In a far corner of an industrial estate in Tottenham, north London, beyond a skip piled high with Coca-Cola bottles, through a heavy metal door and up two flights of stairs, Ellie Rowsell stands awkwardly in the middle of the room. She has climbed out of the silver frock she was wearing for the camera and back into civvies: jeans, white vest and blue shirt. The silver dress hangs back on the rail and for a moment it seems as though all of Rowsell’s front-of-camera boldness might have been put away with it.
Today’s photo shoot comes a couple of weeks before the release of Wolf Alice’s new album, Blue Weekend, and as the band’s lead singer and only female member, Rowsell, 28, is once again navigating the glare of the spotlight. It is not an easy place for her. She recalls how just the day before, recording a session for Radio 1, the producer had encouraged her to speak between songs. ‘I just couldn’t say anything,’ she recalls. ‘And then I sang, and I felt so good. Just really confident. And I thought, “I wish I could be that all the time.”’
Wolf Alice formed in 2010 when Rowsell came across a video of Joff Oddie, 30, playing guitar online. She was already writing songs, largely influenced by the folk music of the north London Irish community in which she lived, but she lacked the confidence to play live. Oddie, a recent transplant from Devon, was impressed by Rowsell’s fledgling songwriting skills.
Two years later they had added an electronic twist to their songs and were joined by bassist Theo Ellis, 29, and drummer Joel Amey, 30. They signed to independent label Dirty Hit, home to The 1975, and then released their debut, My Love Is Cool. Theirs was a sound that captured the mood of young London; with songs such as ‘Fluffy’ and ‘Bros’, Rowsell sang of friendships and desire, of freedom and boredom and bus rides home.
It was their second album, Visions Of A Life, that brought major success — beating Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen and Noel Gallagher to the Mercury Prize in 2018. Life seemed to change from that moment. After the ceremony, the band retired to The Hawley Arms in Camden (where their Mercury statuette still lives, nestled among the crisps) and the following day flew off on tour to Australia. But suddenly they were celebrities: at Heathrow they saw themselves on the TV news and on the front pages of the newspapers.
That level of fame doesn’t sit well with Rowsell. She is a beguiling frontwoman: magnetic, photogenic, possessed with a voice that can range from sweetness to fury. But even three albums deep she is still that strange contradiction of fearlessness and nerves. Today she sits folded in on herself and when she speaks, her sentences tend to blaze brightly and then quickly fizzle out, as if startled by their own flare.
The first time I met the band, in a café in Holloway in 2015, Rowsell was near-mute. But over the years, as I have interviewed Wolf Alice around the world — on tour in Bangalore and Los Angeles, in Manchester and London — it has been interesting to see her personality emerge; to watch the transformation that takes place as she warms up backstage ahead of a show, the presence she has as soon as she steps on to the stage.
‘I really can’t second guess when I’ll feel confident and when I’ll feel extremely under-confident,’ she says now. ‘I don’t really think I am that much more confident [than when we began]. But I’ve been thinking: even though I do find being on stage hard, in a way, it is almost a relief for me. Because I don’t have that social anxiety on stage.’
But she is no doormat. A few years ago, backstage at a festival, she had a run-in with the musician Marilyn Manson. ‘He’d just finished playing his show and everyone was backstage in the artists’ area,’ she explains. ‘He came up to us and went, “I love your band.” Then his compliments became more and more hyperbolic, like, “I listen to you every night before I go on stage…” And then I looked down and I realised, oh my God, he’s got his hand up my skirt with a GoPro.’
She told the festival organisers that Manson, who has since been accused of abuse by several women including his ex-partner Evan Rachel Wood, had been filming up her skirt. ‘My main concern was I don’t want him to have that footage of me,’ she says. ‘His tour manager came down and said, “We’re using that footage for his tour diary, so we can’t give you the camera.” And we had to negotiate with him: okay we can’t take the camera, but can we see you delete that footage?’ She looks appalled and weary. ‘And that was that. It wasn’t a crime back then,’ she says. ‘But it’s illegal now.’ When Rowsell tweeted about the incident she was met with backlash from Manson fans, but she appears unruffled by it. ‘It was only people online,’ she shrugs. Manson and his tour manager have yet to respond.
The band are perhaps accustomed to speaking out — they are all members of the Labour Party, they have played benefits for War Child, Amey cites an umbilical link to the political stance of punk bands such as Black Flag, and after their last tour, Oddie and Ellis volunteered at a London food bank. They are forthright, too, on the Government’s treatment of the arts sector during the pandemic — the lack of support for venues and festivals, the financial hardship for many touring musicians and crew. ‘There’s a billion-pound industry in the festival economy,’ Ellis points out. ‘But I understand in a pandemic the priority has to be health, and it’s difficult to attack someone, the Tories, in a significant health crisis. So it’s a catch-22 at the moment.’
As one of the UK’s most successful young bands, they have perhaps fared better through the pandemic than most. As Ellis points out: ‘Everyone was universally impacted, everyone has had their timeline stretched.’ But still, they are conscious that with live music still restricted, festivals looking precarious, most musicians will struggle to make enough to survive on streaming alone.
‘It’s been going on for ages, that type of stuff,’ he continues. ‘Independent venues have been threatened since I was a child. I’ve just seen in Germany a lot of venues are being turned into cultural institutions, which I think is a phenomenal idea. I understand that people need places to live, and populations are expanding, but some of the formative musical moments in all of our lives have happened in small gig spaces around the UK. They’re under threat. There has got to be significant financial layout and investment into how to keep those things going.’
They worry about the future of festivals, how well they can possibly survive to next year without government support. Two days after we meet, the band will head to Somerset to record a set for this year’s Glastonbury — it is ‘an honour’, they say, to have been included on the live-stream line-up, which will serve as a substitute festival in this second pandemic year. The band join Coldplay, Haim, Michael Kiwanuka and others, playing not for a muddy live crowd but an online audience of millions. It will be an opportunity to play their new songs live for the first time.
Blue Weekend marks a new kind of confidence for Rowsell as a songwriter. Its lyrics bolder, more open, more unflinching, their subject-matter ranging from relationships to self-love to a furious riposte to those who seek to diminish her: ‘If you don’t like me,’ she sings on ‘Smile’, ‘that isn’t fucking relevant.’
‘I think the way that I’ve been more open is not necessarily that I’ve been more confessional, it’s been more that in the past if I felt it was a bit embarrassing then I would shroud it in ambiguity,’ she explains. ‘And now I’m like, no: I’m going to step out of my comfort zone.’
It isn’t only Rowsell who has grown into herself. ‘I’m now The Hot One,’ jokes Amey. ‘And I’m The Grey Man of Wolf Alice,’ adds Oddie, though it is true that all four now inhabit their roles readily. When they won the Mercury, Ellis took the microphone from a stunned Rowsell and, nine beers deep, recalled how at their first meeting with a record label they were told they didn’t look like a band.
Today they look like a band. ‘It’s confidence that comes from experience more than success,’ Ellis says. ‘Success can spook you, if anything. But experience is invaluable. I watch us — even when we’re doing something like a photo shoot, I see everyone knowing what works for them. It’s one of the funnest things about being in a band in a way, watching people grow. I’d struggle to pinpoint when that confidence happened — it’s still happening, we’re still growing, we’re still trying things we might not have done.’
They were in Belgium making Blue Weekend when the pandemic arrived. Faced with the choice of continuing to record or returning to the UK, they chose to stay. Another two months passed in the isolation of the studio before they made their way back, and as strange and unwelcome as the circumstances were, they credit this extra time with providing the album’s astonishing maturity and polish.
Of late they have noticed how their peers are beginning to settle down. ‘The last few months I feel loads of people have said they’re having babies,’ says Ellis. He smiles, and pulls at his pink neckerchief. ‘Not for us, though.’
Following their Mercury win it was rumoured that Rowsell was settling down — the day after the awards ceremony, The Sun reported that she was engaged to Slaves frontman, Isaac Holman, and the pair had bought a house in Margate. ‘I don’t know where they got that,’ she says. She received so many congratulatory messages on her supposed engagement that she began to wonder more about all the people who hadn’t bothered to congratulate her. The rumour, she hastens to add, was entirely made up and the pair are no longer together. ‘But my family believed it,’ she sighs.
She unfolds her arms, tilts up her chin and her voice seems to rise above her. For a moment we catch a glimpse of an Ellie Rowsell who doesn’t need a stage or a song to say what she feels, but one who can be like that always.