Hayley Williams on Paramore, her new album Petals for Armor, and crafting music fuelled by rage and sadness

Hayley Williams spent a few years trying to play the role of suburban wife and almost gave up her career for it. In public, she was a yowling firebrand, a magnetic presence with candy-coloured hair and arena audiences wrapped up in every move. In private, though, she was trapped in cycles of distrust and shame.

The New York Times March 17, 2020 10:37:27 IST
Hayley Williams on Paramore, her new album Petals for Armor, and crafting music fuelled by rage and sadness

By Caryn Ganz

Nashville: It was 16 degrees out in mid-November, and Hayley Williams was sprinting through the Tennessee woods, naked. As far as metaphors go, this one was chillingly apt.

Paramore, the multiplatinum pop-punk band that the 31-year-old singer and songwriter has fronted for the past 17 years, had wrapped up touring for its fifth album, After Laughter, just over a year earlier. Not yet aware she was grappling with depression and PTSD, Williams checked into a facility for an intensive therapy retreat shortly after she got home. Her therapist told her to write, so she started to craft the music that later became the solo project she had sworn she’d never do. The process involved digging back to her childhood and into her tortured marriage, stripping the roots of her pain bare.

She was still deep in the excavation. But there she was, nude, in a forest, shooting a video for the first song she would release as Hayley Williams: a slippery, syncopated track called 'Simmer' that’s anchored by her cathartic exhales and opens with a telling word — 'rage.' A first batch of songs arrived in February and another is coming soon; the full album, Petals for Armor, is due 8 May.

“I really believed myself, if it’s any consolation to anyone,” Williams said last month of her vow never to go it alone, and let out a gentle cackle. She was tucked into a booth at a cafe she frequents near her home, opening up in the first of three lengthy conversations about what fueled her decision to take a leap of faith under her own name. Her hair was blonde, her gray glasses were round, and the pale blue hat shielding her face was embroidered with lyrics from a cynical Descendents song about the numbing banality of suburban living: “I want to be stereotyped/I want to be classified.”

Hayley Williams on Paramore her new album Petals for Armor and crafting music fuelled by rage and sadness

Hayley Williams at the Bowery Hotel in New York, on 6 February, 2020. Williams wrote Petals for Armor on what was supposed to be time off for Paramore. The band’s guitarist, Taylor York, produced the album, and its drummer, Zac Farro, played on a few tracks. The New York Times/ Tim Barber

Williams spent a few years trying to play the role of suburban wife and almost gave up her career for it. In public, she was a yowling firebrand, a magnetic presence with candy-colored hair and arena audiences wrapped up in every move. In private, though, she was trapped in cycles of distrust and shame. It was a harsh disconnect for an artist who brokers in transparency, and it was part of what was gnawing at her.

But we weren’t there yet. Trying not to drink caffeine, she talked about how she was terrified when she met Shirley Manson, how she was proud she wrote a lot of riffs for Petals for Armor, how she was at one point scared of losing access to her sadness. She stopped to chat with an acquaintance sporting a rainbow coif courtesy of Williams’ vegan hair color line, Good Dye Young. She referenced Women Who Run With the Wolves, a 1992 book of folk tales about gender that was her red pill.

“There’s a moment in our lives where you open the door and you see what’s behind that door and you can never un-see it again,” she said. That’s when she realized she had a wound. It was open, and it wouldn’t stop bleeding, no matter how fast she ran.

Williams has had some bad years. She said 2008 was so rough for Paramore, she later chose not to move into a house with those numbers in the address. She called 2015 “the worst year. And I’m pretty sure we won a Grammy that year.” (It was best rock song, for 'Ain’t It Fun', and it sits on a shelf in her living room next to a stack of Shel Silverstein books.)

That was the year Williams briefly quit Paramore — privately, not publicly — leaving guitarist Taylor York as the only member. The band’s entire career has been marked by a series of high-drama lineup changes that kept the group in gossip columns, as fans argued over the shifts and whether it mattered that Williams is technically the only member with her name on the Atlantic contract. Because she was initially recruited to the label alone and insisted on playing in her band, anxieties about what it would mean to “go solo” were particularly pointed.

The year 2015 was also when Williams put her engagement on hold. Her tumultuous near decade with New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert ended in 2017, the year after they married. Paramore stayed on the road until the following September, and Williams’ first few months back home were some of her darkest.

When she returned from the therapy retreat, her vital, beloved grandmother fell and suffered a head injury that permanently affected her memory. A distraught Williams sat down with Paramore’s touring bassist Joey Howard and wrote 'Leave It Alone', about the inevitability of loss. (They went on to write seven more Petals songs together.) She’d spent a bunch of money setting up Pro Tools and a recording rig and planned to learn to produce her own music to pass the time but gravitated instead to York’s home studio.

York, 30, one of the childhood friends who has been a bedrock of Paramore since 2007 and helped the band’s sound evolve, became her Petals co-pilot and producer, sculpting an aesthetic far from the group’s crunchy guitars and the bouncy new wave of After Laughter. Taking their place were intricate and ominous layers, neck-snapping funk, dizzying industrial electro, glitter-pop reveries. Williams’ glorious, flexible voice, which sometimes strains to be heard atop her band, is in the foreground.

At first, it wasn’t a project at all. “I really thought, I’m going to write a bunch of R&B songs for fun,” Williams said. She made York a playlist of inspirations: Solange, SZA and Erykah Badu beside Thom Yorke and Björk. York, who hadn’t yet produced an album on his own — he’d assisted on the two most recent Paramore LPs — understood the gravity of the tracks as Williams kept writing. That didn’t help his anxiety, which manifested in panic and psoriasis.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said in a thoughtful, self-effacing phone call from Nashville in which he emphasized his longtime bandmate’s ability to access her truth: “It’s not like she uses pain as some sort of a gimmick or some sort of like a vehicle, just to get a good song. She really wants to say something.” Williams’ references “would kind of funnel through me in a very different way. Like when she says ‘Spice Girls,’ I somehow hear ‘the Knife.’”

Williams, York and a small group of collaborators worked in private before Williams was willing to tell her managers or Atlantic what was up. “I waited so long because I was like, this will not be tainted,” she said. When she ended up writing an uber-poppy song called “Dead Horse,” she was embarrassed: “I came close to stifling my creative process because I didn’t want to live up to those expectations of what it looks like when a female leaves a band and makes a project on her own.”

In the end, she embraced it all. She even performed an elaborate choreographed dance routine in the video for 'Cinnamon'. And she didn’t leave the band.

Williams has a stocky beige golden doodle named Alf, whom she halfheartedly disciplines in a kind, high-pitched voice. His preferred park is an expansive run adjacent to a horse farm in Franklin, the town outside Nashville where Williams and her mother settled after they fled her mother’s second husband in Mississippi. It’s also where she and Gilbert — whom she only referred to as “my ex” — lived in a series of unhappy homes Williams painted and repainted, decorated and redecorated.

“Your girl spent a lot of money in those years trying to fill a void that was not fixable,” she said with a sigh. Alf trotted back and plunked at our feet.

When she began the relationship in her late teens, “I was already trying to understand my capacity for domesticity,” she said. “I think for a long time I wanted to create what my parents didn’t create for me.”

Her mother and father both remarried several times; her earliest childhood memory, of them arguing, was the subject of her first EMDR therapy — eye movement desensitization and reprocessing — where she visualized holding and protecting her 4-year-old self.

Betrayals and “crazy [expletive]” led to her divorce and forced her to reckon with a shame she’d been carrying for almost 10 years, which she sings about in 'Dead Horse': “I got what I deserved/I was the other woman first.” She’s never been able to listen to Beyoncé’s Lemonade in full; a rerun of Friends involving Ross and Rachel fighting brought her to tears. (Since starting therapy, Gilmore Girls has been a safe space.)

But the anger that ignited Petals for Armor wasn’t limited to her own experience; it stemmed from generational trauma that Williams uncovered as the #MeToo movement was gaining steam. “Every woman in my family on my mom’s side” — a line of strong, impressive figures, she stressed — “they’ve all been abused in almost every sense of the word.” She realized that pain underpinned everything in her life: “I’ve always felt like something was wrong with me or I was an underdog or I had something to prove.”

Her desire to escape into music manifested early, when she was around eight, watching MTV, wishing she could “get to where those people are because they look happy.” (She realizes the irony of that now.) She craved the companionship of bandmates, because “I wanted to be part of a family, you know?”

When she was preparing to get married, Williams considered quitting music. She asked Julie Greenwald, chairman and COO of Atlantic, to rework Paramore’s deal so she could deliver fewer albums, and said Greenwald was willing to negotiate but suggested the singer didn’t have to choose between her work and her personal life.

“Hayley is in the music business because she’s an artist and her love for music and performing is in her blood,” Greenwald said in a phone interview, recalling the pair’s chat in her office lounge. “The one thing I wanted to make sure she understood is there’s very few people that are born to be performers. She has that gift.”

Driving back to Nashville in her tidy station wagon with a Björk pin jiggling in a cup holder, Williams cruised by a series of Paramore landmarks. “I can’t believe I’m about to say these words: I can’t wait to show you this church we’re about to pass,” she said as a formidable structure rolled by. It was where she and York first connected.

“I found my people at 13,” she marveled. “You never just get to be friends with the same people your whole life, let alone have a second chance with them when you fall apart,” she added, referring to drummer Zac Farro’s return to Paramore for After Laughter following his 2010 departure. (He plays on some Petals for Armor tracks, too.)

She pointed out the Walgreens where they used to buy candy and hair dye. Alf panted in the back seat.

Fury and sadness may have been the starting point for Petals for Armor, but it’s only a sliver of the story: Later songs encompass self-empowerment, romantic sparks, female solidarity and simply thriving. Williams collaborated from the start with a close friend, photographer Lindsey Byrnes, who served as creative director and helped her with the many visuals — including videos directed by Warren Fu — that give the music vivid dimensions. Along with the evident nature metaphors, one of the recurring themes is cinnamon, which refers to Williams’ cozy home and inner world, a femininity of her own construction.

“I think what we’ve grown up seeing as like a stereotypical feminine body, feminine personality, feminine dress, I didn’t relate to that,” Williams said the day after the dog park, folded on her living room floor in white Converse sneakers a Paramore fan made her.

She’s spent half her life in a male-dominated punk scene, where she blended in just well enough to not realize part of her was fading. She felt pitted against other women in her relationship and stopped playing the Paramore smash 'Misery Business' live because it was an “ignorant” song about girl-on-girl hatred that “I just don’t relate to” anymore. She has focused, post-divorce, on building adult friendships with women.

One of her confidants, singer-songwriter Julien Baker, said she and Williams were bonded by “being raised culturally Christian in the South then coming into the world” of music. “She has an innate connection with the deeply emotionally profound and really wants to explore those things in an honest way with people,” Baker said in a phone interview. “But also she is a uniquely disarming person.” Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus — the trio Boygenius — provide backing vocals on a “Petals for Armor” song about “wilted women” moving toward the light.

The Hayley Williams that will be returning to Paramore will be in bloom, too. “This now feels like a beginning. Whereas honestly, months before we released After Laughter, it felt like an ending,” she said. At the cafe, she had smiled thinking about how she and York moved away from hard rock on that 2017 album — “We’re like, ‘we’re tired of head banging, our necks hurt!’” — and now they miss heavy music.

But however they approach Paramore next, “I realized that you can’t kill it,” she said and laughed. “It’s in our blood.”

Caryn Ganz c.2020 The New York Times Company

Tim Barber/NYT

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