Photo by Lindsey Byrnes
Hayley Williams On Going Solo, Alanis Morissette & Trusting Her Intuition
These days, nothing is going as expected, especially for Hayley Williams. The GRAMMY-winning Paramore frontperson is stuck at home in Nashville tending to a house full of plants, her bright-eyed dog Alf and the near-weekly release of singles from her debut solo album, Petals For Armor. With quarantine lockdown intensifying her already isolated headspace, Williams has ample time to stress about the release of a record she never planned to make in the first place.
When talking about it over a weekday phone call, she sighs and laughs simultaneously. "Weird times," she says. "Today I’m PMS-ing, but I’m fine. It’s fine. It’s totally fine!" Usually a string of reassurances like that would strike as self-deprecating or tongue-in-cheek. For her, right now, it actually reads as honesty.
For starters, Williams has nothing to hide anymore. After concluding a string of tours in support of Paramore's synthpop full-length After Laughter and divorcing her longtime partner, she returned home only to discover it was time to address her struggles with depression and anxiety more formally. At the suggestion of her therapist, she began penning songs as a form of musical journaling. The results were passionate and transparent, the type of tracks where raw energy pulses through them, and Williams realized she had unintentionally created a set of songs worth sharing. Her bandmates suggested she turn it into a proper solo album. As an artist who was signed to a major label at age 14 where she established she would only record music with her friends as a proper band, not as a teenage pop star, the idea felt inconceivable—every song she had written for the past 15 years had been released through Paramore, save for one-off collaborations—until she decided to wing it and see what happened. When you’re Hayley Williams, an unintentional origin story can result in a pop album as creatively diverse and empathetically rewarding as this one.
To coincide with the release of Petals For Armor today, Williams spoke with the Recording Academy about learning to trust her body’s intuition, trying to make friends in adulthood and establishing boundaries on social media.
Petals For Armor opens with a pretty spot-on assessment that "Rage is a quiet thing," which reappears later in the album as well. In cultural conversations, rage is always addressed as a physical, visible, loud thing and never as something discrete or hidden. Looking back, do you remember the first time you felt truly overwhelmed with anger?
Oh, wow. Goodness. How deep do we want to get? I think I felt it in a few different iterations from a really young age. As you get older, you learn how to articulate some of those feelings in new ways. For me in my early years, I isolated a lot, I was very confused about my parents' divocre, and I was also confused about my mom’s second marriage and the abuse that happened there. I wasn’t a witness to it as much as I felt it. It was an uncomfortable time in life. For me, the way anger manifested was like heat in my body, almost like a blackout where I wouldn't remember the last few moments. You sort of dissociate in a way that doesn’t feel all that weird until you get older and, in hindsight, realize your body was trying to tell you something.
Absolutely. For whatever reason, I seemed to grow up without ever getting really angry. I would get upset or frustrated, of course, and certainly would debate with friends or family. But I never felt genuinely angry until I was in my mid-20s and experienced that full-force realization of, "Oh wow, women experience so many horrible things that men thankfully don't have to go through, and we’re just supposed to deal with it, to keep up with everyone else despite having unique setbacks." It’s weird to realize how long you’ve been carrying a silent rage before it finally boils over.
Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree. In a way, I wish there would’ve been a way for me to understand what it was that was happening in my body and in my brain. But at the same time, you have to wonder, you know, our bodies are so intelligent and maybe they were protecting you and I from something we just weren’t ready to feel, in whatever ways that looked like for each of us. Now that I’m older, and now that you’re older, you recognize it. Hopefully that has taught us something that helps us move forward and grow. Some days I feel like I haven’t learned sh*t though.
While listening to this album, I’ve been thinking a lot about artists who sing about their anger or depression, especially in the '90s with Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette, and how it defined their career almost to the point of redirecting their own narrative. For a lot of women I know, seeing that resulted in this impulse to be like, "No, I'm not like them. I’m a tomboy. I don’t let my emotions consume me." What those musicians were getting at, though, is ultimately how their personal experiences funnel into a larger desire for reparative justice and long-overdue equality.
Thankfully people have a lot more space and empathy and understanding now for these types of things. People like Fiona Apple or Alanis Morissette—and the thing about Alanis is she had such a massive moment in the ‘90s that was defining for women in rock music and alternative music—were suddenly accepted and then immediately were pushed away. That momentary acceptance that we all had culturally for someone like Alanis Morissette definitely faded into this fear of hysterical women. Our anger can so easily be misconstrued as hysterical. It’s as simple or as insidious as someone being like, "Well, are you about to be on your period?" And you know, that doesn’t have to be offensive because, yeah, sometimes I am about to be on my period and I want to rip your face off. But other times, we've let that become the reason that women shouldn't be taken seriously when it comes to our emotions. Your point is so, so valid. They were talking about so much beyond anger. Anger is just the cap, it’s just the surface of so many meltier, slimier feelings that are harder to explain—and that’s why anger is our go-to. It’s covering insecurities and other feelings that can be tough to explain.
How would you define your rage here? And do you feel like you're being heard now that you've shared some of it through this album?
Oof. I think there are still mornings I wake up where I’m a little nervous about certain things that I mention on the album. Today, the single "Dead Horse" is coming out and I woke up excited because it’s something new I get to release into the world like a child, you know? But I’m very nervous because you’re not in control of other people's perceptions, ever. It doesn’t matter what you do; you just can’t. You can only speak honestly about your experiences and choose whether or not you’re going to magnify that and let the world in. For me, it’s so second nature because I’ve been putting albums out for so long now—you know, this is what I do, this is how I get the full-circle experience of healing and expression—but it has been intense and wonderful to feel that I am basically serving justice for my own self in my own way. It’s very individualized and very, very personal. The things I’m talking about on the first EP have a lot to do with the generational trauma and abuse that was in my family for multiple generations. I wasn’t aware of it so much as I could hear it, like a low hum in the background, until I was able to name it and ask my mom direct questions about these things she’s experienced that basically every woman on her side of the family has experienced.
I feel a sense of relief and I’m proud of that, but it comes with knowing that not everyone will understand this when listening to the album. Like yesterday, I posted a very passive-aggressive thing that allowed me to find humor in the fact that there are a lot of men on the internet who try to mansplain how to put out an album when they’ve probably never even made an album in their life. You get polarized responses. You get people who are cheering you on and then you get, "Oh man, she’s a man-hater now." And honestly? Yeah! Maybe both! Maybe I’m all of it and every shade in between. That’s the problem with any type of public domain. You're allowing other people to define you and you're also kind-of having to consent to it. I can’t direct it, but I’m certainly still in it and I want to be expressing myself in these ways.
Speaking of "Dead Horse," you’re digging deep into your past experiences on this album in a very transparent way. I've always thought one of the most common tragedies of life is when people feel locked into an unfit relationship, whether that relationship is emotionally abusive, mentally draining, or just profoundly boring. It sounds like your marriage was disillusioning at best, but you tried to make it fruitful despite that. What were some of the signs that you knew your relationship was no longer the right fit? One time my friend said the moment they realized they weren't in love anymore was when they no longer enjoyed their partner's scent.
Yeah, that’s so real. That's very animal isn’t it? That's such a real thing though. That’s a great place to start any response that I might have to say about this. Our bodies do not lie. I don’t know if it’s cultural, but over time, who we are in the present day is very disconnected from our bodies. We're so cut off from our animal instinct. I do think there’s something to the fact that people who have been close to one another and there’s something pleasing about the other person’s scent is so… I mean, I think the only reason it even feels awkward or silly to talk about is because we’re so disconnected from our bodies. That is, for me, what I noticed for years. Things weren’t right. There wasn’t a congruence with my mind, my heart, my spirit, and my body. That’s not to say that I’m some evolved, perfectly balanced human right now, because I’m not, but I can check in now and slow down and ask, "What does this mean to me? How do I really feel about this and not deny obvious truths?" My stomach just hurt all of the time. It hurt all of the time. I don’t know how else to put it. I didn’t feel comfortable yet I also felt like I was owed some sense of normalcy and also I owed it to my family or the world. I tried to create that by settling for something that ultimately did not feel right.
It’s heartbreaking to think that we do this, though. I’m from the South and there’s this whole idea of what the church says is right and wrong, and how we view marriage through a religious lense. I don’t subscribe to that. I don’t really think you can adhere to all of those rules and be a healthy person and a good person. Look, I believe love is hard. Love is a choice that we continue to make. I’ve been married to Paramore since I was 13 and it’s been a f**king hell of a rollercoaster, but I'm in it and I reap the emotional benefits of the commitment that I've made. I know it’s possible to stick it out in relationships. My grandparents have been together for 55 years. I see it in the world and I know that it’s real, but I didn’t have it and I tried to force it to be that.
In a New York Times interview, you said you were "scared of losing access to [your] sadness" at one point. What is it about that vacancy that feels alarming?
I’m not making a blanket statement about everybody, but for me, for my personality, for my identity, I actually enjoy romantic, tragic beauty. I find a lot of comfort in stories like that, in twisted narratives, and it adds meaning and depth for me in a world that, if everything were perfect and sunny, would be so boring and disenchanting to me. Everything would be too shiny. I really wanted to treat my depression and take it seriously. I was fine going to therapy, but when it came time to consider medication, that was my one and only hesitation. I get through this life by writing and expressing. So much of that comes from the dissonance that I feel. What happens if this medication numbs it all? I’ve heard friends talk about that with ADD medications or depression medications. For creatives, that’s a really valid concern. There’s the argument that you don’t have to be sad to make art. I guess I believe that, but I do feel like I have to be able to access all of my emotions to live. So far, what I'm taking makes me feel like I do still get depressed, but the difference is that it no longer feels like my identity is the depression. I don’t feel stuck to the bed like I don’t want to get up anymore. It’s some weird in-between. I'm still trying to figure it out, but I’m thankful that I went for it and decided to start acting on it.
Oftentimes you hear people say the hardest part of dealing with any problem is realizing that it's a problem in the first place, but I think the hardest part is realizing that you need help dismantling it, that it’s unrealistic to do it on your own. Based on previous lyrics, you've always been open about grappling with depression. So what changed? What helped you realize that checking in to a therapy retreat for your depression was worth trying?
Oh boy. Ooof.
We can skip this if you want!
No, it’s okay! These are actually the conversations I like to have, it’s just that normally I’m having them in my bed on the phone with a friend or my mom. I think I’m good to answer this. So, when we came home from After Laughter, life was a lot better than it had been before After Laughter—or at least seemingly so. I had been busy for years: touring, hanging out with my friends every night onstage, hanging out with them backstage, doing cool sh*t like going to a Broadway show and seeing Japan. Life was very sensational. Then you come home.
I missed home so bad, but I got here and it was quiet and still and there wasn’t a schedule, no dates in the distant future. It was pretty sobering. Suddenly I had no company but my own, unless I wanted to be a freak and go out every night as if I'm in my early 20s. I just realized that I needed to handle some sh*t. I needed to figure out my dog and if I was going to be able to take care of him full-time now that I’m not touring 75 percent of the time. I needed to hunker down more in my house and try to make whatever necessary adjustments to it to make it liveable on the regular. But I also wanted to be in a relationship. I wanted to be able to date, to be able to experience partnership, and to do that in a healthy way—but I was so far from healthy that I kept sabotaging any good opportunity for any relationship, really. That's one of the first lyrics I wrote for the record, actually. In "Why We Ever," I talk about me trying to sabotage this great relationship. It’s me being like, "Okay, I’m ready to move forward into my adult, human woman life. I’m not going to make the same mistakes I made before, blah, blah, blah," but then I became hypervigilant and had to go back to the beginning to figure out why. That was what did it. I realized my depression spills out onto anyone I care about. It’s not just about me in the back of a bunk crying after a show. It’s real life, and if I want to take part in it and be someone’s partner, then I have to take responsibility for myself.
Gosh, that was a long answer. Sorry. I think it’s because I’ve not really talked about this and it’s kinda hard.
Oh, it’s such a long process to understand yourself, nevermind to explain it all to someone else. Are there any exercises or phrases from therapy that have since stuck with you?
I did a type of therapy called EMDR, which I still am not sure if it’s something a lot of people are aware of or if it’s obscure. But I’m now a year and a half into it, off and on. It’s not something you should do all of the time because it’s heavy. It helped me to go back into memories that, as an adult, I probably perceive a lot differently than I experienced them as a child. It’s about being able to comfort yourself and protect yourself. That’s where the line in "Simmer" comes from: "Nothing cuts like a mother." My mom, by the way, is a fantastic, strong, insanely independent woman. She’s been through so much sh*t and she’s come out of it so strong. But at a certain point, we all have to learn to mother ourselves. That was one of the biggest lessons for me: She can’t always give me every security that I need. She was dealing with her own sh*t, not that it was my fault or even her own. That’s just how life goes. We need to learn how to self-soothe. In a lot of ways, I’m still learning how to do that. The basic sense of what that feels like is at least a little more comfortable for me now. I’ve been able to work through some traumatic sh*t because of it.
Petals For Armor is divided into three sections, and you can hear the musical and lyrical shifts as each third starts. It almost sounds like different mindsets of the healing process. Was that intentional?
It wasn’t intentional, but I do think it’s because healing from any sort of trauma, addiction, or whatever is universal. It’s like how writing about love will resonate with so many different types of people’s experiences with love because it’s a universal thing we all experience. I didn't intend on it while writing, but I did know that I was going to seperate it. I could feel how songs from early on in the songwriting process felt darker and aesthetically belonged together. In a lot of ways, I know it’s dumb to answer any question like this in an interview, but it just happened. It felt like it was supposed to happen. Whether it was me writing with Joey [Howard], Paramore’s touring bassist who’s an incredible talent, or in the studio with Taylor [York], things just came up that felt right. I knew they were right when they happened. I just had to get out of the way to keep the space clear for that.
After Laughter was such a colorful, buoyant musical shift for Paramore. Did that album act as a creative springboard and loosen your creative expectations for Petals For Armor? There’s such a wide range between the lovely Radiohead-like production of "Simmer" and a club-ready song like "Sugar On The Rim."
Yeah, the way Paramore has moved has been so half-hazard. Whatever we felt like, we followed it. We didn’t really let outside opinions dictate where we should go in our career. It would have felt very inauthentic to follow Riot with another scene-sounding emo album. We weren’t even that band by the time the last single came out. I remember us struggling about getting popular off a song like "Misery Business" while already looking and being different people by the time "That's What You Get" came out. That’s how we've moved through everything. By the time we got to After Laughter, we were so overdue for a shakeup and to feel out on a limb again. I was so proud of it and it felt so liberating to talk about these things. I don’t even think I was aware that I was writing about my depression until afterwards when speaking about the songs, because at the time of writing I didn’t know I was depressed. It created incredible conversations that challenged me to heal—some of that happened very publicly and some of that happened over champagne in a hotel room with Zac [Farro], Taylor, and I crying about sh*t that’s ancient history. That album was a massive gift to each of us as individuals and as a band.
Petals For Armor almost plays out like an exercise in self-love: from learning to admit your troubles, to breaking them down, to recognizing your strengths, to expressing gratitude. Out of all the songs, which one are you most proud of?
Goodness. It’s hard to pick a baby. I think that today it would be different than tomorrow and tomorrow would be different than the next day. But if I’m answering for today, I would say a song called "Crystal Clear," which is the last song on the album. It was very accidental. I had been begging, begging Taylor for music that came from him first. That’s typically how we write Paramore songs, but that’s not how we wrote a lot of songs on Petals, even the songs written by the both of us didn’t start in that way. So I had been begging, like, "Hey, let’s do the ol’ razzle dazzle! We’ve been doing the whole ‘me’ thing and now I want to hear you!" I wanted to hear what he had been feeling like in hopes that it would take me somewhere new. He showed me the beginning of "Crystal Clear"—at that point, all he had was the beginning of it and it had a lot of Phil Collins drumming to it. We wound up finishing the whole song that day. Not every song is a gift that is that smooth and simple, but it felt so right. I loved what I learned from writing it. I loved the lyrics because I was able to tie in some references from After Laughter that have to do with love and bring people up to speed with how I’m viewing it today, which is that I feel afraid, but I’m diving into it again anyway. I’m proud of it and scared of it, but I love that song. There is a special guest on it, but it’s very personal and I don’t know if he’s someone who's ever had a song on the radio or anything, but I’ll be able to talk about it more when we get closer to its release.
Reading through other interviews, it sounds like there was some very reasonable fear about going solo—not the act of making music outside of the band, but by releasing these songs publicly not as a band. What helped you realize it's okay to release solo material?
It was two conversations. One was a conversation that had happened so long before we had even come off the road touring behind After Laughter. We were making the "Rose-Colored Boy" music video and our manager took us out to dinner. It was a really emotional conversation. Taylor’s family had just lost a loved one. We were in the middle of an album cycle that was deeply personal to us. There were a lot of good things happening, and I think when good things and growth are happening, there’s lots of growing pains. We were trying to make sense of how we could be in this wonderful moment in our career and this beautiful moment in our friendships but also could feel sad. The truth is we were tired as f**k, which is not a big deal if you really think about it—of course we were tired, we had been playing music since we were 13. But Taylor mentioned to us, "I really think it’s time, when we wrap up After Laughter, to take some real time off. Not to throw away what we’ve done and what we’re doing now, but to give ourselves space and to find ourselves outside of Paramore." What if we just want to relate to each other as people? What if we want to know what it’s like to go to another country but not be on tour, just go see it, just to go walk around? Not to walk around and then return to soundcheck depressed, or be in London for five hours for a photoshoot and then leave? What if we just want to find ourselves outside of the band as adults? What if I want to learn how to cook something? Little did we know we would be stuck at home. [Laughs.] But I really felt every word he was saying because we had a conversation two years prior about me wanting to quit the band, before we wrote After Laughter. He said, "Look, we can stop or we can keep going, but I’ll support you either way. If we decide to keep going, we can look out for one another in a better way than we have in the past." So I made good on that promise and really backed him up and Zac did as well. He was right. It was time for us to go home for a little while and trust that we would know when it was the right time to make another Paramore record.
All that said, fast forwarding to whenever I started making this record, I knew that this did not belong to Paramore. I really wanted to make good on my word that we all deserved time away from it. When I realized I was writing more than I thought, there were two options: sit on this stuff to see if it would work for a Paramore record eventually, or I can ask for help now and see how I feel when I’m done. By the fourth or fifth song, it was obvious that this was an expression that was necessary. Taylor really encouraged me to release it as an official project. When I told Zac about it, he said the same thing. I just saw his text the other day while scrolling through pictures because I took a screenshot of it for myself. He was like, "Dude, you've got this. You gotta do this." Taylor was the one who told me I needed to tell our manager so I could have that support system ready to go too. He kept reminding me that it was real. I would deny it and he would say it was real because I had already written the songs. And he was right!
Such good friends! That’s how you know, such genuine support.
Right? They’re the best! It’s been a really good time for us. Not only did Taylor produce it and he grew so much just as a musician. He became such a force and I don’t think I fully realized all that he could do. And Zac is absolutely killing it. He moved to L.A., he started a record label, he’s producing his own albums. Everyone is really flourishing. It’s a sign. It’s that thing we were talking about earlier. You feel something in your body and you can either listen to it or ignore it. I think we’re seeing what happens when we really listen to our guts and respect one another. Now we’re all having this really special moment. It won’t last forever, but it will definitely have a lasting impact on who we are.
Petals For Armor is peppered with all these nice friendship moments, too, thanks to cameos from Paramore members and friends like Boygenius. It feels like receiving a big, communal hug. Were those organic to weave in?
Yeah, totally! The only contributions that I think people would qualify as a feature are the Boygenius song and the guitar player of my favorite band, mewithoutYou, his name’s Mike Weiss, he played on "Creepin'." There was no reason to seek out a feature-heavy record. I feel like we’re inundated with them. That’s fine for people who feel like they thrive creatively in that setup, but I don’t think I do. I thrive with people in my intimate circle of friends. Every now and then, if it feels like it came about natural and feels right, I’ll have an opportunity to collaborate with a new friend or someone I look up to. I really like how this one came about. I ran into Julien [Baker] at another friend’s show in Nashville. She was hanging with Lucy [Dacus]. Phoebe [Bridgers] was meant to come in the next day because they were working on… something. Maybe they were each working on separate things. But that was so kismet. It turned out mewithoutYou were playing a show in Nashville which we planned on going to anyway, but when I realized what that could mean I realized I had to ask Mike if he could stop by the studio. I think it happened in one day where everyone was in town. We did all those tracks—Mike’s guitar and the girls’ vocals—in one day because they all hung out together in the studio. It feels natural because these parts are from friends or people I already know.
Since taking a break from touring, it seems like you've been investing lots of time in cultivating and nurturing friendships, old and new. I recently moved to a new city and work from home, and it’s surprised me how hard it is. There's not really a guide for how to make friends in adulthood, especially when you're not someone who holes up at bars. What's been the hardest part of that process for you?
First of all, I really feel you on the new town and having the kind of work situation where you’re not regularly meeting new people at. For me, moving to Nashville during my divorce, I didn’t really have any other way to be other than incredibly vulnerable. I didn’t have any energy to fake it or be animated. A lot of times when I’m out in public, I’m an introvert, but I really care about making people comfortable. I go out of my way to make others comfortable because I was the kid who was always uncomfortable growing up. That makes people think I’m extroverted, but really I just don’t want other people to suffer by feeling the anxieties that I feel. All of a sudden around my divorce, I lost the energy to act that way. If somebody asked me how I was doing, they better buckle in, because I was going to tell them how I was doing and I didn’t give a sh*t if we were in public. I don’t recommend this for everyone, but I met some of my closest friends in adulthood in that way. I was at a party at Zac’s house for someone’s birthday. His wife and I got to talking when I met her that night. We were in a corner of Zac’s house just, like, meeting each other for the first time and asking each other questions. It turned out we had both been through similar divorces, both had been in similar living situations after, and it was like, sh*t, I don’t have to go out of my way to make people comfortable. I just need to rest in this moment and trust that if I'm meant to find new people, then I’ll find them or they will find me. All I need to do is own my story and be present for it.
You’ve established a relatively healthy relationship with your fans on Twitter and Instagram while still making yourself available, whether it’s sharing memes of yourself or embracing accidental typos. You also know when and how to take a break from social media, which is equally important. Do you have any advice for artists who are struggling to find the right balance between the two?
Oh man. Social media is so hard. It’s not going to get any easier either; it’s only gonna get harder. That’s where I’ve had to implement those lessons of listening to myself, to that very small voice that’s generally wiser than I am. I get to a breaking point where it either turns into anxiety or some type of jadedness where I need to forget my phone exists and only talk to people I know in real life. If it’s advice for other artists, I would say, we’re taught to believe that if it’s not out there it doesn’t exist, but you definitely still exist. Even if you’re not posting some probably bullsh*t thing, you definitely still exist. I have to remind myself that all the time. I exist far more in real life than I do on my phone. We’re just accustomed to seeing people through a screen now but that doesn't mean it’s a reality.