A year and a half ago, Pale Waves frontwoman Heather Baron-Gracie knew she was headed for trouble. For the charismatic chanteuse, the nonstop touring necessitated by the overnight success of the group’s 2018 debut album “My Mind Makes Noises” was exhausting. The turning point was opening a European tour with Halsey last March, just as COVID-19 was closing international borders. She flew ahead for the Berlin date, while her bandmates continued by tour bus, which overturned on a black-iced road in Sweden. No one was seriously injured, but she decamped to sunny Los Angeles, rented a cottage hideaway with her girlfriend Kelsi Luck, and began perfecting a new recording, the aptly-dubbed, Rich-Costey-produced “Who Am I?,” which debuted at No. 3 on the U.K. charts Feb. 12. Once she penned the ‘80s-cheeky synth-rocker “Tomorrow” — with its lyric “Sexuality isn’t a choice/ Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong” — she felt reinvigorated. At 25, she’s on track to becoming one of 2021’s biggest stars.
Touring was unexpectedly tough?
When you’re doing it every night it can get really tiring. And you can slip into toxic routines on tour, like getting trashed every night. A lot of those nights, I was too anxious to go onstage, so I would drink to get that temporary, fake confidence. I needed time away from that environment to work on myself and become a better version of myself. And just being in one place in L.A. finally gave me room to breathe.
Your appearance has changed, too, less silent film star and more street-gang-from-“The Warriors” on the new album cover.
Yeah. I really wanted to evolve, and not just musically, but with the aesthetics and with my image. I wanted to really embrace who I was instead of pretending to have these alter egos. But then again, sometimes it can be helpful to have an alter ego. I’ve named mine Victoria, and quite recently, in fact. So when I need that extra confidence, I’m just going to bring her out — that Victoria within me.
What was your California experience like?
I didn’t have to go do interviews, or go onstage. And that gave me the sense of living a normal life. I could devote each day to just working on me, Heather. And that really changed my outlook on life and me as a person. I started to read a lot more, and I found comfort in all sorts of new things, like doing yoga and meditation and eating healthy — really looking after my body, physically and mentally.
What books did you read?
I just finished Liz Phair’s “Horror Stories.” And being a woman playing guitar, I think she’s an awesome person to look up to. Her lyrics are so explicit, and she’s just so unapologetic about a lot of things — she goes into detail about how she had an affair, how her marriage broke down, and how she really struggled with touring, too. It was really comforting just to read that. And I recently came across a philosopher called Alain De Botton, and he educated me on the concept of emotional intelligence and why it’s so important to work on yourself and discover who you are and why you’re reacting in certain ways.
And so did your new girlfriend. How did you and Kelsi Luck meet?
We met through friends one night in Vegas, and it’s been going on for over a year now. She’s older than me — she’s turning 30 in March. But our love has blossomed into something beautiful, and she taught me real love and showed me how to love myself, something that I feel like I’ve never experienced before. And she is so artistic, and she’s influenced this album massively. She would be the one who would talk about these concepts with me, on songs like “You Don’t Own Me.” On so many songs, we would just stay up late talking about them, so I feel like she and I kind of co-wrote this album more than anyone — it’s our masterpiece, together.