- Tonje Thilesen
- Ella Williams, aka Squirrel Flower
As severe storms struck Chicago on Sunday night, Ella Williams was coming home from a music-video shoot. Walking to her apartment, she felt a strange yet familiar sensation.
"There was thunder and lightning, and I felt this vertigo," says Williams, a singer-songwriter and guitarist who makes music as Squirrel Flower. "It felt like I was going to fall into the sky."
The capacity of nature to make us feel powerless and the onrushing threat of climate disaster are two core themes of Squirrel Flower's latest album, Planet (i), out June 25 on Polyvinyl. Across its dozen tracks, Williams grapples with those terrors while reckoning with another more private fear: "The fear of my body deteriorating," she says, "because I was experiencing these relentless concussions over and over again."
Williams suffered the most severe of these concussions in 2019: while working at a cafe outside Boston, she hit her head on a low walk-in fridge. She was about to embark on a tour, but instead was forced to spend two and a half months recuperating. Since then she's had to devote psychological energy to fending off panic about potential pain.
"There was a time where every little headache I got would spark anxiety and depression," she says. "After I would get one, I would think, 'Yeah, my life is over. I have brain damage.' I don't have brain damage. I'm fine, but I was overcoming the fear of my body not working."
Squirrel Flower, Mia Joy
Sat 6/26, 4:30 PM, Sleeping Village, 3734 W. Belmont, sold out, 21+
Squirrel Flower, Kara Jackson
Sat 6/26, 7:30 PM, Sleeping Vilage, 3734 W. Belmont, sold out, 21+
Planet (i) is alternately meditative and brazenly cathartic—sometimes in the same song. "Big Beast" opens with acoustic guitar and then erupts into a cloud of distorted fuzz worthy of doom metal. On "Night," Williams sings about how she hasn't "seen the sun in months," then stirs the song out of its slumber with pounding drums and an overdriven guitar solo. She's eager to finally explore these waves of rhythm and emotion onstage. She made Chicago her new home earlier this year, and on Saturday, she and her band will perform here for the first time since the move—they'll play two sold-out shows at Sleeping Village to celebrate the album's release.
"We've been rehearsing so much, and I can't wait," Williams says. "It's a patio show, and the way we'll perform a lot of the album is pretty relaxed and quiet. But every once in a while, it's just this crazy transition. People who haven't heard the album are going to freak out."
In our interview, Williams discussed recording Planet (i) in England, her dim view of Elon Musk, and the necessity of imagining a better future, among other topics. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Matt Sigur: When did you move to Chicago?
Ella Williams: I moved here in March—four months ago. I'm very new. Last winter, I had moved back into my parents' house, and my brothers were home for the holidays. My brothers and I were all just like, "Should we just move to Chicago? We have a lot of friends there, and it's cheap." The time was right, and I had been thinking about coming here for a while. It seemed like the right place for my next adventure.
You mentioned last night's tornado, which happened while you were shooting a music video. Thinking about that and your album, it's funny, because some of these songs mention tornadoes.
Right? I feel like it fits, like, "Of course there's going to be a tornado as I'm shooting a music video for a song from this album." I feel like those moments in those songs are affirmations. I'm trying to tell myself that I'm not scared, that I'm going to face this thing.
One time, while I was attending college in Iowa, there was a tornado and I stood outside alone for the entire thing. I was so scared and didn't want to go inside. I eventually did because the air just changed. But the tornado was something I wanted to face, because I've always been so scared of the power of storms, elements, huge waves, deep water, thunder and wind. A lot of the album is me trying to grapple with how I'm in awe of nature and terrified by it.
The album is me trying to be OK with submitting to nature. A lot of people—especially lately—are going through life knowing there will be a massive climate disaster that affects everyone at some point, whether it's wildfires, a tornado, a hurricane, or drought and lack of water.
I think everybody is going through life, trying to act normal, but we all know it in the back of our heads. And that feeling of powerlessness is utterly terrifying. It's pretty fucked. You just go through your daily life. You're doing your normal shit, you have a moment of silence, and you freak out. I was trying to feel OK with it and acknowledge that nature is powerful, as it should be.
The album is steeped in disaster, and you have a history dealing with concussions. What ties these themes together?
What I was doing with these songs was trying to grapple with my fear of climate doom and disaster in the same way I was trying to grapple with the fear of my body deteriorating, because I was experiencing these relentless concussions over and over again. It got to a point where I had to overcome the fear of pain and disability.
On the production side of Planet (i), you went to England and worked with Ali Chant. How was that experience?
Initially, I was hoping to self-produce this record. I wanted to do it myself and get back to how I recorded music when I made my first EP as Squirrel Flower. Back then, I was just using this little, shitty recording interface and layering everything. I wasn't worrying about anything else.
Before recording this, I was talking to some producers, and Ali hit up my manager and said, "I'm a fan of Squirrel Flower." We talked on the phone, and we clicked. But at that time last year, we agreed that there was no way to record. There was a pandemic, and there's an ocean between us. The conversation was like, "Maybe in the future, nice to talk to you, goodbye."
The following week, I got COVID, which was crazy and horrible, but it allowed me to rethink the possibility of going to England to record. At the time, the U.S. and UK were the only countries open to each other because they were both fucked. [Laughs.] I had the antibodies, so I decided to fly there. I triple-masked and flew to London, then my friend drove me to Bristol to the studio.
It was insane working with Ali—and his friend Adrian Utley, the guitarist of Portishead, played on the record. It felt too casual. They were both very laid-back and down-to-earth.
Ali and I didn't want anything to feel overproduced. We were both on a similar page in terms of keeping in little mistakes and crackles. It was all about creating this thing that, when you're listening to it, feels like a performance.
Did you have the songs written beforehand, or were you writing in the studio?
I had like 30 demos going into it. I had this Soundcloud playlist, because I was trying to share them with certain people and get feedback. I would move them around, put some on another playlist. It was so fucked and disorganized. I had too many songs.
I narrowed them down to 14 to go into the studio. Then I ended up writing two more while I was in Bristol that made it onto the record—"Flames and Flat Tires" and "To Be Forgotten."
"To Be Forgotten" has these lyrics: "To be alone, what a feeling / To be forgotten, what a feeling." Those lines could read sad, but the performance feels cathartic.
I feel like a lot of my life I've had a fraught relationship with independence and solitude and how joyful and not joyful that can be.
When I was writing that line, I was alone in Bristol, letting my music physically guide me through life around the world. I was literally following my art, and it felt so amazing. That's what I was trying to capture, walking around Bristol alone for hours and feeling amazing, just being with the universe, having nature be my company.
I think that it may be from having ADHD. I just get really distracted sometimes when I don't have alone time. I get frazzled. It's really important to take a step back and be able to slow down.
What's your ideal planet?
Oh fuck, I don't know. [Laughs.] I've been reading a lot of sci-fi lately. I reread Fahrenheit 451, and now I'm rereading The Martian Chronicles, and I started Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. It's a very powerful thing to imagine or reimagine our society in a different place and way.
I can say that my ideal planet is not Elon Musk's Mars colony. At this point, I don't think I can construct my own ideal planet. I need to read more about other people's ideal planets. A lot of the time, it's pretty radical to just imagine a different world, whether that's in the future or a different planet completely.
I think a lot of people have been experiencing apocalypse for a very long time, whether it's from climate disaster or environmental racism or policing. I think about it a lot in terms of queer theory, because that's what I studied in college. There are a lot of people who feel like their world is fucking ending all the time and have always been forced to imagine new ways of living and community building. The act of imagining is very powerful.
Thinking of it from a queer perspective, if your very existence is denying a gender binary and imagining a new type of expression and selfhood, you're already living in the future. You're already imagining something more beautiful than what already exists, if that makes sense.
Is this album the first of a series? Are there going to be other Planet albums—
Planet B? [Laughs.] It's a good question, because I have so many songs that didn't make it onto the record. I feel kind of confined sometimes by album-cycle structure stuff. I knew that I didn't want to do a double album. I need to be creative and think about a way to share those songs.
Or not, you know? Maybe those songs just exist in my voice memos. That's beautiful in its own way. v