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Hayley Williams
Hayley WilliamsPhotography Lindsey Byrnes

Hayley Williams in full bloom

The Paramore frontwoman blossoms on her debut solo album, Petals for Armor. Here, she discusses how trauma, femininity, and therapy formed the record

In 2018, Hayley Williams was rooting through the underwear packs at a Nashville branch of Target when a young woman popped up from behind a clothing rack. “I have depression too!” she breezed. “Thank you for After Laughter!” It was a brief and earnest proclamation, and one that stuck with Williams. “That record was the beginning of a reckoning for me,” she tells me today. “There was shit coming to the surface. My depression was demanding to be acknowledged.” Seeing people connect with her darker side “was a blessing”, Williams says, “but I wasn’t ready for how bad it was going to get. I still had some digging to do, and when I finally put my hands in the dirt...”

That the lead vocalist of Paramore, the emo titans who defined an angsty era of 00s pop punk, was so detached from her feelings, seems a little jarring. All We Know is Falling, the band’s 2005 debut album, is a seething beauty – it thrashs with heavy guitars and breakneck speed melodies, with 16-year-old Williams’ voice a lightning strike on the lovesick screamo anthem “My Heart”. In a sea of pop punk’s moping men, she was a dynamo. From there, the 2007 breakout Riot! skips from teenage bravado to pop-driven bops about romantic pursuits and scuppered dreams. The unbridled fury and frustration of Williams’ songwriting exploded in 2009’s Brand New Eyes – “Ignorance” is a spitfire song about the band’s fraying relationship, and its ferocity sparked talks that saved them from splitting up for good. “It’s not a very grown up anger, is it?” Williams says. “But I love it, because of the release and direction it gave us.”

With each new phase, Williams’ writing became more confessional. Brand New Eyes explored bassist Jeremy Davis’s departure, as well as guitarist Josh Farro and Williams’ painful breakup. Paramore’s self-titled 2013 album brought emo sensibilities to chart success. But it was 2017’s After Laughter – a fizzing reflection on unraveling identity, mental health, and relationships curdling under neon lights – that marked a new era for the band, its introspective lyricism unlike anything Williams had written before. For over a decade, her words had suffixed MySpace usernames, been tattooed on ribs, and cry-screamed back at the band on world tours. In 2020 though as a solo artist, Williams has her own feelings to unpack.

When we meet in a west London hotel suite, Williams is buoyed by my own personal connection with her work: when I skipped school, for the first and only time, to nab Brand New Eyes from HMV, or when I ripped a “The Only Exception” merch necklace from my neck and threw it in the gutter after the high school boyfriend who bought it for me unceremoniously dumped me in a Costa Coffee (I went back later to search for it to no avail; Williams promises to help with the hunt for a new one). She greets me warmly with a hug, and all 5’1” of her, dressed in a black hoodie and Collina Strada tie-dye tights, curls up on an armchair to chat.

“I love speaking to female journalists, you know,” she says. “There’s a kind of empathy that’s totally indescribable. I’ve found myself being more grateful for that in this promo run... I wish life sometimes was just one big girl’s bathroom at a gig. You’d constantly have girlfriends talking you up before you go out into the world. You think the guy’s bathroom is like that, nah way!” She shakes her head theatrically. Her hair is white blonde, but the 31-year-old is toying with a watercolour tone next (she co-founded a vegan hair dye company, Good Dye Young), a stark contrast to the teenage orange mullet she sported in the band’s early iconography.

“Openness is something I’ve had to practice. It’s like a muscle, and it doesn’t come easy every time, but I’ve found it’s coming naturally more and more” – Hayley Williams

“I find it quite difficult to look back on that particular era,” she says. “I can see how guarded I was. I can see in my eyes that I’m struggling with the secrets I was keeping, even from the people closest to me. When we were done with After Laughter, and those stormy couple of years on the road, I had some deep hurt and anger that was waiting for my attention.”

The journey to the vulnerability that blooms on her debut solo album, Petals for Armor, has been a tumultuous one: a fractured family life and band discordance; her divorce from her decade-long partner, New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert; and her freefalling mental and physical health. Much of this has happened while living a whirlwind life on the road and in recording studios, in the public eye, and online. “Openness is something I’ve had to practice,” she says. “It’s like a muscle, and it doesn’t come easy every time, but I’ve found it’s coming naturally more and more.” 

Following After Laughter and a gruelling press and tour run, she finally returned to the bare bones (and potentially haunted) Nashville cottage she lives in, alone for the first time ever. There, she started therapy. She had intended to take a break from music, but her therapist encouraged her to write through her earliest traumas. “Suddenly, they were forming into these songs. What I was saying really startled me. It was all there.”

After her parents’ divorce, and her mother’s subsequent volatile breakup with her stepfather, Williams was uprooted from Mississippi to Franklin, Tennessee – close enough to country music haven, Nashville. It was there that 14-year-old Williams was signed to a record label, but she and her mother had to continue relying on support from friends and church donations, and lived in hotel rooms and a trailer. Later, Williams chose to be homeschooled after a bout of bullying over her heavy southern accent. It was in an in-person tutorial program that she met Zac Farro, and later, Josh Farro and Taylor York, who would all become her bandmates in Paramore. Though label execs pinned Williams to be a solo artist, she stuck to her wishes to be in a pop-punk band. “It was to make my own family,” she says with certainty. “I was searching for that chosen family that would really understand me.” 

Over the years, Paramore has had a revolving line-up of at least seven members, with Williams its constant. Their drama was flayed in headlines about songwriting credit bust ups and solo ambitions. “The Riot! era was a tough ride. I wanted to just sleep for a million years, but it was gonna be another decade at that,” she says emphatically. Today, they’re a solid three-piece, with Taylor York on guitar and Zac Farro on drums. The band are currently on hiatus as its members pursue their own ventures, though all on good terms – both York and Farro worked with Williams on Petals for Amor

“I’m putting a lot out there. I want people to have the opportunity to get on board with this me or peace out, I owe them that” – Hayley Williams

When it came to writing Petals for Armor, one of Williams’ biggest challenges was “to own these stories as my own, and accept everything that comes with that”. The day before we speak, she performs on BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge, debuting “Simmer” and a lush cover of Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now”, and revealing her incredulity at saying her own name for the first time, with no “Paramore” preface. Even in her previous side projects and guest features, she had been known as “Hayley Williams of Paramore”. She had to unlearn this, she says, to “be wary of aloneness, to be a little scared or ashamed of it.”

“I like to shed light on other people, to share space,” Williams says. “It is easier for me to be proud of the Paramore guys, more than it ever was for me to be proud of myself. I am still learning where the balance is, to learn to value my own work. I feel excited about what I’m going to bring back to Paramore, because I’m learning so much! But I’m trying to be present. I’m learning to give people the opportunity to be proud of me and to support me too.”

The wretched, personal growth began in the peaks and troughs of After Laughter. Prior to its release, she left Gilbert and was divorced by the end of the year. One of the record’s central tracks, “Pool”, took over a year of wrestling with, beginning as a pop ballad and descending into a dark metaphor for drowning in relationship uncertainties. Underneath the pop sheen of “Fake Happy”, hidden in its euphoric caverns, was Williams’ struggle to recognise her depression and unsalvageable relationship. “Not being honest about my anger made me sick. I wouldn’t eat, I was drinking, I wasn’t good to my body.” She began drinking before arena shows just to get through, and her weight dropped to its lowest. “My life felt devastating. I felt like I had nothing left to lose, just, totally empty,” she says plainly.

It was in the Petals for Armor journey that Williams’ metamorphosis took shape. The hurt and trauma that pocked After Laughter gained clarity and purpose. The songs began to inflect traumas that surprised even Williams herself: her parents’ divorce, discomforts around her marriage from the beginning, a primal fear of being abandoned. Anger became an energy, a cathartic resource. “Simmer”, a track about the abuse women in her family had suffered, opens with a “singular, seething” expression, “Rage.” “I wanted to plunge the furthest depths of my fears and anger. It wasn’t fighting against me bringing it all up though, it wanted to spring up.”

Petals for Armor is structured in three parts, the sound and lyricism distinctly reflect her mental recovery, from dark to light. “I still have such a dark, sappy mind,” she says. “We’ll be sitting with the guys, having the best time, then I’ll get so down at the idea of us ever not hanging out. Why am I such a downer? I am a magnet for tragedy. I have to fight it, but also accept it.” Writing tracks like “Leave it Alone” was a cathartic exercise to acknowledge that fear, while “Cinnamon” is a state of play for new ways of coping.

On “Dead Horse”, Williams shares how her “most significant relationship” with Gilbert began as an affair, as he was still in his previous marriage. “I wanted to tackle the shames of my 20s head-on, finally. I made a lot of mistakes and I’m pretty willing to talk about them, but not at the expense of someone else,” she says, leaving the details at that to give Gilbert grace. “I’m putting a lot out there. I want people to have the opportunity to get on board with this me or peace out, I owe them that. At the same time, I’m grateful that I wasn't thinking about anyone but myself when I wrote these songs.”

“I really wanted everyone involved in the project to imagine femininity in different ways than people are used to seeing – it is primal and ferocious and gross and beautiful” – Hayley Williams

Williams credits her therapy work and other homeopathic treatments for recognising trauma and gaining self-worth. “I’ve learned that being abandoned is a real trigger for me. To imagine losing people. I think from my parents’ relationship and divorce... I was a little kid thinking it was my fault. The band ending in any form was frightening too.” She realised that she was attempting to emulate the only solid relationship she saw, her grandparents, and right the wrong feelings around her parents’ divorce with her own partner with the tangibility of marriage. “I had to work back through some tough decisions I made, imagine new paths.”

One particular craniosacral therapy session early on gave her clarity: on the bed, she imagined her body grotesquely sprouting flora. When she opened her eyes, the masseuse had laid petals over it. It’s a metaphor for the painful growth she was to endure, and a central motif of Petals for Armor. “I think of all the wilted women,” she sings on “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris”, “ripping all their petals off.” 

“I have found resilience, bravery, and strength through my mother, and therapy gave me that back,” Williams says, adding that she feels hopeful that one day she could be a mother herself. “It feels like a worthy challenge – I want that responsibility, that love that feels bigger than me.”

The evocative pastoral imagery runs parallel with Williams’ changing relationship with her femininity, blossoming across the record. “I envision femininity as strong hands, reaching in the dirt. It’s in the songwriting, digging past the stones and hard shit, tilling soil until there is a place for you to plant something.” She watched Ari Aster’s rural horror Midsommar several times, enthralled by the women’s communal scream scene. Conversations at a recent all-women tea ceremony she attended inspired her to explore women’s health and psychology. “I was 30 when I started writing this project. I woke up at 30, and I felt very aware of my body, of the work that I had been doing, my desires and hopes, and they all felt very feminine, they felt earthly too.”

Femininity is something she has long wrestled with. “I’ve always been a bit timid about my femininity, always wanting to show my tough side first – this was a real big catalyst for this album. On-stage, I’ve always railed against the stereotypical expectations of being female. I wanted to just be a spirit. The stage and my music is where I’m not as vain or shameful. Unlearning that... I really wanted everyone involved in the project to imagine femininity in different ways than people are used to seeing – it is primal and ferocious and gross and beautiful.”

In darker moments, Williams had distanced herself from friendships, but found strengthened bonds with women in her life – her mother, childhood friends, wives and girlfriends of bandmates – helped her most. “When I started to be a little bit more open about things with the women in my life, my music felt different. To feel seen in moments where I was diagnosed with depression, when I started taking medication or going through my divorce – I found faith again, but in women. And in life, I have never felt more… feminine? So proudly feminine. With that, I’m giving myself the grace I deserve.”

The mistakes and disharmony of her past bloom into the grace and redemption Williams allows herself today. It remains an ever-evolving process. “I’m trying not to filter myself, or dodge imaginary obstacles before they even come into vision! But I feel most accepting now of not being in control. I need to allow myself the space to wonder.” Some days are spent writing with Taylor York, or colouring and plowing through Debbie Harry’s autobiography. And she’s sticking with therapy, tilling trauma to make foundations for a fruitful future. I tell Williams that this new era reminds me of the Mary Oliver poem, “Wild Geese”, about unburdening ourselves from society’s demands to live as nature does, authentic to ourselves: “You do not have to be good… you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” 

“I love that,” she says, “I feel optimistic – why not take hope wherever you can get it?”

Petals for Armor I is out now, and the full album drops May 8