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Hayley Williams Was Afraid She Couldn’t Face The World — Then Paramore ‘Found Each Other Again’

The band battled fear and anxiety while creating ‘This Is Why’. Now, Williams talks about how they came together again and why they all want to win a Grammy for Zac Farro.

Hayley Williams Paramore

The night before Paramore released their sixth studio album This Is Why, they shared a list of all the things they were thinking about while working on the LP: Agoraphobia. Cabin fever. American Psycho. One point read: “Confused about the difference between selfishness and self-preservation.”

“Making This Is Why was not a comfortable experience for any of us,” frontwoman Hayley Williams says. The album did not come easy: There was worry born from the pandemic, but also the lingering uncertainty that has followed Paramore over the last 20 years. This Is Why, which follows 2017’s transformative After Laughter, marked their first record created with the same lineup as the previous one: Williams with Zac Farro and Taylor York. When Paramore was nominated for Best New Artist at the 2008 Grammys, York hadn’t yet joined the band. Then, by the time they actually won — taking home Best Rock Song for “Ain’t It Fun” in 2015 — a tumultuous falling out from five years prior meant that Williams and York were there for it, but Farro wasn’t.

“We grew up knowing all the worst parts of each other, and we still love each other,” Williams says. “I mean, look at all the shit we’ve been through. Our band has essentially broken up a million times. And Zac, we found each other again. That keeps me going. It also keeps me excited to think: Who knew we would get here? What the fuck might happen for another 20 years? We don’t know.”

This Is Why asks a lot of questions, often unanswerable ones. What’s something that you learned about yourself while making this record that surprised you?
That I am capable of sitting with a whole lot of discomfort. I’m always seeking comfort. Some of it is family of origin shit. Growing up there was so much love, but it was a very broken-family-home-type situation. As I’ve gotten older and especially as Paramore was able to find success, I was able to afford [to say], “Okay, I’m going to create a home for myself. I’m going to make it feel safe.” One of my core values is security. It doesn’t have to look like much, but it needs to feel safe and secure. So I’m constantly seeking out, “Well what’s the most comfortable route?” And it has not always served me. In fact, I would say more than not it keeps me from growth.

How much of This Is Why was the product of drilling into the realizations that surfaced on After Laughter
With After Laughter, I was so disconnected from myself in such a different way. I had really abandoned myself. I wasn’t excited by life because I was hurt. I was in a lot of emotional pain. When we were writing that record, I had nothing to lose by being really honest. I also wasn’t aware of what I was really talking about, like I didn’t really understand depression. I did not know shit about PTSD. I thought that was something that you had to go off to war and come back with, you know? But by the time we finished that record, I had become comfortable talking about what this might be: depression.

Then I got diagnosed and really tried to take care of myself. People talk about anger and depression being so related because depression is like when you turn your anger inwards. And I think that there’s bits of that anger mixed with bits of this real understanding of how frustrating it can feel to wake up with depression. Depression about your own choices, depression about the state of the world, depression about lost relationships or connections, or purpose. All that stuff is so heavy and you can’t control it. So by this point, writing This Is Why — having learned about my own experience and looking at it head on — I think that it’s interesting to think of that being a foundational point to the angst and the anxiousness and worry that This Is Why holds.

Speaking of foundation, this is the first time Paramore’s lineup hasn’t shifted between albums. Having made five albums in the last 20 years, do you find that the three of you still surprise each other?
Oh my god, yes. Somehow, in our thirties, we’ve still maintained the ability to tap into the 11, 12, and 13-year-olds that we each were when we met. We might still bicker in the studio, we might still be intimidated to show someone an idea, but also we make each other better.

Actually, Zac just showed us his new Half Noise record. As a writer, he surprises me all the time because his voice is so good. He writes melodies that I get jealous of and I’ll be like, “Goddammit, why didn’t I say this in the song?” And Taylor will write stuff and show me and Zac and I’ll be so scared of how the fuck I’m supposed to enter into it as a singer.

Not only do they challenge me, and they teach me, and we all learn from each other; but my experience is very much a balance between feeling that challenge and intimidation that I felt as a kid when I first met them and also feeling so empowered by them because they believe in me and we trust each other.

Paramore was nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammys in 2008, then won for Best Rock Song in 2015. Do those accolades mean anything different to you when you think about them being awarded to Paramore in its current state?
Yeah, we’ve been nominated a few times and gone and won. The one time that we didn’t go is when we won, which is funny. But, oh man. I’m not shy about it at all to say we want to win for Zac. That’s not why anybody is sitting in a studio, pounding their head against the wall trying to make great art, right? However, Zac has never experienced that with us.

Zac was the first friend I ever made in music. All we had was our favorite bands on a burned CD. We learned how to be a band together, we learned how to be friends with each other. We met Taylor that same year and that was in 2002. For everything we’ve been through, it almost feels like as soon as Zac rejoined the band after six years of being away from us, not only did we get our guy back, we got ourselves back. We got a part of our childhood back. This thing that made us who we were, we got it back. And it’s such a superpower when we’re together.

In the end, thankfully we know that it doesn’t matter when you don’t win. You still remain yourself and you still are capable of making great art with or without people patting you on the back. But, fuck yeah, we want to experience it as the people we are today, with Zac, who is invaluable to this band creatively and as a person. That’s the truth. It doesn’t always feel good to be like, “We want to win.” But it would be sweet.

Paramore’s place in the “rock” conversation evolves so frequently because of the fluidity of the band’s sound. What do you remember feeling when Paramore won Best Rock Song in 2015 for “Ain’t It Fun,” which has so many pop and gospel elements?
I was in Europe when I found out that we got nominated — could not believe it, had not sought to worry about whether we wouldn’t be nominated, or we would be. And then when we won it, we didn’t go. I got a text from Taylor Swift and Taylor York in the same 30 seconds. Taylor, she just texted me a bunch of capital letters, like “[random noises] so excited for you!” I was so shocked.

And then Taylor — he may have even called me — he was choked up, tearing up because he couldn’t believe it. He was watching the pre-show and he heard them say our names. My ass didn’t even know that that existed. We were really shocked, especially because we were not a rock band compared to that category at the time. We got a lot of flack for not being as rock as those other people. But it also meant a lot to me when people said, “You’re the first female artist to win this category since Alanis [Morissette, in 1999].” I felt really honored and proud that Taylor and I wrote something that could be recognized that way.

I always think about the albums that were released two or three years ago that were branded as “pandemic records.” Now everything that was on those records has been integrated into our day-to-day life. The isolation, the anxiety, the lack of empathy — all of it just part of a new normal. How did you think about the mirror This Is Why created to the outside world as you were making it? 
Making This Is Why was not a comfortable experience for any of us. There was already anxiety about getting back in the groove of creating stuff together after some time apart. We were hanging out plenty, but we weren’t making things. Zac was doing Half Noise and I made a couple projects, one with Taylor which Zac played on. Being like, “Okay, we’re gonna go for Paramore,” that was anxiety inducing. And then also the world was still scary and nothing ever feels certain anymore, really.

I felt a lot of anxiety about being around people again, that weren’t just in my bubble. And knowing that on the other side of finishing the record I was going to enter the world again was really scary. Not because I thought, “I’m gonna catch COVID.” I didn’t get COVID until we started touring again. It was more about what that did to me in my mind. Part of me had gotten really used to just seeing the people that I know, personally, and that I have all this context for — my family, my bandmates, whatever. And now I have to go be around all sorts of people. People that probably don’t feel the same way, or we don’t align politically. I just don’t know how I’m gonna feel. I don’t know what that’s gonna look like. I don’t know if people are gonna like this version of me and/or Paramore.

And experiencing the anxiety together of like, “Wait, we have to invite the whole world to our doorstep again and we have to actually leave and be outside when it’s time to be outside again?” It’s scary shit but, again, I think being able to sit with any type of discomfort is only going to teach you things. It’s only going to grow you. That’s the thing I’m most sure of.

Towards the end of the tour, you developed a lung infection and tried to push through before making that decision to cancel so you could get better. What kind of dissonance did that create between your mind and your body?
Oh man, it was devastating. Being on tour is hard on the body, it’s hard on the brain. But those two hours that you get with those people that are there at the show, it’s like nothing else. Especially when the world feels like it’s quite literally crumbling around us, to be able to experience people’s joy each night is a real gift because you can very easily forget that that type of joy exists when you’re just online or you see the news. That was really healing for me and I think it probably got me through more shows than I should have gotten through, even the last show before we ended up ultimately having to pull off the road.

I knew that I felt horrible, but I walked out with the guys during the intro and the minute that I saw the people in the front — some of which I recognized very quickly — I was like, “This is fine. I’m gonna get through this.” And I found myself coughing a lot, I was trying to speak and I was struggling. It’s funny how you can really disconnect from that. The physical and spiritual experience that you get on stage is somehow simultaneously the most present that I ever am in my body, and then at the same time, it’s this out-of-body, wonderful soul experience that you can’t duplicate doing anything else.

Have you gotten any closer to understanding the distinction between selfishness and self-preservation?
I’m still trying. I was talking to Zac and Taylor about this recently. Sometime in the middle of this tour, we all started getting really excited about making new music again. We’re just ready to be back in the studio. And we still have plenty of shows — we’re going to do the Eras tour next summer, we have the New Zealand/Australia run, there’s a couple of dates happening early next year. But there’s something that we all are metabolizing finally, about the last few years of the band, but also existing. There’s a lot of lessons that have sat on the surface, like when you try to rub lotion in and it just sits on top of your skin and you’re like, “Gross.”

But I think that now there’s things that are sinking in that couldn’t have before. I’m excited that we can actually go forward knowing more, or being more than you were before. I’m ready for that and I feel it. Everyday is like, “Gotta be present. Gotta be here.” There’s amazing things happening every single day, whether it’s work or whether it’s just being with my dog and going on a big walk, you know? I need to be here now.

This story is part of Rolling Stone’s fourth annual Grammy Preview issue, released ahead of the start of first-round voting on Oct. 13th. We featured SZA on the cover, spoke to some of the year’s biggest artists about the albums and singles that could earn them a statue come February, made our best predictions for the nominees in the top categories, and more, providing a full guide to what to watch for in the lead-up to the 2024 awards.

From Rolling Stone US