British pop quartet Pale Waves are one of very few bands to achieve a certain feat nowadays—they’ve managed to polarize listeners into either dedicated, passionate disciples or harsh, cynical critics. “I like it,” says Heather Baron-Gracie, the band’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist. “I feel like everyone can’t love us, so whoever doesn’t love us can hate us if they want.”
Some people say that polarizing reactions are a sign of a good artist. After all, a bad reaction is better than no reaction at all right? Others say the band are either on to something special, hence the expected envy, or there must be some argument of merit if enough haters share such commonly held critiques. Any time anyone sees a rare guitar band touch a level of commercial success, there seems to be an almost immediate backlash. Maybe that’s because the rock bands that top the charts really aren’t that great. Or perhaps it’s because fans of rock music are so tribal and they only want to rally around the bands they love. Or it might just be that they can’t fathom the idea of a guitar band making pure, unapologetic pop music—especially when it’s led by two badass women.
Either way, credit must be given where credit is due—Pale Waves’ rise in just a few short years is astounding and this is only the tip of the iceberg. As someone who follows British pop/rock newcomers quite religiously, it’s hard to think of another band who’s made an impact in America so quickly in the last few years since The 1975, who we’ll get to later. The band’s music videos have attracted millions of views and they’ve sold out headline shows across the U.S., all without even putting out a full-length record yet. The band’s crisp pop songs have won over countless hearts and minds with their dreamy guitars, silvery synths, timeless beats, funky bass lines, perfectly glossy pop vocals and hooks, hooks and more hooks.
Pale Waves made their first trip over to the states in March 2017, supporting arguably one of the biggest bands in the world, The 1975, in large venues like NYC’s Madison Square Garden and LA’s The Greek Theater. Since then, the band has played several American headline tours with another taking place this November. Their connection with the 1975 doesn’t stop there. The band’s forthcoming debut album was co-produced by The 1975’s Matty Healy and George Daniel (along with Jonathan Gilmore and Pale Waves’ Ciara Doran) and they also produced the group’s first two singles. Healy directed their video for “Television Romance” and he appeared on the cover of the NME alongside Pale Waves frontwoman and goth goddess Heather Baron-Gracie, styled in a similar jet-black manner and ready to freshly christen Pale Waves as the next big thing. Both bands are also signed to the same U.K. record label, Dirty Hit.
Pale Waves have drawn such devoted followers that fans get lyric tattoos, splurge on merch, dress in black clothing to match the band and share their own makeup tutorials to recreate Baron-Gracie and Doran’s dramatic smokey-eye look. Pale Waves’ starkly goth appearance sets them apart from the typical pop crowd. Frontwoman Heather Baron-Gracie and drummer Ciara Doran’s Edward Scissorhands-meets-Robert Smith-meets-Urban Outfitters look may still be floating around among cult emo bands, but we haven’t really seen it in the mainstream since the ’00s—and definitely not among current pop acts. However, they don’t go full-on goth as their other two bandmates look like a scrawny ’90s indie-pop duo since they opt for blonde moptops and low-top Doc Martens rather than donning guyliner and exclusively wearing dark colors.
Pale Waves were formed by two friends, Heather Baron-Gracie and Ciara Doran, after meeting at university in Manchester and they later recruited guitarist Hugo Silvani and bassist Charlie Wood to join them. After releasing an EP earlier this year, All the Things I Never Said, they’re now set to release their debut album, My Mind Makes Noises, on Sept. 14 via Dirty Hit and Interscope.
Without delegitimizing their adoring fans and while acknowledging the band’s uncanny ability to churn out sprightly, infectious pop hooks and Baron-Gracie’s flawless live voice, it would also be irresponsible to not address the common qualms leveled against them, which have been equally as loud as the passionate singalongs at their shows. People have accused them of being a manufactured, nostalgic money grab in the way that bands like Greta Van Fleet have been similarly derided. If Greta Van Fleet are merely riding off the coattails of Led Zeppelin, are Pale Waves doing the same with sad ’80s British pop bands? Or are Pale Waves updating the synth-pop canon for a new generation of fans with their modern pop sensibilities, goth and emo aesthetic tendencies and the perennial appeal of lyrics that recount late-night drives and the drug-like high of being young and in love?
Paste spoke to Heather Baron-Gracie about the band’s juggernaut success in America, their forthcoming album, their goth aesthetic, zombie dance moves, their schismatic effect on listeners and more. While bands don’t need to address their critics—whether it be professional writers or just some random dude on the Internet—I wanted to get Baron-Gracie’s side of the story because, fairly or unfairly, it’s become a part of their narrative.
Baron-Gracie sets the record straight that their distinct goth image wasn’t a preconceived, focus-grouped idea. Baron-Gracie and Doran love fashion and they respect bands who have incorporated it well in the past and who convey their aesthetic vision in a detailed, cohesive manner. “Our image has just sort of evolved and I feel like it’s got more extreme as time has gone on,” she says. “But we never sat down at a table and were like, ‘Right we’re going to wear dark makeup and have good fashion sense.’ We’re genuinely just into fashion.”
There’s a sense among people that there’s a disconnect between their image and sound. While digging into the lyrics of songs like “Karl” and “Noises,” there are evident emotions of despair and self-doubt, but so often those dark feelings are cloaked with vivacious pop melodies and breezy guitars. Regardless, it’s still not hard to understand why people are thrown off guard by a band of four pale-skinned figures dressed in black that want to take over the world with their effervescent dream-pop.
In response to critics of their appearance, Baron-Gracie says, “I just feel like those people are being super narrow-minded and they need to realize that we’re in the 21st century. You can dress however you want. You don’t have to dress a certain way because you write pop music. Surprisingly, the people who say that, they love to think that they’re really open and accepting of everyone, but they get so offended when people who write pop music wear black clothing. I think it’s bullshit.”
Some critics have ridiculed them for looking or sounding like a rehash of The Cure or other ’80s British synth-pop bands, but their modern production and vocal style alone are miles apart from Robert Smith and company. Others have pointed to their notable musical similarities with The 1975, suggesting they were merely a female reinvention of that band. “The typical human thing to do is to relate us to things that they already know,” says Baron-Gracie. “I feel like sometimes people just put us into that bracket because we’re a British pop band and there’s not been a lot of British pop bands recently.”
Despite Baron-Gracie’s lustrous pop vocals, she wasn’t always confident in her singing voice. “To be honest, I wouldn’t class myself as much as a singer,” she says. “I would class myself more as a songwriter and performer. I like to think that I can sing, but I don’t really think that I’m amazing at singing.”
For anyone familiar with their music, one of the more surprising songs on the debut is the acoustic closer, “Karl,” which Baron-Gracie describes as her most open and literal track to date. The song’s subject matter is so heartbreakingly personal that I’d rather not give any spoilers, but Baron-Gracie offered this comment, “I feel like that’s the most vulnerable that I’ve ever been in songwriting. I’m really excited for people to hear that, but at the same time that’s really terrifying because I sort of wear my heart on my sleeve massively with that song.”
Pale Waves have been entrancing American audiences ever since they stepped onto American soil last year, but it’s peculiar that they’ve picked up a loyal fanbase in the U.S. before many other European countries. Of course, Baron-Gracie always hoped to make an impact across the Atlantic, but she didn’t think it would happen as quickly as it did. “We hope that everyone connects with us instantly,” says Baron-Gracie. “But they definitely took to us a lot faster than we thought they were going to. Maybe it’s just their British pop music that they like…the British charm.”
Concert attendees of the band may have also noticed a dance move that’s made its way into Baron-Gracie’s regular repertoire. It consists of jolting, off the cuff arm movements best resembling a cross between a zombie and a robot. With the band’s ghostly look and a room full of teens dressed the same way, it’s a little like a watching a vampire lead a jocular, choreographed dance of “Monster Mash” in front of her closest friends who are having the time of their lives. Baron-Gracie laughs and assures me she knows exactly what I’m referring to, but she doesn’t know where it comes from. “People say that I dance like a zombie all the time,” she says. “I don’t know. I feel like that’s just how I express myself. I talk with my hands a lot. I think when I’m dancing, I’m just really into the music and my hands just go out of control!”
Baron-Gracie says she was surprised when she started seeing fans show up to their shows dressed like the band. “I was always interested to see what our fans would look like,” says Baron-Gracie. “Now it’s become a sort of cult. It’s really nice. You can spot a Pale Waves fan off ages away!”
The title of the band’s album, My Mind Makes Noises, reflects a desire for escapism, which their many fans also connect with. Baron-Gracie says the album title references her use of music to get out of her own head—and what better way to do that than with upbeat, danceable indie-pop that longs for teenage romance, enduring friendships and self-acceptance?
Pale Waves’ ascent might seem hasty to the casual fan, but the band spent two years in a basement, honing their craft in the shadows. They didn’t become one of the most exciting new bands by being handed a record contract straight away and immediately embarking on a world tour. Baron-Grace is happy with the band’s place in the current world of pop music and she’s excited for their future prospects. “I feel we’re a new important pop band that could change a lot of things,” she says. “I feel like we’ve come at a good time.”
Ultimately it’s up to people to decide for themselves whether to join the Pale Waves army and have those songs etched into their hearts or immediately be repulsed after the first few bars of one of their tunes. Falling in love with a band often matches the thrill of a budding real-life romance and you shouldn’t get bogged down by anyone else’s opinion other than your own. And on the flip side, let’s be honest—who doesn’t love to a hate band? Villains are often infinitely more interesting than the hero anyway—just look at The Joker in The Dark Knight. People say that love and hate come from a similar place, so maybe we’re not too different after all. So keep on loving or keep on hating; Pale Waves are still poised to become one of the biggest new pop bands on the planet.
My Mind Makes Noises is out on Sept. 14 via Dirty Hit and Interscope.