Ella O’Conner Williams is tidying up her loose ends. Her most recent EP is a stellar collection of demos and outtakes from her last album, while her new single turns right around and completely rebuilds one of those demos into a hoedown of swaying, rusted southern rock. “I always felt like that song had the potential to be a banging country song,” Williams says when I ask what made her want to go back and fiddle with “Your Love”. Now, the only thing left for her to do is something she hasn’t done in who knows how long.
“To be honest, I can’t even remember the last time I did a solo headlining tour”. If she sounds frazzled, that’s because I’ve called right as she’s coming through the door after knocking out some last-minute errands. Tomorrow, she’s hitting the road for a quick run of shows across the Northeast. And while there’s still a long night of packing left ahead of her, she’s already looking forward to playing many of the same, small towns where she started performing under her childhood nickname five odd years ago. “It feels like I’m coming full circle”.
You come from a tight-knit, musical family. Your dad is a professional bassist and both of your brothers play multiple instruments.
My brothers and I are actually in a band together, which is awesome. Having collaborators who are so close to you is an amazing thing. They teach me so much about my own music.
They’ve played on your albums, too. But did you ever feel pressure to follow their footsteps?
I always felt like I needed to be a musician. Even when I was really young, I was still writing songs in my own way. Because I grew up surrounded by working musicians, I never felt like I was taking a leap and just hoping that everything would work out. Being a musician didn’t seem like such a crazy thing to do. But I didn’t feel pressured. My parents recognized that I was a creative person, but they wanted me to do whatever I wanted.
There’s also your grandmother, who’s a classically-trained singer. How did she influence the way you sing?
I come from a very choral background. I’ve sung in choirs for pretty much my whole life, all the way through college. We sang all sorts of music. Some songs were from the 1400s. Others were from, like, 2015. My grandmother has a very wide knowledge of the classical voice cannon. Whenever we sing together, it’s usually her humming something and me joining in. A lot of it is just us improvising and vocalizing together. We go hiking and sing on top of mountains.
Do you still listen to a lot of classical music?
There’s this Rachmaninoff piece that I come back to again and again. But no, I don’t listen to a ton of classical these days.
What have you been getting into?
I’ve been listening to Hydroplane. They’re kind of like an Australian ’90s band. Also Astrobrite, who are one of Chicago’s OG shoegaze bands. I saw them live a couple of weeks ago and they were really good. They sound heavy and dreamy at the same time.
Heavy and dreamy is all the rage nowadays. Why do you think that is?
It makes a lot of sense given our current climate. Reality can be so challenging. I think people are feeling heavy and dreamy. They’re turning to dreams and imagination. They want to just float away.
You hit on a similar sound early on with Contact Sports.
That album was definitely a turning point for me.
I thought so, too. These songs have more dirt under their nails than the ones on your first EP. The lyrics are raw and rugged and the production is a lot louder. Even “Daylight Savings”, which opens at restless crawl, gets a jolt from a fuzzy, searing, ’90s alt. rock guitar solo. Did it feel like you were hitting a breakthrough back when this album was coming together?
Before Contact Sports, I was writing pretty atmospheric, dreamy, experimental folk music. Then some shit happened in my life and I started writing these songs. And I really wanted to be loud.
Is that why you made the switch from acoustic to electric guitar?
So I got my first electric guitar from my aunt and uncle, right before I went off to college [Williams went to Grinnell, which is over in small-town Iowa] . Then during my first semester, I took this sound art class. And it really expanded my idea of what a song could sound like.
You know, I had just moved from Boston to the middle of Iowa. I was very struck by the landscape, how everything was so open and expansive. I wanted to capture that feeling. I couldn’t do that with an acoustic guitar. But switching to electric gave me more room to experiment. Bringing this loud rock guitar into my songs felt really empowering. I could use it to create the sonic world that was going on in my head.
That’s another thing that I wanted to ask you about. You’ve got such a commanding voice. But you’re also pretty quiet. You don’t scream. You don’t shout. It never sounds like you’re pushing. Instead, the power comes from the control you have over your voice. “Starlight” is strung together by just a few spare chords. But the way you fill in all of that empty space, it’s like your voice has its own gravitational pull. How in the world do you do something like that?
I think a lot of that comes from singing in choirs. Choral music has such a use of space. You don’t have to move from verse to chorus. There’s not this feeling like you have to keep people engaged. I think part of what you’re talking about also has to do with the amazing places where choral music is performed. When you’re in a place that’s so gorgeous and resonant, sometimes just hearing the space in silence — or like, the resonance at the end of a note — can move you even more than the music.
Was there a song on Contact Sports where you thought: “Oh, now this is something different”?
I was going to say, the riff on that one rips extra hard.
I was enjoying playing really loud music. In college, I was in a punk band with my friend Vera, who showed me Exile in Guyville. One morning, I woke up in my little dorm room with that riff in my head. So I grabbed my guitar and recorded it right there, just right into my laptop speakers and onto GarageBand.
Most people know your cover of “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings”. But I was actually going to ask you about covering Liz Phair.
I fucking love Liz Phair so much. She’s a huge inspiration. Vera and I would travel to Iowa City to play these DIY shows. We’d be driving back late at night through all these corn fields and just blasting that album over and over again.
“Explain It to Me” isn’t one of the songs that everyone knows on Guyville, either. It’s this desolate, desperate song about a drowning rock star that’s slid into the middle of the track list. What made you want to cover it?
That’s always been a song that…I don’t know. It’s a song that has always unlocked emotions in me that I can’t explain. There’s just something so cool about when an artist who’s so tough gets soft and vulnerable.
You’re pretty tough yourself.
I have had several concussions. The first one came from playing sports. The rest happened when I was working in food service or doing some other random mundane shit. But all the ones I’ve had have been incredibly mild and I haven’t gotten one in a long time.
Is that where this album title came from?
No, that title is my tongue-in-cheek way of describing how love can feel like you’re playing a contact sport.
But your music can get soft and vulnerable, too. “To Be Forgotten” is about a break-up. But it’s not a sad song. When the chorus hits, in comes this rush of reverb and pounding percussion. You almost sound relieved, now that you’re alone again. I can relate to that. It’s hard to explain that feeling, but this song does it beautifully. What is it about being alone that appeals to you?
A lot of my music is about wanting to be alone versus wanting to be with someone else. I’m a very independent person. Sometimes, when I’m in a relationship, it can feel very stifling. Being a touring musician, so much of my life happens on the road, which feels like a different world. As I get older, I’m getting better at finding a balance so that I can have both of those things. But being alone is a very beautiful thing. I take my alone time very seriously.
Growing up, I kind of kept to myself. I was incredibly shy. While my brothers would be playing outside, I’d be indoors, by myself, writing poetry or drawing, just letting my imagination run wild. I think that’s why I’m an artist now. When I was healing from my concussions, I wasn’t allowed to use technology. I couldn’t even read. But I would go into my own mind and relive these memories from my life.
You also do that on “Iowa 146”. It’s named after this road in Iowa that you used to drive on all the time, though this song is about one time in particular. You and this person are parked on the side of the road, watching the sky change colors above the cornfields. It’s this very tender moment. You’re actually singing the song back to this person. “It’s been so long since I have seen your face / For old time’s sake, I can’t replace / But I could play you guitar and let it all fall away”. It’s like the song is transporting you back in time. Do you find yourself going back to this moment whenever you play this song?
I do. Singing that song takes me back to the place that it’s about, even though I wrote it during quarantine. I was living through those old memories again. I’ve always found it so incredible to tap out and get entertainment that way.
At the same time, you do write a lot about the outside world. Planet (i) revolves around climate change. The cover looks like you’re roving around on Mars. And the lyrics are littered with floods and tornadoes, flames and flat tires. But at its core, the album is about this connection between your internal world and nature. When did you first feel that connection?
I’ve felt a connection with nature my whole life. Being a kid, there’s such magic in nature. There’s just such possibility for the imagination in that environment. Fairies are everywhere. Little gnomes live in all the holes.
That’s very foreign to me. I was a shy kid, just like you. But I didn’t grow up out in nature. My parents are not campers. We were fine with staying inside.
My parents are very outdoorsy people. Even when I was six, they would take me hiking in the White Mountains. I remember hiking up one of the harder trails and getting really frightened. But I kept going up. That challenge really spoke to me. I felt like nature was testing my limits, to see what I could do. And it turns out, I could do a lot. I just needed to take a second to breathe and push through my fear.
Honestly, it was pretty dangerous. That trail was really fucking steep.
Is that how you got the name Squirrel Flower?
Probably [laughs]. I came up with it myself when I was around five or something. But I don’t remember why.
Is it hard to be away from your family?
It is. I live in Chicago now. But even though my parents are still in Massachusetts, I do visit them a lot. Plus, both of my brothers also live in Chicago.
How do you like Chicago?
My time here has been incredible. Chicago is the first big city that I’ve lived in as an adult and it’s an incredibly warm and welcoming place. I’ve been welcomed into a really amazing community here. Still, it can be overwhelming. There are so many people here and they all move at such a fast pace. I’m a sensitive person, so that’s been challenging. It can feel hard to breathe sometimes.
I know how that feels. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia but moved to the city less than a year ago. And you’re right, there are a ton of people here and all of them are always running around trying to get somewhere. What’s really stood out to me is how loud everything is down here. That, and the incredible amounts of trash.
Well that’s Philly, man. I feel like Philly is a medieval version of Chicago.
Being in Philly can definitely feel like you’re living in the dark ages.
But Philadelphia also has a really exciting energy. I love Philly. But living in a big city can be really brutal. A lot of the new songs that I’ve been writing are about learning how to live in these concrete places.
Are you working on a new album?
It’s a secret. But I’ve got plans in the works. That’s why I felt like now was the time to do a solo tour. That’s how I started making music in the first place, just me, and I played a lot of the towns that I’m going back to now.
“Headlights” fits in with that idea behind this tour. This song is off your first full-length album. It was written around when you signed with Polydor. That must have been an exciting time for you. And yet, here, you were already looking back into the past. When you play this song now, how does it feel?
I wrote “Headlights” when I was 20. I was nervous about the future and reflecting on the past. I’m 26 now, and everytime I play this song, it still feels relevant. Time, aging, memories — those are things that I’m going to feel for my entire life. We all will.
You can catch Squirrel Flower at First Unitarian Church this Sunday, March 12. Try and get there when doors open at 7:30 p.m., because the show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are almost sold out. But you can still get one for $16.
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