“I have bad allergies and I've been coughing a lot, but I just wanna say, I do not have the ‘rona,” Hayley Williams jokes down the line from her Nashville home mere seconds into our conversation. It’s an instant ice-breaker.
The metamorphosis Hayley has gone through in the last few years has been immense. While we haven’t been privy to her talking about it until recently, before the release of 2017’s After Laughter, Hayley left an unhappy marriage and began the long journey to self-acceptance – she had to learn to be alone with herself long before coronavirus forced us all into self-isolation. We saw facets of Hayley’s darker side emerge subconsciously in the last Paramore album, but her long-awaited solo record, Petals For Armor – which the Paramore singer once said would never happen – is a painstaking and unapologetic journey through the rage, shame, grief, trauma and therapy she experienced in the aftermath of her divorce. The stunning 15-track record, arranged into three movements, is proof that flowers can rise through the concrete.
“Man, I've said this before, I've never felt held back or stifled creatively with Paramore, I've always actually felt really challenged and fulfilled. But for some reason this was the time to do it,” she explains about finally penning a solo record. “I did not expect it. We just decided to take some time off and it happened to coincide with the point in my life where I really needed to take inventory and take a hard look at myself and deal with it and, you know, the way I deal with anything is I write.
“I do feel like I liberated myself from some heavy shit on this project, and it makes me happy that people have been down to come along for the ride.”
Of course, Paramore fans have been down to come along for the ride since day one. An enigmatic and charming lead singer, fans of the emo legend have supported her through rare but uber-successful solo jaunts like Stay The Night with Zedd and Airplanes with B.O.B., the triumph of her hair dye business Good Dye Young and now, they’re lapping up the content Hayley is creating from her cottage. These vary from home serenades, a workout video to Over Yet and cooking videos with her dog Alf. But as Hayley reminds us, for someone who is dealing with demons, intense therapy and the anxiety of finally exposing her darkest hours to the world, it’s not all sunshine and daisies staying at home right now.
“Right now I'm cleaning the kitchen. All I do now is clean. I just clean incessantly. I think staying organised and cleaning my home, taking care of my space, makes me feel in control, you know, and that's a little bit of how I'm dealing with my anxiety. You know, a lot of disinfecting,” she chuckles.
“I'd like to tell you that I have this beautiful routine and it's romantic and all that and I guess there are some days that they do feel like that, I wake up and I have a tea ceremony with myself just to quiet my brain and like, ease into the day, but I would be such a liar if I said that I was consistent about anything like that. I think I wake up and I follow my mood, which some days is absolute shit.”
The light and shade of these feelings is captured perfectly in Petals For Armor, which was released in a set of three EPs. Petals For Armor I was the grimmest of them all – the visuals were eerie, the music borders on unsettling at times and the first thing we heard from the record was Hayley uttering the word “rage” on Simmer. Petals For Armor II was more hopeful, like seeing a glimmer of sunlight through the vast canopy of trees, with Hayley calling on friends Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus (as boygenius) on the song Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris. Petals For Armor III – the only set of songs we haven’t been drip-fed weekly and is being released as part of the full-length Petals For Armor record – is the brightest. Like seeing the finish line when you’ve been running a marathon, songs like Pure Love, Sugar On The Rim and Taken at the tail end of the album are joyous, more ‘80s-influenced and even entertain the possibility of new love.
The pop punk sound we associate perpetually with Paramore is leagues away. Instead, an experimental sort of jazz carries throughout, thanks to Hayley’s co-writer Joey Howard (Paramore’s touring bassist) and producer Taylor York (Paramore’s guitarist). Not the inaccessible kind you might hear in a New York dive bar filled with pretentious jazz aficionados, but one that melds the genre’s spirited time signatures, sparseness and jaunty basslines with Hayley’s pop sensibilities.
“Sade was a major, major [jazz] influence for Joey and I's songwriting processes. We actually really bonded over records like that, as well as Solange and this band called Mr. Twin Sister, that to me embodies a lot of what I love about Sade. It's just that they're a band from New York, younger and like, in a different world.
“I mean, groovy basslines is kind of just, that's my shit. I also love the drums – I mean, the drums were my first instrument as a kid. I think it was fitting that I met Zac [Farro] first, when I moved to Nashville, and before joining the band, he was such a hero to me because he's like this 11-year-old kid that was playing all these like, I don't know what the right word would be, like, tribal influence drumbeats? He was hitting the toms and there was a lot of like, syncopation and bombastic kind of qualities to the way he wrote, you can hear that on a couple songs on the first Paramore album. I think that that's where it started for me,” Hayley remembers.
“It morphed over time, and you can hear it in the way that Taylor and I have written songs like Ain’t It Fun and even things with After Laughter, we just really like grooves and Joey, when he became a part of this whole process with me and we started writing songs together, he just doesn't have a rulebook. And it's so wonderful – I've never thought of myself as having rules or formulas, but I've made records for so long, that I guess there's just things you fall into and he's so fresh at this that he would come at songs from a completely different angle and take grooves or keys that move into spaces I wouldn't expect. I think in that sense, there was a lot of jazz and R&B influence and it came a lot from our bonds, our musical bond that we have.”
We bond for a moment about the sheer brilliance of British popstar Dua Lipa’s new record Future Nostalgia, with Hayley covering the album’s lead single Don’t Start Now in slow, sultry style for BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge.
“Oh, man, I LOVED that!” Hayley exclaims. “I mean, that was really just us indulging in a slow down for ourselves because I love that Dua record. I think there's some genius, genius musicality happening on such a brilliant pop record. And I think that pop music needs more of that. I think that she is singlehandedly bringing that back into a much younger world that I think deserves to be fed good stuff. You know, she's making pop music, but there's so many complicated grooves and shit happening there! So I was really excited about her, first of all as a music fan, but when we got the chance to cover it, we wanted to do it our way and I wanted it to feel really sexy and I wanted it to feel a bit forlorn and sad, even though it's an empowering song.”
A lot of artists invite us into their intimate thoughts with their music – some might say the best kind of music always does – but with Petals For Armor it almost feels next-level, like we’re intruding on Hayley’s most private thoughts and being given more of her than we perhaps deserve. It’s also notable that this era has offered us more insight into Hayley Williams’ mind than we’ve seen in years – and it’s a more vulnerable Hayley than ever. Does she ever worry about being too vulnerable with people?
“Sure, yeah, all the time,” she says gently. “I do that even when I'm just in conversation with a new acquaintance out at a music event or maybe at a friend's birthday party, like I'm just one of those people that like, I can't not be completely transparent and I walk away from most social interactions like ‘HOLY SHIT, what did I just say? What do they think about me?’
“I have very real social anxiety. But at the same time, I'm like, ‘what would I rather?’ You know, because I'm super introverted, I can either not speak at all or I could just be real and be honest. And if someone doesn't like it, cool, I've got cool friends. I'm not looking to hire any. I don't know, I think some days I feel really dumb. Like some days, I'm like, ‘man, I didn't even notice. Like, why did I tweet that?’ I delete tweets. I delete tweets all the time. Man, oh yeah, ‘cause I regret everything I ever do!” she laughs. “But… but I'm trying to grow through that.
“I never plan any of this stuff. You guys are asking me questions and I'm like, ‘well, HERE GOES!’ So, I'm trying to honour the opportunity to share my heart and you know, you guys don't know everything and fans still don't know everything. There are parts of my life that I think are important to protect, but at the same time there's a lot of lessons I've learned that I'm just like, ‘what's the point of pretending I didn't go through this? What's the point of not being real about how shitty I feel right now? Or how great I feel after doing that?’ I guess it's a day-by-day thing, I guess we'll know in a few years if I really regret some of this. I'm having a good time sharing and talking and having real conversations about all this stuff. And you know, I recognise it as a privilege.”
It’s certainly a privilege to be let into an introvert’s mind, let alone one that’s owned by Hayley Williams. Petals For Armor is a show-stopping yet humble body of work, borne from pain but now a triumphant showcase of the beauty that can emerge when you take a hard look at yourself and finally start to rebuild.