British alt-rock quartet Wolf Alice have had quite the whirlwind few years. They just completed a several-month U.S. tour in support of their sophomore album, Visions of a Life, which earned considerable acclaim from fans and critics alike, making them a mainstay on American indie-rock and college radio stations. As Wolf Alice continue to rise here in the states, they’ve also reached ever higher peaks at home, playing their biggest headlining show to date at London’s 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace last November. The band, led by 25-year-old singer Ellie Rowsell, came on quick back in 2015 with their Mercury Prize-nominated debut, My Love Is Cool, with memorable alt-rock anthems like “Moaning Lisa Smile” and “Bros,” offering a compelling mix of sometimes gritty, sometimes pretty rock and lyrics full of blissful, romantic naiveté. But if their debut record was the innocent, self-conscious teenage girl who wants to fall in love and escape her dull hometown, Visions of a Life is the wiser, cooler young woman who still believes in love but doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her.
“We were much bolder and braver,” Rowsell says of the band’s songwriting process on Visions of a Life. Songs like “Heavenward” and “Planet Hunter” bring a lush, transcendent, almost shoegaze element to the proceedings, and the whole album feels much more dense than the debut. The tracklist also boasts a wider musical range. “Yuk Foo” could be an unreleased Bikini Kill song; “Don’t Delete the Kisses” is fluttering, beautiful synth-pop; “St. Purple and Green” takes cues from The Cocteau Twins.
“I honestly felt sometimes when I was younger that there were maybe constraints within genre, like, ‘Oh it’s too strange if I sing like I’m a contestant on The X Factor on this song and then like I’m trying to be in a screamo band on the next one.’”
Still, though many consider Visions of a Life a stark departure from its predecessor, Rowsell doesn’t exactly see it that way. “When people say, ‘I really like the first album, you really changed,’ I don’t hear that at all,” a leather-clad Rowsell said before Wolf Alice’s recent headline show in Cleveland. “I think [the new album] sounds the same! For me, I have a lot more material from the older days which I listen to and I know that we haven’t changed that much.”
But she can’t help but acknowledge the band’s (with guitarist Joff Oddie, bassist Theo Ellis and drummer Joel Amey) maturation over the past three years. Rowsell says the new album’s independent-minded songs and diverse sound are due in part to producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who has played alongside genre-bending master Beck for years. But they were also a function of having the confidence to throw off whatever limitations they’d placed on themselves as newcomers, knowingly or otherwise. “I just didn’t hold back this time around,” she says. “I honestly felt sometimes when I was younger that there were maybe constraints within genre, like, ‘Oh it’s too strange if I sing like I’m a contestant on The X Factor on this song and then like I’m trying to be in a screamo band on the next one.’ This time around I was like, ‘Oh well, I don’t care ‘cause it’s fun!’ Having performed so much now, I know what’s fun to perform. I guess I’m doing it more for me.”
That newfound confidence doesn’t just come through in the songwriting and sound, but in her lyrical approach. One new song, “Sky Musings,” features borderline rapping from Rowsell with its stream of consciousness monologue. “I think if you enjoy writing lyrics, sometimes melody is something that kind of hinders your flow,” she says, “so sometimes writing without melody and just stream of consciousness and almost like rapping, I suppose, allows me to say more. I think when I was younger I was quite adamant not to write love songs. One, probably because I had never been in love, but two, because it’s much more of a challenge to write a really good song that isn’t about love. I personally think all the best songs in the world are about love.”
Though Wolf Alice’s love songs have matured, they still have that distinctly relatable and accessible quality to them, especially since Rowsell approaches songs like diary entries rather than reaching for overarching themes: “This day you were upset about this, and this day you were happy about this. That is the theme. [The songs] are emotional reflections.”
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That intensely personal process makes for a natural evolution. Asked about the prospect of revisiting some of her older, unreleased material, Rowsell says, “I don’t even like that person anymore!” She’s been enlivened by the positive reactions to Visions of a Life, and even by some of the bad ones. She admits she can’t help but read negative reviews, (“the things that hurt you the most are the things you suspect might be true”), though unlike many artists, she has the presence of mind to take most of them as constructive criticism and discard the rest. It’s all a part of becoming a better songwriter.
“It doesn’t matter because if you were genuine when you were writing it, then it was genuine,” she says. “Then you’ll look back on it when you’re older and if you’re like, ‘That’s what I thought at the time,’ then it was a genuine snapshot at the time. So as long as [your music isn’t] really awful, something that’s not perfect is good. I’ve also been quite lucky in the sense that we haven’t had too many rude reviews, so ask me that when I write the worst third album in the world and then maybe I’ll say that I logged off the internet full stop!”