Squirrel Flower is the stage name of the Boston-based singer-songwriter Ella O’Connor Williams, making her recording debut with the beautifully realized I Was Born Swimming. She has a singing voice that conveys heartache and steely determination in equal measures, an upper-range alto (comparable at times to Angel Olsen’s) that she wields like an instrument. Her delivery often gives the impression that she’s discovering the meaning of these lyrics – and the emotions they represent – as she sings them.
Williams accompanies herself on a Stratocaster, backed by a small ensemble on bass, drums and some more guitars. The engineering is full of reverb that makes her husky voice even more impressive, and the album was tracked live with minimal overdubs. It’s an intriguing blend of what in a different world could be country music plus indie folk, all of it heavy on the atmospherics.
In an alternate universe I could hear a young Patsy Cline singing some of these numbers, which orbit around themes of movement and stasis, travel and home. Common themes for a young woman today, but expressed with genuine artistry, a delicate balance between vulnerability and strength.
Several songs here stand out, most of all “Streetlight Blues,” rife with imagery of impermanence. The central motif is “bugs in the streetlight,” the song a meditation on endings.
“I wrote this song because I was overcome by the image of insects flying towards streetlights and bug lamps in the late summer, attracted to the light but also flying to their death,” says Williams. “We’re a streetlight buzzing, about to go out,” she sings in quiet desperation four times in the outro, as though she’s watching the end of a relationship like a car crash in slow motion, unable to stop it.
The opening track “I-80” finds her hitting the road after a relationship falls apart. It’s a languid semi-country song that builds into a soaring rocker before falling back into the peace of a kind of acceptance. “Home” finds her looking back dreamily, nostalgically, at the warm, enveloping love of a parent who would carry you to bed after you fell asleep in the car at the end of a long drive. “Eight Hours” on the other hand is an adult love ballad, the languid portrait of a hot and sweaty day and night in love, a quietly strummed rhythm guitar and Williams’s spare lead guitar fills twining around each other suggestively. “Honey” is fun, a short singsong nursery rhyme of a song lyrically, but it comes in a rumbling, turbulent rock setting that sets up a startling emotional contrast. The turmoil behind that contrast is revealed in the angsty final line, “I need to run and chase my dreams away.”
“Headlights” is one of the album’s centers, a deceptively calm song about being in flux, moving forward while looking back. It comes with a lovely but somehow disturbing video.
But I can’t help but find the penultimate of these 12 songs, “Belly Of The City,” to be a summary statement, the song around which the rest pivot. It’s an under-the-radar song, one that’s easy to overlook. In impressionistic poetry, she paints in slow, languid verse, stark images of a city at night that represent the physical reflections of the singer’s loneliness. She’s going home alone, late at night, and she sees and identifies with the late-night workers. It’s the place where she fully bares her soul, split as it is between the longing for home and the need to leave it. “I’ve never worshipped another, but I find myself kneeling before you,” she concludes.
I have trouble believing Williams is only 23, her voice and writing are that mature. Squirrel Flower’s I Was Born Swimming is an impressive debut recording from an original new voice. She’s on tour in the U.K. and Europe, then across the U.S. and Canada for the next few months. Details on her website, Facebook, and Polyvinyl Records.
(Polyvinyl Records, 2019)