Healing is not linear. Our ability to move through interpersonal conflict or traumatic events involves a very messy, contrived, and difficult process that requires us to undergo what many call an ego death. Ego death is understood to be a complete loss of subjective self-identity. For Hayley Williams, the past few years have been a consistent cycle of death, rebirth, and transformation in every aspect of her life. And it’s a cycle that she is no longer afraid of, as is evident in her debut album Petals For Armor.
While the nature of Williams’ 2017 divorce and the changing nature of the members of Paramore within the last five years is well-documented, what is less documented is who the frontwoman is — not only out of the stage lights but at home in Nashville, TN, sitting with the totality of herself after a year of deep self-reflection.
Being from the south can hold an odd space for anyone that knows the visceral reality of slavery and anti-black racism that bolsters tensions, but also a deep love and care among anyone that calls the south home. Most notably, the south has given us Black artists in every genre that make this world better. For Williams, who moved back to Nashville in 2017, these artists have impacted her childhood, but haven’t been as clear in her work with Paramore. With Petals for Armor, it is abundantly clear that her southern roots and appreciation of artists like Solange and Erykah Badu are evident throughout her debut album.
In her 1972 poem Diving Into The Wreck, feminist scholar Adrienne Rich wrote, “I came to explore the wreck. The words are purposes. The words are maps.” Petals for Armor does that exploration that Rich spoke to through its minimalist focus on Williams’ distinctly soulful vocals that are beloved by Paramore’s mainstream fanbase. With help from fellow Paramore bandmates Taylor York and Joey Howard (both served as songwriters on the album with York also serving as producer), much of the project speaks to Williams’ evolution in the last year that involved intense EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy that she has been doing since Paramore’s last show in 2018. It’s an album that, like Fiona Apples’ Fetch The Boltcutters from earlier this year, feels kindred and in line with the unpacking of suffering for the sake of it. Williams reverberates through this record, her lyricism showcasing her ability to be fallible and complicated throughout, resulting in a more dynamic Williams unlike anything we’ve heard on any past work.
We caught up with Williams to discuss this political moment, Paramore’s Black fanbase, and how a community of loved ones around her made her Petals for Armor album possible.
How much has southern culture and music — specifically Black artists — influenced your work?
I think making this record has opened my eyes to just how impactful Black artists have been to me throughout my entire career. My mom listened to everything. We would listen to Janet Jackson in the car; she was a huge Black Sabbath fan. My grandfather was super into Motown and Elvis. Listening back to the way that I wrote with Paramore — actually writing with the guys was a shock to my system because it was very much not what I had grown up listening to, but it was the way I was expressing myself naturally through rock music. But getting older, some of those influences are coming back and I’ve been able to dissect deeper into other influences. Petals For Armor — the first two references I gave to Taylor and to Joey while we were writing was Solange and Sade. I really would’ve thought those influences would’ve come through even more than they did, but my love for Bjork and Thom Yorke was more evident. I think being from the south, too, there are things that just aren’t gonna show through. Like, I was obsessed with Juvenile, Outkast, and Lil Wayne in the sixth grade. That’s what I was listening to with my girlfriends on the basketball team. The same with TLC and Aaliyah.
I know you shared out a playlist of references for the album. Can you talk about how Sade, Solange, and Erykah Badu were crucial to Petals for Armor?
To start with Solange, I think there is always this stark awareness that I cannot relate to many of the things that Solange is singing about, but that hasn’t affected the way it’s impacted me artistically because it’s just so fucking good. Her music is so good. What was incredible to me was introducing her records to Taylor. When Taylor and I met, he was listening to heavy rock bands, and I came from Mississippi where I wasn’t exposed to independent music yet. So it was this full-circle moment where our two worlds were colliding again for the first time in a long time. This time around, we were referencing snare sounds from a Solange record, whereas with Paramore we were referencing Jimmy Eat World, Failure, and other punk bands. It was satisfying to me as an artist to get to explore other sonic realms.
I’m so glad you mentioned Erykah Badu because I don’t know how I forgot to mention her already. She’s such a genius and she’s in a different vein; she’s been so impactful. It would appear to me as — I’m a white woman speaking on this so forgive my ignorance — that she’s been hugely, hugely influential on Black culture and people’s recognition of their roots. Again, it’s one of those things when I listen to her, I’m like, “Oh, I know that I don’t get this, but I’ll still appreciate it.”
What are some Tennessee foods that you’re like, “Yeah, this could only happen here”?
I do eat mostly plant-based and I’m constantly looking for things I love. I grew up eating a lot of Cajun food in Mississippi from recipes that my Louisiana family would pass down to my mom. So I was just talking to her last night, like, “Hey, when I’m on my period and I’m pissed off at the world and I just want to be comfortable, I want Southern comfort food, and I need help because I want to eat well.” So we were talking about ways to make shrimp and grits that’s vegan, and she’s going to come over at some point when we both feel safe. I’m now going back to work in the middle of this pandemic, but we’re going to hang and just talk about Southern food. Every morning when I would wake up I had grits with a slice of Kraft cheese and a pat of butter and salt pepper. Everyday. And when people tell me that they eat grits with sugar, I don’t know what to do with that.
Right now, politically, so much is happening in the South. What has this moment of uprising brought up for you?
One thing that’s been interesting is how quickly I had a holistic passion for politics. Growing up in the south, politics is a point of tension — it scared me. But it’s incredible to me at 31 the universe has prepared me for a moment such as this — to wake up and be passionate authentically. And just to speak on the grief. It is an intense type of grief; an intense type of empathy that I’ve never touched before knowing that I cannot go around saying that I understand what that feels like to live that experience, but to find a place in my heart that is angry for the Black community as a whole. It’s a constant feeling. To be local, I’m kind of trying to find a more boots-on-the-ground approach. What are the safe ways I can be present even if I can’t be physically with my community? Even if it’s protesting or marching or connecting with local collectives like DRKMTR, a group of young people trying to feed the community, trying to create community classrooms, trying to work with COVID-19 restrictions. It’s been amazing to see them pivot from shows to this moment. We have to figure out how to do this in a way that’s sustainable. To wake up somedays just in a rage, and understand there are ways I can channel that for change. That’s been particularly hopeful for me. So it’s exciting even though I fucking hate this year. I have to say I am grieving so much that doesn’t have anything to do with the world. It’s just real life, but I also have hope and there are so many silver linings.
How was the decision made to do a three EP rollout?
I really just wanted to release one song in the beginning. I didn’t think it was going to become a full project. It was less intimidating to me to break things up. Being able to deliver bite-size versions of the record this way and piecemeal it out made me feel like people could fully take in the subjects I’m talking about, and the emotions I’m trying to convey. I had to spend the course of a year deprogramming myself, and I would say that’s part one. I’m getting back in touch with this righteous rage that is central to all the momentum that was to come. In the second part, I liken it to a bit more internal work. You put the seeds and you wait. And the waiting is hard, but that’s where all the good work happens. And then there was a point and time where you harvest, and that was part three for me. I started to really understand where these twisted views of relationship and love and self-sabotage and what I think I deserve and I don’t deserve — those things started to fall away. I wanted to break it up so it wouldn’t be so much for me to put out there at once, but also people could really try to understand and see themselves in it.
This project has felt like a labor of love between you and your friends. How did y’all nurture and craft this album together?
Art is completely meaningless without community. It doesn’t bring me the same type of joy. As soon as I stopped trying to do everything myself, I realized, “what the fuck am I trying to prove?” I like working with my friends and making shit. As soon as that happened songs started pouring out. It got too cerebral for me and I wanted a more communal and spiritual experience. So Taylor and Joey are obviously huge players in this story, and I wouldn’t have been able to make the record without them. As we started to rehearse, I started to hear so many things that I hadn’t heard before. I started working with Sarah K. Pedinotti of Lip Talk and Akenya Seymour of Reservoir. Akenya is one of the best singers I’ve heard in my whole life. To be able to sing with a voice like that brought something out of me that I’ve missed. That, to me, is what makes music so satisfying. It’s creating it in real-time. It’s palpable what this community creates when we’re really on it. Petals for Armor is only possible because of community.
There has been a huge public showing of love from Black fans. Has that been primarily online, or have you been aware of this before the last few years of online praise?
It’s been both. But I would say, for me, the fanbase of crowds at shows was starting to diversify more toward the end of self-titled. We did a tour called Writing the Future right after “Ain’t It Fun“ won the Grammy and it was all over the radio. It was this crazy victory lap where we did smaller shows so it was a more intimate setting. I noticed when we played Baltimore, in a venue that we hadn’t played before, the crowd was half black, half white, and it was so obvious to me that the crowds were changing. I grew up in Meridian, Mississippi, and the town was very 50/50. I was used to being around people that didn’t necessarily look like me. Then, I moved to Franklin, Tennessee, and it was predominantly white and still is. And when [Paramore] went on tour, we were playing to white punk and emo kids. As you’ve written about, Black people did not feel comfortable or particularly welcome in those scenes. I think there were a couple of frontmen who were Black in the metal scene like Howard Jones of Killswitch Engage, but that was kind of it. I always found it weird that we would just play to this small room of white kids, and we would go to California and we would have a pretty strong Filipino base because we started off touring with My American Heart, who were all Filipino. But it’s just been so cool to me that finally, it feels like I look out on to crowds that look like the world I want to live in. I got really emotional on the After Laughter tours because I realized I was living this dream. I had been watching the Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense every night to fall asleep while we were making After Laughter. A lot of members of Parliament-Funkadelic were touring with Talking Heads at the time in 1983, and they pan out on the crowd at the end of that movie and it’s a hodgepodge of people. I was emotional during tour five like, “Holy shit this is Stop Making Sense.” It’s happening, and we get to play the music that we love to people who love it and they all look like the world that I see. That I want to see.
I want Black people enjoying our music because when we touch on — like in this conversation when we touched on Black joy — that’s where my heart soars, just swells up the most. Because what I remember about being a kid growing up in Mississippi is dancing with my friend Zakara to Outkast, singing along to D’Angelo with Sheena, and playing basketball with Rodney [Hood], who I just found out is an NBA fucking player now.
He is a basketball player for like the Jazz or something [editor’s note: Hood played with the Utah Jazz from 2014-2018, followed by the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2018-2019. He is now with the Portland Trail Blazers]. I’m almost 90% sure he taught me how to crip walk down his driveway. I just remember a bunch of his friends being like, “Oh, you like to dance…” I don’t know if he would remember that. We were enjoying each other. And that’s what I want to see. I want to look out on the internet or in a crowd and I want to see white folks, Black folks, anybody living together, doing their shit, laughing, dancing. That’s the world I like to be in.
Lil Uzi Vert and Rico Nasty have spoken publicly about Paramore being influential to their music and upbringing. What has it been like to see the emo/punk aesthetic resurge, and seeing big artists bringing it back to the mainstream?
I feel lucky every day because I know a lot of bands didn’t make it out of the scene. We’re lucky — one different decision and we might not even be talking right now. I feel grateful and constantly humbled that new people continue to discover our music. When I posted the All We Know Is Falling album cover saying that is was 15-years-old, so many kids were saying, “Wow, I wasn’t even born yet.” And that’s fucking crazy. I’m happy that even though we became more mainstream there is still a world where there is independent music, there is an underground scene, and I’m moreso happy that it looks so much more colorful than it did when I was young.
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