Squirrel Flower and the art of crafting a self-portrait in song

Chicago musician Ella Williams visits Rumba Cafe for a concert on Monday, May 16

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Squirrel Flower

Musician Ella Williams, who records and performs under the name Squirrel Flower, spent the year prior to the pandemic recovering from a series of concussions, which required her to adopt protocols that ended up serving her well in the COVID era.

“I had to heal by self-isolating, and by not going out and socializing, and not being on the screen and not reading. And when the pandemic hit, I was like, OK, I know how to do this,” Williams said by phone from her new home in Chicago. “I knew how to cope with this sort of thing, and I had even gone out on tours with concussions, which creates this strange dichotomy between being out in the world and also isolating at the same time, which I guess is kind of similar to touring [amid] COVID.”

Almost the entirety of Williams' label existence has coincided with the coronavirus. The musician released her Polyvinyl debut, the inward-looking I Was Born Swimming, in January 2020, and followed a year later with Planet (i), a more outward recording shaped by climate change and awash in natural disasters. (The album’s title references a fictional planet to which humankind will retreat after destroying Earth.)

The Planet EP, from February, marks a comparative return to intimacy, reflected both in the musician’s words (“Your Love Is a Disaster” unfolds like a romantic plea directed toward someone ill-suited to returning the favor) and in the sonic landscape, which finds Williams retreating to the more lo-fi pastures of earlier releases. 

“I really wanted to showcase that raw, self-made music, kind of like the stuff I made in my bedroom when I first started recording as Squirrel Flower, when there was no input from other people,” said Williams, who visits Rumba Cafe for a concert on Monday, May 16. “I made that first EP when I was 18, and I’m a very different person now at 25. People grow and change, and your music grows with that, especially when you’re working with other people, where there are all of these external perspectives. It felt good to remind myself what it felt like to be a kid making music for myself and by myself.”

Indeed, music has been an intimate part of Williams’ life from the earliest years she spent growing up in Boston. Her father is a professional bass player, and her grandmother and grandfather were a singer and the founder of a medieval ensemble, respectively, so she was raised amid a continual shuffle between gigs. “[My dad] would pick me up at school after teaching lessons all day, and then take me to choir practice, and then he would drive to a gig and my mom would pick me up after choir,” Williams said. “So I really grew up immersed in that lifestyle of what it was to be a working musician, and then we played music together all of the time, as well. I started picking up instruments as young as 4 or 5, and then started writing songs as a child.”

Beginning in high school, Williams became a regular presence within the Boston open mic scene, and soon after, the DIY scene, which led her to begin experimenting with more out-there sounds, immersing her acoustic songs in beds of ambient noise — a path she continued to explore after moving to Iowa to attend school at Grinnell College. 

“I think the thing that really influenced my first EP was taking a sound art class in college. There was this one project where I compiled all of these sounds from the area I lived in, because it was so drastically different from Boston in every way, and I wanted to relate that difference to my friends and family back home,” Williams said. “And I thought sound would be a cool way to do that, sort of creating a self-portrait with sound. And from there I had the idea to do a self-portrait with songs. And that was the birth of Squirrel Flower.”

Williams’ draw toward more avant garde song structures shouldn’t surprise, owing to her family’s deep connection with Black Mountain College, an experimental liberal arts school in North Carolina that served as an incubator for dozens of influential outsider artists. After Black Mountain College dissolved in 1957, a few of the artists who lived and worked there, including the composer and musician John Cage, moved to Upstate New York and founded Gate Hill Cooperative, where Williams’ grandfather lived for a time, and where her grandmother still lives now.

“In that initial sound art class I took, I remember learning about people like David Tudor and John Cage and being like, oh, shit, these are the people who would watch my dad when he was a baby,” Williams said, and laughed. “So, yeah, there are a lot of legendary art vibes — not necessarily in my upbringing, but in my dad's and grandparents' — that have influenced me, for sure.”