Wolf Alice on “Visions of a Life”

Dreams of Tomorrow

Dec 19, 2017 Photography by Koury Angelo Issue #62 - Julien Baker
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The cover of Wolf Alice's second full-length release is striking in its simplicity. A young girl in an idyllic garden strikes a ballerina pose beside what appears to be the skull of a large animal. The girl stares off into the distance, expressionless and seemingly lost in thought. Tinged with both aspiration and melancholy, it serves as an appropriate image to pair with the sound of Visions of a Life, the band's sometimes reflective, often defiant follow-up to their breakthrough debut, 2015's My Love is Cool. For the members of Wolf Alice, the girlwho grew up to be the aunt of lead singer and songwriter Ellie Rowsellencapsulated the spirit of the album.

"She was a kid and was playing some kind of game, and it looked like some sort of scenario she had built for herself," Rowsell says. "It fit with the idea of Visions of a Life, which wasn't yet the album name but I was secretly hoping that everyone would agree that it could be. I spent my whole childhood pretending to be an adult and playing games and imagining scenarios for myself, and I knew she was doing that in that picture. And I liked that. I liked that she grew up to actually be a dancer, as well. I liked that she had this vision of her life that came true."

Even if Rowsell spent her childhood dreaming of a day when she could play music for her very own audience, she scarcely could have imagined a future where she fronted one of England's most-acclaimed rock bands, one that earned a Grammy nomination and sold over 100,000 copies in their home country. It's also likely she couldn't have imagined the physical and emotional toll that accompanies being in a band that spends several years on tour, missing family and friends while never spending more than two nights in the same hotel room. Visions of a Life, then, is the sound of exhaustion, frayed nerves, and frustration. No song on the album exemplifies those sentiments better than first single, "Yuk Foo," a simmering two-minute blast of petulant punk rock wherein Rowsell howls that she wants "to fuck all the people I meet," then admits that everyone bores her anyway.

"I think people think that maybe I think I'm doing something edgy, but I wasn't trying to do that," she says, as if defending herself. "It was supposed to be fun. I was laughing as I was showing it to people, like, 'This is a really fun song.' People are saying 'Oh, it's riot grrrl' and blah blah blah, but I had it quite synthy [originally]. I hadn't really written anything like that before, and it was something I kept returning to. It was at a time that I wanted to write something that would be really fun to play live, just something to have a release of emotion and frustration and anger," she says before admitting that the song does pose at least one serious threat-to her voice. "I should probably get proper advice on how to sing without fucking up my vocal chords. I'm probably being silly for not doing that, because it is quite shouty."

Having become obsessed with Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life while on tour, Rowsell fantasized about making music that would capture the simplicity and spirit of the '80s hardcore punk that is commemorated in the text. "Yuk Foo" was the first of four songs in that vein and the only one that ended up on the album. Starting with the intention of crafting a set of songs that would be, first and foremost, fun to play live every night, the plan was soon abandoned in order to accommodate their growing ambitions. "It wasn't actually in any way the difficult second album that people speak of quite a lot," says bassist Theo Ellis. "The first record we recorded in six weeks, and this one we had three months to record the whole thing. When we got off tour, we realized that with so many of the demos and ideas that we had on people's voicemails and phones and laptops, we actually had the bulk of an album already written. It was just a case of getting into the studio."

Having relocated to Los Angeles to work with Justin Meldal-Johnsen (M83, Paramore), the band used the veteran producer's insights to help them fight their tendency to fixate on minute details in the production in order to focus on big picture ideas. The result was an album that is both more eclectic and engrossing than their debut. There are plaintive mid-tempo space-pop excursions ("Planet Hunter") and blasts of sneering riff rock ("Space & Time," "Formidable Cool"). There are psychedelic sing-alongs ("Sadboy") and haunted acoustic folk ballads ("After the Zero Hour"). Sometimes they do nearly all of them in the same song, as with the shape-shifting album-closing title track. Rowsell even created a traditional love song, with the band's first foray into ethereal synth-pop on "Don't Delete the Kisses."

"I wanted something that was hypnotic and emotive-that sort of feeling," she says. "I just watched Father John Misty at this Spanish festival, and he played that song 'True Affection,' and the live version is very emotive and has this rolling synth through that doesn't change but seems to grow. I wanted something like that, like a real driving song. And I also wanted to write a love song and have it not be so cryptic. I wanted it to be an unromantic, romantic song," she says, explaining that she ended up changing her lyrics from depicting the relationship's dissolution to allow for one of the album's only feel good stories. "You know, sometimes you want the Hollywood ending," she laughs, "and I have the power to do that."

Now two years after Wolf Alice became an international buzz band, Rowsell seems fairly unaffected by her success. She's still soft-spoken and self-conscious in conversation, often trailing off in self-deprecating mumbles. When asked about her band's full-throated endorsement of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and participation in anti-Tory rallies, she quickly acknowledges her desire to use her platform as a musician but admits she isn't particularly astute politically. Inquire about her growing status as a role model for young girls who want to start rock bands, she says such attention is flattering, then says she tries not to dwell on such things. Like the girl on the album cover who grew up to be a dancer, Rowsell has turned the fantasies of youth into reality, and she says she has little interest in examining exactly how that happens. How does her aunt feel about having her childhood fantasies shared with the world?

"I never really told her," Rowsell says sheepishly. "She only recently sent me a text, and I said, 'Oh, God, I'm sorry. I never actually spoke to you about using that...'" she continues, her voice fading into a mumble. "But she didn't really mind."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Fall 2017 Issue (October/November 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

www.wolfalice.co.uk

 

 

 

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