“For me, this is the only way forward,” said Ella Williams, who plays Squirrel Flower. Williams talked about creating and working as an artist, and the same impulse can be heard on her latest album, “Tomorrow’s Fire,” released in early October on the Polyvinyl label. Written during a powerful moment of creativity, “Fever of Tomorrow” is a sharp evolution for an artist unafraid to experiment in genre and scope. However, it took some time to achieve the completed record.
Williams described the time before the new record was written as an incubation phase.
“You have to keep up with the ebb and flow of the creative process. It’s important to show up and practice every day to make something happen, but it’s also important to not push when you’re in the incubation phase and push less when you’re in the creation phase,” Williams said.
Squirrel Flower songs often begin with journals filled with hundreds of voice memos, scraps of melody, and potential lyrics. When he’s ready to flesh out the songs, Williams digs into his archives and begins putting the pieces together.
But he was having trouble turning this latest collection into full songs. The artist residency at Sierra Nevada eventually helped bring about this new music. The first track written during this residency, “What Kind of a Dream is This?”, opened the floodgates and everything else quickly emerged. She even took time into the studio to record before finishing writing.
Except for the album’s opening song, “I Don’t Use a Trash Can”, most of the tracks were written between May and October 2022. According to Williams, the song was the first song she wrote as Squirrel Flower at the age of 18. He often found solace in playing live on tour “as a way to ground myself, connect with my past self, and kind of remember why I’m doing what I’m doing.” I think about music and how far I’ve come. The track, which does not follow a traditional song structure, also reminds Williams how to pursue his art.
Before making “I Don’t Use a Trash Can,” he was mostly writing acoustic folk music. Everything changed with “I Don’t Use the Trash Can”. Since her debut song is crafted with a more experimental genre bent, it also serves as a reminder that she must continue to experiment and challenge herself as an artist.
“When I was writing the songs, while I was figuring out the production for them, they were telling me the song had to be loud,” Williams recalled. “The songs needed this treatment to move them forward.”
This was easy to achieve in Chicago. Williams says he moved to the city 2.5 years ago and that the city and its surroundings have become a particular source of inspiration. Chicago pushed him forward as an artist and provided him with opportunities to experiment. While her last album, “Planet (i)”, was heavily inspired by folk musicians like Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams, this new album is all noise, in a good way.
Williams’ partner and his younger brother lived in a warehouse space with no neighbors, a PA system and lots of instruments. The unlimited and welcoming day-long jam sessions became a source of inspiration. “It was just unfettered improvisation,” he said. “That… kind of made me take it a step further.” Williams would increase the distortion with his co-producer, using pedals and amplifiers to ensure the sound was as wide as possible.
This can be heard on tracks like “Canyon” and “When a Plant is Dying,” a propulsive marvel filled with layers of vocals and guitar. The second track is one of the most aggressive on the record, penetrating the listener’s soul and tightly gripping. There’s a kind of desperation in some of the songs; There’s an urgency that begs the listener to linger on each sentence. “When a Plant Dies” embodies this most clearly.
At one point, Williams sings: “There’s gotta be more to life/than being on time/It takes a sunrise these days/it takes remembering you’re alive.” Easy listening, this is not it. But still, in the end, she says, she planted the seed and said, “I’m not dying.” There is hope through the mud.
“Making a living as an artist, as a musician, seems to get harder and harder with each passing year. But on the other side there is tremendous happiness and a very special way of interacting with the world,” Williams said. “Showing it to the world and approaching it artistically, curiously and openly is the only way to move forward when there are so many challenges.”
8 p.m. Jan. 19, 2024, Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave.; tickets $25 (ages 18+) lh-st.com
Britt Julious is a freelance critic.