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Venturing on a self-confessed acoustic pop journey, Heather Baron-Gracie and Ciara Doran have been through a few changes. From reckoning with their sexualities to delving into a sophomore album, the Pale Waves duo are looking to start a fresh chapter.

As pandemic gloom settles in, bandmates Heather and Ciara are stuck in London while the government switches back and forth between safety guidelines. Music venues remain closed, and interviews continue to take a virtual route. It’s quite the time to announce the launch of a new music era, and it’s not something either artists have taken lightly. “There’s been a lot of pressure on developing music and coming further as a musician. But after writing the record, and having it in full, I feel really confident that people are going to notice our change, and connect with it even more,” Heather tells GAY TIMES. “This album is so much more honest and confident, lyrically, but also musically too. I feel like I’ve really found my voice right now. With the first album, it was premature for me. Now, I’ve had those years to grow as a person and go on that emotional development journey, and this is where the album ended on that.”

Although in separate calls, and locations, Ciara, who now identifies as nonbinary, has felt an equal spiritual growth alongside the upcoming release. Speaking for the first time after coming out, the drummer reveals what their past fews months have been like. “I thought I was done with self discovering, but apparently not. This year has been a huge change for me. I’ve always been struggling with sexuality stuff and then I was like ‘This gender doesn’t feel right anymore,’” they explain. “So, it’s interesting, coming back to the second album for me, because I look different. It’s kind of scary, but I feel a lot more confident now because I’m a completely different person to the first album.”

Self-reflecting has led to something of a spiritual awakening for 25-year-old singer-songwriter Heather. She sits, in front of me, recalling how previous times in her life felt too rushed and chaotic to allow her to get a handle on what was really happening around her. “We’ve really come a long way, especially Ciara and I. When I look back at the state that I was in recording the first album, I felt really nervous a lot of the time,” she recalls. “I didn’t have a clear vision of who I wanted to be as an artist and it all happened so fast and so suddenly for us. We put out one track and then it was like ‘Hey guys jump into the studio right now to record an album.’ I remember being in the studio whilst we’re recording the album and we still had to write another four songs, and we just wrote them there and then. It was really rushed, but necessary at that point. Now, going back to this album, we’ve found ourselves and I’ve found what I want to talk about within my art and my music – I’ve come a long way with who I am.”

Now, on the cusp of a new nostalgia induced era, Heather reveals it had taken time to get comfortable with the platform she had, but also with herself. “This album really discusses my own sexuality and that’s the first time I’ve ever been publicly open within my art. Who Am I? talks about society and how society tries to put us in a box and how women are constantly criticised and viewed as something to look at,” she admits. “I’m really saying it’s a big fuck you to society and other people who view women in that traditional way. There’s a lot that I cover within this album that I needed years to build confidence to be able to say this publicly. I needed to find the right words and to execute it in the right way, and with the first album, I wasn’t ready at all.”

Pausing for a second, the singer continues, musing over how she came to the decided stage of being vocal about her identity. “It’s really interesting, because I have posted pictures with my girlfriend, but a year or two years ago, I wasn’t publicly talking about my sexuality at all,” she thinks back. That said, although Heather didn’t feel ready to publicly take on such a visible role in the queer community, some fans had managed to pin down her identity before she did, something she finds quite amusing. “I feel like hardcore fans know everything. They found a tweet of mine, but I’ve not publicly opened up about it,” she shrugs. “We have such a gay fan base and they look up to me, they idolise me in some ways, they find comfort knowing that I’m gay and they’re gay, so it’s all going to be okay. Our fans want somebody to look up and I want to be their comfort blanket. I want to give as much comfort as I possibly can to fans who need to be told it’s okay, and that you shouldn’t be ashamed of your sexuality.” 

Speaking of stepping up as a role model, I ask the singer if she’d had any icons that she held an affinity with. “I feel, growing up, there wasn’t that many openly gay artists, or if they were, they didn’t really speak about it that much. I couldn’t relate to a gay woman. I idolised Avril Lavigne, and I still do, but she’s straight,” she laughs. Although we caught her drift, the singer feels the need to explain herself a little more: “She gave me the comfort of not wanting to wear dresses or wear makeup. I wanted to wear baggy jeans and go out skateboarding my brother.”

Taking a shift, or as Pale Waves say it, seeking out a change, drummer Ciara was grateful for the band’s emotional evolution. “I’m excited that the narrative has turned to a more political thing, because we’ve always needed to address cultural moments that are going on that we, as individuals, face,” they tell me. “We need to be inspirations for young people. I think that’s my biggest goal in life. I want to be the person that I didn’t have growing up and help young people discover who they are faster.” Although they’re filled with eager anticipation, Ciara is curious to see how they are received by fans. “There’s this fear inside of me because it’s all still really new for me. Fans have always known me as this lesbian goth girl,” they laugh. “So, it’s hard to change people’s perception of me, but still be the same vibe and colour that I was. I’m still me, but I just look completely different and feel more of myself. I think our fans are the most accepting people in the world. They’ve always loved the LGBTQ+ part of our band. I just don’t want people to think I’m a girl anymore, because I don’t feel that way inside.”

Off the cuff for the first record, Pale Waves had set off at a steady pace. With many critics calling their record a copy-cat compilation of label mates The 1975, Heather struggled to take criticism head on. “At the start, people kept saying My Mind Makes Noises sounds the same. I was like ‘Fuck you, give me a break!’, but then I realised… maybe it does sound a bit similar,” she laughed. This time around, the artist was more than sure they would avoid another imitation album and a sophomore slump. “Ciara and I made the decision to part ways for a while and be creative by ourselves, because we exhausted one another. I went to LA and started doing these sessions keeping in mind that I wanted to take it back to my roots and childhood,” she tells GAY TIMES. “I love acoustic guitar and this album is filled with influences like Avril Lavigne and Courtney Love, and a mashup of country music. I went into the sessions feeling completely free and not obliged to take into consideration someone else’s artistic taste. So, that’s why this album does sound pretty different, because it was me stripping it back to be raw and real, and a lot of the time it’s just an acoustic guitar and my vocals.” Before moving on, the singer also adds: “Obviously, there was a conscious decision that I was want to say a big fuck you to all these people and write a record that sounds completely different. I strategically planned out this album, whereas on the first album, we were winging it completely. So, I believe this record does sound completely different. All the tracks are their own separate entities – and it’s not just me, everyone who’s heard it has said that too!”

Pale Waves’ lead single Change hit the airwaves and was immediately greeted with comments about its Avril Lavigne likeness, and, nodding, Heather said that’s exactly what she wanted. After spending time searching for a fresh theme, the singer realised she was yet to write one on heartbreak. “Heartbreak is one of the most vulnerable feelings and it really rips them apart. I wanted to capture that,” she explains. “Change is just about me, but it’s a collaboration of a few people’s experiences of heartbreak. There’s also an element of Change where you want them to be something that they’re not and to live up to expectations that you have in your own mind and wanting to change them. I feel like I experienced that a lot in life and one of my flaws is  expecting too much from people. It’s coming to the realisation that if you  want someone to change that bad, then they’re not the right thing for you.”

Although fans are yet to hear more of the record, Heather is looking forward to seeing the reaction to one of her favourite tracks, She’s My Religion. “I feel like this song is gonna be a big moment where I come out and everyone hears this track, because I’ve never been so open about it,” she says. “She’s My Religion is going to be one that fans like the most, because they’re going to be able to relate to it more than anything. When I was younger, I needed someone that was speaking about their love and sexuality and being so free about it. I would have really benefited if I had that in my life, and I hope to be that person for my fans who need it.”

As the release date for the second album edges closer, Heather admits the record captured something than their debut was able to. “This whole album is like a self confessed journey of my emotional development, which charts the desire to change and grow up — I feel like I’m just using the track titles now with what I’m saying!” But the title of the record was no coincidence. In fact, it came after one of Heather’s worst mental health spirals. “We were on tour with Halsey and the lifestyle of a musician is very unnatural. You go on show for everyone to have their opinion, which can really affect my mental health. I don’t necessarily love being in the spotlight, because I’m very judgmental of myself and of my own image. I’m terrible for analysing parts of myself and thinking ‘I hate this about myself and they’re probably thinking that too’. 

“So, I got to a point in the tour when I really dived into that hole and it’s like a pit,” she recalls. “I have not experienced that feeling for months and it hit me like a lorry and I went into this huge depressive state. When I get in that state of mind, it’s just so toxic and it just feels like I’m drilling further down and down. What I do best is turn  that into art and into music, because that’s what relieves me. It’s like therapy and I’m spilling this toxicity out of my body and it releases me. We were in Europe, but I locked myself in the bathroom and wrote the whole track Who Am I? with just my acoustic guitar. It’s probably one of the fastest songs I’ve ever written, and it summed up the whole album for me. It’s about me wanting to find my voice and find myself a lot more. I want to grow up and emotionally mature, but how do I get there? I feel lost right now in that current state, but I don’t want to be in this state anymore. I’m tired of the state. It felt completely to make that title track name the album title and it just clicked right away – Who am I?”

I want to give as much comfort as I possibly can to fans who need to be told it's okay, and that you shouldn't be ashamed of your sexuality - Heather Baron-Gracie

Now, on the other side of things, neither Heather or Ciara are sure how to explain how they are. After facing a life-changing tour bus crash last year and journaling on bouts of self-reflection, maybe the point of the record is to just show their new beginnings. But still, we couldn’t let them get away without asking. “Inside I feel like I’m a little marshmallow nonbinary person, because I’m not any gender. I’m still learning how to explain who I am to myself, nevermind other people,” Ciara replies. “I’ve always wanted to get involved in the LGBTQ+ community because obviously it’s a huge part of my life, and I think, this record, and exposure to different things is going to be good for everyone.” Heather, on the other hand, takes a minute to think of a response. “You can’t ever fully be aware of who you are completely. You’re constantly changing and so I don’t feel like I’m ever fully going to know who I am, sometimes you can feel like a total stranger to yourself. Right now, I am confident and comfortable with my sexuality. I am learning to love myself, which is something that I feel I can neglect for years, and how to better myself”.

As the Zoom call comes to a natural end, Heather pitches in one last piece of advice for her fans and young GAY TIMES readers: “It’s okay to feel and be different. It’s okay not to live up to the norm or what certain family members or society might try to push you to be, don’t go into that box,” she says earnestly. “Pale Waves and I are a safe place for people who potentially feel like outcasts or don’t fit into the rules and regulations of society. There’s so many people on this planet, we’re all meant to be different, we’re not meant to be the same, and we’re the people that can change that.”

Pale Waves’ sophomore album Who Am I? is out February 12, 2021 via Dirty Hit.