It’s only been a year and a half since I Was Born Swimming introduced us to the world of Squirrel Flower, and Ella O’Connor Williams is already set to release her second full-length under the moniker, Planet (i), next week. Though the Boston singer-songwriter had been putting out records under her own name for a while – she began releasing folk-inspired EPs in high school – her music as Squirrel Flower is marked by greater sonic experimentation, channeling the cathartic power of guitar-based rock through the intimate spaces of those formative influences. Vulnerability always carries an electric charge in her music, whether incorporating heavier elements or leaning more on acoustic folk – and her latest LP does a bit of both.
Planet (i) burns with even more intensity than its predecessor, filled with poetic meditations on Williams’ personal growth while delving more into her relationship with the universe around her – the elements that terrify and excite her. Even when her lyrics work in metaphors, the feelings she relays are palpably real, and the album is structured in such a way where otherwise elusive dynamics come to life. Williams wrote most of the songs before the COVID-19 pandemic, building the record layer by layer with producer Ali Chant at his studio in Bristol, with help from drummer Matt Brown and Portishead’s Adrian Utley, as well as contributions from Jess Shoman (Tenci), Tomberlin, Katy J. Pearson, Jemima Coulter, Brooke Bentham, her brothers Nate and Jameson, and her father Jesse. Through it all, her presence as a vocalist and songwriter remains singularly electrifying.
We caught up with Ella Williams for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her childhood moniker, the experiences that informed her new album Planet (i), family, and more.
I was going to ask you about the origins of your moniker, which comes from your childhood, but I read that you can’t quite remember when you came up with it. Do you think that’s partly why you’ve stuck with it to this day, like you want to preserve some part of your younger self?
I think at this point I’ve stuck with it because it’s just what I have. You know, I made music before I started calling myself Squirrel Flower, and it was pretty different from the music I made after I started calling myself Squirrel Flower. And it just feels like all of the music I’ve released under that name has been part of that same project, and to change it would feel wrong. I just wanted to not use my name, I thought that was boring, and I just liked the way that the words sound; when I think of Squirrel Flower, I kind of separate it from the meaning of the actual words, and I kind of hope other people do, too, at this point. Squirrel Flower is the music that I make, and it’s not about animals or flowers or even about my younger self anymore. It hasn’t really been a conscious effort to continue to preserve my younger self, although I do like that it still is a nod to my younger self, because I imagine my four-year-old self being like, “Squirrel flower!” And looking at me now as a 24-year-old and thinking that that’s pretty cool that I’m still doing it – you know, making music and also calling myself that, I feel like that’s pretty cute.
I do think aesthetically the name has a certain ring to it that’s not necessarily associated with the meaning of the actual words, but it’s interesting that it has this connection to childhood. And your previous album, I Was Born Swimming, was filled with reflections on those years growing up. Has the past year made you think differently about that time, or made you reflect on certain memories more strongly?
I really do think that the past year and a half has made me reflect on memories, generally, more strongly. And I think that’s a form of escapism, really. I’ve experienced that with recovering from the concussions I’ve had, like you can’t really have sensory stimulation and instead you’re kind of just there alone with your mind. And in a way being in quarantine was very similar to that; you don’t have much going on, you’re kind of just there with your brain, and I have found in times like that that diving really deep into the mind and allowing memories to lead you to other memories – sort of like reliving memories like a movie, almost. I’ve always had a really vivid, visual imagination. And the song ‘Pass’ on Planet (i) is kind of about that, just filtering through past seasons and memories and trying to find escapism in it, and tapping out from the current reality, but also using memories to think about how to live my life now and moving forward in the future and putting everything in context. Because I feel like sometimes – I don’t know, we’re all just so busy all the time, our brains are a million different places, and at least for me, it’s really easy to lose context of just who I have been for my whole life and who I am presently, and that being the same person, and allowing who I have been to inform who I will be and who I am now.
Do you mind sharing any of those memories that either informed the music or helped you reconnect with that sense of identity?
I could talk about one that is specifically in the album – so, ‘Iowa 146’, that whole thing is a really specific memory of a past relationship that I was diving into and finding escapism through reliving in my head during quarantine. I hadn’t thought about the person in a while, and sort of just completely put myself back into how lovely it was, and this specific memory of being in rural Iowa together at night, just like out in the cornfields, looking at the stars, and you could see the Milky Way. And regardless of what happened after that, just like that moment of tenderness and feeling so present and beautiful and electric in that moment.
Something I love about Planet (i) as a whole is how it evokes these electric moments, but also these different shades of loneliness. Like, on ‘To Be Forgotten’, solitude is almost like a euphoric and freeing feeling, but then on ‘Night’, there’s almost a punishing bitterness to it, especially with the line “To the moon I wail of solitude/ And she spits on my head.” I know you wrote the songs mostly before the pandemic, which makes sense because that tension has always been present in your music, but how did you want to approach those themes on this album?
It definitely was less of a focal point as in I Was Born Swimming, which is obviously all about the tensions of like, wanting to be alone versus wanting to be with someone else, or maybe not wanting to be alone. Just trying to work out all of those dynamics of being a person independently, and also relating to somebody else and being very close to someone else and being dependent… But, I mean, that’s just shit that I think about a lot [laughs] and is very present in my life all the time, so of course it just naturally made its way into the songs.
I think also, a lot of the talk of solitude, at least on ‘Night’ – like, that line, I remember I wrote it when I was healing from a concussion, and just literally couldn’t socialize, couldn’t do fucking anything, and had times of feeling beauty just in myself and from that solitude of doing nothing. But that was a moment of, like you said, bitterness, just like, “Fuck this!” But then on ‘To Be Forgotten’, I actually wrote half those lyrics when I was on tour alone one time, and then I wrote the other half when I was in Bristol alone, just walking around alone one day. And those are instances in my life of just of being alone and just feeling electric and feeling so full, not needing anything or anyone else, and being able to connect more with nature and my ancestors and just everything from being like a singular person in the world instead of a person with other people, if that makes sense.
In what way did you think about your ancestors?
I mean, family is and has always been really important to me. I think a big theme on this album, albeit maybe not explicit, but while I was writing and recording the album, I was thinking about my ancestors. Most of them have been artists and, you know, leftists and organizers, and they’ve lived these weird alternative lives making music and art and being like, politically offbeat. Thinking about them and thinking about that makes me feel very powerful in the trajectory of my life. My grandfather was a lute and recorder player and played early medieval music, like Renaissance music, and I used to listen to his lute recordings on a CD every night when I went to sleep as a kid. And I think just that sound finds its way into the way I play guitar, especially when I’m just playing acoustic guitar on my own – not recording or playing a show but just the way I play music when I’m not doing it as a job, if that makes sense. Just allowing myself to be informed by their music and art and lives.
Do you still have the CD of those recordings?
I don’t have the CD, they’re just floating around in emails. I think my dad has them and my great aunt has them as well, and I think my grandmother has them too. It’s like mp3s now I think.
Have you listened to any of them recently?
I haven’t, I really want to though. When my grandfather died and he left us a lot of his recorders, and my dad, who is also a musician – we would like, especially in quarantine, ‘cause me and my parents and my two brothers were quarantining together for a lot of it, and we would have these nights of just all of us playing recorder, or like, someone on recorder, someone on guitar, someone on piano or cello or bass – just so many different instruments. [laughs] And my mom doesn’t play music, but she would just be sitting there listening. Just these beautiful classical quartets that were pretty much just sight-read or improvised, and I also started learning Bach duets with my dad and with my brother, respectively, on guitar and acoustic bass. Doing that was really, really lovely – there’s something about just sitting down with a family member and sight-reading this music that is like two parts, and the whole point of the music is how the two lines interact with each other – they have their separate waves of motion, and they sometimes meet. I don’t know, it’s just a beautiful way of relating to a person.
You also brought back a lot of them to play on the record – I know your father played on the previous album and your brother Jameson did as well. I’m not sure if your brother Nate has played on a previous album, but I saw on the credits that he yells on one track?
Yeah. He hasn’t played on any other records, but he played couple trumpet notes on ‘Night’, and then he yelled the lyrics on ‘Hurt a Fly’. [laughs]
At which point does he do that?
It’s on the “broke your trust again” verse. You can kind of hear him, “broke your trust again!”
How did that come about?
Well, I wanted to yell. One day in the studio, I said to Ali, the producer, like, “I need to do a yelling track on this.” And I tried, and it just felt so embarrassing. I’m just not a very good yeller. And Ali was like, “I’m not a good yeller either.” [laughs] So I hit up Nate, my younger brother – he has a massive voice, he could be an opera singer. And I was like, “Do you want to yell the lyrics on this song?” And at the time he was living close to a college campus in Massachusetts, and he biked to the middle of the sports field and recorded it in the middle of the field just like on his phone. There weren’t really people around, but there were some people kind of far away that were like, “What is going on?”
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about family?
Just like, warmth. I don’t know, it feels like the most important thing to me, and even now, like, I’m currently living with my older brother, and our younger brother lives a five-minute walk away. We’re just all so close and important to each other. And you know, we fight a lot, but also like, my family just brings me so much joy.
Is the idea of family something that extends beyond biological family for you? I’m thinking of this also in the context of, you know, there are quite a few other collaborators on the album, and backing vocalists in particular that you brought on for this record. I was wondering if could talk a little bit about those collaborations as well.
To start, I feel like, yeah, the whole idea of chosen family has been really hot lately, like everyone’s talking about chosen family. And I identify with that. It’s an amazing thing to have people in your life that you have come across and decided to care for. But yeah, in terms of the collaborators on the record, throughout quarantine friends were hitting me up and asking me to sing backing vocals on their stuff a lot, and I had a really nice time doing it and it allowed me to feel like there’s this musical community, despite not being able to actually have like a physical musical community and go to shows and be with each other. And it was just a way to feel connection, for me, was singing on other people’s music. And I’d never really had backing vocalists before on my stuff other than my own voice, but Ali had the idea, and at first I was kind of wary because I was like, “I haven’t done this before, I feel like my singular voice is so important to my music.” But then I ended up just hitting up some friends, and yeah, it’s really nice to have all these like different friends’ voices on the record.
Talking about the themes of the album, water is once again a recurring presence on Planet (i), but in different ways than on I Was Born Swimming. In an interview around that album, you had talked about going into the next album wanting to explore this fear of water as a natural force. But on ‘Desert Wildflowers’, there’s this proclamation, “I’m not scared of the flood.” Was there a moment where something shifted?
Nothing shifted – I feel like a lot of my songs that have statements like that, they’re really acting as me trying to tell myself an affirmation, if that makes sense. Like, I am scared of the flood and I’m trying to in the song be like, I’m not scared of the flood. I’m not scared of the flood. I’m not afraid. Trying to face it, but not saying it as a true statement. So yeah, nothing has changed. I’m still terrified of the power of water and how powerless we are to it. And we also need it, we cannot live without it. And its absence is terrifying, and it being too present is terrifying.
Could you talk a bit about the idea behind the title, specifically the (i)?
It’s honestly not that deep. I just couldn’t really think of a title, and it was kind of just like a silly thing. The (i), it just looked like a – you know when they find any planet and they put like a placeholder name for it, or they name it like, Planet X or something? There are all these scientific, weird names for the new planets, and so I thought it was sort of like a nod to that a little bit, kind of a joke. But it’s also Planet (i), because it’s my record. [laughs] It’s also really about my internal worlds, as well as the planet, planet Earth, and also the other planets in the universe. The album is ultimately about relating other external planets to my internal worlds.
Given that it’s very much about your internal world, how do you feel about sharing it with other people?
I was talking to a friend about this the other night, because he was like, “I can’t believe that you do this, you do the scariest thing ever, just getting in front of people and sharing these things and singing these songs.” And I realized, like, yeah, it’s terrifying, but it’s kind of like an adrenaline junkie thing – I really like the feeling of being on stage, or sharing recorded music that is so fucking insanely vulnerable and intimate, and being like, “Yeah, here it is.” You know? There’s such immense power in sharing things that are so not necessarily personal but personally important and delicate and fragile to me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.