The Paramore singer reveals the music, films, and 'gruesome s---' that inspired her soul-searching solo debut.

By Devan Coggan
May 07, 2020 at 09:00 PM EDT
Illustration by Anne Latini for EW

The Musical Moodboard is a recurring EW feature where musicians run down the inspirations behind a new album.

Hayley Williams never intended to make an album on her own. Even as a teenager, when she landed her first contract as a solo artist, she only ever wanted to record with Paramore, the pop-punk band she co-founded at age 15. Over the last 16 years, the group has grown from beloved Warped Tour staple to international smash, turning the now-31-year-old Williams into an emo legend.

But after a grueling tour for Paramore's most recent album, 2017's After LaughterWilliams decided to take some time off. Her marriage to New Found Glory's Chad Gilbert was ending, and she'd entered therapy to help manage her depression. She soon began trying to process her thoughts the way she had for the last 16 years: through writing. But to her surprise, the songs that came out didn't necessarily sound like Paramore.

"I finally dug into some personal stories about myself that I never really gave much time or thought to — a lot of things that were maybe painful or confusing for me," she says. "[I] did a lot of therapy around all of it, and I just needed a creative outlet. It's one thing to do talk therapy, but for me, my greatest tool and my greatest weapon was to just write."

The result is Petals for Armora moody, introspective LP that Williams released in three parts. (The third and final piece, which completes the set, is out Friday.) Williams's familiar voice anchors the album, but the songs themselves are more confessional and experimental than anything she's released before, oscillating between moments of rage and softness.

And as she explained to EW earlier this year, she found inspiration in some unlikely places. Here, Williams breaks down the music, movies, and "gruesome s---" that inspired her soul-searching solo debut.

1 / Thom Yorke's Anima

One of Williams's strongest influences was Thom Yorke's 2019 album Anima, along with the accompanying Netflix short film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. "It's beautiful choreography, the lighting is really gorgeous, and of course the songs's Thom Yorke!" Williams explains. "But that album came out [and] it reminded me that some of my favorite introspective artists still dance and move in a lot of different ways, and it gave me a nudge to remember movement and my body and to feel rhythms again."

Even though Petals' lyrics can tackle some somber topics — like struggles with mental health and her split with her ex-husband — Williams still wanted to imbue the record with a sense of movement and buoyancy.

"I think the start of my writing journey was very heavy, and it was like I was carrying two buckets of cement on either side, just kind of trying to get through the day," she says. "Once you're able to put those down and call them what they are, I think that I was lighter. I was so inspired by rhythm and percussion, and I needed that reminder."

2 / Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D.

The album's title, Petals for Armor, is a reference to finding strength in femininity. While writing, Williams says she tried to immerse herself in distinctly female stories — like Estés's pioneering collection of folktales.

"It was such a surprise to me," she says. "My life is mostly made up of dudes. I'm working around guys all the time. This was recommended to me by one of my girlfriends, and it just makes you feel less alone. It really explores the wild-woman archetype [and] women as these soulful, earthy creatures who are wild as wolves — and how wolves are a pack animal as well."

For Williams, who's been playing and recording with an all-male band since she was a teenager, going solo was an excuse to tap into her inner wild woman. "It's one of those things I compartmentalized because [I thought] I needed to be tougher," she says. "And in my mind, [after] being out on tour all those years and everything, tough didn't look feminine. [But] actually, I think it's more feminine."

3 / Joker

"I was watching Joker recently, which is so dark and probably not for everybody, but I'm drawn to those types of narratives," Williams says of the 2019 Joaquin Phoenix-starring flick. "When he dances in the movie, it says so much, and it's very eerie and poignant. He doesn't speak at all. And I find that I get a lot out of expressing just with my body. I do it on stage without thinking."

4 / The Handmaid's Tale

Elly Dassas/Hulu

Fiery lead single "Simmer" was one of the first songs Williams wrote for the album, and she says that while writing the lyrics, she reflected on memories of watching The Handmaid's Tale, Bird Box, and Peppermint — "very gruesome s---," she says with a laugh. "It reminded me of how powerful people who were once thought of as weak can be when they just understand what they're made of. I love character arcs like that. I love underdog moments. I just love justice. I mean, Handmaid's Tale is obviously such a heavy [watch], and it feels a little too real sometimes, but to be a woman watching it is a whole different experience."

5 / Frist Art Museum in Nashville

Williams made much of Petals at her home in Nashville, and while she was co-writing with Paramore touring bassist Joey Howard, he moved into her downstairs guest bedroom. "He loves art museums and so do I, so we would go to the Frist in Nashville a lot," she says. "We saw [a] Frida Kahlo [exhibit] there recently, and we saw an exhibit that was a bunch of French artists throughout history. We did that on my birthday, when I turned 30. I love an art gallery in general, and it did affect the writing of the album because when we weren't writing, Joey and I spent time trying to fill our minds with other things."

6 / Her dog, Alf

"I got Alf when he was, like, 11 weeks old. I raised him, but I feel like he raised me," Williams says, laughing. "I was 23 or 24 when I got him. He keeps me present because he's present all the time: He's so happy and very in tune with me when I've gone through life-altering changes or moments."

So how accurate is that line in "Cinnamon," where Williams sings about wandering around her house and talking to her dog? "I do talk to him!" she insists. "I'm not being cute in the song. He's one of my therapists."

CORRECTION: The May issue of EW incorrectly stated the song where Hayley gives her dog, Alf, a shoutout. It was "Cinnamon," not "Simmer." The error has been updated here.

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