After being bullied so harshly by teenage classmates that her mother removed her from public school in favor of home schooling, Hayley Williams grew up unsure of herself. And even now at 24, the awkward youth who morphed into the fire-haired frontvixen for pop-punk outfit Paramore still has moments of uncertainty, where she wakes up and feels like she's back in mean-girl high all over again.
So Williams decided to address that enduring insecurity in a song called "Anklebiters." The propulsive anthem is one of the highlights on Paramore's fourth album, which debuted this month at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. The eponymous album is Paramore's first since Williams parted ways with co-founders Josh and Zac Forro, so its message of self-reliance is particularly timely.
"'Anklebiters' is about me not accepting who I was at one point in time," explains Williams. "I go in and out of that sort of thing: One day I might feel so confident and I have no issues with myself, and I have no issues with the world. And then the next day I'll be completely insane. The song is about embracing yourself through all your flaws and your past mistakes, or whatever you think that you have a problem with. I'm really excited for our younger fans to hear it, because I think that, as a young teenage girl, I would have really connected with a song like that. And felt like 'There is somebody that feels the same as me, and there is somebody that's rooting for individuality.'"
These days, there's a big market for Williams' brand of individuality. She's regularly featured on magazine covers, and she's just collaborated on an entire makeup line with the swank MAC cosmetic company. Her vocals, meanwhile, have found their way onto other artists' recordings, like Weezer's take on the Muppets' "Rainbow Connection" and B.o.B.'s 2010 worldwide smash "Airplanes."
Swimming with sharks
While her rise to success may seem rapid, Williams' music career actually got its start when she was just 13 years old. After moving with her divorced mom from Mississippi to Nashville, she kept herself amused over summer vacation by singing on country music composers' demos for 50 bucks a pop. Soon, Williams was learning to write songs herself, then singing Chaka Khan and other covers in a funk band, where she bonded with bassist Jeremy Davis, three years her senior. By age 14, she was signed to a two-year development deal.
Williams recalls that era none too fondly. Mascaraed minx Avril Lavigne was huge, she sighs, "and you know how labels are — once something like that starts, they're all jumping on it, like sharks trying to find minnows in a pond. So I guess I looked the part — I was the girl singer-songwriter who could play guitar, and I had written some songs."
Having already met brothers Josh and Zac Forro (guitarist and drummer, respectively) in her home-schooling tutorial, she began jamming with them and Davis in a garage — unbeknownst to her industry overseers.
"Little did they know that I was in a band, and I had my own sort of agenda, my own plan that me and the guys had set in motion. So by the time labels started calling me, I had already made up my mind that, yeah, I could probably do this on my own, but I would much rather play music with my friends."
After the breakup
That one-for-all, all-for-one attitude would sustain Paramore through three albums. But a year after their angst-fueled 2009 breakthrough Brand New Eyes, the band — which had added second guitarist Taylor York — was blindsided by news from the Farro siblings. They were leaving, reportedly dismissing the group as a "manufactured product of a major label." The announcement rattled remaining bandmembers Williams, York and Davis, shaking their confidence and sending them spiraling into bouts of writer's block.
"They weren't happy, and we aren't in the business of forcing people into doing things they don't want to do," says Williams. "So Taylor and Jeremy and I had a few talks about it, and we decided that we weren't finished, and that we still wanted to move forward as Paramore. We had a lot more to say, just as human beings on the face of the planet. And that's how album four came out. If Josh and Zac weren't happy, well, it made Taylor and Jeremy and I realize that we are absolutely happy doing this. So I'm pleased with everything that's happened."
Counterbalancing Paramore's more intense fare — like the power-chorded "Fast in My Car," the Bon Jovi-ish anthem "Daydreaming," and the R&B finger-popper "One of Those Crazy Girls" — are three ukulele interludes. And while one of them is called "I'm Not Angry Anymore," it still took Williams a while to put the breakup behind her.
"I thought that I was over it completely, but shades of the past would come in and rear their head through like one line in a song. And I'd be like 'Really?! Is that how I feel?'"
But ultimately, Williams was determined to focus on the future. "I want to become a better person," she says. "I don't want to go backwards when I could be moving into something new and exciting."