Squirrel Flower on Chicago, Creativity, COVID, and Surviving as a Musician

Squirrel Flower on Chicago, Creativity, COVID, and Surviving as a Musician
Photo by Alexa Viscius

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Ella Williams' third full-length as Squirrel Flower is her best yet, and I say that as someone who's enjoyed what's already come down the pike. Tomorrow's Fire finds her cranking up the volume without losing an ounce of the intimacy she's already established in her music. It's a clear "level up" moment for her, which is hard to pull off. I'd interviewed her before the release of her 2020 Polyvinyl debut I Was Born Swimming, so it was great to catch up again here.

It's been a while since we last spoke. What's your life been like?
A lot has happened. When we talked, it was for my first Polyvinyl record. I was 22 and living at my parents' house. I was very new to the actual industry side of putting out music. I was in the middle of my first headlining tour, and then COVID hit. I spent the next year at my parents' house, and then I was in England for a few months making Planet (i), and then I lived with a few people in Boston for a bit before moving out to Chicago in 2021. This past winter, I went down to Asheville and made this record.

A huge chunk of the time that has passed has been me living in Chicago and getting into a groove here—becoming part of the music scene and finding ways to live as an artist and deepen my creative practice. Before I recorded Tomorrow's Fire, the last few years have been about trying to dive in as deeply as I could regarding my music. I did a residency, and I got really obsessive with production choices and the process of making something. I took it seriously in a new way. Life is really good.

How has Chicago been treating you? I feel like there's something about the city in terms of music where there's a lot creatively going on there.
I love it a lot. I felt this way when I lived in Iowa too, but that was very different because it was a tiny town in a rural area. I felt like the Iowa music scene was very rich in a way people from the coasts didn't expect or understand. It came from the ability to survive and have space and time to yourself. Chicago is obviously a huge city, and it's challenging to live here in some ways, as it is to live in any city. But it's relatively easy to make your way here. It's relatively affordable.

There's a very strong community. People are just able to create here without having to be cutthroat about it, and that creates this really incredible sense of community and encouragement. People just wanna make fuckin' music. [Laughs] I've played a lot around town as Squirrel Flower, but I've also made music with other people in a lot of different ways. In my first two years here, I had a lot of musical experiences that expanded what Squirrel Flower could be to me. It pushed me to expand my songwriting and take risks.

One thing I noticed about this record right away is that it has a louder crunch to it than your previous work. It's not a huge change to my ears, more like a natural evolution to me. Tell me about how you perceive the change in your sound.
For I Was Born Swimming, I was very preoccupied with the idea of introducing all my sonic worlds. Before that record, I made what I thought of as ambient folk, and then I got into really loud guitar with my second EP. I really wanted to capture both of those worlds for I Was Born Swimming, and I'm proud of that album, even though I don't know if I did that effectively. That was my vision for that record. With Planet (i), I was listening to a lot more folk and country and was a lot more interested in a delicate sonic space. I think of that record as my folk record. For this album, I didn't go into it thinking, "I'm gonna make a really loud rock album"—especially after releasing the Planet EP.

I honestly thought I'd go in a more experimental realm, hearkening back to my early days, taking elements of ambient music and experimenting with space, looping, my voice. But then I heard all of these songs that felt like classic rock songs. When I wrote "When a Plant Is Dying," I thought, "I need to treat this like a Neil Young song." The songs started to show me what they really needed, and what they needed was to be very loud—to break out of confinement. A lot of these songs came out of a place of desperation, and I knew that I needed to capture that by not holding back at all and losing the restraint of my previous records.

What do you gravitate towards as a listener these days?
I've been listening to a lot of Arthur Russell. I've been reading his biography, and I'm getting really obsessed with him and his sensibility—his philosophy around all that music can be, and the idea that you can make music in many different genres at once, which is very liberating as someone who's always felt drawn to different sounds and vibes. I've also been listening a lot to this album Africa by Amanaz. It's so good—it's jammy. I go through obsessive phases where I only listen to a few things, and those two artists are what I'm really into right now.

It was interesting to speak with you around I Was Born Swimming and think, "I wonder what's gonna happen next with her career"—and then everything halted. I have to imagine that was weird to deal with.
It was really hard. The first few days when I had to cancel my tour, I was very depressed. I was watching this horrible detective show, I think I watched 40 episodes in a week. [Laughs] I was not in a good place. It felt to me like things were about to pop off—I was getting all this traction, and it was so exciting, and I was ready to share music with everyone. It was really hard to have a wrench thrown into that, as a lot of people experienced.

But to be honest, it ended up being a blessing to me. I was able to pause in a way that I hadn't before, to take a look at what I was doing and what my goal as an artist was. I could find my voice in a different way through having that space to reflect and taking a step back from the industry, and I ended up making a new record pretty quickly. I was able to return to myself, in a way. I definitely struggled going from DIY world to industry world with that first record. I didn't really know what I was doing. I don't think I felt naïve at the time, but looking back, I see myself as unsure. I think about me now, and I feel incredibly sure and confident. That period of lockdown allowed me to find that a little more, and I'm grateful for that.

Let's talk about the financial realities of being a musician. How do you balance making money and making art?
It's a challenge. I cater weddings when I'm not touring. That's how I make money. I get government aid, to be very transparent. I have very low expenses. The way that I live is fully in dedication to my art. I don't budget money or time towards doing other things. I live very frugally, and that's how I make it work. Luckily, I'm in this situation where I make a little bit of money from my music, and from catering. I live in a relatively cheap city. But next month, I have to start paying my student loans back, and it's fucking stressful. There's always this idea in the back of my head that at some point I will move back in with my parents. Who knows if that will really happen, but it's a constant reality for being an artist. There's just no stability, and as I get older it gets more and more stressful to think about.

At the same time, there's a way to be a working gigging musician, and there is a way to make a living off of it. I don't think anyone gets into music thinking it's gonna be easy. I mean, people who wanna be pop stars get into it thinking, "I'm gonna make a whole lot of money," but even those people get screwed in the end and have to do other shit. I'm always gonna have another way to make money so that I don't put all the pressure on my art to be financially lucrative, because that's when you start to compromise creativity. If I'm writing a song and I'm thinking, "This song needs to pay my rent," I'm probably gonna write something different than if I have another source of income and I'm thinking about the song for the sake of the song.

I think it's never been harder to be in creative fields—and I mean real creative fields, not whatever the fuck being a "creative" is. It's never been harder to be an artist, a musician, a writer. And, at least in this country, the government continues to not care and not prioritize the arts. It can be very disheartening. But, at the same time, I've never had the notion that it would be easy, and a lot of that struggle ends up in the music.

I've seen you online talking about COVID precautions on tour—how venues and audiences are and aren't doing in that regard. It's funny, because it's something that never went away, the concerns with it when it comes to live music have basically disappeared.
It's a hard thing to talk about, because you always receive so much hate for talking about it these days. I take COVID seriously in my life, just personally, when I'm off the road. I've had loved ones get fucked up by it and have long-lasting damage. I've had it three times, and I'm a vocalist, so I don't think it's worth it to compromise that in any way. Being on the road, I've seen so many bands get sick, and they either push through and are sick, and that sucks to have to be sick and play shows, or they have to cancel and lose money and opportunities.

When it comes to music, this path is literally everything to me. It's my number one priority, there will never be anything that comes above it. My personal health is very tied up in my ability to keep touring. But there's also the element of making sure people can go to touring even though they're immunocompromised, disabled, or simply don't want to get sick. It's really important to have safe and inclusive spaces. It is hard, though. Very few people take precautions, so why should that fall on musicians, specifically, to make spaces safe? That's a valid critique. But I think it's very important that people who aren't just healthy and able-bodied can go see my shows.

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Jamie Larson