her pace is not our pace.
ELLIE ROWSELL: NEITHER HUMAN NOR WOLF
six word story to describe your relationship with music.
When society forces young blood away from expression, they will always find a way to take the power within their own hands. This is how Ellie began her world in music - part of the exclusive North London teen rock scene. For a person who says she started to do it just for fun, just for something to do, the exhibition of her prowess has consistently been one of the most impressive things to witness on a national and international stage. Talking to Ellie for five minutes, you understand why it comes so organic to her and without a second's awareness as to what her strengths are. The best things are just the most simple. When I ask her to embody this feeling as simply as she can, she astounds me with the concise precision of her words. What I find most inspiring about Ellie is how unaware she is of the confidence she exudes. Being so matter-of-fact is something I gained ten years her senior. Over the last few weeks, we've had many conversations culminating to this piece; there's always a moment during each conversation where she says the smallest thing and my heart feels so warm with her earnest openness. There's a focus, there's a drive, and it's her own reckoning.
me versus them versus us.
"I've only been around the boys," was one of the first quotes I ever remember reading of Ellie's before I even met her. Being just a massive fan of Wolf Alice's music, part of that statement always surprised me with how unbridled her naked femininity is present in much of their music. As an egotistical person, I never understand the appeal of bands, let alone one where I would be singled out for my gender and presentation more than the people I share the responsbilities with. Therefore, when I ask Ellie more about the dynamic, I think of how it doesn't surprise me how straight-forward and near bashful she approaches the reality. "The more photoshoots we do, the more I see that I'm the only one stuck being given make-up for an hour, and the people make the process for me so much more detailed and stressful. I chalk it up to it being part of this job's process, but when I'm having to try on loads of frocks and shoes while I see Theo doing stunts with spinning chairs in the hallway and Joff's playing Candy Crush on his mobile, it's absolutely annoying. Especially since I'm much better at Candy Crush than Joff will ever be," she says, and I imagine her laugh to soften the discomfort of the unfair responsibility.
Nevertheless, the representation she provides is very important in a scene and industry that is more than bereft of women, something she picks up on all too easily. "There's some people who don't respect female musicians as much, so I think that because I come along with the boys, I get less inappropriate shit thrown at me. I think I get spared more than other women in the scene do, only by virtue of the men in my band. There's been a few times where there were some issues with someone saying an ongoing rattle of lewd things or being too handsy, and the boys made it clear that I wasn't allowed to be messed with like that. They're protective blokes." She also makes sure to tell me it goes both ways: "I've also promised to look out for their virtue, but they asked me not to... hmm."
legacy at 23.
It's impossible to do a search on Wolf Alice and not see how their debut album, My Love Is Cool, took the alternative rock scene in its frenzied grip - a genre mainstream media loves to claim is dead. With NME Award wins and Brit and Grammy nominations under their belts, the question of how Ellie sees their progress is an expectant one. But is it a fair one? "I can only speak for myself so this doesn't stand for the boys, but I feel uncomfortable thinking of myself as some part of a movement. That's something I'd only want to think about in hindsight, ah, a decade down the road? I can only hope that our band is doing something positive and cool and well-received," she says, another cool-headed statement to almost brush off the acclaim in one breath.
An aspect of praise heaped on the band quite frequently (which I agree with) is their seamless mixture of genres. "Bros" starts as a steady post-punk breeze before quieting down to Ellie's whisper in shoegaze heaven and near doo-wop callback vocals in the bridge; the rest of the tracks on the record continually play with this teasing of styles. Purposely done, Ellie contributes this to "playlist culture." She explains, "I'm not sure yet if that's something more people are doing or not, but we don't specifically care about sticking to a fixed genre cohesion just because that's the party line. I think the most interesting artists are transformative." But in regards to any notion of legacy, Ellie again proves that she's so much wiser than she accepts herself to be: "I'm proud to be a female frontwoman, though I'm still finding my legs. I'm timid about claiming my space and so I'd like to be stronger about holding my place. I think it's important to note that reviews always point out that I'm a female frontwoman. It should stop being something we see as so unusual. It's never been odd to me, cause I'm just happy to be in a band I love with people I love and music I love making."
About a month ago, I asked my boyfriend how he thinks it works when people are married and release albums. For me, I've never been in a relationship and released an album simultaneously. I can write freely in the past tense and not feel that guilt. Yet, when you're chained to someone more permanently, how do you write about problems? Where do you go to hide your emotions? I haven't been able to stop thinking about this as I start to think of my future as a person and writer, and despite our age difference, I turned the question on Ellie to see if she had any insight. In her hesitance, I can feel that this question already has haunted her without me bringing it up. "Our lyrics all get filtered through many rounds of mutual experiences," she ponders. A beat. "There's nothing worse than feeling chains on expression. Sometimes I think of that Alanis Morissette song, you know the one where she's talking about her exes. 'Unsent,' I think it is? On that note, she has a really nice piece in Time right now." I have to smile because I now know this is Ellie's way of answering a loaded question, with a tangent. It's a very real fear I have myself.
The next time she speaks, it's with a conviction that shakes me. "There's a power in getting to name something, or to cite a specific experience, but only if it's something you choose to do. Calling someone out in public, especially a song? That lives forever. Otherwise, there's then a power in diffusing it, or withholding details to what you feel is sacred 'cause you can still express... I think the simple answer is that you write what you feel comfortable writing. What's less simple is that the best lyrics likely come from the time you're most raw and have heightened emotions that are fresh wounds. Building the architectural route of how you take your life and braid it into your songs is the kind of thing I expect each lyricist has to do to their own various degrees of comfort and trial." A deserved breath. "Writing and performing are both therapeutic endeavours. If you try to censor yourself, you'll choke. Sometimes naming something helps you master it, by speaking it aloud you stop it from collapsing overhead."
At the end of the day, I think this is the closest to the truth any of us can define as musicians and lyricists. There's a kind of agreement from all parties involved, or rather, there should be. As a songwriter, nothing should be off-limits. This is where a course of understanding is instrumental. To wrap this final note, Ellie adds an afterthought I can tell she's less sure of, but it's as powerful as anything else: "If you've to make accusations, don't let them be furiously made. Our songs are confessional, but tempered by time."
The always controversial question of personality diagnosis comes up, and Ellie first answers me via Mark Ronson: "You're an extroverted introvert. You're friendly and talkative but it doesn't seem, to me anyway, that you're completely open and outgoing unless you feel comfortable in that situation and with those people." My favourite book of 2015 was Quiet; my favourite quote from it being: "Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pyjamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions."
As Ellie explains further, she hits nearly all aspects of this quote. I ask her if she's ever read Quiet (she says no), making the following choice quotes all the more fascinating: "I live a lot in my head." "I can get overwhelmed in certain social situations." "My brain is very active with an internal monologue that never stops." "If I were to get stuck in a lift with a stranger, I'm either going to ignore them entirely to nap, or I'm going to be asking for their philosophical views on the afterlife." "I'd much rather have a deep discussion with a stranger than make small talk." As her answers meander in their justification, I notice how introverts are still viewed as dirty or abnormal people. Being an introvert is one of the aspects of myself I am most proud of, one that helped me accept myself as a person with some form of normalcy. Observing Ellie, you see the falters in self-assurance from someone shamed for their brand of communcation. With that in mind, I leave my second favourite quote from Quiet: "There's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas."
when did you realise you could do it too?
I feel like every girl has that album that taught them how to accept their less savoury parts - how to be a woman. For myself, Fiona Apple and Brody Dalle carved my voice, the one that was stifled throughout most of my life. I ask Ellie to reflect on that similar feeling. "For me, it was a Natalie Imbruglia CD that my mate Sadie and I stole away from her sister's room 'cause I liked the cover with her looking all moodily enchanted and windswept. It was several years old by the time I got my hands on it. But I recognised the beauty of a real voice, and for whatever reason, started connecting with the confessional lyrics and the stories they told. It became my shower CD, you know? To this day I sometimes belt out 'Torn' when I'm sudsing up." Funnily enough, the second name out of her mouth is the same I echo: "And Fiona Apple. I was drawn to all of the personal self-expression, especially as I was always so shy but felt like I had things I wanted to say."
tell me a story.
"I'm in bare feet, idly shuffling about on an old woven rug in the middle of my uncle's den on Christmas Eve. He is playing record albums, becoming a legendary late night DJ in my young heart. 'These are The Yardbirds,' he says. It's presented to me in a way music's never been given before...not as something in the background, but right in my hands. He tries to let me drop the needle, but I'm too afraid. When Mum says I have to go to bed, my heart pounds. I can't leave. I can never abandon this. The next day, I ignore my gifted Christmas jumpers and spend hours to practise dropping the needle down onto Days of Future Passed by The Moody Blues."
what's the songwriting process for you?
In a world of competent musicians, whenever I share how I create, I get long stares and chuckles. To find some comfort, I ask Ellie the same. Thankfully, her answer was as good as I expected it to be: "I sojurn to far off lands and write under the influence of the Harvest Moon," she jokes, looking off to the side in nervous thought. "Mm, my mind is always churning, I write down notes everywhere. I don't have any fussy process when the ideas first come. I like them to organically accumulate." For myself, this is why iPhone voice memos exist.
what do you hope to accomplish by 31 december?
1. Work smart and only with furious love for said work.
2. Grow my confidence.
3. Continue to engage in meaningful conversations and connections.
4. Actively allow myself to be happy in the present without letting the past jeopardise it.
5. Watch more YouTube videos of baby goats.
6. Be less concerned with that other people think, and trust my judgment and instincts.
I like asking Ellie what's the point sometimes. Not because I'm confused myself, but I love hearing her talk aloud the contradictions in her head. This time, she says something simple before brushing her hair behind her ear: "Process, really. The process." As what I've learned from talking to Ellie so much these last few weeks, it's how she seems to envision her thoughts before speaking, choosing which ones feel the most relevant. "I just want to enjoy how to learn. I want the slow burn." In an era where ephemerality seems so prevalent, her answer feels dangerous but it's one of her most confident moments I've witnessed. And with that comes the dreaded question I hate myself: what's next? "We're just feeling things out writing our next album, approaching new music organically and learning about ourselves the whole time." About fifteen minutes later, we start talking about the Spice Girls and Chopped, and I wonder whether I've learned more from Ellie than she's learned about herself doing this. Hours later, a few beers in, I realise it's awesome to see a mate learning from herself, the people around her, and the trials presented in her life with such shaky finesse, something that reminds me a bit of my own journey at her age. Really, she blooms each day and I consider myself one of the luckiest people in her existence to witness it along the way.