Heather Baron-Gracie of Pale Waves is slowly becoming everything she looked up to as a child. 

Looking back, her musical hero wasn’t ever a typical “girly pop star.” Avril Lavigne made Baron-Gracie feel like she could openly be a tomboy, put down the Barbies and ride a skateboard with messy hair and a runny nose. 

Read more: QUIZ: Which All Time Low era are you the most like?

So as the vocalist now embarks on her band’s new era—one met with just as much tragedy as triumph—she’s watching that same feeling translate to her young fans. She’s more open with her sexuality than ever on the Manchester group’s upcoming February record, Who Am I? and it's inspiring a new generation of young women looking for a nonconformist to make them feel heard again. 

The road to Who Am I? has been hectic, to say the least. Baron-Gracie’s bandmates—drummer Ciara Doran, guitarist Hugo Silvani and bassist Charlie Wood—were involved in a serious bus crash several months back. They then worked to complete a record with members and producers all across the globe during the pandemic. And, more than anything, they’ve changed. 

Baron-Gracie opened up about the year that’s come to define her band’s ever-changing journey. Who Am I? is set to release Feb. 12 via Dirty Hit, and it’s just what Baron-Gracie wanted it to be. 

A lot has happened since the last record. You've opened up about your own personal triumphs, difficulties with the bus crash and recording at a distance. I'm curious as to what you think the biggest difficulty or triumph has been that Pale Waves have had on this road to Who Am I? 

I think for obviously the rest of the members, it would have been the bus crash. But I wasn't involved in the bus crash. I actually flew to Berlin because I didn't want to do that drive, so I wasn't on there, but I think that will probably be the hardest thing of their whole entire career. Because the worst thing you could ever experience is being on an actual bus crashing. And I've seen it change them. Obviously, with something so distraught and something so unimaginable happening like that, it's really stuck with them. But I feel like they've grown as people, and hopefully they will continue to grow as people and bounce back from it and become stronger from it. 

“Change” is a real winner of a lead single. You and the group have clearly changed significantly. Did that personal and sonic growth inspire the themes on this track at all?

A hundred percent. The more I grew up and emotionally developed, because I feel like I have done so much of that in this past year-and-a-half, it made me come to the realization of how people around me were acting. And how they were treating me. And on that specific day when I wrote “Change,” I felt really frustrated with them in general. Because when I went on a journey to become a better person, it opened my eyes to how people treat me. That's how "Change" came about because I analyzed the people around me even more so on that day. I wanted to write about it. I want to put it into art how I always do to make me feel better and get it out. 

You can really feel it at its core that this is a sound that you grew up on. It calls back to so much that we know and love, with Avril Lavigne and early ’00s pop rock or pop punk. How important was this to convey?

I feel like this album is childhood for me. It's the music that I grew up with. And I didn't want to do another record that was really '80s-inspired synth-pop music. I was done with that. I was over it. And I wanted to move on. And this is what I know best. This is what I've only ever known. And now this is the core of me. This is what founded my love for music and from the earliest days. So it's the easiest kind of music for me to write. And of course, Avril is a massive inspiration. There's no denying that she was my childhood hero. 

Is there a record or track of hers that you hold super close right now? 

I go through various songs of hers and don't have one in particular that sticks with me, which is weird because she's one of my favorite artists. I only really listen to her first three albums the most. That's the era I feel really connected to, not so much the stuff that came after that, but I can just listen to those three albums all day. [They’re] just so good. I think it's because she was not the typical girly pop star. And that's what I really admired because I was a tomboy. I was the kid that was on a skateboard with messy hair and the runny nose. I didn't want to play with Barbies and put makeup on. 

She was that to you. But do you ever have young kids come up to you and talk to you about your influence on them? 

It's crazy. Just with their sexuality, too, obviously [with] me being so open all about my sexuality, so it gives them great comfort and reminds them that they're not alone and [that] they should be proud of who they are and their sexuality. And I feel like, not just in terms of sexuality, [I’m] a person to speak up, a person to not be silenced, and I feel like young girls really need someone to look up to these days to remind them that they don't have to all be the same person. It's OK to be an outsider or to not fit the norm. 

Let’s get more into this record. The recording process was a bit unique with everyone across the globe. Are you still glad you personally were able to get this thing done on your end in L.A.? What type of feeling does recording in L.A. offer to the process?

I feel like it's just a really encouraging and inspiring place because there are so many creative people. And I feel like there’s an overall attitude of L.A., and the people are always striving for better and striving to become the best that we can be. And I think that really inspires me. If I tried to write the record here in London, I know for a fact it would have been different. Eventually, I was in such a better place, and I was feeling really inspired, and I wanted to get the best record that I possibly could get out of me. And I think L.A. helped that in many ways. 

Can you break down this album title for me? Where were you when you thought of it?

I wrote 90% of the album, and I was like, "Gosh, I've still not got the name," and my label hounded me for the name. I'm not going to force a name to this album because it's so important to me. And I put so much of myself into this album. And then we were on tour in Europe. Touring is something that I really struggle with when it's done in large amounts, when you feel like your whole entire year is just being on tour. I think mentally and even physically it can be really draining, and you need a break as a human being or you start to lose your mind a bit. 

And on a certain date, I can't remember where we were. It might have been Copenhagen. And I was feeling so many emotions, so many negative emotions that sometimes I get. I go through different stages, like the depressive state and this freak-out state of being like, "Oh, my God, I don't know if this is what I want to do in my life."  My whole band and everyone went out, and I locked myself in the bathroom, took my guitar and I wrote the track "Who Am I?" And it's just to cry out for help. And it's just me screaming to myself essentially that I need to figure out who I am as a human being and what my priorities are in life. I need to figure out what brings me the most happiness.

And then that track was just like, “Wow, this summarizes this entire album” because as you said before, it's like my journey to becoming a better person. And as I said, I got that feeling. 

Are you confident that when this record comes out, its themes will still be just as relevant as they were when you wrote that track, as they were as you talk to me now? Is this a record that will continue to be relevant for you? 

As a human being at a certain point, usually in our mid-20s. Well, I'm 25 now, and that's when it hit me [that] you reflect on a lot of your past behavior. You want to grow up, become a better person, become more emotionally intelligent, educate yourself more. And you get to that point in your life where you’re like, "OK, I'm done acting like a kid now. I don't want to do that anymore." As human beings, we're always striving to become a better version of ourselves and go on that journey of self-discovery. I feel like that is endless for everyone, and everyone should and needs to experience that desire to become a better person. 

The other theme is my sexuality. And I feel like that is obviously going to still be relevant. And so many of my friends and I struggle with that, and a lot of the parents aren't accepting of that. That's a huge comfort blanket for all of those people. And then other themes are what it's like to be a woman.

Read more: Mikey Way honors MCR's 'Danger Days' anniversary with this throwback

Especially in these given times, I feel like a song like that is so important for women and for women to relate to and just as an anthem for women. Stop fucking telling us what to do, and stop telling us how to look and act and speak, and stop telling us that we need to look pretty. We need those sort of songs out there in the world. The world is becoming a better place, and we are moving forward. But we need to continue to do that. And, you know, there are other themes like mental health and how I struggle with depressive states. 

So I feel like the themes on this album are really universal and will be timeless and connect with people next year and then maybe another 10 years on.