The candid-speaking, often pink-haired, Paramore frontwoman has grown up with her fans – but new album After Laughter speaks on a new level, about the pressures and pleasures of growing up rock.
Hayley Williams is bouncing around the stage of London's Royal Albert Hall with a fan's bra on her head. The audience, having long since abandoned their assigned seats and crushed together at the front, scream with glee as the perky opening xylophone riff of Hard Times rings out. The place is shuddering with such joy, in fact, that the song's lyrics feels almost comically out of place. "All that I want is to wake up fine," sings Williams, stomping on every word as the bra flies off her head, "Tell me that I'm alright, that I ain't gonna die." For a song about living under the dark cloud of depression, it's got one hell of a beat to it.
This tonal contradiction runs through the heart of Paramore's fifth album, After Laughter. Its candid reflections on self-sabotage, depression and the aftermath of broken relationships are shrouded in buoyant 80s-inspired synth-pop. Though she initially worried that the whole thing might seem jarring -- especially since Paramore built their following ten years ago as a punk-rock band seething with righteous teenage rage -- the approach has proven cathartic for Williams. Her motto, inspired by her childhood heroes The Cure and Talking Heads, is "cry hard, dance harder."
Speaking over the phone from LA, Williams reflects on channeling her struggles into music, the crippling pressures of fame (particularly for a female artist) and why she's grateful to be alive.
There's a thread of pessimism on After Laughter that you both embrace and reject as the album goes on. As a whole, where do you think it lands?
I've been joking lately that I'm a recovering realist. Around the time we wrote [our third album] Brand New Eyes, I stopped letting myself be too hopeful and too dreamy, because I felt like any time I was led by my heart over my mind, I ended up getting hurt. It's been something that I've been struggling with a lot of my life. I stopped thinking in terms of what I could dream up, and started thinking what was actually possible. I don't think that's bad, but I also want to dream a little bit. I went through things over the past few years where if I didn't have my dreams, if I didn't have some way to look for the light at the end of the tunnel, then it would have just felt pointless to try to get through my days. It's hard to answer where I think it actually lands, but I think the whole album sort of tracks with me in and out of like, 'Well today I'm struggling because I really just wanna dream and I really wanna look forward to something', and then the next day I wake up and it's like, 'Urgh. I don't see the pin prick of light at the end of the tunnel. It's gone, and I have to focus on what's in front of me'. Maybe that's for other people to decide, and to put in context of their own life.
When you realised the music was moving in this direction, did you worry that it wouldn't be appropriate to accompany it with such dark lyrics?
Yeah I was very worried about it. I told Taylor for like six months, 'You have to bring me a sad song, please!' Taylor could write the happiest thing that you've ever heard while he's going through something very heavy in his own life. I want to deal with things in that way sometimes, where I can just float above [my feelings], but also acknowledge that they're there. I was so inside my own head, it was hard. Thank God Taylor wrote these sounds, because I would be so scared if I had to go through everything every time I sang it. I want to be able to dance some of the stuff away. I keep saying, 'Cry hard, dance harder.' And that's how I feel, being on the stage playing these songs I'm like, 'Man, life is really tough sometimes, but I'm going to try and take that in my stride and stomp all over it, and dance and get through this this day in the best way that I possibly can'. So I'm really thankful for the relationship between the music and the lyrics, it's really healing. There's such a good thing to me about fully feeling every emotion, almost at once, to really know you're alive.
You mentioned earlier that you're in your own head a lot. In Idle Worship, you grapple with the pressures of being a role model -- which is such an understandable frustration - but how much of that pressure do you feel was internal, and how much was external?
I found myself in a really weird headspace in the last few years where I was going through these things in my personal life, but we had just come off of this successful album. People would come up to me in my hometown and have pictures of me in these very superhero type poses across their shirts, and [they'd say], 'Oh you're perfect, I've looked up to you for so long.' I never discounted anything that they said because that's the truth for them and I appreciate that, but what I couldn't shake was how much that contrasted with the way that I viewed myself. I was crumbling. I was losing friendships, I was going through things with my family, my relationship, I just felt like, 'Wow, this person that I'm standing right in front of, has no idea that I'm probably doing worse than they're doing. And they're asking for advice, and they're telling me that I'm perfect.' It made me very angry at myself that I wasn't at that level, and I never could be. And it made me wonder, 'Did I paint myself out to be someone that can handle this? Did I do this to myself?' I went home not too long after that, I wrote to music that Taylor had given me weeks and weeks before, and was finally able to blurt all of this out.
I sometimes wonder whether female musicians are held to a higher standard when it comes to being a role model.
I absolutely agree with that. There are so many even more subtle parts to this conversation that I experience on a daily basis, and sometimes I can't even put my finger on it, I just know it's happening. We were leaving the airport yesterday, and lately we get paparazzi at the airport. Our tour manager was like, 'Do you want to go straight to the van?', and I was like, 'You know what, I do,' - because I don't feel comfortable having a massive camera lens in my face, I get major anxiety and I start to shake - 'but I don't want to go unless Taylor and Zack go with me. If I leave and no one else goes with me then I'm the asshole, I'm the one that leaves my bandmates behind.' It's those little subtle choice that I feel I have to make, that are in anticipation of the fact that I'm a target just by being a female in a band. I try not to paint myself in a victim light, because I feel very strong, I've been put in this life and I know I can handle it, but there's just truths that are there, and whether some people see it or not, that's their thing, but I definitely feel it. I definitely do know what it's like to be held to a standard that's just impossible and unattainable.
You talked about how you feel like you're living out the songs on After Laughter in real time. Is it a challenge to talk and sing about feelings that you're still in the midst of?
If I could have planned it, I would have said, 'Let me get my life in order, figure out all the answers to all these problems and then we'll put a record out, and I'll be able to speak on this platform about how everything's gonna be OK.' But I don't really want to be the spokesperson for 'everything's gonna be OK', I just want to say, 'Everything's gonna be everything'. I don't know what that really means for someone that isn't me, but all I can do is wake up, sing a song that I love more than anything in the world, and then go home and lay my head down and be really proud of myself for doing this. I'm so thankful that I get to live out this life with my best friends. These are people I went to school with, and we started a band and somehow we're playing a TV show tonight live, performing these songs we wrote together. This all just makes me very grateful, and proud to just be alive and feeling.
Text Alexandra Pollard