Story Cover Photo by Maria Gelsomini
By Simru Sonmez-Erbil, WERS Staff Writer
In her latest album, I Was Born Swimming, Squirrel Flower (Ella O'Connor Williams) dives into the mythos of her birth and memories of her childhood to deliver a powerful collection of sweet sounds and rich lyrics. Despite the coronavirus impacting her touring, Ella continues to grow her discography under the Squirrel Flower moniker, and spoke to WERS Staff Writer Simru Sonmez-Erbil about the inspiration behind I Was Born Swimming and what's in the future for Ella.
It's been a great year for you so far. People can say all they like about how 2020 has nothing good in it, but you just released a couple of new songs and released a stunning album at the beginning of the year, which was actually your debut as Squirrel Flower. Before anything, I gotta ask, where does that great name come from?
Ella O'Connor Williams: The name I came up with when I was a kid. It's sort of like me borrowing this alter ego from my childhood to use as a moniker; I was trying to decide if I wanted a band name, if I wanted to use my own name, because when I first came up with Squirrel Flower as a musical moniker, I had been making music for a while under my own name, but I wanted to do something a little different. I was brainstorming and feeling kind of stuck, because band names are really hard to come up with (laughs). There are a lot of really bad band names out there, and there are a lot of not so bad band names out there. But it was interesting: I could use this alter ego that I had as a child when I first started engaging with my own creative practice and my own art, and it just stuck.
And how does your childhood sort of affect your music, do you feel like? I was reading a bit about this album, I Was Born Swimming; Tell me where the title and the subject matter of the title track come from.
EOW: The title comes from the way I was actually born, which was in the caul sac. I think one in every 80,000 births are caul births: My mom's water never broke, and I was born wrapped in this veil. A lot of cultures say that it imbues psychic abilities or special creative abilities into the person. I don't know if I buy into that, but it's been something that I've been really curious about my whole life. The album… after I recorded all the songs, I was listening back to them and realized that so much of the subject matter was kind of about feeling lost and confused about where to go in life, centering around a relationship that I wanted to leave and didn't know if that was the right thing to do, and didn't know if I wanted to be alone. But ultimately, I used this idea of the way I was born – wrapped in a thing, in a veil (laughs) – as being self-sustaining and not isolated and separate from the world, but like I had everything I needed within myself. I wanted to take that, apply it to the songs, and realize that even though so much of the songs are about transition, feeling scared, feeling this sense of ennui and change, I ultimately can return to myself. I can return to my origin story and find strength and peace and love within.
Talking about change and moving around, you grew up in Arlington, right?
EOW: Yeah, I'm actually in Arlington right now. I grew up in Arlington, went out to Iowa for college, and graduated from college about a year and a half ago. I was a winter grad because I took some time off. I graduated in December of 2018 and essentially moved all my stuff back home to have a rent-free place to be while touring. Then touring stopped for COVID (laughs), so I've just been in Arlington with my family, and it's been actually pretty lovely.
Having recently graduated from college, you've definitely experienced a lot of transitions, it sounds like; How did those transitions kind of shape your music?
EOW: Yeah; The most simple answer is just that I was writing songs throughout all of the changing and traveling I was doing. Over the four years I was in college, I was living there, I was living in Boston, I was living with my family, I was living with my boyfriend at the time, I was living in New York, then I was going back to Iowa; It was all of this shifting and changing between scenes and living situations. The whole time, though, I was writing music. I don't know if it was a conscious effort to make songs about transition, growth, and change, but I think it just inevitably happened because my songs are really just reflections of what I'm experiencing and thinking about. I guess they're just reflections as to what my life was like at the time.
Thinking about the most recent transition that you've undertaken in your music, you're on a new label now: You’re on Polyvinyl Records for your debut album as Squirrel Flower. Do you feel like that shift changed the album at all? Did it make it different from your past records?
EOW: Hmm, interesting question. I actually recorded the album before I was signed; I was able to raise a lot of money from one of those Kickstarter-type things and recorded it without label backing, which was really awesome. Then I basically just sent the album to Polyvinyl and signed a record deal with them! (Laughs) So I can't say it changed the music and the album itself, but it was a very different experience to release my first album with a label. My second EP, Contact Sports, I released through a friend's DIY tape label, but the experience of being with a pretty big, respected label was very new. At times, I definitely felt like a fish out of water; I wasn't used to, like, talk[ing] to all of these people about my vision all the time (laughs). It was all good – Polyvinyl is full of just the loveliest folks – but it definitely took some getting used to.
In the beginning of quarantine, I was feeling kind of burnt out and bummed out because I had spent a full year leading up to March preparing for this record release and preparing for the tour – my big U.S. tour had just started – and then it kind of just all stopped before I could really share the songs live with people and get that gratification from sharing the live music. The first month was kind of hard for me and I definitely felt a little burnt out, like I put in all this work and it was just for naught. But then, of course, with some reflecting and time passing, I realized that I'm just really grateful for everything that has happened and everybody that has listened to my music; I’ve also been grateful for this time of reflection. I feel like now, at this point, after spending these five months just collecting unemployment, luckily, and spending time on my music, I feel more fully formed as an artist than ever before, which is a very, very good feeling (laughs).
You've been on such a stunning journey, though, and you've had a lot of success! Was there a sort of turning point that you can remember; Having started out writing your music and later releasing it, when did you feel you had a good amount of fans and some kind of success around it?
EOW: Yeah, that's interesting; I've been recording and touring as Squirrel Flower for five years now. It has felt like such a steady and gradual thing. I really was just doing it myself up until this year, more or less. I think because of that, it was this really organic spread of my music, gathering of fans, and forming of my musical communities. I don't know if there has been a turning point; I don't know if I could label a moment where I was like, “Wow, I’m making it! I'm doing it!” (Laughs) I think it is just kind of a gradual slope, and I definitely feel kind of amazed; I have to check myself often and remember to feel gratitude and amazement for the amount of people that do listen to my music and connect with it.
Looping back to the quarantine routine, you recently released “Take It Or Leave It,” which is your original song, and then what's really cool is that you have a cover of Caroline Polachek’s “So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings.” Did you record that during quarantine times?
EOW: I did. That song was actually the last song I played live with my band on tour before having to quarantine (laughs). It was our last show in Brooklyn, and it was the day that I had dinner with my agent and my manager right before the show – I think it was March 11th, so kind of like the tipping point of when it got really serious in the U.S. We were talking, and it's like, “I have to cancel the rest of the tour.” It was so intense and sad but also kind of... not panicked, but just like, “How is this happening?” I kind of was dissociating from the situation because it seemed just so different from anything I had ever conceived of happening. I think many people have that experience in the first few days and weeks of coronavirus really being a thing.
That's definitely a real blow to hear that this tour that you were looking forward to has been canceled.
EOW: But it did allow us to get on stage kind of with abandon (laughs). We were thinking, “This might be the last time we are playing music together for a while,” and it felt really emotional and very, I guess, just ripe with energy. So, we decided to cover this Caroline Polachek song we hadn't rehearsed at all that we all loved, and we just did it, and it honestly felt amazing. It was the last song of the show. Then I came back to quarantine for two weeks from being on tour and went into my basement. I actually did it with my older brother; We just tracked, not with the greatest voice and guitar parts, but then I sent it to a friend who recorded drums remotely. Then I sent it to a mixer who made it sound very professional studio quality. But it was a really cool experience to have that be the last song we played live, then to kind of put it together in this kind of makeshift way.
I think it's one of those songs that, when people compare the cover and the original, the cover does the original so much justice. I feel like it's going to go down in history!
EOW: (Laughs) Thank you! I don't know if you saw this, but Caroline Polachek tweeted about it and, in this really long run-on sentence, was like, “the cover sounds more like the original than the original does, which is to say that the original sounds more like a cover than the cover does, which is to say, the cover is a really good cover.” (Laughs) That was, like, the highest honor because I'm a huge fan of hers. Really freakin’ crazy to see that.
(Laughs) That's fabulous. And I’m curious, what kind of advice would you have for musicians who are trying to do what you're doing in this time? You're still trying to keep your creative process going even though there are times when you might feel like you're in a rut. What advice would you give to anyone trying to keep the motivation?
EOW: Well, I should figure out what advice to give to myself too (laughs), because I definitely struggled with that throughout this whole time. Just to keep at it, I think, is important. I have periods of feeling like I can't write for shit and having really frustrating moments of writer's block, but then I choose to keep picking up my guitar and making space and time to write, so eventually, after that period of frustration, an amazing song comes out. I think persistence and regular creative practice is really important. Yeah, it's a weird time to be a musician, and I would encourage all musicians to find ways to incorporate political action, for lack of a better term, into their music; To politicize their music, acknowledge the ways that music can be used to harness community, and politicize people who are listening to their music. Also, acknowledging or doing things alongside making music – not having your musical practice be the only thing that you are focusing on – is important, because a lot of really important things are going on right now, and people need support and mutual aid. So, I would encourage people to get involved in those sorts of projects.
What sort of movements are you behind right now? What do you want to raise awareness about, and what are you doing to integrate that into your music?
EOW: Throughout quarantine, I've been working with a mutual aid group in Boston, and that's been a really, really good experience to help with that. I’m trying right now to get more involved with housing organizing; Massachusetts passed the eviction moratorium until October, but it's still a very bad situation for tenants. So many millions of people are facing eviction, so I would encourage people to get involved in that. I myself am trying to get more involved in that right now.
And what do you see in the future for your musical projects – the future that you can see, I guess. I know that it's hard to imagine a world beyond this, but what's next for you?
EOW: I am actually about to record LP number two, coronavirus-permitting! I don't have many shareable details on that right now, but I think it'll probably be done by the winter, so I'm incredibly excited for it. In terms of the future of touring, I have no single clue (laughs). I've seen people starting to [do] drive in concerts and outdoor concerts, but of course, when the winter hits, I have no idea [what’ll happen]. To be honest, I'm pretty scared, but I do think it will lie in community and DIY hands. I think that that's kind of the future of music in this age: having music scenes that can include community support, and that aren't just, like, going to a club to get drunk and watch a show. That’s kind of a beautiful thing because, while I love traditional venues, they're not always the most accessible environments, and they are so often surrounded by alcohol, and also corporate sponsors and that sort of thing. I'm excited to see what can potentially happen.