By now we all know that time spent with oneself does not always mean excavating life-shattering revelations. But like a bucket of cold water to the face, Hayley Williams’ self-analysis on her new solo album, “Petals for Armor,” embraces the active work of personal change. Standing alone in the spotlight, as opposed to with her beloved pop-punk band, Paramore, Williams delves into the recent end of her marriage to New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert, cycles of trauma in her family, PTSD, and the rebirth that can come from exploring oneself.
“I will not return to where I once was,” Williams vows on the immersive “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris,” over a dredged seabed of murky bass, skittering percussion and diving violins. After her band’s 2017 hit album, “After Laughter,” and the ensuing tour, Williams headed home to Nashville and started intensive therapy. She began unpicking the seams of her pain and writing songs inspired by that time. Williams turned to her close orbit of collaborators to help bring her ideas to life, including Paramore bandmate Taylor York to produce. The resulting album stands as a statement of personal strength and her ability to see life and beauty through darkness, of knowing who you really are on your own.
“If I don’t examine myself closely on a consistent basis, I start denying how I feel and fall into a pit of not knowing myself,” Williams says from her home in Nashville, her dog Alf barking in agreement in the background. The final product, “Petals for Armor,” was released in three sets of tracks spread across four months, the last of which drops this weekend. That album rollout strategy gave Williams room to soak in the depths of its strength. And in taking each moment, each pain, each joy, each petal between thumb and forefinger for inspection, the album offers that same transformative reflection for listeners.
VARIETY: When you set out to write a solo album, how did you feel it would differ from Paramore?
WILLIAMS: I don’t really enjoy being in the spotlight. That’s the simplest way I can put it. I think it’s not too different from writing a Paramore record in that I always feel like, “Oh man, that’s the best thing we’ll ever make and we’ll never do it again.” [Laughs.] That set up a challenge and motivated me. I think [Taylor and I] have had enough experience as writing partners that we know that we’ll get somewhere. We just have to push. And it worked. Thank God.
I’m trying to figure out how to display parts of myself in a graceful way, but I’m not sure there really is a graceful way. I think you just have to go for it and know that people aren’t going to understand every part of you. Some people will completely take you the wrong way and, if you’re lucky, someone will gain something from it because they’ll relate.
Why did you decide to release the album in three parts?
I came really close to postponing the album and then quickly decided I wouldn’t. Instead of postponing it, I wanted to put out songs individually. That way I have time to wrap my head around each conversation that comes up. I can make it live in that world for a few days and it will give me something to focus on and hopefully it will help highlight those songs. Maybe people will find something that they wouldn’t have otherwise found, and then we can have ongoing conversations.
It’s been however many weeks since I made that decision and I’ve had some major moments of doubt and regret. There’s no rule book for this, but it seems like the right thing.
It’s such a big step in your career to put out a solo record. Has releasing the album in the midst of this pandemic changed your perspective?
I’m reminding myself that the record’s going to come out, but I’m still myself. It’s not going to save me. It’s not going to make my life suddenly better because there’s a billboard with my face on it somewhere in a city where no one can walk around. [Laughs.] It’s actually a great example of how little some of that stuff matters. The songs are what matter. I have to remember that at the end of the day and then try to take care of Hayley the person, and then all the relationships in my life that I invest myself in and that I want to be there for.
Have you found space for yourself to assess the songs rather than just live inside of them?
I’ve processed out some songs and mined all the gold from those lessons, but then life doesn’t really work that way, right? Healing is more like a spiral than a line. I wish that I could write a song about wanting to be in love and feeling hopeful about overcoming my fears and have that just be the end of it. But now that I’m taking care of my depression or at least have taken responsibility for my mental health, it’s easier to accept the reality that life has hills and valleys and not be so dragged down or feel like there’s no purpose to living.
In “Watch Me While I Bloom,” you sing, “If you feel like you’re never gonna reach the sky till you pull up your roots, leave your dirt behind.” Your lyrics can be deliciously knotty. How have phrasing and precision become so essential to your career as a writer?
Man, I’ve waited a long time to be able to say that and mean it. My first instrument was the drums, so I care a lot about how I pronounce words and emphasize syllables within a rhythm. So much of Paramore’s sound comes from syncopated rhythms and polyrhythms. Zac [Farro, drummer] and Taylor [York, bassist] are masterful at what they do, and I find my way to weave around that. I did the same thing with “Petals for Armor.” I’m always trying to say the feeling that I’m feeling in the most poetic way, but then make sure that it’s fitting inside of a measure exactly how I want it to. There are other songs where I don’t want it to fit at all. This chorus is very Janet Jackson. I’m trying to hit all the right beats with my words. And then the second verse, I just let it flow, like it’s psychedelia.
That ownership of your voice and raw expression echoes Sugarcubes-era Björk in some way.
There’s a quality to Björk’s voice before she started to discipline herself, on those Sugarcubes records and her early solo material. I have rasp to my voice when I don’t take perfect care of it, and I wanted to let my voice go to those places on songs like “Sugar on the Rim” or “Sudden Desire.” I’ve learned how to sing in a way that doesn’t shred my voice to pieces like I did when I was just screaming for Paramore. I actually went completely backwards: I did not warm up at all. I was very careful to not overthink my techniques. I was writing melodies that encouraged a lot of different tones out of my voice, not smoothing out all the nice little cracks.
There are lots of visual metaphors too: a car wash on “Why We Ever,” the bath in “Cinnamon.” Why is water symbolic?
I always use water metaphors to describe relationships. I’ve done that since I was a kid. I’m proud of “Crystal Clear” for so many reasons. I wanted to write a song like that with Taylor on “After Laughter” [Paramore’s last album in 2017]. There was a song called “Pool” all about my relationship at the time, which wasn’t healthy. It was nice to redeem “Pool” with “Crystal Clear” and be able to say that I do believe in diving into something that is healthy. It’s still gonna come with murky waters, but at the end of the day it’s deeper, it’s richer, and it’s worth the plunge.
There’s a freedom that comes with being loved for exactly who you are, with all your darkness intact. That’s an external type of love that we all deserve. We should all fight to find that, even if it takes a million tries. There’s also love which you give yourself, and it’s more internally felt, happening inside all the time. That seems easier, but it’s harder. You’re in control of it.
What creative barriers from working in a band were you trying to break down?
The first song I finished was about rage, and when I started writing it I assumed it would be about the general idea of what it means to feel angry. Then I got to the chorus and it started to show me other parts of myself. It pushed me all the way down to the deepest parts of my psyche, the corners of my soul that I didn’t want to shed light on. It helped free up some space so that I could have compassion for myself and empathy for others that I didn’t have before. That song is about abuse that women in my family have experienced, written during the time of the Me Too movement. “Dead Horse” was another big moment where I finally admitted to myself how ashamed I was of choices that I made when I was younger. I’m very upfront about staying in a relationship that was super-toxic because I had an affair and that’s how that relationship began. I felt like I needed to redeem it by sticking around. Instead of letting my choices own me and keep me locked in my head, I got it out. And if someone doesn’t like it, I’ve hated myself enough for these choices. I can’t take double punishment.
What did you need from your team to shift you into that space?
Therapy was the initial motivator, a modality called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). We’re so trapped in our own minds, but there are tools and paths people can take to really take responsibility for what they’re going through and get out of their head prison. It’s been a huge source of healing for me. I was also surrounded by my community. Even if it’s not a Paramore record, I still have Taylor there, who has walked with me through so many heavy things. Joey is such a great friend to me and we’ve gotten closer as he’s toured with the band and written songs together. Lindsey, my creative director, is one of my best friends in the world. I don’t know how to do this stuff without community and I want to be that for other people.
Was there a moment during the recording process that will be unique for Paramore listeners, or even a moment that completely surprised you?
The second verse of “Simmer” — I had to leave and cry. I was shaking when we demoed that. It was just a lot to get out. And then there are more fun stories, like “Sugar on the Rim.” I was having lunch with my friend Brian and they put sugar on the rim of his margarita instead of salt, and we were joking about it. After lunch, I went into Taylor’s studio and just wanted to do something crazy, so we wrote a dance track. We looked at each other and were like, “What the f— are we doing? How did we go from ‘After Laughter’ to this?” Those are the moments that I really live for. I want to surprise myself. I want to surprise Paramore fans and other listeners. There should never be a well thought out plan.
After singing about detailed, sensitive, real-life events, have there been any consequences for that in your career?
I’ve noticed more sexist comments since putting out “Simmer” and other angrier songs. The feminine anger brought out something that I haven’t always loved seeing in my Twitter mentions. I’ve been doing this for so long and received some s—ty comments, heard things while I’m singing on stage from the crowd. I always fought back and tried to be above it. But being 31 and dealing with some of that is an entirely different feeling. I’m not down with weird, sexist comments or mansplaining how to navigate my career after I’ve been doing it for 15 years.
Did you not get that as much when you were working exclusively with Paramore?
I definitely didn’t notice it if I was getting it, but that comes with the territory of opening up and showing the dark corners. Someone wrote to me just this morning about how bad of a person I am for what I talk about. I don’t owe it to anyone to talk about that stuff, but my art at the initial stage of creating is not about anyone else but me. All I’m trying to do is get to the next feeling and get it out.
How has your resolve to be an artist strengthened? What are the things you need?
Wow. That’s such a wonderful and empathetic question. Every day is a little different, so my needs can get unpredictable. There are a lot of stories on the record that are deeply personal, and people know a lot about me because I’m a writer, but people still don’t know everything. I haven’t put every single part on display. Seeing ideas through, following your own curiosity, and being okay with discomfort is a really nice way to land on a new planet musically. There are definitely moments where I cringe a little bit, but I hope this reaches someone going through the same thing — and who can feel a bit of comfort there. Honestly, I don’t feel that I’ve gone through ‘Petals for Armor.’ I’m going through it. The book hasn’t ended and there’s no beautiful bow to tie it up in.