An interview w/ Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell on their new album, ‘Blue Weekend’
Pre-order Wolf Alice's anticipated new LP on limited, transparent green vinyl from our store.
Embarking on my first full listen of Wolf Alice’s latest full-length album, Blue Weekend (coming Friday, June 4 via Dirty Hit/RCA), it felt like every muscle in my body was tensed up. While attempting to sum up my thoughts about the record on paper, I listened to it at least a dozen times, writing down small notes here and there but, ultimately, getting lost in the music every time. The trance I surrendered to is directly emblematic of the power of a band like Wolf Alice: they completely take your brain hostage as you enter their world, or in this case, the tumultuous weekend-long journey you’ve been allowed to tag along for.
Blue Weekend essentially serves as an older sibling to the band’s previous releases, My Love is Cool (2015) and Visions of a Life (2017), taking certain elements from each and kicking them up a cinematic notch or two with an added presence of warm orchestral sequences and twinkling keys that whisper like a subtle breeze. For example, it begins with "The Beach," its opening signaled with rapid-paced, isolated drumming and acoustic vibrations. "I’m sick of circling the drain," vocalist Ellie Rowsell swoons softly, followed shortly thereafter with angelic, swelling strings.
But for fans looking for the spine-chilling energy that Wolf Alice is known for, the album has its fair share of shredders, too. With tracks such as "Smile," the record’s second single, the four-piece reminds listeners of their roots as it crashes in with a fuzzy, booming bassline, harsh and abrasive guitar solos, and effortlessly entrancing drumming at the hand of drummer Joel Amey. To top it off, Ellie spits each line, simulating images of her stomping around a stage and swirling her microphone cord as she does. Thematically, the track is a perfect 'fuck you' directed at opinionated passersbys who always seem to have something to say about how women dress, act, feel, and speak. Lines such as, "I am what I am and I am good at it / If you don't like me, well, that isn't fucking relevant," serve as a reminder that, regardless of what anyone else has to say, you have the right to be comfortable in your own skin and to do whatever you please, and that you don't have to sit quietly in the face of criticism.
Later, "Play The Greatest Hits" is an equally hard-hitting banger that would surely part a sea of sweaty bodies. "It isn’t loud enough!," Ellie growls repeatedly; the thought of hearing such a command in a live-setting is chill-inducing. With its high-energy, pulse-quickening aura, tracks such as this are truly satisfying in their aggression, combining razor-sharp edges with a decent amount of bite to match. Here, I’m reminded of what made me, and many others, love Wolf Alice in the first place: their fuck-all attitude and knack for crafting songs that can get audiences moving and screaming along.
Blue Weekend also exhibits moments -- like the opening track -- where the group reduce their hallmark harsh inclinations and make way for moments of divine, strategically layered instrumentation, the creation of some of their most lush and intricate work to date.
For example, "Delicious Things," a track littered with references to the biblical Adam and Eve, seems to speak of the opulence and glamor of sitting under the spotlight, but also, the pitfalls that can come with giving into temptation and the beast that is fame. Musically, it’s an orchestral delight, joining larger-than-life string sequences with crashing cymbals, silky-smooth guitar solos, and a pristine exhibition of Ellie's vocal prowess as she croons operatically. Later, "Feeling Myself," which sits somewhere at the crossroads between heavy and airy, is chock full of innuendo, taking on unapologetic sexual energy in describing a feeling of frustration both in life and in the bedroom. Returning to the theme of self-love found on "Smile," it serves as a reminder that one’s space, time, and pleasure aren’t invaluable and matter just as much as anyone else's.
Mellowing things down even further, the record’s third single "No Hard Feelings" is simple, yet hypnotic, serving as a key example that Wolf Alice is far more than just another rock band on the shelf. Lyrically, it’s a heartfelt truce, a moment where Ellie’s emotional ball of string is able to unwind in the wake of a breakup, when she finally waves the white flag, expressing that it would hurt far more to harbor negative feelings toward her ex-lover than to move on. Much like the acceptance and peace found in the conclusion of that relationship, the album closes on a similarly satisfying note with a return to the beach, the track ("The Beach II") chiming in with distorted and all-encompassing static and somber instrumentals, rounding out the rollercoaster of a tracklist with a bittersweet goodbye.
Blue Weekend traverses a delicate tightrope, exhibiting instances where the speaker stands calm, collected, and strong during tracks that display quick-witted, attitudinous lyricism and heart-pumping melodies, and later, revealing said speaker’s anxious, trembling knees with softer, more emotive inclusions. In those more vulnerable moments, the band offers relief, relaying back to their audience that expressions of heartbreak, fear, rage, and frustration do come and go, but eventually, like waves on a metaphorical beach, they roll out with the tide. And once those feelings do go back out to sea, that’s when one can experience an emotive release and let go.
Blue Weekend officially comes out this Friday (6/4), and you can pre-order it on limited transparent green vinyl from our store. Prior to its release (and on the day of the band appearing on The Late Late Show with James Corden), I sat down with Ellie over Zoom to discuss the process of approaching their comeback record, lyrical inspiration, her experience under the spotlight, and much more. Read on for our chat...
Hey Ellie! To begin, would you say the time you have spent away from non-stop touring and buzzing around has been ultimately beneficial in helping Wolf Alice grow and this album come to be? Or were certain aspects of this break more difficult than others?
Yeah, well, I feel like we didn’t really even take that much of a break, to be honest, because, by the time we finished touring, it had already been a few years — well, we finished touring after at least two years — so, I was already kind of aware that I didn’t want it to be too much longer before we released any new music. So, we did have a break, but it was more like a break from touring where we were conscious like, “No, we should get some new material going. So, it was always kind of there, but it was very necessary for us to have some time at home and I think that helped us reset a little bit and take in all that we had experienced.
So, with Blue Weekend in mind, did you go into the writing process with set intentions, or something specific to say, or did everything come about more organically?
When we come off tour, we always have some intentions, but we don’t necessarily always stick to them. Like, we were saying the other day, maybe if we go and play a festival ad we go and watch a band that we really like — like, we went on tour with Queens of the Stone Age and we were just like, “Ahh, let’s write some rock songs” — we feel inspired by other people to write in a certain way, but we never really stick to it, to be honest. We always just choose the songs that we feel are the strongest, regardless of whatever genre or vibe we had hoped we would do. We don’t limit ourselves to our limited intentions; if it’s going to make the record better, then that’s fine.
And with expectations regarding what you have put out previously considered, did approaching the task of writing the follow-up to an album that was so greatly received (Visions of A Life) feel daunting at all, or were you mostly just excited?
I definitely think we’re super excited to have new stuff and to hopefully, eventually tour it [laughs]. Yeah, also to see how much we’ve grown as songwriters and performers and recording artists — we’ve gone and put everything we’ve learned into practice, so, it’s always exciting to have new stuff, to see that.
What did the recording process for this record look like as well? I know you guys holed up together for a little while…
We went to a residential studio in Belgium, where we recorded the Creature Songs EP maybe 5 or 6 years ago, maybe more actually…so, we had a romantic nostalgia for that place and wanted to return, and it was kind of far enough away from home that we wouldn’t be distracted by our friends and stuff like that, but close enough that we could get a train home, but then, of course, we couldn’t because we were locked in [laughs]. But, yeah, we stayed there with the people that run it who were super nice, but at the time, it was weird, of course, looking back on it, but I felt so lucky to be in a band and be locked down in the studio. That’s really very lucky of us.
How long were you guys there?
Like, three months or something. We left pre-corona, if you know what I mean, in January 2020, and spent a month there, and then everything kicked off. So, we had the option to stay since we were living there, and we were quarantined there anyway, the four of us, and we weren’t allowed to do anything else, but it was super lucky that we were able to stay there and just continue, because I would’ve really been upset to not have been able to finish.
Where do you think the end result, Blue Weekend, fits into Wolf Alice’s holistic sonic timeline? To me, it almost sits as an older sibling to both of your previous records.
[laughs] Yeah, I kind of hope it sounds totally identifiable as Wolf Alice but just a bit more mature. I wouldn’t want it to be a huge departure, and I don’t think it is. I feel like it’s maybe just a grander version of what we’ve done before.
Yeah, it’s definitely a bit cinematic, almost.
Oh, that’s cool. We definitely threw that word around [laughs].
And was there a particular reason you chose “Last Man On Earth” as the record’s introductory single, as the track that would signal your long-awaited return?
It felt — I don’t like to use this word — but it kind of felt like one of our more epic songs; it’s a bit bold. But I don’t know, it just felt big enough to come back after such a long time with. I almost feel like, if we’d come out with a more ‘rock’ song, I don’t think it would have surprised anyone. And we’ve still got those songs on the album, so it’s not like we’ll disappoint too many people who were looking for something a bit heavier, but I also just like the strings; they make it feel very fun for us, to see that side of us. It felt big for some reason.
Speaking of the heavier songs, “Smile” was, of course, the second single — it almost feels like a “Sadboy” part II to me, in the sense that’s it’s this abrasively confident sort of anthem. Where did the inspiration for this track come from?
It comes from a lot of different experiences in my life from when I was pre-band, as a young person, to now, and I feel like you can apply it to a lot of people’s experiences, but I just wrote it as a reminder to myself to not always take people’s shit [laughs] and that you’re not always gonna please everyone; a reminder that you’re no less important than anyone else, and it’s not normal for someone to make you feel bad, and you can’t always smile and grin and bear it. But yeah, I don’t just think of one specific example of where I’ve been made to feel where I want to say those things. But I wanted to make sure that it was something that anyone could place their own narratives onto.
And similarly, “Feeling Myself” also has a message in the vein of self-love and brushing off people who aren’t worthy of your time. For tracks such as these and in general, what does the songwriting process look like, lyrically, when conceptually mapping something out?
I feel like I normally just look in my notes on my phone of things that maybe I’ve thought and written down that sound cool, or if I’ve read something that I felt could be lifted as a lyric or molded into my own lyrics, or even films and conversations, or whatever...and then I kind of use that for a basis to build upon, and it eventually becomes clear what I want to write about, rather than like, “Oh, I want to write about self-love or heartbreak.” It’s more like, “Okay, this looks like it’s going to be about this,” and then I can place my experiences onto it, but make them objective. I feel like that’s just a way of working that has worked for me so far.
With songs like “No Hard Feelings” or “Safe from Heartbreak,” too, does it ever feel strange to essentially be airing out your dirty laundry via how vulnerable some of the lyrics can get? Or does the fact that there is some objectivity help with that?
I don’t know, it’s definitely something that I think about a lot. When people are like, “Oh, it must be really scary to be so honest,” and I’m like, “Am I being honest?” [laughs]. I feel like what would be scary would be to post pictures of my diary entries, but I’m not doing that. I’ve shaped these songs to be something that is not directly my story, you know what I mean? I don’t have the language to explain, but that’s why it doesn’t feel like I’m putting out my memoir [laughs]. So, yeah, unless someone directly says, “This is my experience about this,” how do you know what is personal, in a way? Which makes everything feel a little bit safe. I mean, you want people to be able to put their narratives on your songs, and it’s something that I have been thinking loads about, just because of how often people are like, “These lyrics are so honest” and “You’re so brave,” and I’m like, “Ugh, really?” [laughs]. It makes me feel like I’ve done something really scary!
Related to that, with time, Wolf Alice has obviously grown and more and more people have begun paying attention to the band, which, to me, relates to the underlying idea of “Delicious Things” and the experience under the spotlight. That said, how has it felt to adjust to that in recent times?
I feel like this time around has been hard, just because there’s quite a lot of emphasis on being present online. I feel like everything for me — things like social media, and press, and even radio sessions — it all feels secondary to going out and playing songs to a live audience. And to have that all taken away from you, you’re trying to connect online, which is something that I’ve never really stopped to think about much. And I can’t really tell if I’m thinking about it more because there’s such an emphasis on it now, having no shows, or because I’m suddenly aware of having an audience or whatever. It’s kind of a weird tone to navigate, being in a band and you can’t connect with your fans via shows, which is how it’s always been. So, yeah, I’m stopping to think about it, and I don’t like thinking about my online presence. It kind of weirds me out a bit.
Regarding a return to shows, you have a tour slated for 2022 — have you begun thinking about that all, despite the fact that it’s a while away? Are you also excited to play any specific tracks off the new album?
Yeah, I’m really excited to play! I mean, part of me is just super excited to play our more heavy songs — the fast, loud, rocky ones — because that’s really a kind of release for us, it’s fun. But then I’m also excited to play these less rocky tunes, and I feel like they’re all quite emotive and quite cinematic, and I’m really interested to see if that will resonate with people. And, how do we create a show out of that? Because it’s one thing to do a show and rely on it being loud and fast and “moshy,” but it’s another thing to make a show where it’s slower. I feel like it will be so fun to pick and choose from all of our songs now because we can create a range and dynamic, which is, for me, I would like to see something that is up and down, because my attention span is far too short for an hour of just one thing. But, yeah, I’m excited, but I haven’t thought much about what it will look like for us, because it would be exciting to go out in any shape or form, you know what I mean?
Speaking of going up and down, the album begins and ends on a softer note with the “Beach” couple – where did the decision to place these tracks as the bookends come from, and how did these two songs come about in general? Were they written together?
We had “The Beach I" earlier on, and we’d always kind of imagined that it would open the album, just purely for musical reasons — like, I really like that ticking noise at the start and just the way it builds and disappears completely at the end, so I felt like it was a good album opener. And then, “The Beach II” wasn’t called that initially, and it had a different set of lyrics, but I didn’t feel like the lyrics were very strong. I’ve never written anything in the studio before, like while we were recording, but I wrote the lyrics in the studio really last minute, about my friends, and it felt like the parallel version of “The Beach I."
I had these two experiences at different times that kind of took place on a beach, and one was good and one was bad [laughs] but it means much more than those experiences, if you know what I mean. It just felt serendipitous that these themes came up and one was negative and one was positive. There are some real kind of low moments in this album and it felt like it would’ve been too dark to end on something sad — well, it is sad in many ways — but it needed to end on something hopeful and positive, in a way. And then I felt like it was interesting that the theme of the beach...like, not to sound one key, but, at the end, nature is a force bigger than anything else and all of our social anxieties are reduced to something tiny when you think about things like the sea, or whatever [laughs]. But, yeah, it just fell into place like that; I love when that kind of thing happens and I think that you should follow it and make something out of it. It was almost like this was a sign, really, that we’d thought about it but it fell into place like that, and I liked that.
And in general, it isn’t necessarily always the case that there’s a thread that runs through an entire album, unless you’re deliberately trying to do that, but do you feel like there is something that connects all of these tracks together into one solid product?
Yeah, I feel like we’ve spent the most time we’ve ever spent really thinking about where to place each song, and that’s why we had the idea to make all the videos set in one night out. I feel like a lot of the musings and ramblings of these songs, they can be set in one weekend or a whole lifetime, and I like that idea. And then, we wanted to mirror that musically, in the way that it’s so up and down, because that’s kind of what happens in life. Or that a weekend is like a microcosm of your whole life. So, yeah, we definitely put a lot of thought into how we wanted the lyrics and the music to flow, but not in the sense that we were going to take out one of our favorite songs if it didn’t fit that narrative. We don’t ever jeopardize a good song for the bigger picture — well, we do, but not really; we kind of make up reasons why something’s stuck in there [laughs].
Would you say that you have a song that sticks out to you most off of this new record, as something that you’re particularly proud of, or would that be like picking between your children at this point?
It’s hard, because some will be lyrics that mean a lot to me, and maybe to me only as well, so it feels like my secret, and then it feels like my favorite child, but you’re not supposed to have a favorite child [laughs]. But then there’s also ones that I never get sick of, which I think is a good sign. But, yeah, I do have favorites; yeah, I do. I have favorites for different reasons, but there are definitely some that I think…I dunno, maybe it is wrong to say [laughs].
And to finish things up a bit, how are you feeling about returning to Corden tonight?
Yeah, we’re excited. I feel like one of the really great musical things to have come out of this pandemic is people’s TV performances — they’ve been more creative because, I guess, you can’t just go into the studio and just do it there, which feels really buzzy and great, but this is just a new opportunity to do things differently, and I’ve really enjoyed watching. I’m really happy that we’ve gotten the opportunity to do one as well.
I guess the work that goes into performances like this is a bit similar to the live performance you filmed for “The Last Man On Earth.” And I know you said you haven’t thought of it too much, but for songs like that in a live setting, do you think additional musicians will be required? How will that work?
Yeah, I don’t know! It’s tough because we don’t play to track, so it’s kind of hard to recreate some of the sounds, just the four of us. But we’ve actually been playing with one of our friends who’s a really good singer and he’s been playing keys and it sounds great. I’m just hoping he will stick around [laughs].
And finally, do you have any idea what the rest of 2021 is going to look like for you, or are you taking it week-by-week?
I really don’t know! I’ve lost all trust in myself to really predict any kind of future now, as we all have. But, I think we’ve put quite a lot of pressure on ourselves because we don’t release music consistently, we kind of put everything into our albums, so it’s quite taxing on the old emotions. I would quite like to learn how to do something just purely for the pleasure of it, rather than just, y’know...it’s not like I don’t get any pleasure out of doing it, but it is extremely emotionally disruptive. But I would like to see how we would work just doing something for a laugh, and not as if we’re birthing a fucking child, you know what mean? [laughs]. And doing something quickly- that’s what I would like to do! Doing something quickly.
Pre-order Blue Weekend on transparent green vinyl here.