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Squirrel Flower’s Tender-Hearted Indie-Rock Breakthrough

Massachusetts singer-songwriter Ella O’Connor Williams talks about the path that led to her excellent debut, ‘I Was Born Swimming’

Squirrel Flower's Ella O’Connor Williams

Ella O’Connor Williams, a.k.a. Squirrel Flower, in Brooklyn in January. "I just hung around and lived in my head," she says. "And I think that allowed me to be a creative person.”

Ebru Yildiz for Rolling Stone

A very small number of babies each year are born en-caul — that is, born completely inside an intact membrane, surrounded by amniotic fluid. For Ella O’Connor Williams, who performs under the name Squirrel Flower, her rare birth has become a metaphor for her life. It’s also the subject of her excellent debut album, I Was Born Swimming.

“It’s an image that I think about and return to a lot,” says Williams, 23, sipping a cortado inside a cozy coffee shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “The way I was born in isolation, but also very much connected to something else at the same time.”

Listening to I Was Born Swimming feels like stepping into a warm, cathartic bath. The album contains peaceful, almost-ambient songs as well as heavy, hook-laden rockers — and both moods match perfectly with Williams’ honey-dipped vocals. It’s a record of stagnation and transition, as she sings about freeways (“I-80”) and the passing of time (“Streetlight Blues”). “Realize I’m not getting older/But I’m not getting younger,” she painfully observes on “Headlights.”

“It’s an album about movement, really,” Williams explains. “Needing to move when you feel like you’re not, and wanting to be still when you feel like you’re being pushed. I’ve moved a lot in the past four years of my life, cycled through relationships and friendships and shed different skins of my own. I wanted to explore all of that.”

Williams grew up in Arlington, Massachusetts, a town 20 minutes from Boston, in a family whose musical roots run deep. Her late grandfather co-founded New York Pro Musica, a medieval ensemble whose recordings soothed Williams to sleep as a child. “A big part of my early experience with music was hearing those recordings and being so calmed by them,” she says.

After her grandfather met her grandmother — a classical singer in her own right — they moved to Gate Hill Co-Op in Nyack, New York. The co-op was an offshoot of the experimental Black Mountain College, where several noted German artists fled after the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus in 1933, and that openness to the avant-garde permeated Williams’ early life. Her father, Jesse, was raised at the co-op, and she frequently visited with her parents, attending family reunions, picnics, and jam sessions.

Soon a young Williams was singing in choirs at age eight and writing her own songs on guitar at 14, taking inspiration from acts like Joni Mitchell (“a fucking legend”). “I wasn’t a very structured kid,” she says. “I never went to camp. I just hung around and lived in my head. And I think that allowed me to be a creative person.”

Needing a change from the East Coast, Williams attended Grinnell College, a small liberal-arts school in Iowa. In a town of 9,000 people, she immediately fell into the music scene, picking up her first electric guitar and combining it with her powerhouse vocals. Soon, she was opening for her indie heroes, Big Thief, Jay Som, and Moses Sumney. “There was this really vibrant arts and music community,” she says.Being somewhere so small with people that are kind and supportive of each other, it allows you to grow more.”

It was during this time that Williams began performing under the name Squirrel Flower, which she’d first come up with as a child. “People were like, ‘Who is this hippie chick?’ ” she says. “It was this weird alter ego, and it felt right to return to that.”

Williams’ opening gigs led to a record contract with Polyvinyl in July 2019. She ended up signing the deal in Grinnell’s library, “where I used to write essays for days,” she adds with a laugh. During the fall semester of her senior year, she flew to New York to record I Was Born Swimming over five days at the Rare Book Room studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Her father came in from Boston to play bass. “We didn’t have that much time to catch up with words,” she says. “But we were communicating the whole time by playing together.”

The songs on I Was Born Swimming vary widely in age. Williams wrote the meditative “Belly of the City” at 18. A year later, she began writing the album’s opening track, “I-80,” but she didn’t finish it until she was 22. “It’s this literal journey of me growing in a song,” she says.

“Seasonal Affective Disorder,” the delicate centerpiece of the record, was written during a harsh winter in Iowa: “When the moon hits the ground and the fog rolls in,” she chants, “I’ll be feelin’ fine again.” “I would get sucked into these moods of not experiencing enough sun and not sure about how the days were passing,” she says.

Williams moved back to Arlington after graduating, paying back her student loans by working as a barista. She’s already begun working on the follow-up to I Was Born Swimming — still thinking about water, though this time from a different angle. “I’d say now my relationship with water is one of being in awe and being terrified by the power of it,” she says. “The power of there being too much of it, and also of there being none, in relation to climate change.”

This March and April, she’ll be touring clubs in North America in support of I Was Born Swimming, with her older brother, Jameson, on guitar. “I am honestly just really excited to play with people that I love,” she says. “People are very drawn into my live shows and get in this emotional state. I’m excited to keep doing that.”

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