Hayley Williams Goes Solo, But She Is Never Alone
Hayley Williams is mid-sentence when her phone starts playing a familiar song — her own. “That's embarrassing,” she says, laughing as she reaches over to pause her new single that’s just come on shuffle. “It's on a playlist that my friend made that I’ve been listening to.” It’s week two of quarantine, and Williams, 31, has been leaning on music — Moses Sumney, Louis Prince, Caribou, the new Dixie Chicks — to stay sane while self-isolating in her Nashville home. She cooks Alison Roman recipes, including the infamous “stew,” which she had for breakfast before our call. She’s watching Ari Aster horror movies. She’s sending memes. She’s doing what everyone else is doing in these weird times. She just happens to also be releasing her first solo album, Petals For Armor, as well.
Williams has never wanted to stand out, a way of being she can trace all the way back to when she was an 8-year-old in Meridian, Mississippi trying to piece together a local band at a time when most girls who could sing wanted to be Britney Spears. Only a few years and a move to Tennessee later came Paramore, a teenage brainchild of Williams and classmates Zac and Josh Farro. Over the next decade and a half, they would become one of the biggest rock bands in the world — headlining Warped Tour in 2005, taking home the 2015 Grammy for Best Rock Song, and watching three records go platinum. Through it all, Williams has been the band’s constant; while other members of Paramore have come and gone, Williams never left.
Even in those early days, it was impossible to keep your eyes off of Williams when she gets onstage. “She excels in sh*t that is so f*cking hard for me, and she makes it look so f*cking easy,” says Williams’ friend and collaborator Phoebe Bridgers. “It is not easy being able to hold a note perfectly and stand on the lip of a stage. There is a comfortability there. I still say the best live show I’ve ever seen was Paramore at The Greek in Los Angeles. She grabbed someone and brought them on stage to sing an entire song. How do you even know that that person isn’t going to f*ck it up or try to make out with you or be weird?”
If Williams felt the effect she had on fans and peers, she never let on. Her features on massively popular radio hits (B.O.B.’s “Airplanes," Zedd’s “Stay The Night”), were credited as “Hayley Williams from Paramore.” (Her Twitter name is still “hayley from paramore.”) “There's gotta be a reason why I felt so much safer being in a band. Even [when] I was like 8 or 9, [I was] trying to recruit friends into a band with me. I was the drummer at that point. I didn't want to be up front,” she says. With Petals for Armor, it’s not just her up front: it’s only her. Period.
Today, the signature traces of Williams' RIOT!-era persona — the asymmetrical red hair, the neon clothes —are long gone. Over Skype, she's back to a more natural-blonde hair color, her skin is bare, and she dressed up. “I did this for you because I've literally been looking like sh*t, just not even trying,” she says gesturing towards her color-splashed Collina Strada top. “I did their show during New York Fashion Week, and Hillary [Taymour, the brand’s designer and creative director] has been giving me updates about New York. Out of nowhere, I got a sweet care package from her, so I was like, ‘Yes! I have something to wear for my interview.’”
It was at that show on a Sunday night in February — the first fashion show she had ever attended — that Williams, with little fanfare or prior announcement, surprised a small room of fashion editors with the first performance of “Simmer,” the first song released off the album. (The album is rolling out in three five-song EPs. Part I was released in full on Feb. 6, with Part II out now and Part III to come on May 8.) Fashion editors’ Instagram stories showed Williams working the catwalk like an arena stage as the models created an impromptu moshpit behind her.
Williams was supposed to be on a break right now. In late 2018, Paramore was wrapping up the world tour for After Laughter and decided to take their first hiatus in nearly a decade. She had revealed during the tour that she and New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert were divorcing after 10 years together and less than a year after their wedding. For the first time in almost a decade, Williams had nothing but free time. “I hit this new level where I kind of was like, ‘Sh*t, I thought I had everything figured out.’ And I found myself back in the most intense therapy I've ever been in.” Her therapy involved writing down her feelings, which came so easily she hardly noticed she was quietly writing lyrics again.
“By the time I finished ‘Simmer,’ I was like, ‘What am I doing? What is this?'" She called in Joey Howard, Paramore's touring bassist (and now Williams's co-writer for this album) and bandmate Taylor York, who joined Paramore back in 2007, to help with whatever she was making. “It was truly a need to create with people that I was comfortable with in new ways that weren't always comfortable,” she says. “The coolest part was that I hadn't had that feeling since I was 15 or 16. Not to say I haven't enjoyed writing Paramore records [since], [but when] we were kids, we just did it because there was nothing else to do. It's nice to get that as an adult, because I think we rarely remember how to just play.”
When she completed “Cinnamon,” a funky, beat-driven song about the comforts of home, Williams recognized that she was making songs she wanted to get out into the world. But she still struggled to consider them a solo project. “I thought, ‘Maybe I'll just create a pseudonym and put it out on Spotify just to feel the release of it,’” she says. “I wasn’t ready [to have my name on it]. A lot of my friends call me H, and I thought, ‘Maybe I'll put it out as H.’” It was York who convinced her that she could be part of Paramore and also put her name to work that had come from her, just her.
Williams doesn’t know why striking out on her own was so hard for her, but she’s starting to think she doesn’t need to. “I'm lucky that I have this history with Paramore, and we have a community of friends and artists, but I'm also able to take my personal strength and just go with that full throttle without explaining. I think that life pushes you to where you need to be. At some point, you can't deny it.”
On Petals For Armor, Williams displays a new level of vulnerability and rawness that she says comes from starting something from scratch. The first song that Williams wrote for the project was “Leave It Alone,” a haunting, almost jazz-like track that opens with the lines, “Don't nobody tell me that God don't have a sense of humor/'Cause now that I want to live, well, everybody around me is dyin'.” It’s emblematic of the songs on Part I, the darkest of the three EPs. “I can try to hold back when writing, but I start to have a bad relationship with myself when I come up with ways to cover up my feelings,” Williams says. “Writing is good because when you put it down on your paper, you have no choice but to see it.”
What Williams does not want is for her lyrics to be mistaken for a literal rehashing of her personal life. “Some of these songs came out so poetic because it's a form of self-protection,” she says. “I have to get stuff out.” Anticipating the release of more personal songs causes her some anxiety, but “every story has a thousand sides to it.”
“All I can do is tell my experiences,” she says, “and also not feel guilty for having those experiences. ... What will people say? I don't know, and it's not actually my business.”
Even through a screen, you can see that Williams’ Nashville home is filled with light. It’s small, Williams says — she refers to it as a cottage. “That's what makes me safe, I guess.” She’s lived in the area since her teenage years, save for a brief stint in Los Angeles. “I was really lonely in LA,” she says. “I was really in my fantasy world, thinking my relationship was going to work. I would go to the grocery store and come home and cook before he got home. I don't know what I was doing, but it was just lonely.”
In Nashville, she’s never been alone. She met Farro in nearby Franklin, Tennessee when she was 11. “I was really sad. My family was split up,” she recalls. “When I moved, and I met Zac, that was the beginning of my life. I can get super dramatic about it, but I'll keep it light and just say that that moment changed my life, and now I get to do this.”
Both Farro and York still live nearby. “The people I grew up making things with are the people I still go back to,” she says. “We have a language that is unspoken. We don't think, ‘Oh, let's call this guy that has this big name.’ We think, ‘Let's call this friend who knows a friend.’ The fact that I got to grow up with the same group of people from 13 years old to 31, and we still get to make things together? It's such a gift. Who does that happen to?”
Williams is quick to dole out recognition to everyone she works with, posting the names of anyone who helped make each Petals song, from producers to mixing assistants — credits that often get relegated to the smallest font in the liner notes. “She really understands credit. She’s a true collaborator,” says photographer Lindsey Byrnes, Williams’ close friend and creative director for the project. Together, the pair created an array of visuals for each step of the album’s rollout, from the creepy flickering teaser videos back in January to the colorful, dance-break heavy music video for “Cinnamon,” as well as the album artwork and the photos for this story.
“I've never had people take photos of me the way that she does,” Williams says of Byrnes. “And also, she's such a good human. Talking to her about anything, whether it's what's going on right now in the world or my anxiety or her things — I really need that camaraderie and true friendship in my creative endeavors. Otherwise, what's the point?”
On Skype, Williams reaches for the “notebook” that they worked from when putting it all together. It’s more of a full-blown binder. “I went #2 pencil with this sh*t,” she says, laughing. The contents of the binder include notes on what each song is about and the colors and patterns that Williams associates with them. “The first word I told Lindsey was texture. On the last Paramore album, everything was color-blocked. With this, I really want there to be a lot of texture and surprising color and light.”
Williams has always understood how image and music interact. “I love the psychology of marketing,” says Williams, who also co-owns and runs the hair-dye line Good Dye Young with hairstylist Brian O’Conner. “Even back when we were doing Riot!, so much of that was like, ‘Hey, let's come up with the vibe or feeling people tap into.’ They buy into a lifestyle, dye their hair weird colors and wear red and yellows, skinny jeans. Everything was such an atmosphere. I've always been about that.”
If there’s any doubt about Williams’ ability to build a brand, look no further than “Corporate Nightmare Song,” a digital short from last November’s Kristen Stewart-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live. In the skit, about punks working an office job, Stewart channeled Williams circa RIOT!, complete with asymmetrical red hair and skinny jeans. “Dude, I've never lived harder than that moment,” Williams says. “She called Lindsey — that's my connection to her, not Twilight, contrary to popular belief [Paramore contributed the song “Decode” to the Twilight soundtrack] — and was like, ‘You and Hayley need to watch SNL tonight.’ When I saw it the next day, I died. The whole skit was perfect. The skit literally felt like I was attacked a little bit.”
Stewart herself almost had her hand in a small aspect of Petals For Armor. “She was going to direct the video for ‘Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris,’” Williams says. “She wrote the most beautiful treatment that I'd ever seen; I was floored. She's a fabulous writer.” The video didn’t happen, however, with schedules and timing ultimately not aligning. ”Maybe it'll still happen,” Williams says. “Maybe at the end of all this, that's what I'll get to do.”
That song, released on March 19, has additional singing credits from the band boygenius, which is composed of Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus. The collaboration came about serendipitously when Williams ran into Baker, a close friend who she’d planned to ask to feature on the track, at a local concert. Dacus was there, too, and mentioned that Bridgers was coming into town the next day. Bridgers described the session as “the best family hang ever,” with vegan food and new music previews; the day’s output remains the album’s only feature. ”Sometimes I cringe to see how many features everyone does these days. Every song is a feature. This one [felt] powerful in that they really bolstered my vocals with their uniqueness, and that's what the whole f*cking song is about: us being able to do for each other. It deepened the meaning for me.”
For some artists, a global pandemic hitting at the time of your first solo release would be a disaster. For Williams, it’s a chance to throw on a pair of leopard-print leggings and post a three-minute-long exercise routine performed to her recent single “Over Yet.” “We're going to shift and tweak things as we go,” Williams says of the album’s rollout plan. “Now I'm kinda like, ‘Well thank God I didn't drop everything at one time because I need something to do every day.’ I'm trying to figure out a way to stay creative and inventive and connect to people about music.”
Williams has stayed busy posting videos of herself cooking at home and playing some of her favorite songs, as well as highlighting fan covers of her own music. “I really don't like being stuck to my phone but yesterday, I kind of just gave into it,” she says. “I stayed on the phone all day, reposting sh*t, watching people's covers, which is so cool. The fact that people learn that sh*t so fast, it blows my mind. And they're really good.”
Williams still plans to tour for Petals For Armor (as of now, no dates have been canceled or rescheduled), playing much smaller venues than Paramore has recently. “I've been perfectly split between being so excited about seeing Paramore fans again, and then I've also been terrified,” she says. “I'm going to be on stage and when I turn around, Taylor and Zac are not gonna be there.” Despite the scheduling uncertainty, she’s still working on tour visuals and set lists, which she says will feature covers of songs she loves. “I think the only way to make [this release] work for fans is to be super transparent and be like, ‘I'm figuring this out right now,’” she says. “That's the thing I'm so grateful for. And maybe some really beautiful things will come out of it.”
“Just because I have a record doesn't mean I'm floating through this sh*t,” she adds. “I'm in need of some type of connection, too, and that's what music does. That is the job that I get to do.”