- 16 Jun 21
After taking home the 2018 Mercury Prize for Visions Of A Life, Wolf Alice are back with Blue Weekend. Frontwoman Ellie Rowsell reflects on trad music, touring, social media and more.
"If you hear that a band won a prize, you're going to expect something really good – and it's a lot easier to disappoint people!" Ellie Rowsell laughs. "So that's quite scary."
Wolf Alice's frontwoman is reflecting on the aftermath of winning the Mercury in 2018, for their critically acclaimed second album, Visions Of A Life. Although she acknowledges that "it probably did" add an extra layer of pressure as the English band were approaching their new LP, Blue Weekend, she cheekily adds: "But we didn't work any harder because of it!"
Of course, even a cursory listen to Blue Weekend suggests that she may be guilty of a little white lie there. The project finds Wolf Alice cementing their position as one of the most compelling forces in modern rock, with an increasingly genre-defying, intricate approach. As well as drawing from plenty of solid '90s influences, the band have established themselves as part of a lineage that stretches much further back – tapping into a sound that's at once nostalgic and groundbreaking.
Alongside her bandmates, Theo Ellis, Joff Oddie and Joel Amey, Ellie embodies a contradiction of sonic fearlessness, and distinctively English nervous energy. In conversation, she retains an air of quiet sincerity, as she looks ahead to the release of Blue Weekend.
"It's all a bit strange, isn't it?" she muses. "Normally we'd be on tour, and bouncing our excitement off an audience. And now I'm just sitting at home everyday! But I'm really excited for people to hear it."
Of course, a lot has happened since Wolf Alice released Visions Of A Life in 2017 – including hitting their late twenties: "I've changed since we last put out music, and that will show in some ways," Ellie posits. "I'm just not sure which..."
One notable manifestation of this growth is in their sound, which refuses to settle – from the acoustic folk harmonies of 'Safe From Heartbreak (if you never fall in love)', to the balls-to-the-wall, pop-punk energy of 'Play The Greatest Hits'.
"We don't really want to write ten of the same songs," Ellie explains. "Every day is different in life. You're not going to feel one way all the time, and you mirror that in your music – it's not always going to be the same.
"And I like different types of music, so I don't really want to make just one type," she continues. "As long as it doesn't sound like a totally different band each time, then I don't see why you wouldn't."
The album title references the emotional depths of 'feeling blue', as well as the dramatic promise, and potential danger, of the weekend – containing some of Ellie's most staggeringly honest lyrics so far. Does it take its toll, exposing that kind of vulnerability in the music?
"I think it's always hard," she admits. "But I am well aware that it's written for an audience. If I wanted to, I'd just screenshot my diary!
"I drew on my own experiences," she adds. "It's always going to be a personal project, in a way, because no one gave it to us to then perform. We wrote it and built it together."
'The Last Man On Earth', released as Blue Weekend's lead single earlier this year, immediately marked the album as a different beast than its predecessors – arriving as a raw, emotional blindsider.
"It sounds big," she notes. "That doesn't mean it has to be loud or heavy or fast – but still a big song. If you've gone away for a long time, you want to come back with something exciting."
Following the release of 'The Last Man On Earth', Ellie also made a guest appearance on Limerick band whenyoung's St Patrick's Day livestream – featuring alongside Orla Gartland, NewDad, Brigid Mae Power and more, with proceeds going to Women's Aid Ireland.
"I've known them for a while now," Ellie says of whenyoung. "We've played a few shows together, and they used to live in London, so we'd go to the same pubs and stuff."
Her connection to these shores runs a little deeper – having grown up playing traditional Irish music in north London.
"I feel like I incorporate it in ways that are not so obvious, just because I grew up playing it," she reflects. "A lot of trad music you learn by ear, and that gives you an ear for melody. So I think that subconsciously works its way into my music. I haven't yet put a penny whistle on an album or anything... I would like to! But I think I'll wait until it feels like it complements it."
From humble beginnings on the tin whistle, Ellie has played some of the biggest stages in the world – a rapid ascent to stardom that can still feel surreal. Last month, Wolf Alice were selected to play Glastonbury's global livestream event, Live At Worthy Farm, alongside some of the biggest acts in the world, including Coldplay and HAIM.
"I was speechless when I saw that poster," Ellie recalls. "It was weird. It's always a pinch-yourself moment when you get asked to play Glastonbury, so with that reduced line-up, it felt even more flattering."
It's one of the few gigs Wolf Alice have been able to play this year – though they have a busy 2022 ahead of them, with an upcoming tour of the UK and Ireland, including two dates at Dublin's Olympia Theatre. Before Covid-19 forced every musician off the road, Wolf Alice had taken their own voluntary break from touring in 2019. As well as allowing time for their own private lives, it gave them the opportunity to work on Blue Weekend away from the demands of a tour schedule.
For some artists, the relentless nature of modern touring – and the toll it can take on your mind and body – can be detrimental to creativity.
"It's hard for me to comment, because I don't really know anything else," Ellie admits. "All the negative things that happened to me, I don't put down to touring. But I'm sure it has impacted my life in ways that maybe I choose not to dissect!
"It does take a toll," she continues. "And it probably does stop creativity in a way, because you haven't the time to write. But I also think you learn a lot of stuff by performing, and by watching other people perform. And then, when you come off tour, you've got a lot of stuff to write about."
Of course, Wolf Alice have been touring hard since their early twenties. For many young bands, striking the balance between looking after themselves on the road, and enjoying themselves, is something they have to learn on the job.
"Definitely," Ellie agrees. "I don't really have any advice, because I don't really know how to do that myself! But there are people out there who you can talk to – because it's a hard industry. Stuff that's going to affect your mental and physical health is almost glamorised in the music industry. For some people there might even be some pressure to drink or whatever, because it feels like it's part of the package. But it's not."
While she looks forward to live music making its gradual return, Ellie notes that she'll also be making some changes to her own approach to touring.
"These songs on this new album are really hard to sing!" she laughs. "So I'll definitely have to look out for my voice more than I've ever done. But I can't really even imagine it – I've had so much time off from it now. It seems like a lifetime away."
As a young woman in the industry, taxing tours are sadly not the only issue Ellie has had to face. Earlier this year, she voiced her support for the numerous women accusing Marilyn Manson of abuse – and shared a post on Twitter, claiming that Manson had filmed up her skirt at a festival a few years ago without her consent.
"There were no repercussions for his behaviour," she wrote online. "His tour manager simply said 'he does this kind of thing all the time'.
"If he does this kind of thing all the time, why on earth has he been headlining festivals for so many years? When will we stop enabling misogynists on the account of their success? Women must feel safe in the male dominated world that is the music industry."
After sharing her story, she also had to face the wrath of the faceless online trolls.
Ellie tries to see the benefits of social media: "It democratises music a bit more," she tells me. "As a musician, you can reach so many people. And it would have been hard once, if you lived in a remote area, or if you lived in a country where your favourite band never went, to feel like you could be part of something. It builds a community that isn't tied to wherever you're able to physically go.
"But there are people out there that are just ruining that, by being bullies," she adds. "They're taking advantage of the facelessness of it."
As Covid-19 restrictions continue to ease, it won't be too long before our world becomes at least a little less virtual. But before Wolf Alice head out onto the stage again, Ellie reckons it's time to "start thinking about writing more music."
"If anything, this time being off tour is an opportunity to not write once every blue moon – but write a bit more..."
Blue Weekend is out now. Wolf Alice play the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on January 24 & 25, 2022.