In 2020, the idea of a Hayley Williams solo record seemed like a very surreal thing to grasp. The way Hayley has always advocated for her life as a musician to be surrounded by people she grew up with, along with people she trusted, made it kind of shocking to hear she would be releasing her first solo record, Petals for Armor. She’d once said that being a solo artist sounded lonely to her; she couldn’t imagine life where she would be on a bus and her Paramore bandmates and people she calls family (drummer Zac Farro, and lead guitarist Taylor York) weren’t there. However, this was not the case for her once this solo project came to exist.
In order to go from (paraphrasing) “solo work is off the table” to releasing now two solo records in a year, there is a lot to unpack and attempt to fold with that. We started to see a lot of new emotions and topics explored surrounding Paramore’s 2017 release After Laughter, including depression and anxiety. We would come to find out a lot of that record was dealing with the separation and eventual divorce of Hayley’s first husband and how she was dealing with PTSD and trauma in its wake.
Although the name “Hayley Williams” is an engrained household name — even to those who might not know her outside the name or heard any music she’s ever been part of, whether it was one of her collaborations or with Paramore — she has kept her personal life under lock and key. Despite having relatable and earnest lyrics since she was 15 years old, we only knew what we as fans could interpret through her lyrics… until recently.
Around After Laughter’s record cycle and press, Hayley began to be more candid than she had been up until this release. She was open about going to therapy, taking medications for her mental health, and dealing with trauma and PTSD. She didn’t talk very much about her divorce at this point in time — she would say a blurb here and there. In her most vulnerable interview with L’odet, she mentioned she loved her (ex) husband as a brother, and that’s how she knew there was something wrong. At the time of me reading this, I felt there was more to that story. But as a stranger on the outside, I accepted her words and moved on. In that same interview, she mentioned she had gone to a therapist who told her when she woke up “you are now surrounded by flowers” and Hayley had envisioned during that session that flowers were growing out of her — not in a beautiful way, but a more grotesque and painful way. Once clues started to surface, fans put it together and came to the conclusion that this was when Petals for Armor was born.
Although this piece is about Flowers for Vases/descansos, I feel it’s important to touch on the significance of both records, and the difference and importance for them both to exist. Petals for Armor featured Farro, York and Joey Howard (touring bass player in Paramore) with York putting on his producer hat for the first time — and a list of other notable friends that had helped shape Paramore whether it was influence or making records. The album also featured backing vocals from Boygenius (Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker), and Mike Weiss (guitarist of the band mewithoutYou) on guitar for the song “Creepin”. The record didn’t feel like a solo record — it very much felt the way Williams described it: an extension of Paramore.
Petals for Armor was a stand out because it got more candid than we’ve ever seen. The song “Dead Horse” was the first time Hayley had mentioned “being the other woman” which she has since mentioned was due to it being something she felt shame in for a long time. Fans were surprised to hear her get this candid and vulnerable with them, with something that was almost taboo to talk about. In her NPR Tiny Desk concert, she improvised lyrics at the end of the song where she sang “I stuck around and held you down while you fucked around with everyone in town” and added at the end of her lyric “when I said goodbye I hope you cried” a good, hearty “bitcccchhh!” So needless to say, there’s a stark difference in the way 2017 Hayley was talking about her past to 2020 Hayley, and I think it’s healthy and much needed for her. I was also a fan of her pouring cement in her wedding shoes in the video, I thought that was a very good touch.
Petals for Armor also gave us the first time Hayley has ever really swore on a song. When she released “Simmer” and the line “a fucker like that man” first hit everyone’s ears, I think I speak for most fans when I say it was a clear line in the sand of what lyrical content and subject matter this record would give us. The roll out of this record was also unique (and discussed by many with mixed feelings, weirdly enough). Hayley has mentioned she was rolling it out in 3 parts to celebrate the way she wrote it, and the way she wanted the listener to feel and connect to it. Everything around this project was personal. Lindsey Byrnes (photographer, creative director and close friend of Hayley) mentioned the album cover’s shade of pink was taken from Hayley’s lips and said the record is very much all parts of who she is.
It’s worth noting that Hayley has been very insistent on celebrating and giving credit to everyone who has helped with Petals for Armor, whether it was the videos, choreography, production, dancers, etc. You can tell she wanted fans and critics alike to know this is not solo; this is just her being a musician and needing an outlet to convey the feelings she needed to get out. Petals for Armor felt personal. As a listener, I enjoyed seeing an artist I’ve followed through almost their entire public career go from being polite and not saying a whole lot to “I hope you cry, bitch.”
I’ve mentioned it before, but for the sake of saying it again to people who may not know the other writings I’ve done for Petals for Armor, I will say it again — I very much appreciate and love the symbolism behind the record, but musically I did not enjoy it the way I’ve enjoyed Paramore’s music. However, I love certain tracks such as “Cinnamon”, “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris”, and the hauntingly beautiful “Why We Ever,” and love the entire creation/roll-out including the home movie type cam-corder videos. But musically, it didn’t stick with me that much.
In mid 2020, Taylor Swift released a surprise album titled folklore, which in my opinion was incredible. It showed how much of a raw talent Taylor Swift is; it felt homemade despite her being a larger than life pop artist and household name. Even if the songs were stories and not as personal as Taylor has given us throughout the entirety of her career, it showed her talents in a beautiful way. And then with barely any time passing, she gave us the “sister record”, Evermore. The age of “quarantine made-at-home” music was giving us a taste of our favorite musicians’ real raw talent. Bands like Bully and PVRIS — which have turned into or have always been monikers for the talented women behind fully played and written albums — were already doing it, but now we were starting to see more of it with the pandemic raging on and musicians needing an outlet to express how they’re doing.
Flowers for Vases/descansos, as Hayley called it, was her folklore and was fully written and played by her at her own home, which was a career first for her. Flowers for Vases started out unusual; the roll-out was started with subtle hints on Hayley’s Instagram Stories, and then followed up with sending arms and legs from dolls to select few fans across the country, and then ended with her personally driving to a fan’s house in the middle of the night during the wolf moon and giving her a candle and a burned CD for her to share with a track titled “My Limb”. Then, she didn’t follow up or say anything. Fans just had this track being circulated within the community of each other, and nothing else. Eventually, we got a days notice for what is now known as Flowers for Vases/descansos.
As a fan, hearing the haunting track that is “My Limb,” I expected an acoustic album or maybe something as saturated with moving parts the way Petals for Armor is, but upon first listen I was proved wrong. Hayley has mentioned before how books and television have influenced the writing of Petals for Armor such as “Blue Bird,” “The Red Shoes,” “Skeleton Woman,”etc. and she has done a great job incorporating all of these elements into her newest offerings. There is something about Flowers for Vases/descansos that feels more personal than Petals for Armor it’s the way it feels like a bedroom made album but from one of our generations biggest rock musicians. The way Hayley stripped away her status as a huge and known musician and made an album at home, and the only press for it came from a long time fan “leaking” (with her permission) her first song on the record, and then just letting it exist was something that really set this apart.
Not to discredit Petals for Armor in any way, but that album felt like a launching pad for Hayley to do and go anywhere. She has a first record cemented in the industry that is deeply personal and made with those closest to her, and with Flowers for Vases/descansos she took the opportunity to put out a different form of vulnerability. The album feels so personal, it’s almost as if you feel you found someone’s diary and you’re trying your best not to read it. Phoebe Bridgers is known for her signature style of very specific and personal lyrics, and with Flowers for Vases/descansos you almost get that same feeling… but it also feels incredibly relatable.
Flowers for Vases/descansos feels painful; the way Petals for Armor sounds is almost “I’m getting over the things I’m singing about even if they hurt, but I’m in a better place now so my voice is strong and I feel steady” where Flowers for Vases/descansos sounds like “I’m writing this and playing through the pain, the tissues are next to me in my bed while I play this guitar part, I’m hurting and I want to feel connected so badly” which sums up the year 2020 for a lot of people — the longing for something. The pain and softness Hayley puts on this record very much feels like an indie artist creating “bedroom pop” that will catch everyone’s attention because it’s so relatable, which is strange seeing how Hayley is very much not an indie or underground artist making “bedroom pop”.
descansos: a cross placed at the site of a violent, unexpected death, in memoriam. The highways of the USA are littered with descansos, silent reminders of automobile accidents.
“Descansos” is a haunting track with a piano over what sounds like old home video clips of Hayley as a kid, and it brings you closer to her on this journey through the album. The feeling of being in the room when your friend, partner, or anyone shows you a song they made for the first time is very prominent on this record. The song “Find Me Here,” which was released in a demo version on a 10” Hayley put out in December, is very reminiscent of Bright Eyes’ song “First Day of my Life”. The song “Wait On,” which Hayley had played a two-verse/no-name demo version of on an Instagram Story over the summer, is a beautiful more cheery and bright sounding song that feels hopeful, which is a contrast to the other songs on this record, like “Trigger” or “Just a Lover.”
Overall, for being one of the most recognized names in the last two decades of music and one of the most influential women in music for our generation, Hayley Williams managed to make fans feel as if she was a new budding artist from Nashville who was going through pain in a time most of us were feeling the weight of the world, and she wanted to just have people listen. With no management pushing sales or advertisements, no big label jamming it down anyone’s throat… it was just a musician putting music out. It was that breath of fresh air from someone we are so used to seeing paraded around and having sponsored ads everywhere. Flowers for Vases/descansos shows us that vulnerability and trauma can co-exist and we don’t need to be ashamed to feel anything, and sometimes vulnerability is beautiful.