Squirrel Flower on why dynamics matter: “I don’t like guitar music that’s just loud the whole time”

Ella O’Connor Williams was making a name for herself in the indie-rock scene before COVID slammed the brakes on her plans and her momentum. Now she’s back with a third album that distills that frustration into a deafening roar.

Squirrel Flower, photo by Alexa Viscius

Squirrel Flower. Image: Alexa Viscius

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There is nothing worse than looking for one of your earplugs on a sticky venue floor, but there was no way both of them could stay in your head at Squirrel Flower’s recent show in Denver.

See, while most of the songs from the burgeoning artist (real name Ella O’Connor Williams) find their might in spacious subtlety, her third album, Tomorrow’s Fire, released in October of last year, is fueled by incandescent guitar work that catalyzed some serious headbanging.

Williams’ has a lot of loud emotions to express with her trusty Gibson SG and Fender Jazzmaster after enduring the harrowing reality of being an independent artist over the last couple years. During that time she lost two tours to COVID (and all the income that came with it), while wars, climate change, and social injustices ravaged the world.

“I made such a loud record because I wanted to put everything out there,” Williams says. “There have been many shows where I break from my zone and I see people crying in the front row. That’s fucking incredible to be able to evoke that kind of emotion in somebody.”

The title Tomorrow’s Fire represents a lot of Williams’ emotions, and it’s also the title of a book authored by her great-grandfather, Jay. In the book, he details how creatives so often rely on what’s next to sustain their dedication to their craft. They brave the cold in the now to find warmth in the future.

It’s an image that sparks a profound sense of duality.

On the one hand, there is desperation, frustration, and disillusionment: pouring one’s heart and soul into art despite an infinitesimal chance of any sort of recognition. On the other hand, Tomorrow’s Fire communicates hope in the form of a burning light ahead.

Throughout the album, Williams explores this duality with a heaving guitar sound.

“You can say I’m very successful right now but I still feel like I have to rely on that energy of tomorrow,” Williams says. “Tomorrow’s Fire is not just about hope, but it’s also about always seeking. Always searching for a way forward, and imagining a better situation whether it has to do with climate change or world peace or just making more music.”

Squirrel Flower photographed in black and white
Squirrel Flower

Jam Band

Williams is always making more music — writing 150 songs in the last two years — and as a solo artist she is very content with a solitary process. However, the period of music-making that fueled the new album wasn’t solitary. Her brother and her partner at the time lived in a warehouse with no neighbors, and they would host a community of musicians to play as loud as they could from the early morning until late at night.

“We had a lot of insane jam sessions and it got me through a lot of shit. It was this beautiful freaky supportive thing of playing music together,” Williams says. “It’s very much a time that’s immortalized in amber through my songs that I put on the album.”

One song on the album that particularly defines this period is the grungy rock ballad, When A Plant Is Dying, the lyrics of which address the duality of Tomorrow’s Fire:

When a plant is dying / throws down seeds for growing. Not saying you’re dying / but I saw you throw them down.

Moreover, being surrounded by a community of musicians elucidated to Williams that everyone who came to the warehouse was experiencing this duality. They were relying on each other as they sought hope, and she captured that shared energy by recording When A Plant Is Dying live with a band.

“It came from a place of looking at my friends and loved ones being innately creative people who are stuck in jobs that dulled them, and they didn’t really see a way out,” Williams says. “I think the nature of the song really lent itself to having this live, organic, jam sound.”

As thick as the sound is with the band, Williams still integrates a lot of space into the song. The heavy reverb from the guitar spreads out in congruence with her vocalizations, leaving room for every lyrical phrase to breathe.

No matter how loud or guitar-heavy any Squirrel Flower song may be, Williams always retains the power of space in her music.

“The music that I like to listen to, pretty much all of it has a strong sense of space,” Williams says. “Dynamics are really important. I don’t like guitar music that’s just loud the whole time.”

Attack and Release

Whether it’s loud or soft, Williams is comfortable playing guitar in whatever way feels natural for her, and this sense of individuality and confidence is an extension of her approach to singing. Williams was classically trained to sing, but she had to unlearn a lot of her instruction because it was caging her voice toward a specific sound rather than accentuating her unique style.

So when she decided to pick up a guitar, she didn’t take any lessons. She followed the sound that resonated with her in the moment.

“I think a lot of musicians feel like they have to make what the grand algorithm wants them to make and they don’t,” Williams says.

The grand algorithm is a facet of the industry that bound her and her creative friends to vapid work, and her song Full Time Job is an utter denouncement of that industry:

Taking it easy is a full-time job / one I’m tired of. Doing my best is a full-time job / but it doesn’t pay the rent,” she sings as she stacks massive distortion and widescreen crash symbols on top of one another.

In the video for the song, Williams takes her outrage one step further by engaging in a right of passage for a rock star: smashing a guitar into bits.

“I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it, but it felt actually incredible. It was one of the most cathartic things I’ve ever done,” Williams says. “It’s less about the optics and more just the physical manifestation of the emotions that are coming through in the song.”

The emotions coming through in Full Time Job are in line with the desperation, frustration, and disillusionment aspect of Tomorrow’s Fire, but at the current moment, Williams’ full-time job is traveling the world playing music as she continues touring the record, and she doesn’t take that for granted.

“It feels fucking amazing. It really does. To use what the kids say, I feel blessed,” Williams says.

This is her most consistent headline tour in her entire career. She is experiencing the warmth of Tomorrow’s Fire here in the present and she is savoring that feeling while it lasts.

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