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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Feven Getachew
Feven Getachew
May 6, 2024
Michael Lozada
Michael Lozada
May 6, 2024
Nathan Hoffman
Nathan Hoffman
May 6, 2024
Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
May 6, 2024

Squirrel Flower reflects on spring successes and women in music

Squirrel Flower is having a big spring, opening for Julien Baker at Iowa City’s Mission Creek Festival and for Big Thief in Gardner Lounge. Contributed.

While Ella Williams ’18 started performing as Squirrel Flower only durin gher first year at Grinnell, she has been surrounded by music all her life. Many members of Williams’ family are involved in music and art, including her father, who is a professional bassist. Williams grew up going to his gigs and singing with his fellow musicians.

“Being able to be on a stage that young emboldened me to be able to pursue music and not be afraid to do it,” Williams said.

Williams started performing in the Boston folk scene at age 14, but found her love for experimental DIY music when she was a senior in high school. After getting involved in the Boston DIY scene, she came to Grinnell and became Squirrel Flower, a name she gave herself as a child. Since performing as Squirrel Flower, Williams’ sound has grown and changed.

“I’ve definitely gotten better at guitar and more willing to experiment in that respect, and just experiment with being a little more grungy and playing with distortion. My first EP … I call it dream folk, like a lot of reverb, a lot of loops, is just like single guitar a lot of the time and very ambient. I still love making that kind of music and doing super minimal stuff and stuff with harmonies and my voice, but I’m also breaking out of it into more rock and roll influenced music and bigger band arrangements, heavier drums and just crunchier guitars.”

As a gender, women’s and sexuality studies and studio art double major, Williams applies her knowledge to her musical projects. She focuses on feminist art, reclaiming violence and dealing with the impacts of internalized misogyny and queer-phobia.

“I’m a very sensitive person and also very perceptive and I think my whole life I’ve just felt so strong … and as a kid I had to find a way to channel that ’cause I didn’t know how to deal with it … so that’s definitely where a lot of my music came out of. I’d say now it’s definitely a little more sophisticated than that. I also write when I’m feeling happy. It’s less based on my emotions and more my observations,” Williams said.

In the past couple of years, Williams has played at Grinnell with indie darlings like Frankie Cosmos (whom she had previously opened for as an 18-year-old in Boston), Jay Som, Moses Sumney and, most recently, Big Thief.

On playing with Big Thief Williams said, “It was a dream. They’re my favorite band. I was also nervous because I was like ‘Jesus Christ, it’s Big Thief, I want to impress them,’ but I’ve also just played so many shows in Gardner so it was a little less nerve wracking.”

Outside of accomplishments on campus, Williams has toured and partnered with Rough Trade Records. Planning her entire career independently, many of the connections she makes in the music world have been helpful to her. One of those connections helped her play at Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City for two years in a row. This year she performed in a sold-out theater as an opener for acclaimed singer and guitarist Julien Baker.

“I’ve performed in theaters that size before with my choir that I was in through middle school and high school … but I’d never done that with my own act, so it was actually one of the first times I’d been really nervous for a show. Backstage about to go on I was super nervous, definitely sweating a lot, definitely had to chug half a beer before I went on, but once I was out there it was amazing,” Williams said.

However, with rising fame comes some problems. Last year, the Russian rapper Face stole her song “Conditions,” rapped over it in Russian and released it as a song called “Lisa.” Williams did not know until someone tweeted at her about it.

After Williams took down the song from Spotify and iTunes, Face sent her a series of emails in which he offered her $100 to use “Conditions,” an offer Williams did not accept. Williams did not hear from Face until his new manager reached out to her to strike a deal that would allow him to use the song. At this point, however, Williams was not interested.

“Throughout history so many women have been plagiarized by men and not given credit and the politics of it are really fucked up, so it’s pretty wild,” she said.

Lawyers told Williams that there is not a lot she can do to stop Face since he operates in another country, but she hopes that after she releases a new video for “Conditions,” she will be able to take him down “in a more social capital way.”

Aside from dealing with a Russian rapper, Williams’s musical career so far shows signs of a bright future. She is working on recording her first full-length album and, after she graduates in December, she is excited to put even more of her energy into her music career.

“Last fall after I released ‘Contact Sports’ I had been getting so many awesome gigs and I don’t think it was actually a shift in people’s perception or what I was doing, but I took a step back and realized all the things that I had been doing, and also realizing that I had been able to do all this shit while in college, full-time. I was like, if I can do this while a full-time student in the middle of Iowa, I can definitely do this as a postgrad with a lot more time and a lot more freedom to travel and tour.”

As she spends her last few months here, Williams wants to see a rise in women feeling comfortable making music at the College.

“I wish we had an environment where women felt freer to jam and try things out and start a band,” Williams said. “The only reason I got into music here was because I met Vera [Kahn] and we started jamming together, but it felt like a pretty hostile environment. The Showvember lineups have always been predominantly cis men and that sucks and there are concrete things we can do to help, [like] just publicly encouraging people who aren’t cis men to play the kind of music they play.”

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