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Hayley Williams Dives Into The Wreck

May 6, 2020
Originally published on May 6, 2020 1:30 pm

There are flowers all across Hayley Williams' Nashville house, both living and deceased: dried-up bouquets of shriveled and curled roses, hydrangeas the color of weathered paperback pages, vibrant pots of purple and white pansies thriving in the patio sun. At first, this was her therapist's idea, to surround herself with these blooms – she'd never really been a flower person, never felt too connected to those ideas of femininity and girliness tangled up with them. But Williams started to see them differently, to collect them, and keep them long past their traditional beauty had faded.

"Flowers became a simple way to remind myself of beauty and resilience, and the way we can come alive when we are taken care of," Williams tells NPR. She's home, of course, in Nashville, talking on a video call as the tail of her dog Alf pops in and out of the frame. It's been a particularly difficult few days in quarantine for the 31-year-old frontperson of Paramore and now solo artist, so today she traded her house slippers and sweats for some "real clothes." It helped a little, she thinks: a small gesture of self-care as fertilizer for the soul. "But flowers also show," she adds, staring firmly into the camera, her white-blonde hair dusting over expressive brows, "when they are not taken care of."

Flowers never lie – if you don't water them, feed them or grow them in the sun, they fail to thrive. But people can be different. People can wilt on the inside while the exterior looks bright, hiding dead leaves and tangled roots around wounded hearts. For years, Williams had been in a toxic relationship and marriage that, from an aerial view, seemed to be hitting all the marks. In truth, as she sings on the perfectly infectious "Dead Horse," she was holding her breath for a decade.

So it's appropriate, somehow, that Petals for Armor is the solo album she never thought she'd make, 16 years after Paramore formed in Franklin, Tenn. She's singing about the versions of herself she'd never thought she'd be, and the person who can arrive when you give yourself enough nourishment to thrive after stocking your world with plastic dreams and false bouquets. And when, after a lifetime thinking femininity was a poison, it becomes a shield instead.

"I had to throw myself into the fire," she says, "before I understood the truth."

"My best friends left and I got painted as the bad guy," Hayley Williams says of previous band turmoil. "If I had been a man, what would that have looked like?"
Lindsey Byrnes / Courtesy of the artist

Anger, and rage, is where Petals for Armor begins. "Rage is a quiet thing," she sings on "Simmer," as her first words as a solo artist, "You think that you've tamed it / But it's just lying in wait." Her anger, simmering, for what she went through in her marriage, for what women in her family had endured and for all she had to weather as a young woman growing up in the toxic world of celebrity culture. She thinks back often to those early years in Paramore, moments where she was just expected to laugh. One sticks out the most, though.

"I was wearing a square-neck top on stage and all of the sudden something hit me on the chest," she says. "I'm really sweaty because it's hot, and I look down and there are condoms stuck to me. I went at anyone who threw things at me, yelled at me to take my top off. I gave no f****. I look back and I am like, 'You shouldn't have had to deal with that! You should have been getting your first job somewhere.' That shouldn't have been my initiation into the real world."

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She's started to feel like a mother to her earlier self, wondering how she could have let that child live through what she did. "It's been this place of trying to see myself as an innocent that really didn't deserve some of the things I saw at a young age and as a young woman," she says. "Asking, 'How would I react? How would I protect myself?' If that were another person, I would have taken a bullet."

Williams has taken a lot of bullets, though, throughout the band's existence. Whenever Paramore had internal turmoil – not something uncommon when you gather a group of fiercely creative, fiercely independent people together, and ask that creativity to also be commerce – the public blame always seemed to paint Williams as the villain, the most impossible one, the one with an ulterior motive. None of this synched with reality, but it's exactly where we often situate a powerful, central female force: they must be looking for something else, something more, her actions the whims of a "drama queen."

She wonders, if she had not been a woman, what would the narrative have been? "My best friends left and I got painted as the bad guy," Williams says. "If I had been a man, what would that have looked like?"

That anger informs Petals for Armor, but it's not everything – it's just part of the story. Still, she's not afraid of letting the public see her rage, even as she's watched idols like Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette be framed not just as processors of natural human emotions, but "angry women," as if it were a genre in and of itself. "How did that happen?" she wonders. "How did we suddenly label these people as 'crazy bitches'? I don't understand how that happened. You would think culturally we would continue to grow and liberate ourselves."

This focus on "anger" supersedes our ability to see the genius within these artists, too – women are rarely immune, and take years or decades to grow out of that caging.

"From my point of view, Hayley being a woman has never been the point," says Paramore's Taylor York. "It's something to celebrate, but not in a way that makes it seem as though she's joined some sort of elite club that is allowed to run with the boys. I've seen her outshine man after man over the years, but what's important isn't that she outshined men, although it's always so badass to witness, it's that she is a phenomenal singer, writer, and artist, and she deserves recognition for those things. I'll never understand why these societal paths to recognition and equality for women, or anyone who identifies otherwise, are at all different from that of men."

Touring Paramore bassist Joey Howard (right) was a vital creative partner for Hayley Williams' solo album. Paramore bandmates Taylor York and Zac Farro were also major contributors.
Lindsey Byrnes / Courtesy of the artist

As the frontperson of Grammy-winning Paramore, Williams has never held herself back emotionally: Paramore's most recent LP, 2017's After Laughter, chronicled its own stories of depression, pain and coming to understand that maybe everyone else is smiling only so you don't notice the tears. But through every step of After Laugher, Williams was suffering. Her marriage to New Found Glory's Chad Gilbert was ending. She remembers falling asleep during the tracking sessions, so mentally worn that it was hard to keep upright. She couldn't eat, she drank too much on tour. When she finally got back to Nashville and entered intensive therapy, her beloved grandmother suffered an accident that resulted in severe and permanent memory loss. It was an essential, bitter dichotomy, that, as she worked through her own trauma and tried to gain footing in her life, others she loved were losing a grip on theirs.

She started to process it all in song – first alone at home and then with some familiar faces. "Don't nobody tell me that God don't have a sense of humor," she wrote on "Leave it Alone" with Joey Howard, Paramore's touring bassist who became a vital creative partner on Petals for Armor. "Cause now that I want to live, well everybody around me is dying."

Howard wasn't the only member of the Paramore circle involved. Bandmate and friend since their teenage years, Taylor York, ended up producing the album, his first, and making the whole project a venture of newness for them both. They were figuring it out together, as they always have, a flashback to two kids starting a rock band, never imagining the massive stardom on the horizon.

"It was so life-giving to see what unfolded along the way, because these songs were actually stylistically more in line with music that I've always wanted to be a part of," says York of the record that ended up fusing influences from SZA and Radiohead to the Spice Girls, pulling inspiration from the harmonies of Nigerian duo the Lijadu Sisters.

"I was also genuinely elated to see what came out of her working with other writers and collaborators outside of our band," York continues. "We've never been interested in outside writing with Paramore, but, with this project, we were able to interact and be inspired by different energies outside of ourselves. That was certainly new for us, and so incredibly refreshing."

Zac Farro, her other Paramore bandmate, plays drums on the record, too, and directs the upcoming video for "Dead Horse."

Hayley Williams has filled her Nashville home with flowers in various states of bloom and decay.
Courtesy of Hayley Williams

"She has always been a very confessional writer, which has allowed in her audience throughout her career, but the depth she got to on this album was a new level," says Daniel James, who co-wrote several of Petals for Armor's tracks.

And though she didn't initially foresee collaborations, bringing in boygenius – the trio of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker – became a perfect expression of the soul for "Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris," a song about a world where all kinds of womanly strength and beauty can, and should, exist. It's almost a lyrical foil to Paramore's now-controversial hit "Misery Business," which Williams wrote as a teenager and no longer thinks illuminates how she feels about other women, even when they don't see eye-to-eye.

"I will not compare other beauty to mine," she sings. "I will not become a thorn in my own side."

Williams was supposed to be in heavy promotion for Petals for Armor right now – released in a set of EPs, the third and final due Friday to make the album complete – and not sitting on the couch with her dog, drinking a smoothie and speaking to her screens. But she can't help wonder, on occasion, if this is for the better. Early in the promotion cycle, she went to three European cities in 24 hours, already realizing she was going to have to talk about the loss and emotional turmoil spilled across the LP. "I don't know if I want it like this," she remembers thinking. "I don't know if I care like this."

She's been filling the days somehow, watching old Paramore concerts with the enthusiasm of a fan, making dance videos and moving her Wurlitzer into the living room, while dreaming about collaborating with the Dixie Chicks on CMT's Crossroads (FYI, Chicks, she really, really wants this). She's been watching movies, especially ones with female heroes and maybe just a little gruesome retaliation. "I love revenge films," she says. "I just like justice."

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Much of that justice is here, poetic and otherwise, in her Nashville cottage, which she moved into when her marriage ended and made her own – her own decorations, her own flowers, her own furniture chosen not for some future that she aspired to, but the one she has right now. Petals for Armor is, in part, about finding this place for herself alone. She's been re-reading Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés' book Women Who Run with the Wolves, and there's a particular passage about the power women can gain when they give themselves time and permission to go "home," wherever (or whatever) that may be: "They take back their voices and write. They rest. They make some corner of the world their own. They execute immense or intense decisions. They do something that leaves footprints."

When she does venture outside, it's mostly to take "socially-distanced" walks with friends Becca Mancari and Julien Baker, pondering the importance of even releasing music at a time like this. Does it matter? Is it strange to promote an album during a global pandemic? What was it like for musicians in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, releasing protest music? "Did they realize what a gift that was to people, or did it feel too silly?" Williams wonders. "Did it feel futile to make something and try to celebrate it?"

But mostly Williams has been counting on her friends – her female friends, specifically – to lean on. It's a learned behavior after years of living in a world highly dominated by men, where it's embedded in women that survival means being "one of the boys" and viewing other women as competition. "We were in a scene that was so riddled with internalized misogyny that I just didn't even know," she says, shaking her head.

Petals for Armor takes pains to reconcile that experience: her own femininity and version of womanhood, her relationships with other women, and the context in which she let herself and her art exist. It's been work, but she's there now. "It was really slow unraveling for me. Understanding what harm had been done to my female perspective. My very specific viewpoint, being a young woman in my 20s. Being angry."

Hayley Williams at the piano.
Lindsey Byrnes / Courtesy of the artist

It's a perfect synchronicity, somehow, that Williams' LP arrives in the same window of time as Fiona Apple's Fetch the Bolt Cutters – a very different album than Petals for Armor, but paddling up a similar stream: two women, both well steeped into their own rhythmic universe, incredibly powerful vocals and singular craft, with a world finally fully reconciling themselves to their strengths. Two women, finding fight in their definition of what it means to be female. Two women who had to work for a decade (or two) to properly arrive to be seen as the geniuses they are.

"For me, this new music feels like waking up from a dream and entering into this very candid realization of what has happened in such a personal story," says Becca Mancari. "And yes, that story is unique to Hayley, but it's even bigger then that. I feel like she invites us in to observe ourselves, our own stories, our own awakenings."

Mancari adds that this collection of new music "reminds me of an excerpt from one of my favorite poems by Adrienne Rich":

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.

Words and stories are maps. They leave footprints. Williams shows the damage done all across her music and her face, where the world can see her past, her mistakes, her triumph. The cover of Petals for Armor finds her with little black squares crawling up from her fingers and around her eyes – the squares on her hands are what remained when she covered up tattoos of her ex-husband's initials, and she's not hiding those scars anymore. They made her who she is.

"I myself was a wilted woman, drowsy in a dark room," Williams sings on "Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris." "Forgot my roots / Now watch me bloom."

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