Photography Lindsey Byrnes

Hayley Williams on a decade of highs and lows

A revelatory interview with the Paramore frontwoman, her closest collaborators and the female artists she has inspired, as she releases her debut solo album.

by Hannah Ewens
04 May 2020, 3:08pm

Photography Lindsey Byrnes

An 18-year-old Hayley Williams espoused the benefits of a positive mental attitude. In a candid 2006 self-shot video, the flame-haired Paramore singer brushes off divorces in her family -- problems that she feels to be “pretty normal” -- and says, with a smile, that being the most positive person she knows has never let her down. Before she signs off, she proclaims that her friends are her family.

I watched that video religiously as a miserable teenage Paramore fan, wanting to absorb some of her faith, aspirational as it was. What no one knew at the time was that it was filmed at the first major crossroads in her life. Her band, Paramore, was tasting wider success and she had just begun a relationship that “wasn’t necessarily the healthiest” with her future husband. “I was really desperate for belonging and to be positive and super strong,” the frontwoman remembers on the phone from her Nashville home. “The message for me was that if I believe this and want this for other people then it’s genuine and authentic for me. I wish I’d been a little more realistic with myself and a lot more kind to myself, not ashamed of the darker feelings that really stayed with me all throughout my 20s.”

Years later, and just into her 30s, Hayley was in extensive therapy for the first time and writing a solo album, Petals For Armor, the one she always swore would never come. Created during a year of downtime for the band, the music leans into her newfound femininity, exploring her depression, her longing for family and experiences of hard-earned, bittersweet solitude after her divorce. She explains how she came to reach a kinder, more realistic understanding of herself in early April while she’s quarantined alone, with her dog, Alf, for company.

The search for family has always been integral to the Hayley Williams story. When she was young, her parents divorced and her mother married “a really awful man”. She and her mother escaped to Franklin, Tennessee. It was in that town, where they moved between hotel rooms and a trailer, that Hayley was homeschooled and Paramore were formed, when the members were all in their early-to-mid teens. Hayley was signed to her label as a solo artist but resisted their efforts to turn her into a hit-making pop star, insisting that she came with a band. “I learnt that chosen family was just as vital as family of origin. And my chosen family is my band,” she says.

Hayley Williams by Lindsey Byrnes

Almost from their conception, Paramore were on the cover of hard rock magazines and played songs about their shifting band line-up to a few-thousand capacity rooms. “It wasn’t a ‘strong first step for Paramore’, it was a leap into people’s attention,” says Beats 1 and former Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe of the band, comparing their breakthrough to Linkin Park's five years earlier. “It was bam, out of nowhere. They had a seat at the table almost immediately.”

From the angsty pop punk of Riot! to the colourful seesaw of misery and optimism that characterises Brand New Eyes, their music appealed to the imagination of alternative-leaning teenagers. British musician and friend of Hayley's Denai Moore recalls this sensation as one of belonging. “Hayley’s music has always felt very personal but always has a wider sense of hope, which as a teenage girl made me feel seen and looked after through the music,” she says. This hope, as unusual as their female singer, set the band apart from and ahead of their contemporaries in mid-to-late 00s alternative rock.

When Zane Lowe interviewed Paramore for Gonzo, the cultish British MTV Music show, he expected the firecracker frontwoman he’d learned about. Instead he found someone thoughtful. “I have this memory of Hayley really trying to defer to the other members of the band, to be inclusive when I’d ask questions,” he says. “I’m always wary of environments like that, when you see someone who’s fronting a band and very deliberately trying to step into the background, I’m like, what’s causing that? Is it a shyness? This wasn’t that, this was: there’s something going on here with the dynamic of the band and we’re not going to get the bottom of it with this interview.”

That democratic nature is seconded by Hayley's Paramore bandmate, HalfNoise musician and childhood friend, Zac Farro. “She’s always done that since the very first interview,” he says. “There’d be times where it’d be blatantly obvious questions aimed at Hayley but she’d sit there quietly until someone else would talk. She’d even make it awkward to force the involvement from all the band. It’s a powerful way to run a business and a band and to lead people.”

Hayley remembers being very sensitive about being singled out: “Being female and fronting an all-male band was like throwing your soul to the wolves. People didn’t know how to take you -- if your supposed power meant that they should be intimidated or inspired. In the midst of all of that there’s just a tension. Sometimes I didn’t want that.” What she did want was for the band to be recognised as a pack: for their connection to each other, or at least for their songwriting abilities. “All these reviews would come out that would paint me as some sort of dictator in a band setting, or as a brat -- it’s because I was a female, really,” she says, calmly, adding that she learnt a lot from the experience. “I’m not bitter about it but I grew up understanding that I was a little kid wearing a demon costume that I couldn’t see but everyone else could.”

Distorted press commentary exacerbated the truth of the matter: that Hayley Williams wanted Paramore whole. She chuckles as she admits it today, “I’ve been trying to keep that family together since I was a kid and we’ve obviously gone through our own ups and downs -- it’s like a fucking soap opera.”

This is the Paramore family at its strongest: Hayley Williams, Zac Farro and Taylor York. The night before the “Hard Times” video shoot, Hayley drank champagne alone in a bath in a hotel room and listened to her bandmates Zac and Taylor play ping-pong on the next door’s balcony. “I was so fucking depressed, and I had a whole bottle that I’d been drinking in the bathtub and I was like, I want to finish this because I don’t want to waste it, but also I don’t feel good and I need my friends. So I went over and hung with Zac and Taylor and we all drank from this bottle of champagne and just cried together.” The next day the band woke up, shot the video and Hayley felt a kaleidoscope of emotions and rare, fleeting joy.

Depression and marital unhappiness leaked into “Hard Times” and the other After Laughter songs. “I think a lot of people knew I was headed for a divorce before I did. Isn’t that always the way? It takes us such a long time to see our own shit, sometimes. I wish life wasn’t like that,” Hayley says, then continues brightly, “and that’s where true friends come in.”

In early 2017, the singer left her husband and the painful relationship, and eventually moved into her own cottage, in Nashville, close to Zac and Taylor. To finish an album that exorcised so many long-ignored feelings was a mission in itself: “My adrenaline was pushing me through and I didn’t realise I was opening up portals to honesty with myself and with other people. As soon as we landed that aircraft it was: shit, I am melting down now. I’m falling apart.” But her “rude awakening” began in force during the After Laughter promotion and touring. “I started to notice anger,” she says. “Off and on, throughout that entire cycle, kind of insidious. It was this lurking thing, this little shadow.”

The suppression of anger led to physical symptoms. Food was replaced with alcohol before shows. Yet between the closeness she felt with her bandmates and the catharsis of performing the exposing new music, she felt a curious freedom. This compared positively to the fractious tour behind 2009 album Brand New Eyes tour, where an earlier Paramore line-up barely communicated: “I’d be your rough and tumble frontwoman superhero and then I’d feel like a total phoney, because no one knew what I was going through or the guys were going through. I just felt like a total fake all the time.” A radical honesty that would become luminescent in Petals For Armor emerged in Hayley’s output at this time -- she wrote an open letter about her mental health and marriage breakdown, turned to social media to talk about depression and revealed more in a single interview with a small indie blog than she ever had.

From a God’s eye perspective, Zane Lowe has seen the impact of her public vulnerability. “She’s inspired a lot of female artists to carry themselves in a way that’s far more honest and natural and straight-forward and truthful,” he tells me. It’s true that as a figurehead of first emo, now indie rock, her influence on a younger generation of women songwriters like Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, all of whom feature on Petals For Armor, can’t be understated.

Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail became a front-person because of her (“Hayley Williams was a beacon of inspiration, of glowing light”) and, although she won’t go into details, found that Hayley sharing details of therapy helped to frame her own problems she’s not dealt with: “This specific interview made a big impact on me and, honestly, the way I think about myself and the way I think about opening up in my songwriting and expression.” Sophie Allison of Soccer Mommy, who toured with Paramore, feels similarly changed. “I’ve been trying to be open without letting it make me get bitter -- Hayley being able to do it is very motivating,” Allison explains of her own songwriting and wider output. “It’s hard to give so much of yourself to people and keep your kindness, and keep hope that people will be more good than bad in return. That’s something everyone should look up to her for.”

At her new home on a planned year-long break from Paramore, Hayley began therapy for diagnosed depression, PTSD and anxiety. She describes asking herself difficult questions in the isolation. Of her rage -- named as a ‘quiet thing’ on “Simmer” while she races through the woods, naked, in its video -- she says, “I was aware of it for a while and it still fascinates me that you can have these massive feelings that are lodged away inside of you somewhere and you don’t have access to them until you allow yourself to, until you get out of your own way.”

At the crux of her therapy work were early memories of her parents’ separation when she was four. That experience left a ripple effect throughout her adult life. “I really thought ‘what a clichéd thing to be affected by -- that can’t be my scar or emotional wound’, because everyone’s parents are divorced. Every character on TV is divorced,“ she says. “I was so desensitised to it, I felt silly being affected by it. And the truth is that it was the most pivotal moment in my entire life.”

She started to process what family can mean, in echoes of what her granny told her after her parents divorced: not all families live together in the same house. “I’m grateful for the boundlessness of family and that allows me to be more hopeful that I can create my own some day that is blood. And I can let that be shaped however it’s supposed to be shaped.”

Meanwhile her therapist encouraged her to make music from her feelings. The result, on Petals For Armor, shows a feminine journey of healing, from anger to peace to strength. Whether in the witchy imagery of “Why We Ever”, or proclaiming ‘I’m not lonely / I am free’ on “Cinnamon”, this is Hayley’s ode to emancipation through homelife. The homestead is where the feminine is historically supposed to flourish (or, at least, be trapped), but in her own story, it has been a site of disempowerment or unrest. Now, through insular music with eclectic influences from Björk to Radiohead, she celebrates that ‘Home is where I’m feminine / smells like citrus and cinnamon’. Songs slink between moods -- desolate and hollow to funky and playful -- as if she were moving from room to room.

Unsurprisingly the songs were written and recorded in a domestic setting. Hayley also made the whole project collaborating with family: Taylor York produced it, Paramore and HalfNoise’s Joey Howard provided the bass, close friend Lindsey Byrnes worked on the creative direction, and business partner and long time personal make-up artist Brian O’Connor played a big part in the album's visual identity.

As the Petals For Armor creative director, Lindsey shot nearly all the visuals at Hayley’s property or in her own home studio. According to Lindsey: “Hayley really wanted things to feel very family-familiar.” She considered that Hayley has emerged with a drastic hair and make-up look for each phase of Paramore, as created with Brian O’Connor. One day, Hayley was on Lindsey’s couch with her hand up to her mouth (on her hand is a cover-up tattoo of three black squares, over her ex-husband’s initials). Lindsey told her friend, “Let’s expand on that and show that you made art out of your experiences, and you’re a sum of your experiences and you’re not ashamed of them.”

With additional black squares painted by Brian on the singer’s face, the album cover suggests a curling tendril from the roots of her fingers. Hayley’s face is about to bloom. “I wanted something that was 100 percent her own,” says Lindsey. “Even the colour of the font on the album cover is a sample from her lips, it’s a part of her.”

The triumph -- and beauty -- of the record is how specifically Hayley translates her psychological and emotional growth. When writer-producer Steph Marziano flew to Nashville in July 2019 to co-write “Creepin”, “Over Yet” and “Taken” with Hayley and Joey Howard, it was for a “really homely time”; an environment at Hayley's house where intense, meaningful conversations between the three of them were internalised by the singer and later revealed as lyrics and melody. During a session, Steph was taken aback by a question Hayley asked: If you’re always facilitating the artist, what about yourself? How do you mentally cope with that? “As a producer, a lot of times I’m the therapist for the artist. Whenever they’re telling their story I’m supposed to help them get to the emotion of it,” Steph says. “With Hayley, we were all sharing, which shows her emotional intelligence.”

Petals For Armor is ready for release but Hayley still attends therapy sessions (“I try not to overdo it because you can always have too much of a good thing”) and reflects that the counsel offered in that self-shot teenage video would be different today. Now she allows herself to feel deeply without judgement. “I go through some of the heaviest depression that will hit in a single day, followed up by a real feeling of peace and gratitude that I never experienced until quite recently,” she explains. “Being able to juggle both of those extremes, to be able to say, ‘it’s OK that I don’t feel good’ and ‘I don’t understand how to put words to this feeling’ or that ‘actually now I feel so hopeful and grateful’ has been very important to me, and that’s more the message I wish I’d have known sooner.”

Near the end of our call Hayley goes outside to check her mailbox. As she’s outside, we talk about Women Who Run With Wolves, an enormous collection of stories that she cites as a major inspiration for Petals For Armor, and one we were both incidentally given to read by a female friend. In her favourite story, Bluebeard, a girl is married off to a man who turns out to be evil, having slain many previous wives and kept their bones behind a secret door -- a door the woman eventually opens. Hayley read it just after her divorce and found it “life-altering on a cellular level”.

“My story did follow that analogy of a marriage, but the part where she opens up that forbidden door and sees all the carnage and wreckage that was inside and at that moment her eyes were opened and she couldn’t pretend that that didn’t exist anymore? I related to that,” she tells me.

The beauty of folklore, of tales of running through the woods naked and drawing circles on the floor, is that its metaphors are open to interpretation. In Bluebeard, the wife is saved by her brothers who ride to her rescue and kill the husband. Hayley is still outwardly grateful for a lot these days, especially her two chosen brothers, Zac and Taylor. But she read that metaphor as the woman calling upon a part of herself that was capable of showing up and protecting her, of killing the villain of the tale. “It showed me the importance of anger and being able to recognise that you’re worth protecting -- then fighting for that person.”

Petals For Armor is out 8 May.

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