“I’m rethinking all my introverted bullshit,” jokes Hayley Williams. The usually fiery Paramore singer is curled up on the couch in her Nashville home with a coffee mug in hand, her trademark carrot-orange hair now platinum blonde, wearing a striped robe and chatting over Skype. Like everyone else, Williams is self-quarantining due to the continuing coronavirus threat. For the past three weeks, her goldendoodle, Alf, and a stack of vinyl rock records that her mother brought over have been her only companions.
Global pandemic notwithstanding, the 31-year-old frontwoman of pop-punk group Paramore has already spent the past year and a half mastering the art of being alone. After touring its 2017 album After Laughter, the band went on temporary hiatus, and Williams found herself without a plan for the first time in years. Add to that her divorce from New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert, which was finalized while Paramore was on the road, and when Williams returned home in late 2018, “I had this experience of emotional whiplash,” she recalls. “From moving, moving, moving to, ‘Okay, we’re going to take some time off.’”
It was her therapist who suggested she channel her feelings into songwriting. First came “Leave It Alone,” a tender reflection on loss that Williams wrote with Paramore’s touring bassist Joey Howard. She demoed five more tracks, trading the new wave sheen of After Laughter for sparse guitar, diaristic lyrics and quirky vocal flourishes with the help of Paramore guitarist Taylor York. Still, she only thought of a new project as hypothetical. “I’d be like, ‘Well, if this was a real thing…’” she says with a smirk. “Taylor kept having to say to me, ‘This is real. It’s already real.’”
Once she found herself daydreaming about performing the music onstage, Williams started to believe him. She revealed to longtime Paramore manager Mark Mercado a plan: she’d release her first solo album, Petals For Armor, in three parts, leading fans step-by-step through her own recent emotional journey from anger to peace to empowerment. Part I was released on Feb. 6; Part II unfolded track-by-track through April 24 (a decision made in light of the pandemic); and the full album will arrive on May 8, including songs from the first two parts plus additional tracks.
The multi-part album rollout isn’t a new idea. Swedish electro-pop queen Robyn released her trailblazing Body Talk in three parts across 2010, and it remains a blueprint for pop songwriters a decade later. Over the past few years, increasing numbers of artists — from veterans like John Mayer to buzzy newer acts like Brockhampton’s Kevin Abstract and country pop duo Maddie & Tae — have experimented with releasing new music in discrete stages, though not yet with much more success than a traditional album.
But Williams’s gradual rollout is poised to potentially be the most successful of its kind yet. The rabid Paramore fanbase, ever-ready to devour any scrap of new music she puts out, helps of course, but the album itself is a cohesive statement — a moving collection of songs that find her at her most honest — buoyed by a release strategy precisely tailored to its three sweeping waves of emotion. Already, lead track “Simmer” has landed in the upper ranks of four Billboard rock charts, peaking at No. 7 on Hot Rock Songs.
“We wanted to approach this differently from anything Paramore had done,” says Mercado. “The truth is, the material necessitated it.” While the band has long released its music through Warner Music Group-owned punk label Fueled By Ramen, Williams set Petals For Armor apart by releasing it on Warner’s Atlantic Records, where chairman/COO Julie Greenwald assembled an entirely new, nearly all-female team for the project. “When it’s a new set of eyes, it’s all fresh thinking,” Greenwald says. “Every part of this campaign is reading, ‘I am Hayley Williams.’”
The gradual rollout has also allowed the team flexibility at a time when that’s proven especially crucial. Amid the pandemic, Williams was able to make the last-minute decision to release the Part II tracks piecemeal instead of all at once, offering fans in lockdown something new to look forward to every week. With each song, she has released treats like behind-the-scenes clips, Instagram dance tutorials and cinematic music videos, several of which build on a storyline in which Williams enters and escapes an insect-like chrysalis.
“One of the biggest challenges right now is keeping up with the pace” of streaming, says Atlantic Records senior vp marketing Nina Webb. “Artists work so hard on creating a body of work, and then fans consume it so quickly. This keeps fans satisfied with more music — and five songs are much more easily consumed than 15 at one time.”
For now, as the rollout nears completion — and with her summer tour of Europe and North America in the process of being rescheduled — Williams is occupying herself like most in self-quarantine: balancing work with pleasant distractions. She’s baking an apple crisp as we chat, and she’ll soon learn the choreography for her next release: a mini workout video set to Part II track “Over Yet.” “I’ve worked on myself, and I’ve made something I’m proud of,” she says of her period of solitude, both before and during quarantine. “Now, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
How are you approaching work amid the pandemic?
We’re all just confused about, “How do you promote something in this time [and] not totally look like an asshole?” The other day, I was in the bathtub with a very insane face mask on, and Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino FaceTimed me. We were trying to encourage each other to keep working. Today, putting out the song “Over Yet” helped me tremendously, because it gives me something to focus energy into, versus watching Succession again. Each song is a catalyst for more conversation and connection, which we’re all desperate for right now.
Since your teens, you’ve famously resisted being pushed as a solo artist — you used to perform in a T-shirt that read “PARAMORE IS A BAND.” Were you apprehensive about going solo after years of saying “no”?
It took me a while to accept that I was into the idea. I’ve said “never” for so long that it felt a bit inauthentic to change my tune. It also took me time to realize that just because I’m making something that I want to own a little bit more, that doesn’t mean that I can’t have my people be a part of it. [York produced the album, Howard co-wrote several songs, and Paramore drummer Zac Farro plays on a few tracks.] I don’t really prefer being on my own. I kind of miss the energy exchange of having Zac and Taylor around for some of this stuff.
What about going in a different sonic direction?
When I wrote “Dead Horse,” I was very surprised that something that pop-y would come out of me. I was embarrassed about some of the lyrics. I almost went back into my shell, but I fought it, and decided, “There’s a reason this shit is coming up, and I’m just going to do it.”
What was the turning point where you decided to go all-in?
I have a love/hate relationship with success: I want [the album] to do well because I want people to hear it, but I also feel a lot of pressure. “Cinnamon” and “Sudden Desire” felt like songs that I would want to experience in a live setting, so then I was like, “I’m already having visions of this. I’ve made up my mind.” Mark [Mercado] convinced me to tell the label. I was like, “I wonder if they’re going to think that this means I’m trying to make a big pop record. That’s not what I want.”
How did working solo end up feeling different, if it did?
We make Paramore records very similarly — we never really know what direction we’re going to go in when we start. But everything else was different. It was super intimidating, because I’m in a band with such vastly talented human beings, so I don’t really feel drawn to get in there and call any shots. But I experimented, and my musicianship became a central character. The heart of it is to try not to shut down instincts. That was something I’ve learned from writing with Taylor. I wouldn’t say it became a formula, but Paramore definitely got comfortable. It’s so nice to have someone look at you, and have so much faith in you. You get somewhere brand-new.
You signed with Atlantic around age 14, and have taken ownership of your career ever since. How do you make sure you’re listened to?
There was a meeting [with Atlantic] that I do remember, where there were ultimatums being presented. I was a kid. I was like, “Look. I would be just as happy going back and playing music in my friend’s basement. I don’t need all this.” That is the same energy that I carried throughout my career. Throughout my life, one of the themes for me has been not feeling heard. I’m working on this in therapy. I think I long to perform songs because somewhere deep down, I want to be heard and understood. And that feeling does come along with me when I go into a meeting.
I just have to trust that what I say is true, and be bold enough to say the things that I feel. And that doesn’t mean I walk in being a bulldozer. I’m very much the opposite, and I wish I could be a bulldozer more often in business settings. Especially when I watch Succession. [Laughs.] For Petals For Armor, I sat down with [Warner Music Group CEO of recorded music] Max [Lousada] and Julie and told them, “Here are my influences and the music I’ve written thus far. I want to make something of this. And this is how I’m going to do it.”
Why do you think a three-part release makes sense for this project?
Some of these songs don’t belong together. They live in the same universe, but it’s sort of like Marvel movies: you have awareness of these other characters, but maybe they’re not in every movie. I wanted to portray that, and the best way was to present the songs almost exactly the way they came to me. When I started to write those songs, I had begun to get past some of the deeper, murkier parts of, I guess, my “healing journey”? I feel so cheesy saying that. By the time I got to the songs that come later, I was seeing changes in myself, and feeling a lot lighter.
How do you think the gradual release changes the listening experience?
Lyrically, there’s a lot to dig through. I really liked being able to say, “Here’s a song,” and then for a week I could either answer questions about that, or create content that’s focused just on that song. I can be a little bit more delicate in how I hand them off.
The rock genre has arguably been slower to innovate on that front. Why do you think that is?
My best guess is that there are less resources in the genre. And I think that rock artists are people of a more alternative state of mind. It’s completely different for an alternative band to do sponsorships or endorsements because there’s this mentality of, “I don’t want to sell out.” But pop artists, R&B artists, hip-hop artists — they’re so proud of these partnerships, and it really helps to bolster their career. We also don’t celebrate rock music on a big level. The Grammys don’t televise an alternative genre. When [Paramore] won best rock song [for “Ain’t It Fun”] in 2015, not only did we win and we weren’t there, but it wasn’t a televised award.
Has this experience changed the way you’ll think about releasing music in the future?
Regardless of coronavirus and the quarantine, I think we’re already having to figure out new ways to do stuff. Not only because it might be lucrative, but also because it’s just time to try new things. I’ve put out records since I was 16, and we’ve more or less done it the same way. This scratched that itch for me, where hopefully I can learn from this, and then when it’s time for Paramore to do something else, we can decide. Maybe by then, there will be all these other new ways of doing it — a big buffet of how to release shit.