Lost In Wonderland: Exploring the enchanting world of Wolf Alice

Wolf Alice

With the release of their debut album, My Love Is Cool, back in June 2015, London four-piece Wolf Alice found themselves at the center of the music industry’s attention. It wasn’t the first time the band—frontwoman Ellie Rowsell, guitarist Joff Oddie, bassist Theo Ellis and drummer Joel Amey—had been surrounded by a buzz, but the record’s physical existence meant that this time the hype was more tangible and obvious. A collision of styles and genres, it veers between upbeat pop, light grunge and restrained punk, and has seen the band’s profile raise significantly—they were even nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Performance. Here, Rowsell talks about what that means for them now and in the future.

2015 was a pretty awesome year for Wolf Alice. How are you feeling some six months on from the release of My Love Is Cool?
ELLIE ROWSELL: We’re feeling great! It’s been the best year ever. We’ve been to places that we’ve never been to before, released our album, which we waited to do a long time, and it’s all gone really well. I’m looking forward to doing more and moving into next year.

Were you ready for the explosion, or were you taken by surprise?
I didn’t really think about it when it was happening. It’s only been in hindsight that you realize how crazy it’s been. But we’re taking it as it comes. We want to enjoy it while it lasts.

There’s obviously been a lot of hype, to the extent that you were even featured in The New Yorker. Does that put any weight on your shoulders?
Oh yeah. Musically,  I don’t think so,  because I wouldn’t put out anything that I wasn’t happy with, so it won’t happen if I don’t like it. There’s enough pressure from yourself to worry about, which is the most important thing, but there is extra pressure in terms of all the other stuff that comes with moving into the spotlight, but we try not to overthink it and just stay true to ourselves.

You formed in 2010 and it’s taken until now for the album to come out. Why the wait and the slow burn?
I think it’s hard to say how long we’ve waited. There’s been different start points. If I went to university to study law, when I became a lawyer would I use that as a starting point and say it took me 10 years or something? Five years ago I maybe played a song in a half-empty room, but I wouldn’t say it took me from then to make a debut album. But I do think we took a slow-burn route in the sense that we didn’t put something out as soon as we had 10 songs. We waited until we had maybe 25 and we could pick and choose, and we waited until we had experience performing, recording and writing. I think pressure from record labels can make some bands put something out as soon as they can instead of waiting until it’s right. I’m happy that we did that, although you could say it was a tiny bit frustrating, because we’re impatient!

The band started life with you and Joff playing as a folk-pop duo, and the album embraces a bunch of different genres. What inspired that shape-shifting? Just a wide range of influences?
I guess you could say it’s a range of influences, or even a lack of any of them. We didn’t think about it too much. We’re just floaters, in life and in our tastes. We can listen to White Pony by Deftones and then skip to 1000 Forms Of Fear by Sia and enjoy them both equally. We just think in terms of songs, not in terms of genre, and we keep an open mind—and I think our songwriting reflects our lives. I don’t feel one thing all the time, so it comes out in different ways.

Beyond quitting your day jobs, how have things changed for you since everything took off?
I guess that’s one of the biggest things. It’s cool when you can make your hobby your career. But things have changed because we don’t really have a base a lot of the time. We’re always traveling and you have get accustomed to that and try to keep in touch with your friends and family, which can be quite hard. And there are other things to think about, like how you’re perceived in interviews, and I’d never really thought of that before I’d done a million interviews and had a million pictures taken. It’s a strange thing to think about how other people perceive you without actually knowing you.

With that in mind, there’s definitely a wistful nostalgia to the album, and to the delivery of the lyrics, and I imagine there’s a lot of you and your life in these songs. Are you worried about putting too much of yourself in them?
I wasn’t. Maybe I might be from now on! There was a lot of nostalgia and hindsight on these songs, so I guess I was almost old enough to be writing about someone else, because I was writing about experiences I’d had years before rather than now. But maybe the second album will be a bit more recent, and that might be a bit more scary. I don’t know!

I guess now that you have an audience, you’re not just writing for yourself anymore. In some kind of way, you’re writing for them as well, and they’re waiting for the next batch of Wolf Alice songs. Does that change your approach in any way?
Well, I think I always wrote for other people. I mean, I write for myself but some things are best left unsaid, and some things should be disguised. Which is the beauty of writing lyrics, because you can. Not to sound wank, but with lyrics and poetry you can say something and disguise it, make it a little bit ambiguous so that it means different things to different people, but you always know what it meant to yourself and you don’t have to show it.

How do you feel being a female in a very male-dominated industry? Does it make things harder? Easier? Or is it irrelevant? What’s been your experience?
It’s not irrelevant. I think it’s interesting. I’ve always been interested in how different kinds of people experience the same thing. But I also wish people would shut up about it! [Laughs.] My biggest experience that differs from the other guys in terms of being a girl in a male-dominated industry is people want to talk about it all the time.

Do you feel you’re being pushed into this role of being a poster girl for feminism? And are you happy playing that role?
People expect me to have answers about what it’s like to be a girl in a band and how do we make a more equal amount of men to women and stuff like that because they think I know the answer, or at least have an answer about it, but I don’t, and I don’t really know what I think about it. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I wouldn’t even know what my experiences might be as a girl because I don’t know anything else. I think there’s a lot of pressure to answer to those questions and that can be difficult. But it’s interesting, and I’d ask the same things if I was a journalist.

And are you worried about burning out from having all this success so early on?
Of course I worry about it, but I’m surrounded by such a good team and such good people that I think I have a good support structure. And I’m too boring to do any stupid shit, so I’ll be fine. S

A version of this piece was published in Substream #49.