The FADER's longstanding GEN F series profiles emerging artists to know now.
As Squirrel Flower, Ella O'Connor Williams crafts elemental indie rock that seems to rise from nothing, like wisps of smoke from an extinguished fire. After several small-batch releases, Williams's Polyvinyl debut I Was Born Swimming showcases a specific intimacy that belies the elevated profile that such a label move signifies; you can imagine hearing these songs coming from a distant room, and you might feel a little guilty enjoying them — as if you were peering in on someone's private life. But hearing Williams' voice soar on tracks like "Headlights" and "Red Shoulder," it's apparent that her music demands to be heard.
Read on for our conversation about her musical childhood and the meaning of I Was Born Swimming.
Tell me about your upbringing.
My dad is and has always been a professional musician. I was pretty much born into music. His dad was an early musician, a lute and recorder player, and he founded New York Pro Musica, an early music ensemble in New York. My dad's mom studied classical voice performance and they lived at an artist cooperative called Gate Hill Co-Op, with sort of an offshoot of Black Mountain College, founded by all these artists and intellectuals in the fifties. That's where my dad spent a lot of his childhood, immersed in that space, and in turn, I spent a lot of time there as I was growing up. Even the time just spent in my house, a lot of it was us playing music together.
I took some lessons for a year or two on violin and piano, and quit because I didn't like it, so I started teaching myself how to play piano. Around that time I asked my dad if he would teach me how to play electric guitar because I had this Led Zeppelin comp CD, and I was like, "Holy shit, this is crazy. I need to learn how to play guitar like this." He got me this mini black electric guitar and taught me one lesson and then I was like, "This is way too hard. My hands can't do this." A couple of years later I found this old acoustic guitar in our basement, picked it up, and just started teaching myself chords. I felt a little more determined this time to learn it and start really intentionally writing my own songs. For those years in high school, until I was 17, I was doing a lot of folk music, playing a lot in open tunings and playing open mics around Boston, recording myself and then recording at a friend's studio.
I went off to college in Grinnell, Iowa, and had been gifted an electric. It was just an old Strat, and started the world of effects and electric guitar opened to me, and it was perfect. I was making this huge geographical shift and transition in my life and wanting to make different music that reflected how my life had changed and what I was going through. Electric guitar just happened to be the perfect medium to do that. I started making more ambient music and very reverb-heavy stuff. That's around the time when I started calling myself and my music Squirrel Flower.
What inspired that name?
It was a name that I drew from my childhood. It's an alter-ego that I had when I was a kid, and the music I was making felt so different from what I had been making before that I felt like I needed a moniker.
Talk me through why you decided to evoke the image of your own birth on this album.
I had a song, “I Was Born Swimming.” It wasn't even going to be on the album, and I recorded it very late in my bedroom. After all of the other mixing was done, I recorded it in my bedroom and sent it to Gabe and was like, “I think this is the thread that is tying the album together." When I recorded it and thought more about the song's name — the way it felt like it was this missing piece that tied all of the songs together — I realized it was referencing my physical birth, but it's also sort of an affirmation. I was born swimming, I was born moving, and born alone [O'Connor Williams was born "en caul," inside the amniotic sac]. But also connected. Movement and solitude and also connections with people are really the main themes of the album.
Something that really stands out to me about this album is that there's this bracing clarity I feel in moments. What do you think changed about your approach artistically between your early work as Squirrel Flower and this album?
The main thing is just that I spent much more time putting this album together than I had in the past. I knew for a couple months that I had a studio date with a producer. I knew I needed to prepare myself a lot. So I spent a lot more time thinking about the songs I wanted to include. I spent a lot of time thinking about production and the sound I wanted to portray.
But then I got into the studio and working with Gabe [Wax, producer] it was all thrown away in a great way. We just got in there and did it, then spent a lot of time after mixing thinking about sound. It seems like the main musical qualities that are different. I think accepting more nuance in this new album, letting things breathe, but also finding a middle ground between really stark arrangements and super dense arrangements.
What went into making this record? Is there anything you went through specifically, or any emotions that were rattling around in your brain while you were making it?
There's a lot of anxiety about power dynamics in relationships on this record, a lot of anxiety about solitude and feeling this urge to be solitary — but also feeling like you need to be part of the community, and how to balance that and grapple with that. The week I recorded it, I had a week off from school and I flew to New York and I had five days to track it with the band, and it was one of the most emotionally intense weeks of my life, but I couldn't really let myself feel it because I was just working. I think that those tensions come through in the album.
What does the future look like for you? What do you want to do next? How are you feeling right now?
I’m really excited about my songs and recording more and putting those out, which probably will be in a long time. I'm about to be on the road a lot. Part of me wants to move to a place with community and friends and create that sort of life for myself. It feels like an unknown spot, but I'm not feeling bad. I'm delighted to be able to put this record out and play the songs for people. It's so great to be able to make art and share with people.