Can Wolf Alice save the great British rock band from extinction?
With a line-up completed by guitarist Joff Oddie (who formed Wolf Alice with Rowsell as an acoustic folk duo in 2010) and drummer Joel Amey, they rose from the North London pub circuit to headline displays Latitude, Britain’s first post-pandemic festival last year. They perform with the swagger of a happy gang, delivering emotional, powerful and seductive sets. Their three albums – the first from 2015, My Love Is Cool; Visions of a Life, winner of the 2018 Mercury Prize; and last year’s masterful Blue Weekend – are packed with offbeat, atmospheric and richly melodic songs blending the raw power of grunge, the ethereal seduction of folk, the festive jingle of indie and the sonic explosion of electro in a sound of their own.
“It’s the strength of a group,” says Rowsell. “There are four different people bringing songs and influences to the table, and then we sort of pick the best ideas, not just the ones that obviously flow together.”
Although their latest album topped the UK charts, Wolf Alice has yet to enjoy the kind of crossover hit single that would bring them into mainstream consciousness. But it’s only a matter of time. Rowsell is their not-so-secret weapon, chief lyricist and focal point. On stage, she has a charismatic silhouette, which is not afraid to use its sex appeal in these proscriptive times, perhaps because Wolf Alice has so much else to do: intelligence, musicality, experimental audacity. Offstage, however, she admits to being worried about the extra attention.
“I feel a lot of pressure about how I look, which is annoying because it’s not something I’ve ever found particularly fun,” she tells me. “I don’t really care about fashion or makeup, but I have to. But I see boys under pressure to look and act a certain way too, so I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman or if I’m just sensitive.
When I first interviewed Wolf Alice in 2015, Rowsell was just beginning to master all of this. “I think acting, you feel pretty sexy and powerful,” she said then, “and sometimes a line is crossed.” Rowsell attended Camden School for Girls, a comprehensive school in north London founded in 1871 by suffragist Frances Mary Buss. “We were brought up to be aware of feminism, but also not to think of ourselves as a woman, in a way. You don’t play a gender role, you play the role of yourself. So I never really felt like a girl in the world. I felt like a person.
Smile on Blue Weekend is a cool response to sexist assumptions – “Don’t call me crazy, there’s a difference, I’m angry” – which leads to a wild finale: “I know you all think I’m unbalanced / Well, wind and this bee stings.
“We can all see the pressure that Ellie is under, the subtle discriminations that occur in the way she is treated in photo shoots, videos and interviews, and just in everyday working life in a way that is unconsciously or overtly sexist,” Ellis says. “We all try to be protective, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Ellie is very good at standing up and speaking for herself.”