To celebrate BUST’s 25thanniversary, we’re bringing some of our favorite cover stories online. Here’s our interview with Hayley Williams of Paramore from our December/January 2014 issue.
By some measures, Hayley Williams, the lead singer of the pop-punk band Paramore, seems like a fairly regular 25-year-old. She crafts her ass off, shops at thrift stores, and loves to experiment with hair dye. In fact, despite her hordes of Twitter followers (around 3.5 million at last count), the numerous Web sites devoted to her opinions and outfits, and the way-too-obsessive media analysis of her comings-and-goings, Williams is shockingly normal. So normal that, while talking to her, you almost forget that while your average Tuesday-night plans revolve around watching House Hunters, hers might consist of playing a sold-out show at London’s Wembley Arena. (At press time, Paramore’s new single, “Still Into You,” was number one on the U.K. rock charts.) Fact is, she’s kind of a big deal. All of her band’s four albums (All We Know Is Falling, Riot!, Brand New Eyes, and Paramore) have gone gold or platinum, and she was even the first playable female character in the massively popular Guitar Hero video game series.
When performing, Williams is like a bottle rocket, bouncing across the stage in Converse sneakers while she thrashes her red-orange hair. It’s a persona as bold as her throaty voice, which she employs on her band’s up-tempo hard-rock anthems and the occasional ballad. In a similar vein as No Doubt and Avril Lavigne, Paramore plays what you might call “happy punk,” and as a result, the band (and Williams herself) has been criticized by the rock press for being nothing more than pop fluff. And since critics are typically harsh on any band that’s got teenage girls as fans, there’s been plenty of indie snobbery directed at Paramore. But even if you aren’t a fan of her music, Williams deserves your attention because, unlike any female pop idol in recent memory, she is leading her young followers right into the mouth of feminism. She’s spoken out about sexism and misogyny in the music industry; supports Love146, a charity that fights sex trafficking; and instructed her blog’s followers to read Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus’ riot grrrl history book. And one more thing: she actually says she’s a feminist.
Williams started chasing her musical dreams in 2002, when she moved from her hometown in Mississippi to Franklin, TN, and started taking voice lessons in nearby Nashville. She was signed to Atlantic Records in 2003, at a jaw-dropping age 14. But instead of becoming the pop diva her managers had imagined, she insisted that she wanted to front an alternative band. Around the same time, she befriended some boys from her church who were putting together a fledgling rock group (though not playing specifically Christian rock). The label agreed to take on the whole band, and in 2005, Paramore’s first album was released; Williams was a mere 16 years old at the time. That album, All We Know Is Falling, was well-reviewed but only a minor success, sales-wise. But everything changed in 2007 with their next release, Riot!—it went platinum and cemented Paramore as a pop-punk Billboard-chart staple.
Then in 2010, things took a dramatic turn in Paramore world; two of its founding members (one of whom was Williams’ ex-boyfriend) left the group. An open letter they posted to the Web soon afterward was ultraspecific about the reasons for the split: the departing members stated they’d left in part because the direction Paramore was headed in conflicted with their Christian beliefs and partly because they were sick of “riding on the coattails of ‘Hayley’s dream.’” But while those former band members might not agree, let’s be frank—Paramore owes more than a little of its success to Williams’ abilities. To wit: when I ask a friend if she knows of the band, she responds immediately, “Is that the one with the really awesome lady lead singer?” The departure of the two members certainly didn’t destroy the group; in fact, its first album since they left, 2013’s self-titled release, received near-universal critical acclaim, getting glowing reviews in everything from Entertainment Weekly to The New York Times.
That band spat wasn’t the only indignity Williams has suffered in the public eye. Later that same year, a topless photo of her leaked online and had every rock ‘n’ roll fanboy panting and/or discussing her boob size. But Williams weathered the storm with aplomb, joking about the incident in the press and emerging with her rep intact.
She may be the frontwoman of one of the most successful rock acts around, but Williams still communicates openly with her fans on the Web; she’s more than willing to let them see behind the curtain of her stardom. Posting a pic to her Instagram account in which a magazine had mocked one of her outfits, she joked, “Getting a fashion ‘don’t’ credit is like winning grand supreme to me. Thank you for acknowledging my indifference to all your expectations of me.” The ’gram got more than 55,000 “likes” from her followers. That, too, is an important aspect of Williams’ place in pop culture: her fans don’t just follow her, they idolize her. In countless glowing posts on tribute Web sites, they call her “fierce and dynamic,” their hero, a goddess, their “biggest inspiration,” and, of course, their role model.
With so much attention directed at Williams, we were flattered and surprised that she was paying attention to BUST, Tweeting at us a bunch of times in recent months. And when she agreed to be on our cover, she was so psyched to chat about feminism and the mag that she specifically requested to be interviewed by one of our staffers. Our extremely fun, pretense-free conversation revealed that Williams is just a laid-back tomboy who isn’t capable of pretending to be anything she’s not. Though she got, by her own account, “maybe 10 minutes of sleep” the night before our interview, Williams was completely charming throughout. This rock star is refreshingly real.
When we heard you liked BUST, we were all wondering, “How the hell does she know about us?”
First of all, I’m having the same thoughts, oh my God. I don’t know how the hell you know who I am, and I’m so excited—nerding out. My grandmother actually bought me a subscription for Christmas last year—we saw [the magazine] at Whole Foods, and there were all these crafts and DIY stuff, and that’s right up my alley. I can’t tell you how excited and really honored I am that I get to be on the cover. It’s gonna blow my mind when I see it. I’m gonna piss my latex pants.
When you were a kid, what did you imagine you’d be doing at this age?
Man, I always wanted to be in a band. When I was in first or second grade, I would go around and recruit people into this “band” that I apparently was in. I think the camaraderie of the whole thing really appealed to me; I liked the idea that you’re this little gang of friends, and you travel the world and play your songs. It wasn’t until I was 9 or 10 that I started truly enjoying singing, and when I got a little bit older, people started telling me that I had a good voice. I also very much wanted to get out of my hometown in Mississippi, and music always seemed like the perfect way to just sort of…not really escape but just have a good time, you know? To live an amazing, full life.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Yeah, I do! I’m not a super-political person, but for me, [feminism is] a very social thing—I look at young girls and I’m like, “I want to empower you. I want you to feel how I feel on my strongest, best days, all the time.” But yeah, I absolutely identify with feminism, and I’m really proud that I’m coming up in a generation that is taking the reins. I certainly wasn’t as smart or as driven, nor was I as open and as educated as a lot of young girls that I see coming up right now; for instance, Rookie mag and the girls behind it, like Tavi [Gevinson]. I think about being her age, and how naïve I was to all of the things that she’s really on top of and wants to make a difference in. But damn, it’s so awesome to be a girl, and it’s so awesome to feel empowered.
When someone asks me, “Are you a feminist?” I’m gonna say yes. ’Cause I’m a girl—why wouldn’t I be?I don’twantto wear nothing on stage. That’s just not me.
While there are a lot of young women who very proudly identify as feminists, tons of other women in the media spotlight shy away from labeling themselves. Do you think it’s important to call yourself a feminist?
I think it is important to identify yourself that way. I think that if we’re still talking about birth control being taken away and a million issues that are just from the Stone Age.… It’s important for women to band together, feel proud and strong, and work really hard to be heard. But I would say for me personally, when someone asks me, “Are you a feminist?” then I’m gonna say yes. You know why? ’Cause I’m a girl—why wouldn’t I be?
I Googled the hell out of you, and the level to which people online are observing you, analyzing you, and talking about your relationships is insane. As far as teenage girls looking up to you, are there things that you want to impress upon them? Do you feel responsible for them?
I feel a certain sense of responsibility, just because I know that I have this microphone, and I can say what I feel. I want people to feel something that moves them in our music. And I want, especially the young girls who come to our shows, to feel that it could be them on stage. I can’t feel responsible for every single person—I have more of a goal of just making a positive impact as a whole, though I know that’s cliché. I think I just have to go out and be who I am, and know that mistakes come with that too, and be ready to apologize if that happens. Or be ready to notapologize and say, “You know what? This is my life. This is the way I’m living it.”
You’ve experienced some major violations of privacy, like that leaked topless photo and what occurred during the splintering of the band. Do you ever fantasize about chucking it all and doing something else?
Have you been reading my journal? When all that stuff was going down, whether it was, as we like to call it, the tit pic, or the band splitting or losing friends, I imagined owning a tiny little café in my hometown, in Franklin, Tennessee, and working there every day. I’d clean dishes and feed people, and they’d know that I was in Paramore and it was an awesome time in my life, but no one would really give a crap what I’m doing—they’d just wanna eat and have coffee.
And you’re gonna have a dog, right?
Oh my God, yeah! I’m gonna have a goldendoodle. I don’t know what his name will be—I haven’t thought quite that far yet. But I do fantasize about a very normal life. It’s weird because I spent so much of my life fantasizing about the life that I’m living now. But yeah, I absolutely escape into that part of my mind, when things are just really overwhelming or sad. It’s not the easiest life, but I’m definitely thankful for it. If it means that people do violate my privacy and they’re a little too curious, then you know what? Who cares? I get to do what I really wanted to do my whole life.
I was watching this year’s VMAs, and at one point, there were, like, 100 nude women on stage, literally crawling on the ground. As a feminist, how do you keep sane within the pop-music world?
I’ve been really struggling with the VMAs—with my opinions on it and whether or not to even say what I think. I know it’s a perception of a lot of people that a musician’s label directs them to do certain things. But I would really like to believe that most artists in this day and age have the last word. So if those artists are choosing to wear that stuff, then I guess more power to them. But it sucks to me more that Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke both put out videos, within weeks of each other, of literally just naked women—and that’s being passed off as “artistic,” but it’s really just about YouTube views. I was reading an interview with Miley Cyrus talking about the “Wrecking Ball” video, and she said how she was really excited for people to see it because it’s so artistic. And I just wonder, Who is telling you all you gotta do is take off your clothes, and that’s suddenly art? The female body is the most beautiful thing in the world, and I can see how people say, “Well this is very artistic and beautiful.” Yeah, in the right context. But speaking of “Blurred Lines,” are the lines really so blurry that now we can make a video that really is just a couple of women butt-ass naked, and now you’re calling that art? I don’t want to wear nothing on stage. That’s just not me. And I don’t think the guys will be doing that anytime soon, although I think that would be great.
Do you still identify as a Christian, and if so, how does that work for you, being in the pop world?
I do identify as a Christian; however, I will say that my beliefs have changed quite a bit since I was kid and was first learning Bible stories and going to Sunday school. I realized how closed-minded my upbringing was and how much more rooted in religion it was than in an actual relationship with the God that I say I believe in. Like, I’m not gonna come over and bash all your gay friends, because I don’t think that [homosexuality is] wrong. I’m not that kind of Christian. But I would never deny my faith. It’s something that’s mine.
After the band splintered, I read the letter the departing members put on the interwebs. In it, there was the accusation that you took over the band and forced everyone else into the role of your backup. But that sounded like some sexist garbage disparaging a woman in power. It seems rare that people accuse a frontman of doing that.
Yeah, exactly! And that’s something I struggled with for a really long time in this band. When I was 16, I wouldn’t even put on Chapstick for photographers because I literally just wanted to be one of the guys. I just wanted to blend in so badly. That letter was really funny to me, because if only people knew how many things I’ve turned down in order for it to not turn into “The Hayley Show.” I turned down so many magazine covers, so many movie opportunities, licensing deals—things that, to me, meant that I would be walking away from what is actually my priority and where my heart is, and that’s Paramore. Plenty of labels wanted me to be a solo singer—plenty of ’em. There were other roads I could’ve taken, but why would I want to do that? I love being in a band. I love my friends. I grew up with these guys.
I watched your episode of MTV Cribs, and I saw your collection of Lucille Ball dolls. What’s her appeal for you?
I wasn’t allowed to watch most TV as a kid, but I was allowed to watch Nick at Nite to my heart’s content. I would go to bed every night after watching I Love Lucy. I love a funny woman. There are plenty of funny dudes and goofy dads on sitcoms, but Lucy did it in a way that was really cool. I just wanted to be her—I wanted to be that mischievous and curious and crazy. She really could have everything to do with why my hair is red.
What’s the first thing you do when you go home from a tour?
When I go home, I just wanna maybe watch TV, cook, and paint or decorate something around the house. That’s one of the first things that really drew me to BUST—those cool crafts. While we were living in L.A. making the [most recent] record, I would go to my friend Keira’s house every week for Craft Thursdays. It was so good for us, because you could really let go, and you have conversations with people that you wouldn’t normally have, since you’re focused on something else. I’ve never had a ton of girlfriends, but it was a really cool time in my life; I got to know a few girls in L.A. and do crafts. I’m really obsessed with this blog called A Beautiful Mess.
Oh my God I love that blog. Her crafts are so amazing.
Dude, I know! I will never be at that Martha Stewart level. I gotta step it up. That goes back to my “normal” fantasy. In my head, there’s a world where I’m sitting at a table, doing crafts all day.
Story by Molly Simms // Photos by Emily Shur
Styled by JAK // Makeup by Gregory Arit // Hair by Brian O’Connor
This article originally appeared in BUST's December/January 2014 edition. Subscribe today!
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