’s cold, she’s cynical, she’s forever angry at the world.” My whole meaning behind this song was: to love someone, you have to love them entirely. You have to love what people may see as negative and even love the parts that they may struggle with. If anything, I feel like this is the most powerful love song on the record. When you love someone and you make that commitment, you take on their baggage and you take on their troubles and their struggles. You have to support them through everything.

“Easy”

“Easy” was originally a piano ballad. It sounds very different now. I listened to a demo of it a few days ago, and it’s so different. For me, it just wasn’t sitting well because the lyrics are so uplifting and euphoric and positive, and they talk about how love can be so easy and make you feel these amazing things. The piano instrumentation just didn’t really work with that. I knew what the song could be, and I felt as though its original state wasn’t doing it justice, so I made the decision to drastically change that song. I put full instrumentation to it, and that’s how it became what it is today. I’m really glad that I did that because it’s such a feel-good song, if not the most feel-good song on the record. The piano just wasn’t working for me, but the majority of it was wrote on my piano at home.

“Wish U Were Here”

“Wish U Were Here” is about missing someone an awful lot. Especially in this industry, you’re required to travel the world for much of the year and go from country to country. I’m always doing something. At that moment in time, I was missing someone a tremendous amount. Life got in the way of being with that person, and my career sort of got in the way of being with them. I was in a hotel room, somewhere in Europe, and started writing this song. I continued working on it when I went to LA, but I only ever had the verse and chorus.

After we finished the album, my producer turned around and said, “We’ve finished the record, but we still have time left in studio. Do you want to record another song?” It was actually my girlfriend, Kelsi, who said, “You should do ‘Wish U Were Here.’ You should finish it.” That’s one that she always really loved… And so, I went away and I finished it. It didn’t take me long to finish the rest of the song, but I knew structurally that I wanted this song to be a lot different than the rest of the songs on the album. It’s really easy to sort of follow the same structure, because that’s what people really love… They want the chorus to hit thirty seconds into the song, and they want to hear that hook. With this one, I knew that I had full freedom to just do what I wanted to do because it wasn’t really going to be a song on the radio or be our biggest one. I took a lot of inspiration from “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia because it’s just so good, even though she didn’t originally write it. It nearly didn’t make the record, but “Wish U Were Here” is one of my favorites now… Maybe because I feel like I neglected it in some way because it almost didn’t make it.

“Tomorrow”

“Tomorrow” was the first song that I wrote for this record. It sort of inspired it and helped make a path for where I was going to go with the second album. I remember sitting in LA, picking up Kelsi’s acoustic guitar to play some chords, and starting writing. I started singing the first line of “Tomorrow,” and then I sort of figured out where I could go with this song. I could continue listing off these names and listing off all these problems that are wrong with the world: people working nine to five to make minimum wage, people feeling like they have to disguise their sexuality or hide it because they feel judged from society or even loved ones, people struggling with mental health, people struggling with body image and feeling like they’re being criticized constantly for the way they look…

I knew that I could address a few, obviously, but I couldn’t address all the issues that are wrong in this world because the song would continue to grow and get to be who knows how long. I knew that it was a great opportunity to sort of display those kinds of issues that I think run throughout society. And I know that “Tomorrow” is a fan favorite because I’ve seen so many fans talk about it, but I wanted to make a song for the fans, and I feel like “Tomorrow” is that song.

“You Don’t Own Me”

“You Don’t Own Me” was inspired by a poem that Kelsi wrote. I remember reading it and I thought, “Wow, this is so good.” I remember thinking that it could inspire so many women and that women would feel so represented by just this poem. I needed to make it into a song. I took one of the paragraphs from the poem, went away, and I made that into “You Don’t Own Me.” It’s drawn from my experiences, especially in the music industry, of men being sexist and my experiences of just being a woman in general. I don’t know how many men have grabbed my arm inappropriately or have said stuff in my ear, so I know that pretty much every woman alive has probably gone through the same thing and has experienced an inappropriate event with a man. It’s not just about men, though. I feel like I’ve had so many encounters with older women, too, who seem to judge me a lot. The way that I look, the way that I dress… they seem to get really offended by that. So, it’s kind of a “fuck you” song to many people in the world that have felt like they have the right to criticize me for the way I look, the way I dress, and what I stand for. It’s kind of saying, “I’m my own individual and stop trying to control me/own me. You don’t have that right.”

“I Just Needed You”

“I Just Needed You” was written really fast. It took about two hours. I remember going to the studio in LA and picking up probably the biggest guitar that I’ve ever played — the body on it was so big. I remember thinking, “Why on earth is this guitar so massive?” It was so hard for me to play, but that’s how I came up with that guitar hook. I was trying to record it on this big ass guitar, and somehow I managed to get it down, but it was quite a struggle. I’m only five foot two, so you can imagine how massive it was…. Anyway, that’s how the guitar hook started and, in that moment of my life, I was readjusting and realigning my priorities to what I thought was important. A lot had shifted in my life and, instead of focusing on like materialistic things or things that would bring me temporary happiness, I sort of shifted to find happiness within myself. I needed to learn to love myself because I couldn’t just keep distracting myself with materialistic things or toxic things and not embrace who I truly was. It’s about finding love in the right things, rather than the wrong things.

“Odd Ones Out”

“Odd Ones Out” began initially from the guitar chords that are used in the song. I was playing my acoustic guitar and started with these chords. I had never played that guitar progression the way I did when I picked up guitar. It was like this weird chord that I kind of just found out by playing around on the guitar. It sounded really cool, and it sounded like it belonged in the world of Taylor Swift — and I really loved that. So, I went in, and the concept is about how a lot of relationships and a lot of marriages sort of fall apart… and I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted my love to sort of continue to flourish and blossom as life progresses. I didn’t want to just be so in love with at the start and then watch it sort of fall apart because I feel like that happens in so many relationships. So, it’s a message to my person that I want to continue to grow and I want to continue to make this relationship stronger. I don’t fall into the patterns of what a lot of people fall into.

“Run To”

“Run To” was originally a letter that I would write to my mum, but then just adapted it into a song. A lot of the lyrics are basically saying “Hey, you worry about me so much,” which is a mothering characteristic because they worry tremendously about their children. But it was just kind of a reassurance to my mum that I’m okay and I’m doing well. You know, my mental health can be the shakiest thing in my life but I’m not doing all these things that you probably think I’m doing. My mother tends to think the worst a lot of the time, you know, like because it’s the music industry I must be doing all these drugs and be out partying every night. To be fair, I was partying a lot but I wasn’t doing any drugs. I just wanted to write a song about that kind of love and that relationship. One for my mum. She really loves it.

“Who Am I?”

I need to figure out what country I was in as this pops up a lot, but we were on tour in Europe when I wrote this one. Kelsi probably remembers, as she has a better memory than me, but I was having an awful day… so everyone on that tour will probably remember besides me because I was so like “This day sucks!” It was in the middle of the tour, and I struggle sometimes with touring because, you know, you don’t tend to get a lot of space for yourself. There’s always someone around, and I struggled a lot with that as a person that likes my own space. It’s all part of it though, really. You give up your own personal space when you go on tour and live on a bus with like 11 other people, but I was having a lot of issues that day and my mental health was really not the best. I locked myself in the bathroom and wrote “Who Am I?,” which basically summarized the album for me. I knew right away that “Who Am I?” was going to be the title of the second album.

Photo by Tom Pullen

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