Today we’re launching a new feature of sorts, a chance for to us to look back on albums we’ve loved, and shine a light on some of our favourite artists in a more in-depth fashion than perhaps we have done previously.
We’re starting this new feature today with I Was Born Swimming, the debut album from Ella O’Connor Williams, aka Squirrel Flower, following on her previously acclaimed EPs. While the title might sound somewhat obtuse, it is, at least to some extent true, Ella was born still inside of a translucent caul sac membrane, surrounded by amniotic fluid, “born with a membrane between her and the rest of the world, yet still very much connected to and dependent on a larger life force”. That idea serves as an almost origin story for the record, an album about connections and solitude, about moving onwards and getting stuck, as Ella explains, “there’s so much in the record about movement and stagnation. Feeling stuck, needing to move, needing to stay still, swimming, falling, running, growing”.
The album begins with i-80, a track very much in the instinct of flight, “I tried to be lyrical, but lyrics failed me. So I gave up on poetry and ran west on i-80”. This is a track that sets the scene for the album, it begins with the pulse of bassy guitar chords, and from there seems to swell, via a wall of reverberating electric guitar notes and the steady pulse of primal percussion, the perfect visceral accompaniment to Ella’s impassioned vocal. Then suddenly the whole thing breaks down, for the dreamy outro, a whisp of vocal engulfed in an ethereal drift of lush guitar tones. Lyrically the tracks finds Ella recalling a moment where the pull of the open road out-weighed any other desires, “I tried to be my best to you, I tried my hardest, but I couldn’t keep it down, I had to keep going”. That feeling of impermanence seems to seep into the record throughout, it seems to always be looking for an out, always looking back at what was, with the freedom only distance can bring.
Throughout much of the record’s opening there’s a sense of a lingering darkness, Slapback seems to muse on ideas of control, and the resentment that comes from being put in your place. At times the track rages, as Ella sings, “good thing my smile is part of my body, I own it and I will attack. You don’t care what my answer is but if you slap me I’ll slap your right back”. While that moment of defiance is set to a backing of swirling, aggressive guitars, ultimately the track drifts gently away, as in Ella’s lonesome vocal, we’re left with a sense of bitter resignation, “I’ll be quiet, I’ll be gentle, and I’ll call you right back”.
For the most part the opening half of the record plays out as a series of ragged howls, crashing rhythms and angular guitar-lines that seem to tumble out of Ella, an extension of her body, an expression of the angst raging inside. The only real aside is Honey, Oh Honey; it’s a track with all the sweetness of its titular foodstuff, yet even here what starts as an almost child-like love song, “honey, oh honey, so sticky and runny, don’t take my honey away”, soon takes a turn for the worse with the acerbic denouncement, “a little too sweet for me today, honey, oh honey, a little too runny, I need to run and chase my dreams away”. There it is again, the desire to run from anything too comforting, to flee the viscous sweetness and pursue the call of the road.
As the record slips onto its second side, it’s striking how the mood changes, as the listener is greeted by Home. The track is Squirrel Flower stripped back to the most basic bare bones, with Ella’s vocal carrying the melody atop an almost absent-minded meander of guitar notes. The track has a certain child-like quality, like a memory of falling asleep on your way home and being carried back half-conscious into the house, “you take me back home and carry me inside, when I’ve fallen asleep on the road”. Taking into the context of a professional musician it takes on another meaning, a feeling of home as a place of sanctity, a break from the rigours of touring, where brain and body can rest and get ready to go again.
Home is followed by quite possibly the record’s finest moment, Headlights. A loose guitar line enters with Ella’s vocal, then as she sings the crushing line, “don’t say that you love me and make other plans”, it explodes into a wall of crunching drums and atmospheric, country-licked guitars. The track ebbs and flows through moments of soaring highs and gentle lows, particularly obvious on the repeated line, “we’re a streetlight buzzing, about to go out”, initially the backing is gentle allowing the words room to resonate, then on each repeat it builds, becoming an increasingly more powerful howl of resignation each time, before becoming lost entirely to a wall of guitars and drums.
The album seems to come full circle on the closing title track, it seems to mark both a beginning and an end. We’re taken back to Ella’s birth, “born swimming in blue water, didn’t ever need another, now I live underwater”. Perhaps this is where the dichotomy at the heart of the entire record began, and fittingly now where it ends, the desire for safety and self-sufficiency, to be free and still have somewhere to call home and root yourself – “can you see me shimmer? So dip me in the water”.
There’s something strikingly personal about I Was Born Swimming, this is a record where through both the playing and the poetic lyricism, we seem to glimpse into the world of its creator. Every word, every note seems to be laced with meaning, like a series of puzzle pieces that comes together to form a coherent image. Put these tracks together and they become something more than their individual parts, they become something magical, they become Squirrel Flower.
I Was Born Swimming is out now via Full Time Hobby (UK) / Polyvinyl (US). Click HERE for more information on Squirrel Flower