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No Expectations 046: Full Time Job
A Taste Profile interview with Chicago’s Squirrel Flower.
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Taste Profile: Squirrel Flower
Squirrel Flower is the songwriting project of Ella Williams, who lives in Chicago and released one of the best rock albums of 2023 with Tomorrow’s Fire. Across 10 simmering and expansive songs that are the loudest and most immediate offerings of her career so far, Williams urgently sings of work, anxiety, climate catastrophe, and how things fall apart. It feels like a culmination and one that finds Williams rerecording the first song she ever wrote and repurposing it to open the LP in “i don’t use a trashcan.” That song excels in showcasing her confidence as a fully-formed artist while staying in conversation with her younger self.
On Tomorrow’s Fire, she enlists a marquee cast of collaborators to flesh out these songs including Wednesday’s Jake Lenderman, Bon Iver’s Matt McCaughan, Angel Olsen’s Seth Kauffman, The War on Drugs’ Dave Hartley, and producer Alex Farrar (Indigo De Souza). The result is magic and something that will get countless play at No Expectations HQ for months. There’s been a ton of great writing on this record like Marissa Lorusso’s Pitchfork review and Matt Mitchell’s Paste profile. Read those and consider buying Tomorrow’s Fire from Williams’ label Polyvinyl.
Squirrel Flower is currently on tour with Truth Club and will be touring Europe throughout November (check here for dates). Before the band started that run, I chatted with Williams for a Taste Profile interview where she chose three formative things from her childhood and three things she’s into now.
Formative show: Skins (UK)
I remember watching this in the early days of Netflix circa 2010. It was a really wild show.
My earliest memory of Skins is also in 2010. I was a freshman in high school and I was heavily on Tumblr. I think that's how I found out about the show: it was just through screen grabs on Tumblr. I was like "Wow, that looks so cool." I didn't watch it on Netflix but I found it on one of those illegal streaming websites. You know the ones. It very quickly became my touchstone for culture. I was 14 that year and I found out about Grouper through that show. The soundtrack was so good. It taught me how to be a teenager or at least a bad teenager. It was a big part of my life and a big part of my development.
I’m a few years older than you and what you’re describing is exactly how The O.C. was for me. Did you ever watch that?
No, I never watched that.
That show always referenced Death Cab for Cutie. It was my introduction to Sufjan Stevens, The Walkmen, and tons of other bands.
The kids on The O.C. were a little better behaved though. Did Skins inspire a streak of rebelliousness in you?
Yes. 100%. Like very much so. I started partying because of that show. I basically immediately turned into an alt-party kid because of Skins.
I went to fucking raves [laughs]. I did all that shit. But in my sophomore year of high school, I graduated from that phase into the DIY, noise scene in Boston.
Sophomore year of high school is a commendable time to stop the party rave phase.
I was still partying just in a different way.
What other things were you watching around that time? Did anything feel similarly formative?
I watched a lot of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. That was my therapy replacement for my entire high school years. Anytime I felt bad I would watch Guy Fieri. And it made me feel better instantly. He has great energy. He's a positive guy and a very powerful presence.
Formative band: Guerilla Toss
You're from Massachusetts. Talk to me about the music community there before we get into Guerrilla Toss, who are from there.
Around my sophomore year of high school, I started going to shows. I think the first cool show that I went to was actually Lightning Bolt. It fucking changed my life and opened up this world of the DIY scene in Boston. All my friends and I would go to shows pretty much every weekend and sometimes twice a weekend. We were seeing as much music as we could. My experience of Boston from 2012 to 2015 was really sick. The scene was very rich. And it's sad. While there are still bands there it's different. It's completely changed, every venue is basically gone, and most people left. So I think back to that time very fondly. I saw a lot of the craziest shows I've ever seen. The way that the music scene there combined jazz, noise, punk experimentation, and rock and roll was so cool. There's a lot of really, really interesting music going on.
What was your first experience with Guerilla Toss?
My first time seeing them was in the basement of the Elks Lodge in Central Square in Cambridge. They still have shows there but they had a lot of shows there when I was 15. It had very low ceilings and it was very, very hot. There was no air escaping at all. There were these big pipes in the room. At the gig, Guerilla Toss' bass player at the time was fully naked, hanging from one of the pipes and playing bass while hanging from the pipe., He was fully nude. I said, "This is the coolest shit I've ever seen." Looking back it’s more like "Well, I don't know about that."
They’re such a fun and creative band. They’re the platonic ideal of being “your favorite band’s favorite band.” Were they the gateway for you to write songs?
At that point, it had started but I honestly didn't think that I was cool enough or skilled enough to make music like that or even close to that. My music taste was very eclectic, but I was really just making acoustic folk music. It wasn't until I took a sound art class, my first semester at Grinnell College that I could contextualize myself within all of the music that I had been seeing for the last like three years. That class made me think I could actually make something more interesting. That's when I picked up the electric guitar and started making more experimental folk music. That's sort of opened up the door for me.
So is this Guerilla Toss pick more because they're an avatar to you of the music community that you grew up in? Or is there a bigger reason why you chose this band?
I went to so many of their shows growing and they just represented what cool was to me as a teenager. They very much influenced my music taste.
Formative book: D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths
I loved this book when I was younger. When you sent over the list, I went straight back to being a kid and paging through it. Why did you choose this one?
I chose this one because I know that this book lives deeply in my subconscious in ways that I can't begin to know and explain. I read this book probably like 20 times front to back growing up. I looked through the first 20 pages of a book online right before this interview and the pictures just took me right back. The picture of Kronos eating the blue orb, which represents his child...when I saw that now, I realized that image stuck with me in my brain for a long time.
Did reading this book influence your creative practice later on?
No, not really.
I bring it up because I just saw Bob Dylan play last weekend and a lot of the lyrics on his latest album Rough and Rowdy Ways deal with Greek mythology. There are songs called “Mother of Muses” and “Crossing the Rubicon.”
Oh, that’s really interesting.
I guess a better way to ask that question is what about this book was sort of influential to you as a younger person? Did it make you think about myths and storytelling in new ways?
I think myths are so powerful, especially Greek myths. It's a very, very zoomed-out lens of the universe, and being able to think about the world and the universe as this sentient thing and every planet has a personality behind it was really interesting to me. There are these greater-than-life beings that exist in these stories and you can take lessons from that and apply zoomed-out ideas to your regular daily life. I think that was my first kind of experience with that sort of thing as a child.
At the beginning of this conversation, I asked how it was choosing and revisiting these things in your childhood for this interview. On a similar note, how was revisiting one of the first songs you ever made, "i don't use a trashcan" and repurposing it for your new record?
The process of revisiting that song was amazing for me. I basically started playing that song live on tour over the past few years to sort of ground myself and reconnect with a version of myself that was just making music for the sake of music and for the sake of expression and experimentation. I just loved playing it so much that I really wanted to rerecord it. The first time I recorded it, it was very straightforward. But even back then, when I performed it, I would do these live vocal loops and sing the whole thing four times through and layer my voice and make this sort of chorus of my voice live. And I wanted to record it in a way that captured that. The process of revisiting that song and sort of being able to communicate with my 18-year-old self is very, very powerful.
Recent book: Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992 by Tim Lawrence.
I didn't realize Arthur Russell was from Iowa, about an hour away from where you went to college at Grinnell. How was discovering that?
We sort of have opposite journeys. He was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa but as soon as he could—I think when he was 16—he ran away and moved to San Francisco before eventually ending up in New York. I was born on the East Coast and when I turned 18, I went to the Midwest. There are still a lot of themes of Iowa and the Midwest in his music. And as a non-Midwestern who loves the Midwest, I love to see that.
What stuck out to you about this biography?
I didn't know he was so connected with the moon, and the cycles of the moon, but he really was. He would record on a full moon, and edit on a new moon. For the past four months, I've also been very, in touch with the cycles of the moon. Basically, during the full moon, you're supposed to reap the benefits of what you've sown throughout the last moon cycle. And on the New Moon, it's when you set your intentions and rest and are less active, but you sort of plant the seed for the full moon. I've been very much living in connection with that. Reading that he was really in line with that, too, it was cool to see. It really surprised me though, because when I think of musical geniuses, think of someone who's very, like maybe very scatterbrained but also very analytical. I don't think of being very analytical as in line with like mysticism.
His career is so fascinating. It's amazing how many people I've met over the course of my musical life who think that Arthur Russell, the folk songwriter, and Arthur Russell, the electronic disco musician, are two separate people when it’s the same person making these disparate sounds.
I think what's been really amazing and something that I've really gathered from this book is how music itself was the priority and the first thing in his life. Yes, he wanted to be successful and have a career for himself but when it came down to it, the music itself was the end all for him. The ability to keep creating the way he wanted to create without compromising for commercial reasons is very inspiring.
Recent activity: Solitaire
You’ve tweeted before that solitaire changed your life. Tell me about that.
Solitaire did change my life. I was going through a very challenging period at the end of July, and early August. I was on a plane to visit my parents in Boston from Chicago. I didn't have a book with me and I didn't want to be on my phone, but I wanted to do something. So I went onto the little screen on the plane seat and said, "screw it. I'm going to play a game." I saw that they had Solitaire and it had been a very long time since I had played Solitaire. So I decided to give it a go.
It was the most frustrating fucking thing. I didn't know how to play it and I couldn't remember. There were no rules listed on the plane. So for an hour and a half, I was just losing this game over and over again, trying to figure out how to play it. By the end of the flight, I had figured out roughly what the rules were just from trial and error. That in of itself was amazing for me, because I feel like there are so few opportunities, once you leave school, to really challenge yourself and learn in that way. This section of my brain that had been off just turned on. This experience of being so annoyed and frustrated and challenged but breaking through that and learning the game was so great.
It's a frustrating enough game when you already know how to play. It's so impressive that you figured it out on your own.
On the flight back to Chicago from Boston. I played it again and I fucking destroyed. I was so good. It was such a good feeling. I landed and pretty much the first thing I did in Chicago was buy a deck of cards. I would bike around and go to some field by the lake. I'd set out my towel and play solitaire for hours. When you're not doing it on the computer, which usually tells you if you're doing something you can't do and will automatically end the game if you can't go any further, you don't know for sure when it's just you and a deck of cards. You have these moments of being so stuck and feeling like the game is over and there's nothing to do. But then you hang on for a bit longer and you notice a way through that you didn't see before. It's a very beautiful lesson but on the other hand, you also have to know when to give up when you can't make another move. It's really it's an exercise in trust and optimism but also in holding on to a sense of being realistic.
This might sound like a reach but do you see that as sort of a metaphor for songwriting?
Like I said—it’s a reach. How often do you play now?
I was playing more over the summer because I was also going through a breakup. With solitaire, you literally have to be alone to play. It was this beautiful exercise in embracing being alone. That's why I also tweeted, "I don't need a therapist. I have solitaire."
This is not a solitary game but since you’re a newer Midwesterner, has anyone taught you how to play Euchre yet?
No, I've never heard of that.
It’s the best card game but you need four people. I’m sure someone will teach you next on the next tour. It’s perfect for killing time in a green room. That’s my rec for you.
Thanks for the tip.
Recent album: Midwife and Vyva Melinkolya, Orbweaving
This record is really beautiful. Talk to me about this LP.
It’s so good. I love this record. I found it a bit late after it came out. I discovered it in August and I would just connect to my little clip-on-speaker and bike around with it blasting. When I listen to it, I feel like I'm floating. I have continued to listen to it pretty much every day for the last two months. I love music that is not afraid of taking up a ton of space. I've always known this about my preferences but every interview or like write-up I've done about my influences for my record, or just like music that I like, it all has in common, a lot of space. When a song can be less of like a forward-moving arrow and more of like a cloud that just exists with less of a definition of beginning, middle, and end, that's a very magical thing. I think this record is very much that.
What was your gateway into this LP?
I was familiar with Midwife. I've loved Midwife's music for a while. But this was my intro to Vyva Melinkolya. And since discovering the record, we've become internet friends. Honestly, we've been talking a lot. I basically followed them. And then they instantly messaged me and said they were a huge fan. And I was like, “Whoa, that's sick.” It's always so cool to be a genuine fan of somebody and then find out that they feel the same way about you.
Experiencing mutual appreciation is such a validating feeling.
People who are doing things with care, and for the right reasons gravitate towards other people who are doing things with care, and for the right reasons. I think it's easy to tell through somebody's art when they're full of shit. Sometimes it’s less easy but you know what I mean.
Because this is a collaborative LP, would you ever do one and who would be your dream team-up?
My answer is yes, I would do that. Honestly, I think my dream artist to collaborate with would be Dean Blunt. He has a record with Joanne Robertson. It's one of my favorite albums ever. And since first hearing it, I've wanted to collaborate with Dean.
What I listened to:
No Expectations 046:
1. Minor Moon, “Miriam Underwater”
2. Allegra Krieger, “Living in the City Is so Beautiful”
3. Dream Sitch, Michael Nau, Floating Action, “Doormat”
4. Squirrel Flower, “Stick”
5. Helado Negro, “LFO (Lupe Finds Oliveros)
6. Radar Peak, “Sniper’s Muse”
7. Super Infinity, “Someday in the Sky”
8. hemlock, “deja vu (may ten)”
9. She Returns From War, “Edgefield”
10. Charlie Hill, “Hackensack”
11. Sam Blasucci, “Around the Corner”
12. Skyway Man, “Winds”
13. Loving, “Blue”
14. Michael Nau, “Shiftshaping”
15. June McDoom, “The City (With Strings)”
Gig Report: Erin Rae, She Returns From War at Judson and Moore (10/21)
If you’re a longtime subscriber to No Expectations, you’ll know that Erin Rae’s Lighten Up was one of my favorite albums of 2022. The Nashville songwriter has been making timeless, evocative, and powerful songs for years now (2018’s Putting On Airs and 2015’s Soon Enough are both excellent) but last year’s LP was so good that I think it’s best-of-the-decade material This year, she released a full band live LP Lighten Up and Try and guested on some great albums including Slaughter Beach, Dog’s Crying, Waving, Laughing, Smiling. When she announced a two-night show at Chicago’s Judson and Moore with a full band backing her, there was no way I was going to miss it.
Her band features keyboardist James Wallace (Skyway Man), guitarist Sean Thompson (Sean Thompson’s Weird Ears), drummer Ben Parks (Sun Seeker, also a Friend of the Substack), and bassist Alec O’Connell. I’m a fan of these musicians separately but collectively, I was totally enthralled. The night could not have been better. She Returns From War opened the show and was equally excellent. It’s the songwriting project of Charleston’s Hunter Park, a charismatic performer and a phenomenal writer. Her songs, while stripped down in this context, soared. She was also joined by Friends of the Substack V.V. Lightbody and Minor Moon’s Sam Cantor for a tune. Her new album Ruthless is out Nov. 10 and it’s now my most anticipated LP.
What I watched:
The Exorcist (1973)
There are way too many universally acclaimed and influential films I just haven’t seen. I feel like I watch a ton of movies but when it comes to some of the biggest names in the medium, I’ll think, “I’ll get around to it eventually” and choose something else. The problem is that I’ve done this for decades. I still haven’t seen Boogie Nights or The Godfather or 12 Angry Men and at a certain point, it’s become a joke: “This guy watched everything Mike Leigh has ever done but hasn’t seen Boogie Nights?” I’m slowly getting around to all the major blind spots, which this week included Michael Mann’s Heat and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Both are alltimers for a reason but the latter especially was such a fascinating slow burn. It must’ve been terrifying in 1973 but it’s still spooky now with just a great story, practical effects, and jaw-dropping performances.
What I read:
Why Culture Has Come to a Standstill (Jason Farago, The New York Times Magazine)
We are now almost a quarter of the way through what looks likely to go down in history as the least innovative, least transformative, least pioneering century for culture since the invention of the printing press. There is new content, of course, so much content, and there are new themes; there are new methods of production and distribution, more diverse creators and more global audiences; there is more singing in hip-hop and more sampling on pop tracks; there are TV detectives with smartphones and lovers facing rising seas. Twenty-three years in, though, shockingly few works of art in any medium — some albums, a handful of novels and artworks and barely any plays or poems — have been created that are unassimilable to the cultural and critical standards that audiences accepted in 1999. To pay attention to culture in 2023 is to be belted into some glacially slow Ferris wheel, cycling through remakes and pastiches with nowhere to go but around. The suspicion gnaws at me (does it gnaw at you?) that we live in a time and place whose culture seems likely to be forgotten.
The Weekly Chicago Show Calendar:
Thursday, Oct. 26: Deeper, Mia Joy, Lawn at Thalia Hall. Tickets.
Thursday, Oct. 26: Joey Nebulous, Tenci, Pinksqueeze at Schubas. Tickets.
Friday, Oct. 27: Cosmic Country Anniversary Showcase at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Friday, Oct. 27: Mary Lattimore, Jeremiah Chiu at Constellation. Tickets.
Friday, Oct. 27: A. Savage, Annie Hart at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
Saturday, Oct. 28: Mary Lattimore, Jeremiah Chiu at Constellation. Tickets.
Sunday, Oct. 29: Faye Webster, Upchuck at Riviera Theatre. Tickets.
Sunday, Oct. 29: Bill Orcutt, Zoh Amba, and Chris Corsano at Constellation. Tickets.
Monday, Oct. 30: Wilco at Metro. Sold out.
Tuesday, Oct. 31: Susto, Brother Elsey at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Tuesday, Oct. 31: Blonde Redhead, Lutalo at Thalia Hall. Tickets.