Chat! Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice
“We’re having the best time ever!” shouted Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell. It was no surprise the North London quartet were enjoying themselves so much, because when she said those words, Ellie was standing in front of a packed audience at Glastonbury. Playing the world’s most prestigious music festival was proof of how far the band had come. And being held off the Number 1 spot with their debut album by no less than Florence & The Machine, confirmed that Wolf Alice are one of the hottest new bands around. To find out more, I met up with front woman Ellie Rowsell shortly before the band took the stage for a headline show in Southampton.
It’s been quite a summer for you guys: debut album, Glastonbury, Reading & Leeds and a host of festivals around Europe and now embarking on your first major headline UK tour. How have you coped with all the touring …and all the attention?
Ellie: I think we’ve done alright. I guess that’s because it took us quite a while to get to where we are today. My Love Is Cool came out in the summer, some four years after we started the band. I think that keeps us level-headed and our feet on the ground because we feel we’ve worked our way up and we’ve waited such a long time. We can still remember what it’s like to want it so much when no one paid us any attention.
Back in April you played Brighton’s Concorde 2 and you also gave a special acoustic performance down at Resident Records just before the album was released. What are your memories of Brighton?
Ellie: I have family in Brighton so I’ve been going there since I was a kid. It’s somewhere I’m very fond of. As a band, we went to Brighton quite early on because, being close to London, it was easy for us to get to. It’s a big student town, so it’s a good place to play. We’ve always had a good time there. I have fond memories of kipping on people’s sofas after shows!
You also played The Great Eacape in 2013. Back then your hair was brown and you had braids, you looked very different…
Ellie: I haven’t changed, I’ve just got older and dyed my hair!
When you began the band, what were your expectations?
Ellie: We had different levels of expectations. For me personally, of course I dreamt about playing Glastonbury and sometimes I even allowed myself to dream about headlining Glastonbury. I don’t know if I expected us to do any of them, there was certainly no plan, but we were definitely ambitious, even if we didn’t always have expectations.
Have you always been an ambitious person?
Ellie: I think so. I always felt like I’d achieve something, although not necessarily in music.
Are you from a musical family?
Ellie: No, not really. My dad had a large record collection and had been a big fan of bands since he was young. I always liked music and enjoyed listening to bands and watching bands, but I also enjoyed making music.
Your dad must be proud that you’re now enjoying success in music?
Ellie: Yeah he is. He’s been very supportive and he comes and sees us whenever he can. He was at Glastonbury with us.
This is your biggest headline tour, how does playing massive festivals compare with playing smaller rooms like you’re doing tonight?
Ellie: I guess with festivals it never feels like it’s your own show. Maybe it does when you’re headlining, but that’s something we’ve yet to experience. In many ways, your own show always feels bigger because you know everyone there is there for you. Really, they’re two completely different entities, and both have their own challenges. The more you tour, the better you get as musicians and performers. At festivals, you have no time for proper soundchecks or indeed any soundcheck and often you have to win over an audience who don’t know who you are. That can be difficult, but at the same time it’s so rewarding when it goes well.
The music industry is changing rapidly, even in the time you’ve been together as a band. In the past, bands could rely on record sales alone, these days that’s probably not the case even if you have a number 2 album. How challenging is it economically to keep a band like Wolf Alice on the road?
Ellie: There are two sides of it. I don’t feel uncomfortable anymore. We don’t kip on people’s floors any more, we have a hotel or a tour bus, but that took a while and you have to find a way. It’s not impossible to tour without any funding, but it’s really difficult, especially if you’re from London where everything’s so much more expensive. I’m lucky I have somewhere to stay in London, but if you have to pay London rents and be in a band, that’s really hard. I guess, above all, you need to be committed.
It was only recently that you gave up your day jobs…
Ellie: Yeah, I gave up my day job in January 2014, when we signed our record deal. Not because I could then fund myself, but because I didn’t have any time for anything else. It feels like ages, but I guess it wasn’t that long ago.
Have you been able to buy new gear?
Ellie: Yes, we have. But I still use a microphone that cost about sixty quid and is held together by gaffer tape! We’re making enough money now that we can put something extra into our shows. We might not feel any richer, but we now have a big light show!
You’ve built up a big reputation for your live shows, but you’ve also received a lot of plaudits for the album. Is it tough to live up to all the hype around you?
Ellie: It can be. It’s great to receive great comments and it makes you feel good about what you do, but I think with any praise, there always follows a backlash.
Do you read all your reviews? Did you see the one from The Scotsman the other day, who absolutely panned you?
Ellie: Yeah I try and read as many as I can find and yes I did read that one. I think he probably hates us more because we’re doing well. It was a bad review. It didn’t hurt because it was so badly written I didn’t really trust his opinion. Reviews hurt the most when you see an element of truth in what they’re saying. That can knock your confidence.
And of course these days you’re not just in the spotlight when you’re on stage. Pretty much everything you do is photographed, recorded or filmed.
Ellie: Yeah, there’s no getting away from it!
So what do you do to ‘escape’?
Ellie: Well, most of the time we’re travelling, so I like to keep myself busy and creative. I like photography and I have Logic Pro with me so I can always write songs when I’m on the road. I also read quite a bit and of course we watch lots of videos on the bus!
So when’s your next break?
Ellie: Immediately after this tour, we go to America, but I think we’ve got a few days off in October.
And, finally, what can we expect from tonight’s show and what’s your favourite song to play live?
Ellie: We’re playing our album in full for the first time, so there’s lots of new songs, many we’ve not played live before. And we’ve got a proper light show for the first time. What’s my favourite song to play? It kind of changes all the time. At the moment I’m enjoying the heavier ones because I know how to play them better. Hopefully, that will change with practice!
Wolf Alice’s debut album My Love Is Cool is out now
Follow them at @wolfalicemusic
“To me, shooting live music is all about capturing the personality of the performer and the emotion of their performance. And then creating an iconic image.”
Behind the image: All these images were shot handheld with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and either the 12–40 2.8 Pro or the 75 1.8 lens. I was told I had ten minutes for the interview, which is no time at all, especially as I wantd to get a few portraits of Ellie at the same time. We were in a room backstage which wasn’t the most salubrious location. The portrait was taken against the wall using available light only. It’s an important portrait for me as it was one of the first I’d created using grey and cream tones, a look I’ve gone on to use quite a lot recently. Shot in Southampton on 23 September 2015.
This interview originally appeared in BN1 magazine
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