It's taken five years, but on their third album 'Unwanted' Pale Waves have completed their transformation from 80s pop banger merchants to full-on rock monsters. It's been quite a journey for a special band blossoming into a thrilling and gloriously comfortable new skin. "We've all developed as a band, as people and as artists," begins singer Heather Baron-Gracie. "The first album was very 80s synth pop, and then we moved onto a second album that was a bit more 2000s/90s and then with this third album, we've gone for a full-on alternative rock album. We're just getting more and more confident as players with our instruments, and that's really shining through with the music that we're writing."
You can piece together some of the DNA that makes up the darker, heavier hues of their third album from different periods in the band's history as their creative core of Heather and drummer Ciara Dolan reminisce about their formative stages. "We started quite acoustically and wanted to just be really emo, not emo in the way we are now but like Daughter and Lucy Rose. Benjamin Francis Leftwich was always someone I listened to when I was young," says Ciara.
Things began to get real, though, when Heather alighted on a revelation: her first electric guitar. "From eBay!" she cries. "£50. It wasn't any brand either. It had no brand." Following this landmark moment, the duo of Heather and Ciara started to think more expansively about their music. "I started learning pedals and modulation on the guitar," says Ciara. "I've always loved 80s music. I think something happened in the 80s to technology that really starts this huge creation of cool music. The Cure have always been a massive inspiration of mine, so we emulated that through the music. We found our sound doing a cover of Fleetwood Mac 'The Chain'."
"I was just talking about this cover with my girlfriend Kelsey yesterday," adds Heather. "It came on in the car, and we were like, 'We've covered this!"
"We were a lot more upbeat than we originally thought we would be because we wanted people to dance," she says.
"And cry!" shouts Ciara. "We wanted them to cry and then dance, then cry. Happy/sad is such an interesting combination to listen to by really making you feel everything."
Now, more than five years later, Pale Waves have hit on the perfect combination to really make you feel everything. 'Unwanted' is a ferocious reaction to a period of despondency and isolation. "We felt like we had to abandon playing live for so long due to the pandemic and we were so not used to that as a band," explains Heather. "We're a band that tours heavily and has for the past five years. When we were unable to do that, we felt really disconnected. We knew that we wanted to make an album that reflected well live and would be the most fun to play live. That's why we went a bit more alternative and heavier in general. We met the producer Zakk Cervini, a good friend of ours now, who lives and breathes that. It was a match made in heaven."
The change in scale and scope is bracing from the first note of the record. "On the first album, it's very balanced between a lot of synths and a lot of really picky chorusy guitars, and on the second album, there's a lot of acoustic guitars and a few electric guitars," says Heather. "On the third album, everything is electric guitar. Every instrument is amped up to volume 10. The drums are just insane. It hits so hard. It's a lot more bold and unapologetic."
The album finds the band exploring different aspects of their psyche and Heather delving deeper into her emotions with her songwriting. "We touched upon subjects we've not really spoken about before, a lot of darker subjects," she reflects. "Jealousy, anger, deception. Everything on the darker side of things. That's because we've been through a lot, but sometimes when you're going through something, it's hard to put it into an art form, and it's hard to speak about it, but because we've moved through a lot of those emotions we wanted to write about it now. It was the perfect time. It's a very angry record. It's important in this day and age to allow women to be angry and accept that rather than just label them a crazy bitch. I wanted us to own that. It's ok to be angry."
There are still plenty of moments of levity when the sun peeks through the clouds, though. "There are a few moments of happiness and joy on the album even though the music overall is quite heavy and tense, but a song like 'Reasons To Live' is positive."
For Heather, the album represents a significant development in her songwriting. A process that she hasn't always found easy. "It's a journey. I really struggled with the first album and knowing what to give away and what to keep to myself," she admits. "I'm not an oversharer. I don't enjoy oversharing, but with music, you have to. You're forced to, in a way. That just comes with confidence. We've all had those years to grow up and become a lot more confident. This album represents us and who we are right now."
'Unwanted' captures a moment. A moment for the band but also a pop cultural moment as its heavy, hook-filled pop-punk sound chimes with a new generation discovering this music and leading it into a new era. "We have a really strong shared love for alternative pop-punk," says Heather. "This solidified it even more. We've always spoken about this kind of music. Actually, making a record that is more alternative and heavier than anything we've done before made us want to make more music like it because it's so fun to play."
There's a palpable feeling of excitement as a diverse cross-section of new artists fall in love and interpret the music with their own take, and Pale Waves are at the heart of it. "Guitar music is definitely coming back for sure," enthuses Heather. "You turn on the radio now, and it's not just the same pop song with the same synth base. Everything comes back around."
"It's taking the world by storm," continues Ciara excitedly. "People are loving pop-punk. It's like when we were kids again. The power of gen z kids who are just loving it. Music was pretty dead for a while. The guitar music right now as a certain sound is going to go back into different kinds of guitar music, not just pop-punk. People are ready to hear real instruments again and hear a real band. There are so many artificial things in the world now because of computers, so people want to hear raw stuff to bring humanity to music. That's why guitar music has come back so strong because there have been a lot of years without it."
The beauty of Pale Waves is that no matter how explicitly and brilliantly they lean into the heavier sound, it's always pulled off with an inherent Pale Waveyness that makes it distinctly them despite the bracing step forward in sound. "We love to shock people, and I think this album is definitely going to do that," says Heather. "As long as we keep the core aspects of Pale Waves, and that's us and our catchy big choruses, people will just have to adapt with us.
"As we develop as people and artists, we're not going to write the same record again and again. That just gets boring. We want to explore different avenues and different worlds. This kind of music has been a shared love of ours for as long as I can remember, so it's fun that we get to have that record now."
It's hard to overstate in today's climate how much of an achievement it is for Pale Waves to be thriving and growing five years in and sounding more vital than ever. It has been a journey accompanied by their devoted fans who are part of the world they have created. "We have a very committed fanbase," says Heather proudly. "They're hardcore in the best way. That's what drives us. Sometimes I feel like the lifestyle of being a musician gets very glamorised, and unless you're at a certain point, you're still grafting. Even us now, we're still grafting and doing shit that maybe other people wouldn't do. It's extremely exhausting, and it makes it worth it when you play your own show, and people turn up, and you hear their stories. You think, oh, ok, this is why we do it."
The actual process of making the album was the most enjoyable and organic of their career so far. Still grafting but having fun doing it. A big part of the easy-going recording vibe was the infectious enthusiasm of producer Zakk who has worked with a who's who of punk and rock legends from blink-182 to Bring Me The Horizon to All Time Low, the latter who inadvertently ended up sparking the idea that set the collaboration in motion. "We met Zak because I got asked to do a vocal on an All Time Low track," says Heather. "I laid down the vocals, and instantly I knew that this was the guy who needed to do our third record. Ciara and the band then came in and met him. He's so talented and so positive. Usually, I dread recording because I find it so stressful, but with him, it was actually the first time that I felt like I could really relax and enjoy it. He really understood what we were going for. A lot of what you hear on the record is done in the moment. 80% of the vocals were done on the day that we wrote the track. When you write a track, and you're in love with it, then you try and record it three months later, then you just lose that magic. You can hear that in the sound. It's all very exciting."
Despite sounding like a ton of your all-time punk-rock faves, there wasn't one distinct influence or inspiration for the album other than a desire to make things loud, aggressive and fun. Maybe there was one influence right in the back of their heads, though. "We were channelling a lot of Paramore," laughs Heather, before clarifying. "We didn't even reference one artist or song in the whole entire process. We just went in, and we were all in this certain world, and that allowed us to make the record in the most natural way possible."
So, having ramped up their sound to its heaviest and most thrilling levels, where can Pale Waves go next? Is this the ultimate Pale Waves experience? "You can always keep pushing boundaries," says Heather excitedly. "We're on the right path. We're going to continue to heavily play our instruments, but I'm not sure which direction we're going to take it in next, but it's probably going to be even more hardcore and brutal."
Taken from the September issue of Upset. Pale Waves' album 'Unwanted' is out 12th August.
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