Track 7

Hayley Williams: “It was a lightning in a bottle moment”

By Ryan De Freitas
Photo credit: Lyndsey Byrnes

Just over ten years ago, four young friends from Nashville, Tennessee put out an album that would go on to define an era. Riot!, the second full-length from a then hotly-tipped Paramore, dominated the airwaves and magazine covers of the time, carried an aesthetic that remains iconic to this day, and became a crucial building block in the construction of countless teenage identities.

In the wake of its recent anniversary, an endless amount of words have been dedicated to what the album stood – and continues to stand – for, the impact it had on alternative culture, and the lives of listeners it affected. And rightly so. But away from its reception, the biggest dent Riot! made was in the lives of its creators.

Recently home from a European tour – the first in the cycle for fifth album After Laughter – the band’s frontwoman, Hayley Williams, is reflecting on life in the lead-up to their breakthrough record.  

“We were just kids before Riot! came out. In fact, we were kids for a long time after that!” she laughs. “I have a distinct memory – in fact, somewhere there’s a video – of all of us, Taylor too, hanging out at the park. It was springtime, 2007, and we were literally playing in a field together. How much more innocent can you get? In many ways, it was the last uncomplicated season for us as friends.”

The kids in that park couldn’t possibly have foreseen the scale of the success – or complications – that would follow. Being catapulted from bright-eyed hopefuls to global superstars isn’t something any band can truly hope to prepare for, no matter how grand their ambitions. There was a feeling, however, that something was about to happen.

“There was an excitement around it that we knew was different from anything we’d experienced up until then,” Williams says. “Of course, we’d only put out one other album at that point… but I want to say that we were confident that people – or at least, the right people, would get it. Especially once the whole aesthetic and our physical portrayal of the album’s imagery became so cohesive, so effortlessly. It was just a lightning in a bottle sort of moment in time.”

Soon after, the band had their big penny-drop moment.

“A few months before the record came out,” Williams continues, “we were headed to a play a show at The Underworld in Camden and we were all looking out the window of the car we were in, and I saw the word “RIOT!” spray painted on the side of one of buildings, ways away from the venue. I knew it was for us because it was done in the same sort of scribble, almost exactly like what was on the album cover. That moment, I said out loud, ‘People get it! This is the best sign we could ever have… that other people are making it their own.’”

Just a fortnight before that show, the band premiered the video for ‘Misery Business’, which would go on to be the pop punk anthem of that summer. Thanks to that video, Hayley Williams became a flame-haired icon, a totemic figurehead for teen angst and bold rebellion. In just a few months, Williams had gone from hanging out in parks with her friends to being a bona fide rock star. Now, surrounded by her own image and with the spotlight burning so brightly down on her, even the most trivial of things became commercial obligations.

“It was the weirdest thing. We took a sponsorship for a tour from a cellphone company that wouldn’t let us use anything but their branded cellphones. All I wanted to do was walk around, arrogantly, with my T-Mobile Sidekick III. Anyway, we spent two months pretending to use these phones and the company went under not even a year later.”

Outside of the spotlight and away from the corporate machinations that come with mainstream success, however – “The success of that record did seem to cast a shadow on the purity of what we created when we started the band,” Williams admits – that band were still the same kids, doing all they could to keep their feet on the ground.

“The first big tour we did during the Riot! cycle was in the fall of 2007,” Williams remembers. “A lot of beautiful theatres that we’d opened shows at but never headlined. A lot of new fans had come along and we wanted to show them all that there was more to us than what they’d seen on MTV. There was depth and there were roots beyond some poster of us with Myspace hairdos.

“We covered a song by Sunny Day Real Estate on that tour. They were one of our favourites. It was about a 6-minute-long song and every night we knew only a handful of people would know it. It turned out to just be a good reminder for me each night that, even as things were getting crazier, all of this started one day after school, at the Farros’ house or in the Yorks’ basement… just learning songs and bonding over bands we loved.”

Hayley Williams is a different person today. In 2017, she’s now been everywhere and seen it all. Williams is far from the sort of person to claim that she has it all figured out – in fact, both on record and in public she makes it clear that she doesn’t – but some serious lessons have been learned and many realities faced.

One of the harshest of those realities has been the need for accountability as an artist. Not so long ago, Williams came under fire from some commenters who questioned the validity of her feminism. Their argument being that a woman who once sung a lyric like “Once a whore, you’re nothing more / I’m sorry that’ll never change”, as she did on ‘Misery Business’, can never truly be seen as a feminist icon. Williams responded to that criticism in a blog post where she outlined the importance of growth and declared “I’m a 26 year old person. And yes, a proud feminist. Just maybe not a perfect one.”

“The thing that annoyed me,” Williams says of the issue, “was that I had already done so much soul-searching about it, years before anyone else had decided there was an issue. When the article began circulating, I sort of had to go and rehash everything in front of everybody. It was important, however, for me to show humility in that moment. I was a 17 year old kid when I wrote the lyrics in question and if I can somehow exemplify what it means to grow up, get information, and become any shade of ‘woke’, then that’s a-okay with me.”

On the tenth anniversary of the ‘Misery Business’ video release, Williams posted a tweet in which she referred to the song as a “backward-minded little rascal”, thereby restarting the conversation about taking accountability for her art and the idea of growing away from past material. This gave rise to speculation amongst fans and critics as to whether it was just the consequence of being an honest songwriter, or simply being too young to know better. When asked directly about this, Williams is remarkably open.

“It was both of those things,” she says. “[The lyrics] literally came from a page in my diary. What I couldn’t have known at the time was that I was feeding into a lie that I’d bought into, just like so many other teenagers – and many adults – before me. The whole, ‘I’m not like the other girls’ thing… this ‘cool girl’ religion. What even is that? Who are the gatekeepers of ‘cool’ anyway? Are they all men? Are they women that we’ve put on top of an unreachable pedestal?

“The problem with the lyrics is not that I had an issue with someone I went to school with. That’s just high school and friendships and breakups. It’s the way I tried to call her out using words that didn’t belong in the conversation. It’s the fact that the story was setup inside the context of a competition that didn’t exist over some fantasy romance.”

When Paramore recently played ‘Misery Business’ at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and it was time for the lyrics in question, Williams opted not to sing the offending line. It’s a small gesture, but it’s clear indication that her feelings about the song today are more than just something she’ll say when it’s the right thing to say in an interview or on social media.

It’s rare to see an artist do this. Without taking aim at any particular bands, imagine how mute most pop punk singers would have to be on stage were they to adopt the same approach. Clearly, there’s something of an understanding between bands, fans, and the media, that artists aren’t always going to portray their best selves in their lyrical content. Williams didn’t have to address this issue head on, but it’s clear that being able to confront these things is an important part of her personal growth.

“I do like to know at the end of the day that I tried to do the right thing,” Williams says. “And who knows, maybe that’s all in vain? My path was my own – there are no two the same. For whatever reason, I believe I was supposed to have written those backwards words and I was supposed to learn something from them… years later. It’s made me more compassionate toward other women, who maybe have social anxieties… and toward younger girls who are at this very moment learning to cope and to relate and to connect. We’re all just trying our damnedest. It’s a lot easier when we have support and community with each other. Vulnerability helps lay the foundation for all that.”

On new album After Laughter, Williams is the most frank and honest version of herself that she has ever been on record. It feels more like a diary entry than that actual diary in ‘Misery Business’ ever did. It’s a collection of songs about depression, brutal self-reflection, and any and all other emotional blood and guts; but the most striking of all is ‘Idle Worship’, a three-minute outpouring of all the confusion and frustration that comes with being placed on a pedestal.

Given that Riot! was the catalyst for this, it’s natural to assume that direct lyrics such as “Don’t hold your breath, I never said I’d save you, honey” and “If it’s okay a little grace would be appreciated” might have been penned with that era in mind. Not so, it turns out. Those sentiments are far more universal than that.

“I wouldn’t say the era of Riot! was as much an inspiration for that song as the Self-Titled was,” Williams reveals. “I was really on one during that time. I was a superwoman who blissfully believed all my best intentions were good enough to get me through any potential downfall that might’ve been waiting for me. You can’t prepare for life to drop the piano from the sky. It happens when it needs to.

“When I finally had some downtime, when we took nearly three years off, I had no distractions,” she continues. “No cape hanging in the wardrobe case. It was me and a bathroom mirror. No amount of selfies with fans was ever going to make me think that I was invincible, ever again. It must be hard for a Paramore fan to hear that song… but people have to understand that I let myself down more than anyone else. I set myself up for failure! For starters, I lived in latex for those two years and looked like a damn superhuman. When depression hit me, I barely came out of my PJs. Writing ‘Idle Worship’ was the beginning of me finding my voice again.

“Nowadays, putting on wild vintage clothing is just as much a triumph as dying my hair five different colours used to be. It reminds me of that colourful person I always was, even before anybody was paying attention. Not a superhero and not a pajama sloth but a bright, weird, human.”

And ‘Caught In The Middle’? That line, “I can’t think of who I was, cause it just makes me want to cry”? That’s Riot!, right? Sort of.

“You know when I was talking about hanging out at the park before Riot! came out?” Williams asks. “It’s a mixture between that feeling and the superhuman I pretended to be during Self-Titled. I had to let go of those versions of myself in order to grow and step forward as an adult. It’s not even about regret as much as a very sobering realisation that ‘all things must pass’.”

Clearly, Williams’ perspective today is forged by so much more than just the album that shot her band to the top – no matter how many questions are asked trying to dig for parallels – but one part of After Laughter that certainly can be analysed against what came before it, is the song ‘Forgiveness’. On that track the very concept of forgiveness is painted in a blurry light. Revealing it to be the intimidating, complicated beast it is. A far cry from the “I’m sorry honey, but I pass it up” Williams sang on ‘Misery Business’.

“One of the biggest lessons of my life will be learning what forgiveness really is,” Williams says. “I have had many opportunities to offer it and to accept it. But to actually understand it, that’s it’s own thing. One of the best quotes I’ve read about it – I think a pastor said it – was, ‘When you forgive, that means you absorb the loss and the debt. All Forgiveness, then, is costly’. When you really think about that, it will mess you up for a while.”

That’s where Williams is today; figuring out the present, rather than dwelling on the past. She certainly has addressed the pivotal Riot! era a fair amount over the years, but the album itself isn’t the be all and end all of that.

“I think the reason I’ve spent some time wading around in those memories is because the ‘pivot’ was really in our own personal lives more so than for Paramore as a unit. For me, it just seems like that’s the part where life got complicated. It’s what I imagine someone might feel when they realise that their school days are behind them and now there’s more to deal with. Real life.”

But what of Riot! today? The tenth anniversary has been and gone, and while most bands would use such a milestone birthday of their breakthrough album to make a huge song and dance, Paramore have made relatively little fuss about it. We didn’t get fifty different new vinyl variants, nor are the band cashing in on a ‘played in full’ tour.

“We aren’t really much for looking back, at the moment,” says Williams. “There was a period of time after we wrapped touring for Self-Titled where I really feared my best days were behind me. It felt a bit like a death. When we finally had demos that excited us, I wasn’t so hopeless anymore. I really credit Taylor for giving me whatever courage I had during that time. Now that we’re here, I feel like we’re in a brand new band. We know how to honour it and to appreciate it but this isn’t the time to be sappy and nostalgic about everything.”

Hayley Williams does have something she can take from a look back at that time: her vantage point is not one of regret, self-criticism, or basking in the glories of the past. Instead, it’s a rather profound closing gambit that says far more about life than it ever could about a platinum selling record.

“What I take from that season of life,” she concludes, “is that we all have this one golden summer of life – which, Riot! truly felt like – that we can try and mine out of forever… or we can appreciate it for what it was and carry on. We have to find our other summers. Those other definitive seasons in our lives that make us feel like we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be. If you’re always turning around, facing the direction you came from, how can you appreciate where you’re standing today? You have to give yourself a chance.”