“I’m in New York right now, in a room that’s not my own…there’s a Run For Cover Records sign on the wall though, so it’s a good room.” When you talk to Ella Williams, Squirrel Flower to use her stage name, there’s always a wonderful positivity about the world. Her life sounds chaotic, relentlessly busy, and you get the feeling she wouldn’t have it any other way.
We catch up with Ella at the start of a short-run of North American dates, coming straight from two dates in Montreal, she’s in New York to play that night at Trans Pecos, a venue in Queens, before heading out to Richmond, “then Philly, then Western Mass, then Boston”, it’s fair to say it’s not what most students are doing in their last summer break at University. “Usually when I’m at school I’m either planning tours, or planning recording, or even playing shows around the Mid-West…and then every time I get a break, like winter break or summer break, I’m usually either recording or touring”. The work ethic is admirable, and the ambition infectious, talking to Ella you realise just how many hours in the day there are when you could be producing something amazing.
This short tour is in support of the recent re-release of the break-through second Squirrel Flower EP, Contact Sports. Initially released at the back-end of 2016, the EP has been freshly pressed to vinyl, with new artwork and two new tracks tacked on for good measure. We ask why Ella decided this was a good time to re-visit the EP, “it got a really good reception, but I still think there was more, I think I wanted more people to hear the songs. I still felt attached to the record as a whole…which actually is pretty abnormal for me. I usually write a collection of songs and I feel attached for a couple of months and then they’re totally in the past. For this collection of songs I felt like even two years after writing them, I still feel very attached to them”. The two additional tracks, On Being Alone and Chicago, are fitting additions to Contact Sports, and also hint at some progress, with a freer production style and guitars moved away from the foreground of the tracks, we ask whether this is a hint at the direction her music is heading to next, “I was just messing about in the recording studio where I go to college. I was playing the synth and singing and recorded myself basically improvising. I listened back and realised that I really liked how it sounded. I think they’re more of a stand-alone thing, it’s hard because there are just so many genres and types of music I want to explore”.
That sense of experimentation and freedom is a constant touchstone throughout our conversation. It comes up when we talk about the live show, “I don’t really feel pressure to have one consistent performance”, and also when we talk about her degree, a double-major in Gender Studies and Studio Art, and her desire to explore music from all angles and ideas. It’s clear that Ella has no desire to become pigeon-holed as a particular kind of artist, “definitely not and if that happens I hope people will let me know and help me out of it…like, “Ella, take a break do something else”. Like many interesting musicians, it’s clear that the music of Squirrel Flower is just a part of larger sense of expression, we discuss how that all plays out together, “art and music are a way for me, less to express myself and more to grapple with, the way I interpret the world. It’s more like a filter and a form of communication as opposed to a self-exploration. I use my music and art really to explore further what I’ve learnt by studying gender studies and sort of connect that to my personal life and it all does feel very intertwined”.
Ella’s artistic side also comes out in the various other parts of being a musician; previously she’s produced her own videos as well as making her own artwork, although that sense of total control is perhaps easing, and the idea of collaboration is becoming more appealing, “it’s definitely important for me to be involved in it, just because, it’s me, like the music I make feels so truly me, and close to my identity. I definitely like to be in control of the way that is presented to the world. But I love having other people input and do their thing, especially people who are my close friends, it’s great to support my friends in their own artistic endeavour”. Much of this collaboration seems to stem from a community of women that Ella has built up her around her at college, “at Grinnell, there’s a pretty small group of women who make music at the college, it’s a pretty tight-knit music scene. I think it’s really important to have skill shares, and offer advice. Something I’m really passionate about is helping vocalists with microphone technique, and knowing the importance of having your own microphone, just giving tips, and helping people close to me that are trying to make music and art and just different forms of expression”.
We talk about influences, and in particular about the difficulty, or otherwise of supporting some of your musical heroes, “I’ve definitely had amazing opportunities to play shows with my heroes, and that’s incredible. Especially getting good feedback from people that I respect and look up to so much. It’s incredibly inspiring, because it’s hard to really know if you’re doing the right thing in music a lot of the time, and getting that validation is just like a cherry on top”. As we talk about Ella’s influences, which stretch from Aretha Franklin and Emmylou Harris, through to more modern acts like Big Thief and Cat Power, it’s clear that she’s particularly inspired by talented women, “this isn’t like a conscious decision on my part, but most of the people I really look up to are women, which is really kind of sick. It’s nice to be able to have role models like that”.
It’s easy to see why Contact Sports was a record that ushered in a new-found level of success for Squirrel Flower; it might not have been a sudden leap in popularity, but it was a record that seemed to continue a gentle, organic sense of progress. We ask Ella how she feels about that and whether she has noticed a growth in her audience, “it definitely does feel organic and it’s nice to be able to grow a grass-roots support network…it feels good, and I’m definitely ready for the next step, and getting some help with it, because it’s getting harder and harder to do it all on my own”. Up to this point Squirrel Flower has very much been a DIY-affair, “Early Winter Songs From Middle America, I recorded a bunch of demos myself and then went into a friend’s home studio in Boston. There was an engineer there, so it was just me and him working together, and I told him the production style that I wanted. Then the second EP, I went into another friend’s studio in Massachusetts and then had somebody mix it. A similar thing it was just me telling them the sounds I was going for and me doing soft production, and the engineers and the mixers helping out with making that real”. For someone clearly used to doing things on her own, we wonder if she’d even be interested in working with a more traditional producer, would letting go of control be difficult, “I don’t think I would work with someone if I felt like they were going to over-power the process, in that case I think I would have trouble with it. I obviously feel like it’s important for me to be in creative control of everything I do, but, no I’m not worried. I’m mostly just really, really excited and it’s a new thing, so I’m just really looking at is an adventure”.
What’s clear more than anything throughout anytime spent with Ella is just how excited she is to see just how far music can take her. We ask whether she ever considered diving into it full-time and not finishing her degree, “this is something I’ve really struggled with the entire time I’ve been at college, and even right before I left for college, I had to think, “is this the right thing, maybe college isn’t right, maybe it would be better if I just don’t go and focus full-time on music” but as an 18-year-old it felt like the best thing was to go to college. You’re young, you want to experience it, I had a really good scholarship, so it seemed stupid not to go. It’s been the most amazing, inspiring place for me artistically… now I just have one semester left, so I’m done in December of this year. So I’m just going to do it, I’m going to graduate, and then from there just do music full-time, focus on it more intensely”.
The next step, it would seem, looks set to be the debut album: what can we expect from that record? “There are just so many different things I want to explore. I’m working on an LP right now that incorporates all of those things, so I’m really excited for that. It’ll probably be a little while before it’s done though. Looking forward I am talking to a few labels and it’s definitely exciting. I don’t necessarily feel like I would need a label, but I also don’t see labels as a bad thing, it can only help. So it just depends on where I’m at, as the recording develops, and seeing how I’m feeling in the winter when most of the recording is done. Chances are I’ll put it out with a label, as I’m talking with some pretty amazing ones that I would really be so over-joyed to work with”. There is it again, that excitement, that drive, that feeling that whatever challenges might come in the direction of Squirrel Flower, in the direction of Ella Williams, that they’re just that, challenges to overcome, hurdles on an inevitable path towards a very bright and exciting future. This is just the beginning for Squirrel Flower, and you don’t feel anything but Ella’s own imagination is putting any limit on where it could go next.
The vinyl re-issue of Contact Sports is out now. Click HERE for more information on Squirrel Flower