Pale Waves: “We’re trying to be who we truly are, and that encourages other people to do the same”

Ahead of the release of their third album Unwanted, Pale Waves get real on their new sound, LGBTQ+ rights and queer baiting in the music industry…

Pale Waves: “We’re trying to be who we truly are, and that encourages other people to do the same”
Zoya Raza-Sheikh
Kelsi Luck

Pale Waves have always stood out. Often donning gothic glam outfits and pointed stares, you could recognise the effortlessly cool band anywhere. So, when an understated and, again, very cool post popped up teasing their return, it’s safe to say we trawled their social media for signs of life. While technically the Mancunian band haven’t really gone anywhere – they’ve been touring to no end – it was only a matter of time before they followed up their 2021 second album Who Am I? with a fresh record.

After vocalist Heather Baron-Gracie wiped all proof of existence from her Twitter, we knew the clock was ticking for Pale Waves part three. And, soon enough, we had it. The 27-year-old resurfaced having shed her signature jet-black look for a striking blonde bob. Come early April, we had confirmation of a comeback: “Who’s ready for the next era?” A new beginning was most definitely in the works.

Emerging fresh off the scene in 2014, Pale Waves came to rise under the wing of Dirty Hit. Known for their easy-going synth-pop sound, the four-piece – completed by Ciara Doran, Hugo Silvani and Charlie Wood – made waves across local UK scenes, notably for their retro sound and stylish indie-alternative look. But so too did they feel at home in the Kerrang! scene. “I used to watch the Kerrang! channel to find new bands when I was proper in my emo phase,” Ciara tells us today, reflecting on their navigation of the scene. “I did that all time, too,” Heather chimes in. “[I would] just turn the TV on and stick Kerrang! on.” It’s not hard to spot the band’s rock and punk influences from the alternative artists that came before them. A quick listen to Who Am I? and it reels off like a new wave tribute to those that shaped them.

Now, with their third album Unwanted on the horizon, Pale Waves have clearly been doing some thinking. The band, as a whole, have become more confident in who they are. Heather has become a vocal outpost on queer rights, while Ciara publicly came out as non-binary trans on social media. Pale Waves’ new direction – both personal and professional – has signalled an epoch of newly matured rock-pop and emotionally detailed lyrics; the band have shown strong cards with lead singles Lies and Reason To Live.

But while they’ve got the tunes down, they also have another mission up their sleeve: activism. As a front-running band with two leading LGBTQ+ members, Pale Waves (and their shows) have become a safe haven for fans. From touring with Halsey to Hot Milk, Heather and Ciara’s identities are powerfully enshrined in what they do. With a new album on the way and plenty to get off their chest, we sat down with Pale Waves to find out more…

On your new album Unwanted, it feels like Pale Waves have stepped further into the alt. scene. Is it something you’ve always been interested in?
Heather: “I grew up with it and naturally I gravitated to the alt. grunge aesthetic. So I leaned into listening to that music and that sound kind of felt like me – heavy guitars and that kind of emo angst was what I was really feeling when I was a teenager.”
Ciara: “I feel like there are a lot of angsty people that feel like outcasts in the alt. scene and we naturally gravitate to that as well. We definitely still feel at home in that kind of world, hence why we've gone for a heavier record.”

Can you name the icons that have been an inspiration to you and the band’s music?
Ciara: “This is an inspiration not for music but a person: there's a band called Against Me! who have a trans singer, Laura Jane Grace, who was one of the first people to do it in that industry. She's a huge inspiration because it's a fucking scary world out there. She did it ages ago and didn't give a fuck. That's an inspiration, but we didn't take anything musically from them.
“I look up to a lot of people in that way. When it comes to music, our [sound] comes out instead of trying to look up to other people at the same time, specifically queer people.”
Heather: “We also really love MUNA. They can be quite alternative. We've always loved them and I'm excited to hear their next record. I actually just bought tickets for their November show. We really admire them; I think that they're all so talented, and very queer.”

Speaking of LGBTQ+ moments, we’re currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of Pride this year. What are your thoughts on how far we’ve come in terms of LGBTQ+ rights in the UK?
Ciara: “For trans and non-binary people, England is so far behind. I choose to live in LA because it's like a safe hub to me.”
Heather: “We're definitely moving forward, but progress is still to be made. But I feel like people are way more open about sexuality nowadays and feel comfortable talking about it.”
Ciara: “It has changed a lot in that way.”
Heather: “Years ago people would be really reserved and scared to even have a conversation about it, because they wouldn't know if they're going to be judged or not. Nowadays, it's instantly like, ‘This is my sexuality. Love it or hate it.’ I definitely feel like there's been a lot of progress, but we're just still not there yet fully.”

Have you noticed a change in response to your band as you both speak out about LGBTQ+ issues?
Ciara: “I see a lot more queer people at our shows now. We already did have a lot of that, but we've seen more since we've been open about it. I think that a lot more queer people are feeling they want to come to shows because-”
Heather: “-There's a representation there, you know? There's a comfort and there's a safe space and you instantly have that connection with the band when you know they're queer and that's what they preach about. Once we released She's My Religion, that really opened us up to the queer world. A lot of people absolutely loved that song because they felt like they were represented in a whole different light.”
Ciara: “There's a lot of queer baiting…”
Heather: “There’s so much queer baiting. I can’t stand it.”
Ciara: “I am a lesbian, I am gay, or I am bisexual. There's no-one really saying, 'This is me, unapologetically', or just doing it and not even saying instead of trying to queer bait.”
Heather: “It's getting very heightened right now.”
Ciara: “Yeah, because it’s cool to be gay now.”
Heather: “But if you're straight, pipe down. Just don’t pretend to be queer.”
Ciara: “Because that harms the space, too.”

How has the current issue of queer baiting within the music industry made you both feel?
Heather: “It really frustrates me because I feel like they try and play up to it to get more opportunities [by] trying to queer bait the queer fans. It's just not cool, because then it makes [queerness] gimmicky.”
Ciara: “It's the same thing as the big conglomerates making their logos Pride colours. It doesn't mean anything.”
Heather: “They're just trying to make their own brand bigger. That's not what we're doing, Pride. It's not a way to make yourself bigger and [for us to] consume it. We find it very frustrating.”

Pale Waves have been really open about what you stand for. How has being an artist helped you both explore your identity?
Heather: “With music and art in general, you grow with it. The more you grow as a person, the more you're able to open up and express [yourself]. Music has allowed me to discover myself even more, whereas, on the first album, I was still figuring out a lot of things and what you want people to know. I didn't know how much I wanted to give away. I wanted to keep some of my own identity to myself, but then I figured there's not a lot of representations [for] queer people and I needed to step up.”
Ciara: “It does take time to be fully yourself.”
Heather: “It does, and I wanted to do it justice. I didn't want to just do a song where I half-arsed it. I wanted us to go the full way, like with She's My Religion. That's really committing to a queer song. Music has allowed me to have that journey [and] to discover that and to be able to get there with a song. What about you, Ciara? You have always been good at-”
Ciara: “-Being loud and proud!”
Heather: “Our fanbase really looks up to you even more now, because being trans in this day and age is scary. There's so much progress to be made and a lot of people still don't understand that.”
Ciara: “A lot of people don't even believe in [transness]. You have to navigate every day, definitely, because I feel different every day. It's up and down, which I feel like a lot of trans people would understand. I love being queer. I've had people come up to me and say, ‘You've helped me come out to my family.’ That's really important. Or that I've helped discover what identity they are and that makes me feel better about being public with what I'm doing. I'm not the most public person with it, but I'm trying to get more comfortable with [it] every day.”

Ciara, how has the experience been for you?
Heather: “You're doing a really amazing job at sharing your journey with the world. It is a huge thing. Even sharing a fraction of that is going to help so many people. In this day and age, this world needs that in order to move forward.”
Ciara: “In England, in the music industry, there are not many of us. It's important to come out and talk about it. Even if people aren't fully aware of what non-binary means or anything like that, it's all an educational thing. The older generation doesn't really understand it, but you can teach them. It's a learning process for everyone.”
Heather: “The younger generation's definitely becoming more open. Sexuality is way more fluid and you're able to speak about a lot more things, whereas the older generation, I think they struggle to go back and reprogram what they've learned. All you can do is try and re-educate them again.
“I think it's great that you're doing this piece because Kerrang! was very heavily male-dominated and with an older audience. But, in this day and age, you should just let people be who they want to be and not give them any hassle about it. How's it gonna affect your life? It doesn't!”

With this new album, do you now feel more confident and comfortable in writing about your identities and life experiences?
Heather: “Yeah, 100 per cent. [It] comes with getting older and knowing yourself even more. That does take a journey – especially when you're a creator, you don't know how much to put out there and how much to save for yourself, and that was something that I struggled with at the start of this band because I was quite reserved. In music, nobody wants you to be reserved, especially now. Showing the real shit takes a while to adapt because it's not natural to let the world in. But, as I said, if you want to help make a change then you have to be open and be honest about who you are and let people see you for who you really are.”

Pale Waves represents the misfits, those on the fringes of society and the alt. community. What does the idea of togetherness and community mean to the band?
Heather: “Community, to me, means a place where I feel understood. A place where I feel accepted and comfortable. [It's] a place where people who share the same attitudes in life and represent one another. It's a safe place for me.”
Ciara: “[It's] somewhere where you feel like you can be yourself. You're not going to get weird looks or feel-”
Heather: “-Judged. No-one's gonna call upon you for being affecting them or that they don't believe in who you are. It's just somewhere where you can be yourself and-”
Ciara: “-Feel supported.”

How does it feel to see that same safe environment at Pale Waves shows?
Ciara: “It's the best feeling. One of the first times I really felt that was when we were in New Orleans and a guy who came in full make-up. He was like, ‘I don't do this anywhere else, but I can do this at a Pale Waves show,’ so that's really special. We love that. People tell us that they can be fully themselves at our shows so, hopefully, that translates into their own lives too and knowing there are people who are similar and who are understanding of who they are, no matter who you are.”
Heather: “I completely agree. It's amazing that we can play a part in it and help those people feel represented and with their own confidence. We're trying to be who we truly are and that encourages other people to do the same. We look up to people who are just unapologetic about who they are and you know that the chain carries on.”

Pale Waves’ last album was titled Who Am I?. Do you feel you’ve answered that biggest existential question with this new album, Unwanted?
Heather: “Yeah, 100 per cent. I do feel like that. I feel like it just comes with time, doesn't it? Everyone has that point in their mid-20s where they reflect upon themselves and they think, 'Oh, if I made the right decisions [or] if I'd gone down the right path…’ So, that was kind of my moment to question things. But this next album is very just unapologetic, very bold. It's really assured of itself and confident, so it's quite the opposite [to Who Am I?].”
Ciara: “It's harder for me to say, but I definitely think it's a very confident album and it's gonna relate to a lot of people. It's definitely louder and sounds more aggressive. Heather's getting more confident every time.”

Pale Waves’ new album Unwanted is released on August 12 via Dirty Hit

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