Writing by Erandhi Mendis // Photographs by Sara Regan
I’m sitting behind the front of house system at Max Watts listening to an enormously loud sequence of guitar changeovers, drum checks and feedback. The soundcheck is sped through as I watch UK indie rockers Pale Waves, Ciara Doran, Hugo Silvani and Charlie Wood take turns checking their monitors. In the middle of the stage is a platinum blonde crop of hair holding an acoustic guitar. Even at 5pm with the house lights on you can sense stage presence from Heather Baron-Gracie – not least of which stems from her chunky knee high boots.
“The fans love it when I’m a bossy bitch,” she laughs. “They love being told off by me. They don’t always want to see me be nice or fragile or who I am naturally – I’m like a cute little baby when I go back to my hotel room and I want my girlfriend to hold me. They don’t want to see that! They want to see me stomp on stage in my six inch heels and tell them to fucking move!”
It’s a concept as old as time, the switching of personas – a step ball change upon taking the stage. Ziggy Stardust, Childish Gambino and Sasha Fierce; all names we know as fundamentally different from the artist behind them. For Baron-Gracie, there isn’t a separate name but an alter ego definitely exists for her in front of a crowd.
“I feel very different to how I am on stage. It’s almost like I have to wear that mask otherwise performing would be really strange for me.”
The Manchester born singer has been down under touring Pale Waves’ incredibly successful third record Unwanted.
“My dad keeps telling me that I need to be checking my shoes all the time, because this is a country where everything can kill you,” she laughs. “I’m not sure I actually need to be doing that…we love coming to Australia. It’s so far away so it’s really special. And you never know what to expect, because of [the distance] so to see people singing every song is incredible.”
I mention to Heather that when I arrived at the venue there was a considerable line already outside and she comments that people started lining up as early as 9am – some even bringing the band flowers and gifts. While it’s true we are a long way from Manchester, the band have built a cult following overseas largely supported by immense vulnerability in songwriting.
“I find it quite difficult to write on the road, it’s just so chaotic. But it usually begins with me and an acoustic guitar. Especially this record we are starting now.”
She is of course referencing album work on their upcoming fourth record. Given the switch from synth-pop to punk-pop between the last few offerings I’m curious whether the band is approaching their newest project with any sense of thematic contribution.
“I feel like there needs to be some sort of plan or concept prior to just jumping in. With [the new album] I want it to be really about sexuality and really just influenced by the queers – the ultimate gay album. I just want it to be solely about that: the complexities of being gay, the ups and downs, the battles. And I’m watching a lot of queer movies, reading a lot of queer books, kind of pulling in references from a lot of other people’s stories, not just mine. So it’s kind of like a collective of queer stories.”
Writing from another perspective and the innate respect and sensitivity that comes with that is something familiar to Baron-Gracie. The band’s popular emotional track The Hard Way chronicles bullying and suicide. “That was hard for me to write, yeah,” she says. “because that’s not [necessarily] my story to tell, you know, that’s about someone else’s story. And it’s such a fragile, sad story.”
“I had to go through that song so many times to get it right. And then question, should I even be singing about this? But in ways I feel like that person would have wanted that message to be spread, you know… be kinder to other people and watch your words with one another because people are fucking fragile, we all are. Even though we might not seem it, words really hurt. So that was definitely one of the hardest, if not the hardest.”
It’s a notable exclusion from their setlist that evening, “it’s just a bit too intimate sometimes,” Heather laughs. “We did it on our UK tour and everyone was just crying.”Although it is obvious during our chat that there are many facets to Pale Waves, the mood at Max Watts is not one of tears – not sad tears anyway. There is sheer adoration for each bossy stomp and roars from the mosh pit that at times threaten to overpower Baron-Gracie’s vocal. One thing is overtly clear – representation: “I know we have a very queer audience. I love being represented in a good way – it makes me feel seen and heard well – so I try and do that as much as I can for them.” This feels achieved throughout the night equally in visible gesture and a sense of understood safety. One particular moment, during the set where Baron-Gracie launches into the love-letter in lyric format that is She’s My Religion (an ode to girlfriend Kelsi Luck) is particularly well received by the room. The song is old in terms of their discography but there is always something refreshing about female queerness in art that isn’t something experimental.
“The more obvious I am about my sexuality, the more they love it – the gays go fucking feral. Every time I say something about me being gay, the screams are always 10 times louder.”
Exploration of sexuality and varied representation evokes a visible passion in Baron-Gracie. While she has been out for years and open in both image and artform, time has provided perspective on the value of sharing and being her authentic self in a public sphere.
“I was having a conversation with my girlfriend today and I was like, wow, there’s really not a lot of femme queer girls when we were just looking through bands and noticing that it is interesting how [in music] they tend to be more masculine, which is very cool. It did make me think – not that I’m ultra femme, but I think I can be a combination of both and people do love that juxtaposition.”
Then there is Heather’s own experiences with representation. Growing up in a pull-push of societal norms and strict gender roles led her to embrace adolescence as a tomboy.
“Avril Lavigne was a big artist for me growing up, and that was purely because she wasn’t just like a ‘typical’ female. I was such a tomboy when I was younger, and I didn’t want to dress in skirts and dresses and wear pink. I wanted to just wear tank tops and go around on my skateboard. So I felt that representation and that connection with her. But in terms of my sexuality, I don’t think I felt or found that in anyone else. I would have loved to have had [this] when I was younger.”
But being the creator of the ‘this’ she is referring to, does take a toll. The combination of starting an album, touring a record and travelling all over the world has had obvious effects on Baron-Gracie. She’s unwell at the moment but the show tonight must go on.
“It’s so much on the body, I think people don’t realise. Every tour I’ve been on in the past two years I’ve been sick – I’m always fucking sick on tour, it’s so annoying! I don’t know what’s up with me, am I just this weak human body?” she laughs. “It is exhausting though, I think I needed the [pandemic] break to fall back in love with touring again.” When joking about the unique tradition of a ‘shoey’ at the show tonight, she continues “It has to be Hugo [tonight] it can’t be me, I will get ill again!”
Banter aside, when we are discussing advice she’d give her younger self she earnestly tells me that it would be to take care of yourself. Baron-Gracie has now been sober for nine months.
“I try to tour in a healthy manner now, I just did it for years where I caned it so hard – I was drinking so much and staying up so late. I feel like [now] I’m definitely more on it, it’s weird sometimes being sober on stage but it makes for a better performance I think.”
Interestingly, something else she tries to limit is the internet – “I mean it’s a dark hole really, it’s stressful.”
“I feel like there is no mystery now. It’s really odd. Nobody wants mystery they want to know everything. They want to wake up next to you want to see you fucking eat an egg sandwich in the morning – people are taking pictures on the toilet now. It’s a bit too far for me. I’m sure the fans would love it though,” she laughs. “They bloody love it when I take my socks off too and I’m always like why did I do that? It sends me into a bloody spiral.”
Mystery prevails when Pale Waves takes the stage a few hours later, effortlessly cool and showing no signs of a chest cold Baron-Gracie delivers a theatric performance. A distinctively powerful vocal with complete control of an adoring audience, the band seamlessly shift from synth-pop to heavier punk through the course of the evening. Hanging off every chord through the smoke machines, the Melbourne crowd emulate what Baron-Gracie had mentioned prior – with a wry smile she innocently adds in between songs “one thing about me, is I’m very gay,” to a chorus of screeches. “So there’s a lot of gays in here?” she laughs into the microphone.
It is a powerful thing to have such prominent LGBTQ+ representation across a variety of genres and Pale Waves’ presence within the queercore subculture is undoubtedly indispensable – particularly to the crowd inside Max Watts tonight. As the group return to a deafening refrain of “one more song,” they wind up with fan favourite Jealousy Jealousy. Much like the band’s ethos for being proud and visible: it is unapologetically loud.
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