For a frontwoman, Hayley Williams doesn’t feel at home in the spotlight. Well, at least not when it’s only shining on her. Her new record Petals For Armor is her first solo project away from Paramore and she struggled to come to grips with it at first.
This may be because the beginnings of the record materialised during a therapeutic exercise. As a result, the subsequent songs deal with grief, depression, relationships, family and self-sabotaging coping mechanisms. It’s this visceral vulnerability and uncontrived storytelling that gives the record its strength.
At first, Williams considered releasing the songs with Paramore or under a pseudonym. But it was the encouragement from her bandmate Taylor York that pushed her to take the terrifying leap. Her Paramore brothers continued to be creative collaborators on ‘Petals For Armor’, with York producing it and touring bassist Joey Howard featuring on some tracks.
The sound is far from Paramore’s pop punk roots and Williams describes the record as “genre neutral”. She has given the world time to soak it in by drip releasing ‘Petals For Armor’ across three EPs. The first 10 tracks from part I and II showcase warped vocals on ‘Cinnamon’, sultry electro-pop beats on ‘Sudden Desire’ and heavenly harmonies on her collab with boygenius (the supergroup of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers) on ‘Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris’. The final body of work is raw, eerie and beautiful.
You can indulge in the final instalment and full 15-song experience today. In the lead up to its release, we spoke to Williams about life in isolation, embracing her darkest fears and trusting her instincts on ‘Petals For Armor’.
Music Feeds: How are you? What’s life in self iso like for Hayley?
Hayley Williams: This is the weirdest shit I’ve ever experienced in my life. I’m just taking it day by day. How are you doing?
MF: I’m feeling about the same. I actually tried your ‘Over Yet’ workout video the other day. I was expecting it to be high energy but dude, I was getting puffed out trying to keep up with you.
HW: (Laughs) Man, I haven’t done an exercise routine like that in so long. Normally the extent of my exercise is yoga or pilates. That’s more my speed. Then I save the cardio for the Paramore show. Then I did this the other day to film it and I was like “Holy shit, I can’t get through this” (laughs). But I did it!
MF: Let’s talk about ‘Petals For Armor’. First of all, congratulations.
HW: Oh, thank you!
MF: You’ve said that creating a solo record wasn’t the most natural process for you. So how did it happen and why now?
HW: It was one of those things that was never going to happen unless it happened to me. I would’ve never chosen it because I didn’t think I was up for it. I actually didn’t think I wanted to or cared to. I’m really happy with my career with Paramore and the artistic expression there and the challenge I experience there. It’s fulfilling. So why would I ever expect to do anything more?
It just happened because we decided to take time off from the band. We thought, “Man, we’ve been doing this for over 15 years now”. Since we were kids in school. We needed a minute to just be friends and not find our identity in Paramore.
That being said, we went home and I started to experience some serious depression and other anxieties. So I asked for help and started looking for the right therapist and basically on her advice started writing and didn’t realise I was writing songs. It started with ‘Leave It Alone’ because I was dealing with the grief of my Nanna falling and having a head injury. Then it was like, “Alright, I’m going to record this.” Two or three of those in a row and it was like “Oh, dang. I’m making an album.”
MF: The album explores so many emotions from grief and rage to lust and liberation. I was wondering if you were conscious of that while you were writing or if it all just poured out?
HW: Yeah! It did just all pour out. I’m really grateful because by starting out as a form of therapy and an exercise, I wasn’t even aware of the growth that was happening. The realisations I was having about myself and my perspectives. It was a very natural, sixth-month span of really diving into my deepest, darkest fears and uncovering all the reasons why they began in the first place. That’s a scary process to allow yourself into but it’s really rewarding.
I keep trying to tell people in interviews or friends when we have conversations about therapy or life or whatever, just because the album is out there it doesn’t really represent the entire experience. It’s still ongoing and I’m still mining these ideas. I’m still struggling and I still feel pain. I feel fear. Then there are those moments of pure joy and those are my rewards for doing the hard work. It’s still life.
It’s just like this whole thing with the pandemic. I was talking to a friend the other day and they’re dealing with business stuff that’s kind of falling apart because no one can work. Nothing has stopped. Life continues to happen. My mom is having trouble with the nursing home that my Nanna is in and now another friend’s roof fell in during all of this while they’re quarantining. Life is relentless. It just keeps happening to us. The best we can do is to stay present and experience the full extent of it and try to mine the gold from it. To learn from it.
MF: Yeah, it seems like this pandemic just amplifies our problems but there’s nothing we can do but keep on.
HW: Yeah. I don’t resent it, but I don’t like how I’m in a position, which is a really cool position to be in, that paints this picture that there’s this platform that I’m standing on speaking down to people. Like, “I’ve experienced this and this what I’ve learned from it and here it goes.” When I feel lost as hell every day like everyone else, the only difference is that I’m releasing songs into the world that more than a few people can hear at a time.
I just hope as artists are going through this collective experience with people who aren’t making art but are doing other wonderful things, I just hope that there’s more empathy and connection and real transparency of what this feels like. What it feels like to be stuck with yourself and all of your problems that didn’t disappear just because the world has seemed to have stopped for a moment.
MF: The calm before releasing an album is always a weird time but does it feel especially strange or different this time because of the state of the world?
HW: Yes and no. It does feel super weird and it’s nothing like my typical experience when we get that creative release initially of writing the song but then you get this whole second wind of putting it out there and connecting with people. I’m not necessarily getting that but actually, I am getting it and it’s just happening in such a different way. I’m learning to accept it. I’ve kind of made my peace and maybe this is how it was meant to be. Maybe people were supposed to discover some of these songs and get to know each of them individually. Maybe that’s how it was always gonna be and I should just be proud of that and that each song has its moment.
MF: Why did you decide to release the album in three parts?
HW: Well, there were a few things. I kind of just wanted to release one song because I was so scared of what it meant to be making my own project. I was just like “Oh, I’ll just throw one song out there so it won’t be such a big deal.” I think to me that would take a lot of pressure off.
Then when I realised how the songs were panning out and how some of them went together and some of them were an extension of the other, it was kind of like, “Oh, man. This feels like seasons.” Dark and bleak moments and then golden sunlight basking moments. I try to just let the story arc happen naturally and I’m such a sucker for that. I want to take people on that journey that I’ve been on.
MF: You initially debated whether or not you would release the songs under your name. What helped you commit to it as a solo project?
HW: Really it was conversations with Taylor about it. Taylor actually pushed me a lot on this. To not be afraid of myself and to believe in myself. That’s just the relationship we have. Our friendship has always been about pushing each other to the next best place and trying to keep each other afloat when we’re sinking. I really needed that.
I wanted to make something. I didn’t care how it came out and he was like, “You should be really proud. You’ve spent your lifetime with Paramore, building up something with us and people know who you are and you should put that name on this. You should put Hayley Williams on all of the headers of this stuff so people can know you’re really proud of it and we’re right here to support you.” I never really felt alone even though this is my first real solo adventure.
MF: You’ve grown up with Taylor, but what was it like working with him on ‘Petals For Armor’ as opposed to Paramore?
HW: Well, I knew I wanted Taylor to produce it. There was not really another option for me because he’s done such good work on the last two Paramore records even though he co-produced those. I wanted him to be at the helm because I trust him. It was hard. Some days it was tough because it was a whole new dynamic even though we’ve worked with each other for so long.
Some days he would turn around and be like, “No, what do you want to do? Don’t ask me what I want to do because I don’t want this to be a Paramore record. What do you want to do?”. It would be really uncomfortable because I’d be like, “I don’t know. I trust you”. I think all of this has been a huge lesson in trusting my instincts and trusting that I have good taste or at least taste that I like. And that’s ok. There’s really no wrong answer when you’re expressing yourself and I think the truth is I’ve always thought, “Well, what if there is a wrong answer?”. This was like a nice way to understand that you just make what you feel and if you’re lucky, it’s badass.
MF: In a post-COVID world, what are you looking forward to the most in the “second wind” for this record as you put it?
HW: I’m excited to play shows. I think to see these songs come to life in a very 3D type of experience. To feel and smell and taste what it’s like to be surrounded by thousands of strangers who are all sweaty and it’s kind of gross to think about it like that but it’s been my life and I miss it a lot. To be really real with you, today has been super weird.
When you struggle with any type of anxiety, every day is like you’ve got to put one foot in front of the other and focus on being healthy. Today has been kind of a tough one for me. I think what I look forward to the most about not being in quarantine is just being able to go to a coffee shop and sit with a friend and talk for hours and not feel like we’re doing something wrong or to be able to go visit my grandparents without worrying. Today I just felt really lonely and I’m excited for the moment where I don’t have to be lonely.
Hayley Williams debut solo album, ‘PETALS FOR ARMOR’, is out today. Stream/download here.