Updated: Jul 19
Less than 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 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. The most recent, Planet (i), was laden with 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). 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 (MJ Lenderman, Wednesday), and Dave Hartley (The War on Drugs) lending their contributions.
As if to signal this shift, the album opens with the soaring “i don’t use a trashcan,” a re-imagining of the first ever Squirrel Flower song. Williams returns to her past to demonstrate her growth as an artist and to nod to those early shows, when her voice, looped and minimalistic, had the power to silence a room. She 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. Tomorrow’s Fire might sound like the title of an apocalypse album, but it’s not. Tomorrow’s Fire references the title of a novel Williams’ great-grandfather Jay wrote about a troubadour, named for a line by the Medieval French poet 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.