Big places, tight spaces with Pale Waves’ Heather Baron-Gracie
Written by Jay Mitra.
We discuss her “gay awakening”, student experience, and the claustrophobia that came with touring
Heather is donned in a leopard print hat and draped in silver chains, her smoky eyes sparkle at the recollection of Go Falafel. She’s sat across me on Zoom, her subdued swagger softly oozing through the screen – yes, even when she’s stirred by the memory of those deliciously deep-fried chickpeas.
“Every time I’m in Manchester, I NEED to get Go Falafel. It’s so good, you just can’t beat it!” she gushes when discussing her favourite spots in Manchester.
She also expresses a particular fondness for Night and Day café: “We actually rehearsed there for maybe a little under a year. They have a basement deep down, that’s kind of a little bit creepy – but it’s definitely a cute café.”
Raised in Preston, Manchester was familiar to her way before her university experience at BIMM. It was in this city that she met her fellow bandmates of the Pale Waves. Later, the quartet would spawn into a pop-rock sensation.
It’s strange to think a pop star in LA has the same experience of living in halls as the majority of Manchester’s student population.
“It was awful”, she admits. “I felt like I was living in a prison, I felt like a prisoner. The room was the size of a coffin.”
She goes on to say something that shocked even me, someone who stayed in UoM’s infamous Oak House.
“Our kitchen didn’t even have any windows!”
Heather states that the only window she had was a small one in her bedroom, which of course had the rather picturesque view of a concrete courtyard…
Despite the questionable accommodation, her overall experience as a student is positive and she claims that Manchester helped shape her identity – an identity that had recently been revealed to include queerness.
“At the start of my career, I was still figuring a lot out. I knew I was gay, but I wasn’t ready to publicly speak about it because I just wasn’t ready at that point. Still with so much self-discovery to do; I just didn’t feel strong enough to be like looked up to in that way, or to even engage in that.”
With the help of her non-binary bandmate and inspired the queer community within her fanbase, her acceptance of her identity as a “lesbian goth girl” has grown into something that slips into her everyday conversation.
“I feel so much more confident,” she smiles. “I feel proud, like I don’t know, you can’t even shut me up about it really.”
“It has brought the Pale Waves community together even more. People like us for that reason, they find identity within themselves because you know, we speak about our sexuality, and obviously Ciara’s non-binary too, which is absolutely incredible. They’re really expressive of their journey and I’m really proud of them.”
As nice as the overwhelming support was, Heather is unsure of the necessity of praising someone for expressing their identity as part of the queer community.
“It should never have to be a big thing to come out!”
She says. “You don’t have to come out as straight. So, I don’t know, it’s just like, yeah let’s normalise it – and that’s what we intend to do.”
It’s hard to talk about Heather’s queerness without mentioning Kelsey, her girlfriend, especially when she comes alight when talking about finding ‘true love’.
“I felt like I could truly be myself. I feel like Kelsey out of anyone in my life, has seen the realest me. For everyone else, I feel like you have to put on a mask in a way which is frustrating, or you have to adapt somewhat to the person. Whereas Kelsey has seen my lowest point, my darkest point, just every single side, and has loved me through that, and that just made me fall even deeper in love with her. That’s what true love is – I don’t have to put on a mask.”
Queerness is a pivotal theme in Pale Waves’ second studio album. Released in 2021, during a pandemic, Who Am I? is saturated with struggle, from a severed creative partnership between Heather and Pale Waves’ drummer Ciara Doran, to near-death scares, to songs sourced from hands slippery with hand sanitiser.
Their upcoming album, however, makes a return to their collaborative, carefree roots as Ciara and Heather sew up their severed songwriting skills and stitch a creative collaboration stronger than ever before.
“We’re writing together again which is really lovely – that was the base of Pale Waves. It was just on the second album [that] we had drastically different music tastes. However, it’s been like a full circle, now Ciara’s like ‘yeah that music is all I can listen to now and all I can write!’ so I’m so glad that they were able to come into that world more and really embrace it,” Heather explains.
“It can feel quite lonely when you’re writing by yourself as there’s a lot of pressure on just you, when Ciara’s in the studio it’s a bit more light-hearted; it’s just more fun…I’m really glad we’ve almost gone back to our roots.”
Speaking of roots, I ask her about the roots of her queer identity.
Who was Heather Baron-Gracie’s gay awakening?
“Obviously there’s Megan Fox”, she says (after admitting to crushing on a girl at school too).
The actress has been in the news recently, with her relationship with Machine Gun Kelly making headlines.
“They’re quite a funny couple”, says Heather, stifling a laugh as she recalls the “I am weed” line that somehow seduced Megan Fox.
Heather’s heart belongs to more than Jennifer’s Body actress though. When speaking about her fans, it’s easy to tell how much the Pale Waves community means to the vocalist.
“Our fans really inspire me…I’m always reading about their journeys and their struggles; they’re so strong and independent, so true to themselves at such a young age. I really admire that and that inspires me a lot.”
Though Pale Waves has millions of supportive fans, life in the spotlight is far from easy.
“I’m not that rockstar that can go out clubbing and take loads of drugs at like 8am – it’s just not me,” she says. She confesses that she actually finds solace in the simple beauty her life in LA currently has to offer: “I really love going to the beach, the ocean brings me so much peace and it’s so beautiful.”
After years of touring and pandemic stress, it’s no surprise that the singer finds the seaside luxuries of Los Angeles appealing.
“I feel like an outsider really glamorises touring and really glamorises artists”
“They think ‘oh it’s so easy and there’s so much luxury and you earn so much money’, and that’s really not the case. It’s actually so difficult and it exhausts you being on tour. We have to live on a little tin can tour bus with like thirteen other people.
“You don’t wake up and can just go and make your coffee and sit on the couch or read your book. The band wake up and have to drag their suitcase out and lift it up five flights of steps and wait for a turn in the dressing room’s tiny bathroom. It’s not as glamorous as it seems.”
“When we tour again, I’m going to approach it differently. I have to just go out by myself and just escape in moments because when you do that for years like I did, you start to go stir crazy.”
Career-wise, Heather admits that one of the best decisions she made was coming to LA and collaborating with other songwriters. She stresses the importance of “allowing other people to assist you.”
“Everyone needs help at the end of the day and sometimes when you try and do it all by yourself, it’s not really the best outcome I feel.”
On the topic of the world career decisions she’s made, Heather admits to previously having an issue with recognising her limits when it came to alcohol.
“Sometimes when I get too drunk on stage and I walk on, I’m like I can’t even speak straight, I’m slurring – I shouldn’t have done this!”
Luckily for Pale Waves, this has become a problem of the past.
“I have stopped now – I’m a professional”, she smirks.
While we’re on the topic of drinking I ask about her advice for students – the very demographic most associated with the inebriated pastime.
“Don’t put so much pressure on yourself”, she says, with real concern in her voice.
“At that time, I would put so much pressure on myself and that would just stress me the fuck out and I wouldn’t ever enjoy anything. Especially when you are going to uni, it’s a big change, you’re away from home and living with random roommates.
Her words are validating, poignant, and I feel students who have struggled through the pandemic will be stirred by her words of hope and encouragement.
“It is scary, it is strange, and you do feel uncomfortable. You tend to find the people you really get along with and find yourself in that world.”
But most of all, her message for students whose entire university experience has revolved around stress is this: “Just lighten up and embrace it.”
After all, life is far more than what we achieve at university.
Listen to pale waves here!
Catch up on our previous interview with Heather here!