ellie rowsell on how life is a never ending roller coaster ride of change
As its released today, Ellie talks us through the new Wolf Alice album Visions of a Life, as well as female friendships, and drunk in-flight existential crises.
"I follow the rules, do what it says on the tin, but I'm still on the outside, still looking in," sings Ellie Rowsell on the 8-minute-long title track of Wolf Alice's highly anticipated second album, Visions of a Life. If My Love Is Cool -- the gold-certified Mercury, Ivor, BRIT and Grammy nominated debut album from one of the most iconic guitar bands of this generation was a coming of age tale -- then Visions of a Life is the sequel that tells you that change is a never ending roller coaster ride that loops again and again, way past the point of adolescence.
It's fair to say that these four twenty-somethings from north London; Ellie together with guitarist Joff Oddie, bassist Theo Ellis, and drummer Joel Amey, have been traversing some pretty exciting times since their debut in 2015 -- worldwide tours, highly deserved accolades, film tracks for Ghostbusters and Trainspotting 2. Then there's the myriad of emotions that come with falling in love, spending long spells away, and returning home with new perspectives to find that everything's stayed kinda the same.
Recording with producer and all-around musical prodigy Justin Meldal-Johnsen (who spent 20 years as bassist and music director for Beck, and has produced for Paramore) at a studio in Eagle Rock, California, the band spent six day weeks honing in on their acute awareness of a life constantly in flux. The result is a guitar-heavy, genre-spanning, mood-swinging masterpiece with storytelling lyrics delivered in angry bursts, and gentle musings on everything from the self-doubting insecure lover that finally embraces love in Don't Delete the Kisses, and the heavy loss of a loved one on Heavenwards, to the long-haul flight induced existential crisis in Sky Musings.
Ellie, how do you feel you've grown personally and as a band in the two years since releasing My Love Is Cool?
I think I've grown in confidence. For whatever reason, I held back slightly. I guess it's because when you do anything for the first time, it's quite strange if you don't hold yourself back a little bit. You need something to learn from in order to put yourself out there in a way that feels comfortable. There's obviously some maturity in the music and in the lyrics through getting older, but I don't hear too much of a change in style. As a band, we always say trust our gut, and all of the things where we think, 'why did we do that?' are from when we've let too much external influence direct us. We don't preconceive direction, we just let ourselves be pulled in whichever way feels natural.
You guys have developed a strong political stance, starting Bands 4 Refugees where supergroups of musicians perform covers to raise money for the crisis in Syria, as well as your vocal support of Labour's Jeremy Corbyn. What propelled this?
For a long time politics was shrouded in a grey area but things have gotten so much obviously worse. When you're in a situation of privilege where you can sell tickets, you can raise money. I know Josie, who runs the Help for Refugees charity, and so I knew there was a sure-fire way of doing something. I'm surrounded by a strong network of bands, so starting Bands 4 Refugees was using that to its advantage in doing some good. There's strength in numbers to both raise money and send a message.
There's certain intimidations with speaking up about things but when it comes to the refugee crisis, it's about compassion rather than politics. I'm really influenced and informed by musicians that I like through social media and sometimes feel that I get a more truthful insight into current affairs from someone like Akala than I would from a newspaper. So if I'm doing that, maybe other people are looking to us to form their own opinion?
Visions of a Life moves from contrasting sound to complex emotion on each track, what does this reflect in terms of your own life experience?
I guess in your early 20s you change a lot because it's a fast-moving period of life. My own life did, I'm never home and always in a different place. This album is almost trying to get to grips with that and steadying that for myself. There are very extreme highs and lows that come with it. It's been hard but when it's something you know you get satisfaction and enjoyment out of, it's easy in that respect. You want to be doing it, but you just need to figure out how to do it properly. This album is a little more adult in the sense of figuring out you're not immortal and going through so many new experiences. I lost both of my grandparents and a friend, so death was something I was thinking about.
Yuk Foo is definitely the most hard-hitting song on the album, with the lyrics 'You bore me to death, well deplore me, no I don't give a shit'. Where does this anger come from?
It's about frustration -- frustrations that come with being a young woman, frustrations that come about through expectations from friends or lovers. Frustrations with the mundanity of things.
Who would you say the album is for?
I presume most people have a moment when they feel quite alone and like the outsider and I think one of the best things about music and any form of writing is that you learn that you're not. You learn we're all kind of the same in one way or another. Even regardless of completely polarising lifestyles, you can still know the feeling of being lonely at one point or feeling like you're a freak or whatever. The beauty of music and storytelling is you can have no friends and no teachers to tell you these things, but both of these things do that in a way.
Sky Musings is a whispered in-flight account of someone who's afraid of flying, is that a fear you have?
When we first started touring internationally and taking long haul flights, I was always a little afraid so I'd have a few drinks on the plane and watch loads of rom-coms and have some kind of drunk existential crisis until I stepped off. Apparently it's something to do with being neither here nor there. Sometimes long haul flights are the first time when people are actually alone with their thoughts with little to occupy them, so really busy workaholic people who don't give themselves a second to think about how they're feeling, can't escape it on flights and often have these mini panic attacks or in a positive way, epiphanies. It's also something to do with the fact your life is solely in the hands of someone else, which doesn't happen very often. That's why you often see lots of people crying at Miss Congeniality. I had these moments but I was being humorous about them and I wanted the listener to imagine themselves on that flight, having that panic attack, but it being funny in a way, because it is quite funny.
Female friendship is something you often refer to, first in Bros, then on this album with Beautifully Unconventional.
I guess I'm romanticising the friendships in those classic cult movies like Ghost World and Heathers, where people really romanticise not fitting in. I kind of imagined that in song form about me and my friend Hannah. I went to a girls' secondary school, so female friendship is something I'm very familiar with. I don't think there's a bond like the one between two girls. It's so strong. You can spend hours and hours scrutinising one thing or feeling with each other, which is mad. It can make decision making quite hard because you can tend to overthink small things, but it's also good for creativity because you'll have a thousand words just to describe how it felt to walk into a room at a party.
Tell us your favourite tour life anecdote?
There's a pretty funny story from when we were recording actually. We were staying in a bungalow in Echo Park and I woke up one night because I heard footsteps above me so I thought, what the fuck, someone's gonna break into the house. I went into Joel's room and woke him up, and I was like "someone's on the roof!" and he was like "no, no, the drains make that noise". I told him I could hear actual footsteps, so we went to my room, and, you know when you're not actually scared until you see someone else scared? So instead of being like "let's call the police", Joel was like, "let's wake up Theo". We went into Theo's room, woke him up, and he jumped up and was like, "ok, let's get a weapon". So we found a piece of wood and went outside in our pyjamas, with Theo in a pair of Y fronts because he'd run out of pants. We went around the side of the house and there was a ladder to the roof and a lone trolley parked against the wall, so we were even more like, what the fuck… Theo climbed the ladder and was like "OMG... it's a racoon!"
Amazing. But why was the trolley there?
That's still a mystery.
Visions of a Life is due for release on 29 September through Dirty Hit Records and Wolf Alice will embark on a UK tour on 9 November that ends at Alexandra Palace in London on 24 November