On Friday, April 13, a leather-clad Heather Baron-Gracie stands in front of a packed house at Bowery Ballroom, dark bangs framing her big, green, extravagantly kohl-rimmed eyes. Baron-Gracie is the lead singer of the Manchester, England–based emo-pop group Pale Waves, and onstage she’s flanked by guitarist Hugo Silvani and bassist Charlie Wood, who look eerily alike, with Ciara Doran completing the quartet on drums. As they launch into moody songs inspired by the likes of Cocteau Twins and the Cure, the scene is a bit dark, but once the swirling guitars and synths come in, all the gloom and doom is left behind. In other words, that dark-eyed image belies the band’s sugary hooks. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
If Tim Burton had ever gotten his hands on a John Hughes script — Edward Scissorhands’s Day Off — Pale Waves would have fit right in on the soundtrack. At Bowery Ballroom, with bodies moving to a musically induced high, it was almost as if the crowd was partying despite Baron-Gracie’s dark, honest lyrics: “Oh, baby, won’t you stop it?/You and I haven’t got it/Television romance.” It’s a newfound professional hazard.
“A lot of people think that some songs are quite positive, that I’m saying a positive thing in ‘Television Romance,’ ” Baron-Gracie explained before the show. “It’s not a love song! It’s the complete opposite — me rejecting someone. Jesus Christ, some people are so oblivious these days.”
The origin of Pale Waves goes back to 2014, when Baron-Gracie and Doran met while studying at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM) in Manchester. The pair clicked instantly, staying up and playing music together late into the night, with Doran adding live drums on a few of Baron-Gracie’s solo acoustic tracks. “We’re just the perfect soul mates in music,” said Baron-Gracie.
They bought cheap electric guitars and pedals, and recorded early demos of “The Tide” and “Heavenly,” which attracted significant internet buzz, and got the attention of Silvani, who joined the band on guitar. “We never wanted it to be a duo,” said Baron-Gracie. “We always wanted, like, two other members.” The lineup would be complete after Wood joined the fold in 2015. The girls’ friendship serves as the backbone, and helps them keep the younger boys in line: At 23, they both have a few years on Silvani, 21, and Wood, 20. “We’re the mums,” said Baron-Gracie.
After playing gigs all around England, the band caught the eye of Jamie Osbourne, who signed Pale Waves to his label, Dirty Hit Records, and took over managing duties. Since then it’s been a roller-coaster ride, with the band jumping from tiny gigs in its home country to touring with labelmates the 1975 (also from Manchester), including an opening slot at Madison Square Garden last fall.
All the Things I Never Said, released in February, is a sort of Pale Waves timeline — pairing the early infectious hits with newer songs like “My Obsession” and “New Year’s Eve” that have much darker undertones, lyrically. “This is the first introduction of my music,” said Baron-Gracie. “And I write music because I don’t want to talk about it in conversation, so it’s all the things I’ve never said. But now I’ve said them in music form.”
“Ciara always laughs at me because ‘My Obsession’ is like my child,” Baron-Gracie said, calling it her favorite track on the collection. “There’s something about it that’s just so emo and, like, Eighties ballad.” At first listen, one might assume it’s about some sort of till-death-do-us-part, all-consuming crush: “And I swear that I’ll never stop loving you/And I’ll die by your side if you want me to.” But as is often the case with Pale Waves, first impressions can be deceiving.
“They always presume, don’t they? Yeah that frustrates me,” Baron-Gracie said. “The main influence is my grandparents, their relationship, and how I sort of watched when my grandma passed away, my grandad sort of died with her in a way,” she said. The song is really about loss and Baron-Gracie bearing witness to what it’s like to lose the one person you love the most. It’s also just really catchy.
At present, the Pale Waves catalog remains tiny, totaling just seven songs with the release of their newest pop single, “Kiss,” this week. “It still feels like we don’t have much music out for how much we’re doing. I kind of like that,” Baron-Gracie added. “I’d rather give less and make people want more rather than overwhelm people with so many unreleased Pale Waves songs.”
The band wrapped up its first U.S. headline tour last month, and has a full slate of festival dates on the calendar, including spots at Lollapalooza and Outside Lands, plus a handful of dates opening for Chvrches’ U.S. tour this August. It’s also hard at work on its forthcoming debut full-length, hopefully set to release sometime this summer via Dirty Hit/Interscope. Baron-Gracie isn’t shy to admit that the band wants it to reach No. 1, despite its emotionally darker material.
“It’s still pop songs though,” she said. “It will always be pop.”