The tourmates talk generational divides, boosting fellow women, and the best Thai food in Nashville
Sophie Allison was eight years old when Paramore released their debut single “Pressure.” Fronted by Hayley Williams, Paramore was one of the only mainstream pop-punk bands that featured a teenage woman at the helm. She had fiery orange hair to match her stage persona and a warm but unshakeable personality that made Paramore stand apart from other Fueled By Ramen-signees. Williams carved out space for young women in a community that might have welcomed them at shows, but wasn’t necessarily keen to see them onstage. It’s not an exaggeration to assume that there are a lot of outsiders who saw a Paramore music video and decided that they, too, could front a rock band someday. For a certain generation, she is an icon.
Now, Allison fronts a band called Soccer Mommy. She released her debut full-length, Clean, earlier this year, which we named one of the 50 Best Albums Of 2018 So Far. Soccer Mommy are opening for Paramore on the East Coast stretch of their national tour and Allison is playing the biggest rooms she’s ever played. (They’re not even rooms, they’re arenas.) Though Paramore have undergone lineup changes in the years since they first broke the mainstream, the band’s still finding ways to surprise its fans. Last year, they released their new wave and Britpop influenced album After Laughter, which Williams (who is now 29) wrote in the midst of a depressive episode. “You can run on the fumes of being a teenager for as long as you want, but eventually life hits you really hard,” she once said of the album.
After Laughter is Paramore all grown-up. It’s an album that confronts challenges head-on and it gives listeners something they can dance to when the going gets especially tough. To counter that, Soccer Mommy’s Clean finds Allison at a moment in her life where change is the only constant and the simplest moments of adolescent bliss lead to huge revelations.
When I meet Allison and Williams backstage before their show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center it’s apparent that the two have already established a friendship on this tour. Williams has been in this business for a long time, but when we all sit down to talk she listens to Allison with an attentiveness that suggests she can learn from Allison, too, despite their age difference. The two talked about Nashville, their shared hometown, the frustrating aspects of touring with a bunch of guys, and the self-doubt that all musicians struggle with regardless of how successful they are. Read their conversation below.
STEREOGUM: Hayley, why did Paramore decide to bring Soccer Mommy out on tour?
WILLIAMS: Well, first of all this album cycle we’ve just been more intentional I think about really having more women around. For me, it’s a little bit of a selfish thing ‘cause for so long I was always the only female performer on tour. Especially when we were younger and we’d get booked onto other tours I was always the only girl. And it actually affected my sense of femininity and that part of my identity for a long time. So it’s sorta just been natural timing and also our collective interest as a band to have female energy around and obviously the music is awesome too. I mean, the first leg of tour we had Bleached out and that was really, really cool for me because I had known Jen Calvin from the zine that she was doing and Best Coast came out and Beth [Cosentino] and I have been friends for like six or seven years now. With you, Sophie, with Soccer Mommy it was kind of like the Nashville [connection]. What do we want to hear every night when we’re hanging out and who do we want to be in community with? And it’s also interesting ’cause it’s not always easy to hang out on tour, but the vibe’s so good, it’s easy. You guys, I mean I say this to her a million times but you guys sound so damn good every night. We like to have really great music out with us that inspires us. It’s just this incredible bonus that I feel a kinship with other female musicians and it’s really nice to have that. That was a very long winded answer by the way my God. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Paramore came up at a time when there were not a lot of women-fronted bands leading the parade.
WILLIAMS: They weren’t really getting the signal boost that they needed, you know? We were lucky also to be able to kind of stay, stick around through all of that and now be in this moment, this cultural moment, where I feel like people are given their due chances a little bit more often. You still see some imbalance and whatnot, and I’m sure there’ll always be a bit of that, but what I love right now it that there’s such variety and there’s also such quality music being made by women — Soccer Mommy is a great example — there’s great production being done by women. I mean, I’m a really big Grimes fan.
ALLISON: Yes, I love Grimes!
WILLIAMS: She’s incredible. She’s so talented.
STEREOGUM: Sophie, did you grow up a Paramore fan?
ALLISON: I did.
WILLIAMS: Really?! That’s sick.
ALLISON: It’s so embarrassing, but at a rock camp I did “That’s What You Get.”
WILLIAMS: No! Are you kidding me?
ALLISON: Yes, I did!
WILLIAMS: That’s so cool.
ALLISON: So it’s very crazy to be here, obviously. I totally agree with you — it’s so great to get to tour with other women just because it can really suck. I have all guys in my band right now, sometimes that’s different, but just like not having any women around can really suck. Even though I love the guys. There’s so much good music being made [by women]. I always try to pick bands that I want to hear every night. Sometimes people pick opening bands based off of like, you know, the numbers or something and then they hate it the whole time.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, it’s kind of miserable.
ALLISON: I’ve had friends do that and they’re complaining about it the whole time and I’m like: “Pick a different band!” As a headliner, you get to choose them.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, you actually have the power.
ALLISON: Pick a band that you wanna see every night and like, wanna hang out with.
WILLIAMS: I think so too, man. I mean, we’ve opened for really big bands and then we’ve done big tours that we co-headlined and sometimes you compromise on the opening act and we’ve done almost every scenario at this point. And honestly, there’s just nothing better than just taking out your friends. I’m trying to think of a friend’s band that I don’t love and respect their music. I don’t think I have any. I think I like all my friends’ music. The vibe and the heart of what’s happening out here is just so much more important because you’re away from everything that’s comfortable for a long time. And sure, we’re lucky and we get to see amazing things and meet people and be around music all the time which is great but if you’re not inspired and you’re not fueled by something that’s actually got heart to it — relationships and all that — it can empty you so fast. And then there you are across the country away from your family and your dog and your couch where you like to watch movies or have your period all day and you just … there’s something you can reach out to and just touch it and be like: “OK, I’m alright. I’m human. There’s other humans here with me that get it that are right on track with me.” It’s nice.
ALLISON: That’s what getting Thai food does for me.
WILLIAMS: Yeah? [Laughs]
ALLISON: I’m like, “OK I’m safe here.” When I have a bad meal I’m just like, “This is a terrible city. I hate it here. I wanna leave instantly.”
WILLIAMS: That’s your comfort, that’s your thing that you go to. I love knowing that about you. I feel like that says so many things. Like I really get it.
ALLISON: I just wanna be able to go to Smiling Elephant back home or something.
WILLIAMS: Oh my god, I was just gonna ask you if you love Smiling Elephant. It’s the best!
ALLISON: They’ve been closed, the owner went back to Thailand to get —
WILLIAMS: To get ancient recipes for you.
ALLISON: Yeah, to get ancient recipes for me.
STEREOGUM: This is a Nashville spot?
WILLIAMS: It’s actually not far from either of us, but the Tom Kha soup there is the best in the entire town.
ALLISON: I get the Pad Krapaw , the like rice and the sauce and the chicken and the veggies.
STEREOGUM: What’re some other spots in Nashville that you both frequent?
ALLISON: Um, Santa’s? Have you been to Santa’s Hayley?
WILLIAMS: No, I’ve still not gone to Santa’s Pub.
ALLISON: You should really go, both of my drummers play there.
WILLIAMS: Really? Santa’s always seems really cool. I have a lot of friends that go there. I lived outside of Nashville for most of my childhood and my teenage years when we were growing up. Since moving back from LA after being there for a few years I tried move closer to my family and then went through my divorce and all that, and I was like you know, it’s time to go to Nashville. So actually there’s so much about my hometown that I’m experiencing for the first time. It’s like I’m a newborn. And the town’s growing so much too. Every time we go home from a tour, you probably know this—
WILLIAMS: It changes.
ALLISON: I’m discovering all the bars now. I just turned 21 but I had a fake. I had my sister’s real ID, it looked like me and had my address.
WILLIAMS: Are you guys close in age?
ALLISON: Yeah, two years.
WILLIAMS: Ugh, oh my gosh I wish I had that.
STEREOGUM: You both started playing music at a young age. Hayley, you’ve been doing this for 10-plus years now, but what is something that you wish you’d known going into this crazy industry? This is the biggest tour Sophie’s been on.
WILLIAMS: It’s such a different climate in every possible way than it was when we were kids learning our instruments and practicing in Taylor [York]’s basement or whatever. I had a really rough time, but I didn’t know I had a rough time because I was still very wide-eyed. When I entered this scene that we sort of grew up in and had been a part of for a long time I just felt like I needed to be part of a boys club to make it. And most of my friends back home, I think because of my interests, happened to be guys. I have incredible, incredible female friends now that I’m an adult. But I’m just around guys a lot and it really affected my sense of self and what I thought I owed people. Didn’t matter how heavy the bands we were playing with, there was never a show that we played that I didn’t go harder than all the frontmen because I thought I have to be better than them to prove my worth, because people look up on stage and see a small little girl. And it must have been funny to see a little girl try to be super tough or something, but I don’t know what I looked like. All I knew is what it looked like peering out from my eyes. So I guess I just wished that I’d learned sooner that it’s like, it’s actually this incredible strength. My differences from the rest of my bandmates is the thing that make not only me the person that I am but make the band what it is. You know, all of our individual strengths come together. I don’t know if you feel this Sophie, but when we’re on stage, for the better part of our career, I notice that I don’t feel gender. I don’t even think it exists when you’re up there. I think that sexy is whatever you want to be, your feelings and your identity can change with each song. I wonder what it would have been like if I could have fed that young [version of me] some of these thoughts that I’m having these days.
ALLISON: When I was younger I definitely wish I had felt more … I just wish I had started actually putting out my music earlier because I didn’t do it until I graduated high school and felt like I was leaving. That’s mostly because I have never liked my voice a lot or been like a particularly great singer. So I was never like, “Oh I’m a singer. I can be impressive onstage.” I was always like, “I’m a guitar player. I can play guitar.”
WILLIAMS: And a songwriter.
ALLISON: Being a guitarist was scary, honestly, as a girl in Nashville. It just felt like no one was gonna ask me to be in a band and play guitar, like I never was gonna get asked to do that. I shouldn’t have waited to get asked to do anything like that, but —
WILLIAMS: But it’s hard to know that!
ALLISON: It’s hard to know that and to believe it when you’re surrounded by a bunch of other people who are just doing it and you feel like shit about it. But I just wish I had been like, “I’m just gonna start my own band and I know I’m good at guitar and people will just deal with my voice sounding the way it does.” [Laughs]
WILLIAMS: Ugh, see I listen to your voice and I think, “God.” Like, growing up listening to bands like — do you know the band That Dog?
WILLIAMS: I feel like you would love That Dog. They’re rad. There’s little phrasings and things that you do , like little harmonies, that remind me of that band. I hear voices like yours and I think, “Aw man, I can’t do that. I wish I could do that.”
ALLISON: Well, you’re not pitchy so …
WILLIAMS: Oh man. [Laughs] But that’s what we do to ourselves anyways, like pick ourselves apart. We see things and hear things that no one else will ever perceive. I just think that you have a voice that when I listen to your stories … it’s the way that you say the lyrics that you write. Only you could deliver them that way, you know, ‘cause it’s genuine. Sometimes I get more caught up in the idea that, “I’m a singer.” I learned how to write and I learned how to play with a band later but before that I was a singer. I grew up and I wanted to sing all the time. So it’s really nice for me to hear an artist whose storytelling is the more crucial point. And I think your voice is rad. You should love your voice.
ALLISON: Maybe one day.
There was never a show that we played that I didn’t go harder than all the frontmen because I thought I had to be better than them to prove my worth, because people look up on stage and see a small little girl.
STEREOGUM: I think everyone feels that way about their own voice. Anyone who’s a teenager struggles with feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing —
WILLIAMS: Every human.
STEREOGUM: When did you both get to that moment where you were confident enough to start writing songs and singing in a band publicly?
WILLIAMS: I wanted to be a part of a band since I was like eight or nine ‘cause I felt very lonely all the time as a kid. I was an only child and then my parents split, I loved music and I just hadn’t … I grew up in Mississippi and it was like, you know you’re either into sports or pageants. It was a very typical southern town. So, by the time I met the guys I was like chomping at the bit to sing and play with people. And all I could do was sing in Nashville. I couldn’t like practice with people and things like that. So by the time I met them, I didn’t even care if I was good. It was just like I found my people and I’m gonna do this every day and I don’t care if it never leaves the basement. I’m just gonna do this cause this feels like home to me.
ALLISON: I was playing and writing songs since I was like five, so it never was like a “I’m gonna write songs now” moment. It was just more like about if I was gonna show them to anyone. [Laughs] And I never would play the songs live. But I went to an arts high school so like was in the swing band and I would sing and play guitar in there.
WILLIAMS: That’s really cool.
ALLISON: When I was leaving high school I felt like, “I wanna make these sound good so I don’t have to hate it, I don’t have to hate how my voice sounds. I can edit for four hours to make it sound OK. I can put four doubles over it so that no one can hear the tone of my voice.”
WILLIAMS: It’s the best trick! It’s the greatest trick in the book. It’s actually really magical sounding.
ALLISON: It’s on pretty much every song of mine … I think the only one that isn’t is like “Scorpio Rising” and “Your Dog.”
WILLIAMS: “Scorpio Rising.” It’s such a great song, it’s a song that I got to way late after I had the record for a while. Living in Nashville, everything that I go to is five minutes away, so every record that I buy [to play in my car], I’ll only get a few songs deep — for a really long time all I really know is just those few first songs. And on this tour … I mean, how cheesy is it that? Do you feel weird that I listen to your music in the hotel room?
ALLISON: No, ’cause I’ve been singing “Still Into You” every night after the show.
WILLIAMS: Thank God. Yeah, so I’ve been listening to Clean and “Scorpio Rising” played while I was doing something in the hotel room and was like … God, I just really, really like how you say stuff.
ALLISON: Thank you.
WILLIAMS: It’s refreshing and sometimes perfectly pointed and sometimes softened to the point where I can relate to a lot of your lyrics too. Do you not like the vocal on that?
ALLISON: I’m ok with most things on the record. “Your Dog” I tried to re-record at my house like four times after the studio recordings were done. And “Flaw” and “Cool” and …
WILLIAMS: The whole thing?
ALLISON: I just felt like it was wrong and sounded bad.
WILLIAMS: I think it was ’cause I was so sad while we were making After Laughter that I just didn’t like really much of anything anyways. But by the time we finally got excited or enthusiastic about the songs we were like, “OK, we actually have something here.” I was so married to the demo vocals for “Forgiveness.” I came into the studio, I would like fall asleep and wake hours later — it was like a lot of depression naps or something, I was just not ok — and one night I came in and I was meant to sing “Forgiveness” and next thing I knew I woke up, we were ordering food, and I was like, “You guys I’m never gonna like anything that I sing ever again so let’s just take the demo vocal.” Sometimes when you think less about it it’s the best. And with “Forgiveness,” that was such a weird time when we recorded it, I couldn’t have cared less what it sounded like I just wanted to get it out. I like when that happens though, I like being able to redo something last minute, but sometimes it’s just one and done and you don’t think about it again.
ALLISON: A lot of the time I end up going back to the first take.
STEREOGUM: Does performing these songs every night give you both some sense of completion with them?
ALLISON: If it goes well, if it turns out perfect.
WILLIAMS: Every night can be different. For me, it’s more about whether the emotion is there, you know what I mean? There’re songs that I used to not really be able to get through without just vividly remembering everything, and then after a tour you start to associate certain [lyrics] with someone’s eyes in the crowd that you connected with or a thing that you did earlier in the day that you thought about while you were singing it. I don’t know, I think that memory and time and just healing in general is such a strange thing that I’m still grasping. With this album [and tour] I’ve been very aware of that process the whole time.
ALLISON: It’s a really great feeling when [a performance] goes well every night. If it doesn’t go well I’m so mad internally. I’m like not gonna be outwardly in a bad mood all of a sudden but I can just feel this bubbling anger inside. I’m never gonna be yelling at people, I’m not gonna freak out but I’ll just internally be tense if something went wrong or if someone played a part wrong or if I played a part wrong or if my voice was shitty.
WILLIAMS: Is it because you feel like you didn’t get to complete the set, or is it more that you start [questioning] your worth and all those weird things?
ALLISON: I think I definitely go into that, but also I’m just like … if we can’t even play good live [is the music] even good?
WILLIAMS: Like your career’s gonna be done.
ALLISON: Other nights I’ll just be kind of drunk and like, it probably wasn’t a great show but I just had fun!
WILLIAMS: I try to save that for the encore ‘cause otherwise …
ALLISON: I usually I don’t drink before the set but sometimes I’ll have a random night where I’m having a beer and then I’ll get onstage like, “HEY EVERYBODY!”
WILLIAMS: Whoops! I just talk so much … it sucks. The guys are like, “Hayley you introduced each of us for five minutes.” I can’t really do it. I don’t know how anyone does that, like the singers that we played with growing up were all like beer and cigarettes. [Laughs]
ALLISON: Well, they’re probably just yelling. They’re not really singing.