An hour south of Chicago, along the shores of Lake Michigan, sits the Indiana Dunes, a protected expanse of shoreline recently designated a National Park. When Ella Williams first visited the Dunes, she was awed by the juxtaposition of its natural splendor within the surrounding industrial corridor of Northwest Indiana. “Every time I go there, it changes my life,” she says, without a hint of hyperbole. “You stand in the marshlands and to your left is a steel factory belching fire and to your right is a nuclear power plant.” Across the water, Chicago waits, its glistening towers made possible by the same steel forged here. For as long as she’s been making music, Ella Williams’ songs have been products of the environments they’re written in, born out of the same world they so vividly hold a mirror to. This environment is where her magnetic new album, Tomorrow’s Fire, lives.
The music Williams makes as Squirrel Flower has always communicated a strong sense of place. Herself-released debut EP, 2015’s early winter songs from middle america, was written during her first year living in Iowa, where the winter months make those of her hometown, Boston, seem quaint by comparison. Since that first offering, Squirrel Flower amassed a fanbase beyond the Boston DIY scene with several releases. The most recent, Planet (i), was informed by climate anxiety, while the subsequent Planet EP marked an important turning point in Williams’ prolific career; the collection of demos was the first self-produced material she’d released in some time. With a renewed confidence as a producer, she helmed Tomorrow’s Fire at Drop of Sun Studios in Asheville alongside storied engineer Alex Farrar (Wednesday, Indigo de Souza, Snail Mail). Working tirelessly through long studio sessions with no days off, Williams and Farrar tracked many of the instruments, building the songs together during the first week, and then assembled a studio band that included Matt McCaughan (Bon Iver), Seth Kauffman (Angel Olsen band), Jake Lenderman (aka MJ Lenderman),and Dave Hartley (The War on Drugs) lending their contributions.
While her early work is often hushed and minimal, there has always been a barely contained storm in Williams’ music. Tomorrow’s Fire is that storm breaking open, a rock record, made to be played loud. As if to signal this shift, the album opens with the soaring “i don’t use a trash can,” a re-imagining of the first ever Squirrel Flower song. Here, she nods to those early shows, when her voice, looped and minimalistic,had the power to silence a room. Lead singles “Full Time Job” and “When a Plant is Dying,” narrate the universal desperation that comes with living as an artist and pushing up against a world where that’s a challenging thing to be. The frustration in Williams’ lyrics is echoed by the music’s uninhibited, ferocious production. “There must be more to life/ Than being on time,” she sings on the latter’s towering chorus. Lyrics like that one are fated to become anthemic, and Tomorrow’s Fire overflows with them. “Doing my best is a full time job/ But it doesn’t pay the rent” Williams sings on “Full Time Job” over careening feedback, her steady delivery imposing order over a song that is, at its heart, about a loss of control.
The album glides effortlessly over emotional states of being, lightness and heaviness. “Intheskatepark,”written in the summer of 2019, four years later sounds like a dispatch from a bygone world. The scuzzypop production nods to Guided By Voices, as Williams sings about crushing under summer sunshine. “I had a light,” Williams repeats mournfully on “Stick,” her voice at once aching and powerful, a sense of rage fermenting as the song goes on, until it explodes in the second half. “This song is about not wanting to compromise, just being at the end of your rope,” Williams says. “Stick” harnesses that exasperation and turns it into a battle cry for anyone who is exhausted but feels like they’re not working hard enough,who had to get a job they hate to make rent, who lost their light and can’t seem to find it again. Finding that light is important. “I feel like I lost myself for a bit”, Williams says, “trying hard to be what I thought people wanted me to be, suffocated by the pressure of being perceived. Now, I want to be unapologetic, uncompromising.’ Role models like Kim Gordon, Patti Smith, and PJ Harvey, alongside inspiration from contemporaries and friends led Williams to the most uncompromising version of her music.
Williams also cites artists like Jason Molina, Tom Waits, and Springsteen as fonts of inspiration for Tomorrow’s Fire, musicians who knew how to write into the mind of a stranger, who could tell you the story of a life in under four minutes. “The songs I write are not always autobiographical, but they’re always true,” Williams says. Nowhere is Springsteen heard more clearly than on “Alley Light,” an electrifying song narrated from the perspective of a down-on-his-luck guy whose car is fated to die anyday now and whose girl just wants to escape. There’s a vintage sheen to it, but “Alley Light” captures the very familiar feelings of loss that come with living in a 21st century city, where you blink and the store fronts change. Williams notes, ‘It’s about a man in me, or a man who I love, or even a man who is a stranger to me.’
Springsteen also leads back to one the strongest recurring themes for Williams both on this album and throughout her career, family. With her musical family members often playing on previous records,‘Canyon’ tells the story of Williams’ mother. As a teen, sneaking out to go to a Springsteen concert with her boyfriend. “She was a rebel,” Williams says, “I always learn more about myself through stories of her life and I wanted to honor that”. The biggest her sound has ever been, ‘Canyon’ echoes like rocks fallingfrom cliffs, breaking apart. The vast natural landscape meeting industrialism–field recordings of metal grinding taken by her sibling at their job as a steelworker layered with the wall of guitar.
Tomorrow’s Fire might sound like the title of an apocalypse album, but it’s not. It references the title of a novel Williams’ great-grandfather Jay wrote about a troubadour, named for a line by the Medieval Frenchpoet Rutebeuf, a troubadour himself: “Tomorrow’s hopes provide my dinner / Tomorrow’s fire must warm tonight.” Centuries on, the quote spoke to Williams, who describes the fire as a tool to wield in the face of nihilism. Tomorrow’s Fire is what we take solace in, what we know will make us feel okay in the morning, how we light the path we’re walking on.“We may have to try a little harder every year to be playful, to shove away the bitterness” Williams says of the lessons learned from her ancestor, “but it’s always worth it to remain playful and hopeful, even if the stakes are really fucking high”.
Closing track ‘Finally Rain’ speaks to the ambiguity of being a young person staring down climate catastrophe. The last verse is an homage to her relationship with her loved ones - ‘We won’t grow up.’ A stark realization, but also a manifesto. To be resolutely committed to a life of not ‘growing up,’ not losing our wonder while we’re still here.