Coming from a long line of professional musicians and performers, it seemed only natural that Ella Williams would follow in her family’s footsteps. Speaking to DIY from her parents’ basement studio in her hometown of Boston, for Ella - who has been performing her under the name Squirrel Flower for the past four years - it seems that venturing into music was always an obvious choice.
“Growing up around people who played music professionally showed me that it’s possible to do,” she explains of her early musical ambitions. “I’ve never questioned it.”
After getting her start as a folk singer-songwriter, releasing an EP under her own name as a teenager and then heading to Iowa to study for a degree in studio art and women’s, gender and sexuality studies (where she’s now one semester away from graduating), her first EP as Squirrel Flower, ‘Contact Sports’, is getting its UK release this July.
On this new EP, Squirrel Flower sways between pensive ballads and grinding rock choruses, inspired by her experiences of intimacy, confusion and love on campus in the American Midwest.
After premiering her video for EP track ‘Conditions’ and on the release of new single ‘Daylight Savings’, we spoke to Ella about her journey to becoming Squirrel Flower, not wanting to be confined by genre or gender and how she hopes people can find beauty in her songs.
“I’m proud that I’m a woman and proud that I’m making music and have been able to withstand a lot of sexist bullshit in doing so.”
When did you start writing music?
I started writing music at a really young age. I mean, not seriously, but as a kid I was always making up songs and singing. When I turned fourteen and started high school, I picked up an acoustic guitar and started writing songs for the first time, mostly influenced by folk artists that I was listening to at the time, like Laura Marling and Bon Iver, and I started writing my own songs and playing shows around my high school and in the Boston folk scene.
That’s interesting because we wouldn’t say that your music with Squirrel Flower is folk music.
I wouldn’t [either]. I always have a really hard time when people ask me what kind of genre of music I play. On ‘Contact Sports’, there are some more ambient songs on there, there are some rock ‘n’ roll tunes on there… but I really don’t feel confined by genre. When I played folk music I did it under my name, Ella Williams, and choosing the name Squirrel Flower was sort of a branch out of that for me.
There seems to be a lot emotionally going on on the EP, but what would you say the EP is ‘about’?
I mean it definitely covers a lot. They’re songs that I wrote in the fall, winter and spring of my sophomore year of college and I sort of think of them as memoir pieces and little archives of what I was feeling and doing at that point. They’re songs about relationships and love and feeling like I had no idea what I was doing in college in the Midwest. Like on the song ‘Midwestern Clay’, it’s this song that’s just like, what am I doing here!? You know, and everybody has those moments.
Everyone seems to, especially at that age.
Yeah! And for some of the darker content matter in the EP, [college] is also the first time that people experience like, social violence, if that makes sense? Like abuse and sexual violence, a lot of that comes up in college and it’s hard to deal with. I feel like everybody has experienced that in some way, even like peripherally.
You’ve supported a few different artists like Big Thief, Julien Baker and Frankie Cosmos. Would you say you’re inspired by them?
Definitely inspired by them, for sure. I’ve been lucky to play with some of my absolute heroes and it’s just amazing to be able to play with such incredible musicians, especially women who are just like killing it in music and doing what they do.
It’s interesting you mention that because some musicians find it irrelevant or annoying when people bring up their gender in relation to their music. Do you?
That’s a good question… and a hard question. I definitely think that as a woman making music… women making music can be fetishised for the fact that they’re women, if that makes sense? A lot of the time people are like ‘this woman makes amazing music and it’s surprising because she’s a woman’! So in that sense, that’s not great, that feels bad when somebody is impressed by my music not because of the music, but because of my gender. That being said, it’s so important to support women and people of other oppressed gender identities making music because we’re not given the same platforms and it’s just harder. I think it can go both ways and it’s definitely a hard thing to navigate.
I think where it is relevant is women musicians talking about these specifics of hardships they’ve experienced in the music industry. I think it’s really important to bring that to light. But obviously not every woman musician has experienced that and I don’t want to speak for all women musicians. But I’m proud that I’m a woman and proud that I’m making music and have been able to withstand a lot of sexist bullshit in doing so.
“I really don’t feel confined by genre.”
Do you think you use your academic background directly in your music?
Definitely [my degree in] Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies, just in the way that I think that is inseparable from my personal identity and therefore my identity as a musician. I have started to bridge my studio art practice with my music [too], but music is something I really can’t escape from and it’s something that I just need to do whereas I think art is more something I like to do.
What do you hope people feel when they hear your music?
I hope that people gain from it what they need to gain from it. The songs come from such an open and vulnerable place and people who have heard them have told me that they feel that really strongly. If people can listen to it and feel empowered or they resonate with it in a strong way or just like find beauty in it. I think that I would be happy with that.