[INTERVIEW] Hayley Williams Looks Back on ‘After Laughter’ and the Emotional Road to Paramore’s Local Celebration, Art + Friends

Paramore_Interview-9-18Exit/In. May 10, 2017.

Interview by Philip Obenschain (@pobenschain).
Photos by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

This Friday, at Municipal Auditorium, Paramore will host a celebration of Nashville’s alternative music and arts scene, inviting a handful of excellent opening acts like Bully and Coin to perform, as well as showcasing a variety of local visual artists, small businesses, charitable organizations, and more. Dubbed Art + Friends, this mini fest is not only a love letter to the hometown they so clearly adore, but also a way for Nashville’s most celebrated and communal big-name rock act to conclude the challenging but ultimately triumphant whirlwind of a two-year record cycle for last year’s phenomenal, deeply personal fifth album After Laughter.

Ahead of Art + Friends, we caught up with Paramore singer Hayley Williams to chat about the show, reflect on the difficult road to After Laughter and how it all feels in hindsight, examine the responsibility and vulnerability of working through personal struggles in a public forum, and, of course, discuss her love for Nashville and the comfort of home.

It wasn’t long ago that Williams questioned whether Paramore could, or should, continue on. As the cycle for their eponymous 2013 record came to a close, the band had become a duo, feeling overwhelmed and embattled by personal and professional strife, the weight of which made Paramore seem untenable. But, instead of some grand public proclamation of a split, Williams and bandmate Taylor York wisely chose to lay low and regroup, York pushing forward on song ideas which, slowly but surely, clicked with Williams and began bringing After Laughter to life.

Once again working with Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who helmed Paramore, sharing production duties with York, After Laughter marked a major milestone for the group, as it’s their first record crafted entirely at home, from early living room writing sessions to completion at historic RCA Studio B. It’s that reconnection with Nashville, it seems, along with their reunion with founding drummer Zac Farro, who originally departed the band in 2010, and returned, initially to help record and then as a full-fledged member, at the start of last year, that has helped Paramore find their identity and passion again, stripping away all of the drama and expectations and commercial aspirations to simply return to being friends making honest music at home for people they cherish.

Ending a tour which has seen the band traverse the globe with a show back home feels like the only proper conclusion, especially since it caps off a run that began with a surprise return to stage at Exit/In last spring (and has included stops at The Ryman, Bonnaroo, and even The End along the way). “I feel it more in all areas of my life now, being connected to this community. That’s why we felt like we had to do something for the end of this that actually acknowledges a huge character in this story, and that’s Nashville,” Williams explains, “I think [Art + Friends is] going to be dripping with sentiment, and I’ll probably cry, because I cry all the time. But I don’t want to forget, I want to stay aware the whole time of why it’s happening.”

Paramore_Interview9-18-Insert1With HalfNoise at Lucky Bamboo. April 8, 2017.

Though she’s resided in the area (initially Franklin, where Paramore notably formed) since her early teens, Hayley’s been a professional musician now for nearly half her life, often finding herself on the road or away, feeling less dialed into the local scene. More recently, she’s made an effort to reconnect, frequenting small shows and art galleries, local boutiques and favorite haunts, experiencing Nashville like any hip, art-minded 20-something. She recounts going to her first house show in years last summer for the release of her friend’s photo book, also reminiscing of a former punk space called “The Gingerbread House” where she used to attend shows almost a decade ago. “It just made me feel so happy for young people” she tells me, describing that recent house show, “There’s so much heart. Everybody wants to make things the right way. There’s so much good art happening in Nashville, and it’s amazing.”

It’s easy sometimes to forget that Paramore have earned a Grammy, achieved platinum records and chart-topping hits, and are, undeniably, world famous. It’s not something they seem to care about or strive for, and certainly not something that they boast about. It’s not uncommon for artists with similar achievements to change, to get preoccupied by fame and success, and to lose a connection to the community and lifestyle that informed their art in the first place. This couldn’t be farther from the low-key life Williams and her bandmates seem to lead; they remain fans, and continue to attend shows of all sizes and to seek out new art, a quality, I believe, is essential in keeping established artists innovative and relevant in crafting their own music.

Williams seems to agree. “I wonder if it makes you feel like you know everything, like there’s not anything new to learn or discover?,” she ponders, about the prospect of losing a connection to new music, “It keeps me feeling young. I know that I’m not old, but to have started going to shows at 13 years old, and playing in my own band by the time we were 16, it’s been a long time. I think the only thing that could keep that fresh is if I was willing or open or interested in seeing new things, and seeing things I don’t even know a lot about. I just roll up to a show because I like being around other people who like music.”

Paramore_Interview_9-18-Insert2The Ryman Auditorium. Oct. 17, 2017.

As After Laughter winds down and Paramore prepare to take some time off, it feels like a good time to reexamine the band’s most trying chapter, which resulted in their best, most personal release ever. Sonically, the album takes cues from artsy post-punk greats like Talking Heads in equal measure with modern indie acts such as Tame Impala, though despite its poppy, often dance-primed veneer, it’s lyrically and thematically Paramore’s most raw, sad, and transparent album to date.

I ask Hayley if it feels like much time has passed, since early demos in 2015, recording throughout 2016, and nearly a year and a half on the road. She considers the question, and thoughtfully responds, “I’ve had so many moments, like where I can remember going out to the ocean with Zac, one of our first big hangs while making the record, just us being friends again. I can close my eyes and I’m there, but I also feel like ‘wow, we’ve changed and gone through so much since then.’ We’ve made an entire album and put it out and toured the world, and had so many dinners and holidays together. The same thing with thinking about writing some of these songs with Taylor in a tiny studio in Berry Hill. I feel very tired, so my body’s aware it’s been time, but I’m also kind of savoring and reveling in all of these nostalgic moments and the sentiment of being able to finish something we started and still be so content with it, or at peace about it.”

While a collaborative effort musically, After Laughter is an especially personal expression for Williams, whose willingness to funnel into her art and begin a public dialogue about her personal struggles and dark, low periods before and during the record’s creation, has given her relationship with fans and sense of responsibility for her platform a new dynamic. “I feel like this is the first album that I can be hanging around doing something out in Nashville, and someone might come up to me and start talking about the band, and in the past I probably would have left that interaction feeling like it was all about me, and feel kind of gross about it. Now, I feel like because I’ve been able to open up more about things that were really tough to talk about, other people feel that they might be able to open up more if we run into each other. If they want to express or talk about that, then I walk away from the interaction feeling like ‘wow, what a crazy thing that music can do to us, that we can connect.’ That’s the thing that I’ve taken away from this album the most,” she explains, “how much more I feel like I can see people, because I allowed people to see me. I think it’s all about empathy, and that’s been a key word these past two years.”

“Has it been a strange experience to be someone who makes music that lots of people hear and to be in the public eye, to be so transparent about personal struggles and what you’ve worked through and everything that went into making this record, to create that dialogue?,” I wonder, noting it must be a strange thing to have such a powerful platform to express feelings so many people can so personally relate to. “I was talking to Taylor about this the other day,” she responds, “he was like ‘a lot of people that come to our shows are probably going through things that we’ll never know about,’ and really the only reason is because we have a platform that more people can look onto. But really, everyone’s going through what we’re going through, and why is it that we get to express it in a way that might feel like we get a bit more feedback, might get a bit more bounce back. And that’s satisfying, because sometimes I think experiencing anything, half of your experience is the response it it, how you’re able to speak your mind into existence.”

“I’ve always needed that as a writer,” she continues,” I just need to be able to see it, I need it to have a place or else it gets jumbled. So I feel constantly super grateful, because I know a lot of people don’t have that type out outlet, or they haven’t found it, whatever that outlet is where they feel like they’re getting the right kind of feedback. Clearly what could just be commentary on my own experiences becomes a conversation, because we put it in a song that everyone can hear. I mean, I’m thankful for it, but I don’t always feel like I deserve it, and sometimes I wonder if I abuse it. But I love that it’s there.”

Paramore_Interview_9-18-Insert3Bonnaroo. June 8, 2018.

At this start of this experience, After Laughter existed out of necessity, an outlet to regroup, to bond, to recalibrate, and to work through personal struggle. Of course, as soon as it entered the world as a finished album, one that fans could connect with and derive their own meaning from, dance to and experience in concert, it inherently became something more widespread and different from its intimate origins. Looking back at the last couple of years, the hardships that led to this period in the band’s history, the good times, like Zac coming back into the fold and tours across the globe and positive feedback, I ask Hayley if, as she’s starting to come out of it, if she can appreciate the difficult road in hindsight.

“Yeah, I can, I really can,” she tells me. “I mean it every night on stage when I’ve been talking about the song ‘26,’ and saying two years ago when we started making this album and physically writing, I never would have imagined playing these songs and smiling at the same time. We still haven’t played ‘Tell Me How,’ and when I listen to it, at this point now it’s been two years, I can make it all the way through the last line and I just fall part. I never would have imagined smiling and dancing to ‘Caught in the Middle,’ but it’s one of my favorite things to do now. That’s a testament to the fact that when you can express and get something out of your system, it’s the first step to actually healing, but then when you actually have support in that healing and you’re able to laugh and enjoy conversation, I feel like I’ve been able to be as present as I’ve ever been in my entire life and that’s a huge gift, because we’re not always in that mindset. I’m going to be sad to let it go, but I also know by now that everything happens when it’s supposed to, and whatever happens next, we can’t get there in our lives unless we acknowledge this for what it was.”

What is next, exactly? “We’re ready to come home,” Hayley explains, “I’m not even sure if I totally know what that statement means yet, but it’s nice to feel like we’re closing a chapter, but also opening such a new, unknown chapter. It’s comforting when we finish a tour to know we’re going to fly into an airport here, and this is where we rest. It’s so nice, because it constantly reminds me of everything good that ever happened to me in my life.” There’s no master plan, no strategic timing to this break, nothing new to announce (though an eventual sixth LP seems much more certain than the fifth ever was). “We’re going to play this show, we’re going to be back home, and we’re probably going to go back to one of our houses and toast each other and be emotional wrecks, then we’ll live here, and we’ll just be hiding in plain sight again, enjoying art and enjoying whatever real life is.” And after one final, community-focused party, that sounds like a fitting chapter marker to the most cathartic and important era of Paramore yet.

Paramore_Inteview_9-18-Insert4Exit/In. May 10, 2017.

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