There’s something about third albums that seems to spur bands on to become quintessentially themselves. Primal Scream’s 1991 opus ‘Screamadelica’ saw the Scottish band ditch indie rock for the pills and thrills of the dancefloor, while The Clash honed their politicised punk and melting pot of influences to craft 1979’s seminal ‘London Calling’. And just last year Haim returned with ‘Women In Music Pt. III’, their most experimental and emotional work yet, an album that feels like a full realisation of their sound.
Now, with ‘Blue Weekend’, it’s Wolf Alice’s turn to add their name to that lineage. The follow-up to 2017’s Mercury Prize-winning ‘Visions Of A Life’ is the London band’s best yet: coolly confident, rich in stories about life and love; it’s an unpredictable-yet-cohesive adventure through sounds and styles. Perhaps it’s the result of the four-piece’s comfort in knowing that, after two albums’ worth of touring, there’s a fanbase waiting eagerly for their return.
Maybe getting through the ‘difficult second album’ chapter not just unscathed, but with acclaim, has quelled some insecurities they might have had before. Either way, they don’t sound like they feel the need to prove themselves to anyone, seeming free to do whatever they want and assured in their ability to pull it off.
“In a way,” says singer and guitarist Ellie Rowsell, sitting in the group’s rehearsal space in Homerton, east London, “with some things before we might have been like, ‘Is this cool?’ Or ‘Is this what people want out of us?’ [This time] I felt like, I don’t care because I like it’. I think maybe you have to be older and a little bit more experienced to get to that point.” She quickly adds: “Not to an extent where you’re like, ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks anymore’ – we still really care!”
Bassist Theo Ellis adds: “You’re confident, but at the same time that doesn’t mean you’re negligent.”
Wolf Alice are, as their frontwoman suggests, older and wiser in 2021. It’s more than a decade since Rowsell started the band as a folk duo with guitarist Joff Oddie, gradually adding members and changing line-ups until they settled with Ellis and drummer Joel Amey. Now all aged between 28 and 30, they’ve been touring since their early 20s – and touring hard, “even when absolutely no one wanted to watch us”, Ellis groans. After touring ‘Visions’, they gave themselves six months off in 2019 – the longest period they’d had off since the band began their ascent in 2012.
During that elongated holiday period, the four friends split off and focused on different things. Oddie volunteered at food bank the Trussell Trust and recorded his folk instrumental solo album ‘To Mr Fahey’, with all profits going to the charity, while Rowsell “tried to slip back into my life, find somewhere to live and remind my friends how nice and lovely I am”. The band reunited in mid-2019 and went on a road trip to Somerset to start piecing together new material. Hunkered down in an Airbnb, they had fun jamming and remembering the side of the band that wasn’t about stepping out onto stage every night and working out where the party was afterwards.
“You’re just playing the songs over and over again and you maybe lose sight of the writing side of you,” Rowsell explains. “You’re not just a machine that plays these songs; you actually create them as well.”
In early 2020, they headed to Brussels’ ICP Studios to begin recording with Markus Dravs (who’s added widescreen sheen to the work of Arcade Fire, Florence + The Machine and, more recently, Kings Of Leon). They were hoping to be free of London’s distractions, but their plan worked a little too well – a few weeks into the sessions, the city went into lockdown as coronavirus cases rose. With nothing else to do, they started going over everything with “a fine-tooth comb”, says Oddie. The resulting record is “far more detailed,” he says. “A lot more effort was put into [that side of things] and just getting it right.”
Dravs made the band justify what they were doing with the songs, dissecting each part and what its purpose was. “It’s good to consider all the avenues a song will go down because then when you feel like you’ve come to your decision, it’s really the right one,” Rowsell explains. But, she adds, there are some decisions you just can’t rationalise. “Even if it’s wrong, it’s right to you. There’s no arguing that it’s not right.”
“Once you’ve been your authentic self and people like it, it gives you confidence” – Ellie Rowsell
The album’s title came to the band during their time in Belgium. In the back of a cab on a sunny, blue-sky day, Rowsell suggested to Amey that they should go to a nearby forest “on the next blue weekend”. As well as represent those wholesome, hopeful plans, the phrase reflects the highs and lows of emotion that the record contains. On the cinematic ‘Delicious Things’, it sounds as though the band are soaring through one of those bright, happy skies over Los Angeles. But in other places, like the overcast ‘Lipstick On The Glass’, the blue manifests in darker, stormier hues.
“Blue is a nice colour, but it also means sad,” Rowsell says. “And I often think the weekend is so fun, but lots of drama takes place then so sometimes it’s the catalyst for your downfall.”
To imbue each song with the emotion and feeling that they were aiming for, Wolf Alice would mute movie or TV show trailers on YouTube and play the tracks over the top. “It’s like a litmus test to see if the emotion of the song works,” explains Ellis, who coyly declines to name any of the trailers in question “just in case they’re embarrassing”.
Trying to capture a certain feeling has always been key in Wolf Alice’s work, he says: “We’ll be like, ‘We want the feeling of putting your head out of a car window’ or ‘the feeling of running towards a festival tent where you can hear music in the distance’. Ellis adds with a grin: “And then a producer just goes, ‘Fuck off’, and we spend three months trying to figure it out.”
Whatever Wolf Alice’s unwritten, inter-band language might be, they’ve translated it spectacularly on ‘Blue Weekend’. It’s a masterful record that continues their now-traditional streak of hopping from genre to genre, packing in fingerpicked folk (‘Safe From Heartbreak (If You Never Fall In Love)’; grandiose, piano-led epics (‘The Last Man On Earth’); and acerbic moshpit starters (‘Play The Greatest Hits’). In the past, they’ve been criticised for not sticking to one set thing but, more than ever, their ability to mould any sound into an inimitable Wolf Alice song is one of many exciting things about this band.
Another is Rowsell’s lyricism, which on this album feels more honest and less guarded than ever before. There are more specifics to her storytelling, each overflowing with a full spectrum of emotion. “It’s not hard to remember when it was tough to hear your name / Crying in the bathtub to ‘Love Is A Losing Game’,” she sings on the raw ‘No Hard Feelings’. Later, on the same track, she wonders: “Would we ever have tied the knot?/ Well, how long is a piece of string?” On ‘Delicious Things’, she details an entirely different kind of connection. “He rolls his eyes and cuts a selfish line of blow,” she notes of a one night stand. “He was here for one thing / If he can’t get it then he’ll go.”
‘There’s always backlash when you win something like the Mercury Prize – that’s just the nature of winning” – Theo Ellis
Rowsell has always seemed shy, and particularly so in interviews, when she’d pepper her responses with “I don’t know”s. On the new album’s rumbling track ‘Smile’, she notes: “I ain’t ashamed in the fact that I’m sensitive / I believe that it is the perfect adjective… I am what I am and I’m good at it / And you don’t like me? Well, that isn’t fucking relevant.” In both parts, she stomps across the line female artists are expected to toe – one where they must be likeable and meek, but also where being perceived as emotional or delicate presents a target for criticism.
When Wolf Alice were first on the cover of NME around their debut album ‘My Love Is Cool’ in 2015, our writer noted “fronting the big rock band [Rowsell] wants Wolf Alice to become can’t be achieved without giving up more of herself than she seems comfortable with”. Today she retorts incredulously: “How did he know what rock band I wanted Wolf Alice to become? I don’t know how big I wanted Wolf Alice to become – and I still don’t.”
To illustrate what she’s willing to reveal about herself lyrically and in interviews, she holds her thumb and index finger ever-so-slightly apart from one another, a gap just visible between them, and says: “I just give what I’m this much uncomfortable enough to give away.” Yet, gazing at the carpet and twisting her hand around the mic stand beside her, Rowsell insists that although “there’s still a certain level of guarding,” it’s becoming “less and less” common for her to obfuscate herself: “Again, it’s just being older and not being so afraid, and being a tiny bit more comfortable in the world.”
The singer points to the response to her gradual journey in opening up in her songs as another factor in giving her the courage to lift her mask even more: “I don’t know how to say it without sounding wanky, but every time you’ve been your more authentic self and people like it, that gives you the confidence to be even more authentic the next time and open up a bit more.”
Some of the biggest stars of recent years – Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande chief among them – have laid their personal lives out in their songs, suggesting mega-success might lie in being an open book to the world. “In order to be a good musician and a good songwriter and a good band, you of course don’t have to do that,” Rowsell notes, “but if you want to be really famous? Maybe you do – but I don’t know if that’s something we really want.”
Just in case they want to hedge their bets, Oddie deadpans: “We need to start a vlog.”
One distinct shift in Rowsell’s songwriting comes in her increased willingness to write about relationships, with tales of love threaded through ‘Blue Weekend’. It’s something she’s largely shied away from in the past, because she felt like it was “so expected of me”. Today she tells NME: “I don’t know if that’s because I am a girl or just because it’s so done. I just accepted that that is something I am really interested in – and I shouldn’t be embarrassed of that. I just enjoyed it, so I was like, ‘Why would I not do the thing that I enjoy? Am I trying to be cool? Because that’s never going to happen.’” When NME points out that many people would beg to differ on that last point, Rowsell erupts into a big, loud laugh.
“#MeToo is not just a hashtag” – Ellie Rowsell
It’s not just relationships with others that make up the stories on ‘Blue Weekend’. ‘Feeling Myself’ is a dreamy, lush song that sways from bursts of soundscape to stripped-back, quiet moments, Rowsell singing about self-love and sighing contentedly: “Now I’m really feeling myself / So much better when I…” She tails off as if lost in the moment, her voice enveloped in a wall of fizzing guitars.
Asked what inspired the song, she replies, “I just liked how…” before breaking off and getting flustered, shifting her gaze back to the spot of carpet by her feet. “Ugh! I don’t know why I’m embarrassed to say this, but I found the music kind of… sexy. And if the song made me feel sexy, I wanted it to be about that feeling. I wanted the lyrics to match that.”
It’s another example of Rowsell letting down the barricades she’s previously built upon around herself, revealing who she really is. “I think there’s a pressure to be likeable in life, which is really hard when you’re really unlikeable,” the singer says, her sentence punctuated by a self-deprecating cackle. “I don’t know how to really talk about this, but… if you’re an insecure, shy, flustered person and you’re put in all these social anxiety-inducing situations, it’s quite hard to get through them and be likeable.”
For Rowsell, life in one of Britain’s best-loved bands means being put in situations that are “really scary” – and it all comes down to self-confidence. “If you don’t do them with confidence, people think you’re a ‘bitch’, when actually it’s like, ‘Oh no, I was actually terrified’,” she explains, her caution slowly dissipating as she gets more into the subject. “There’s an assumption that if you can go on stage and perform to thousands of people you must be really confident, but actually that doesn’t make it easy for you to speak to someone you don’t know.”
This seems to be less of an issue for male musicians, who are encouraged to be big presences (look at Lewis Capaldi, or even Liam Gallagher), or be quiet and shy and be dubbed ‘mysterious’ (see: The Weeknd in his early days). For women, such behaviour is often cast as loud and arrogant, or boring and void of personality. Rowsell likens this to the comments Ariana Grande made last year, when she pointed out when a woman expresses herself, she’s branded a “bitch”, but “when men express their opinions or defend themselves [people say]: ‘Oh, he’s being a boss’.” After a pause, Ellis quips, “You can adapt it to ‘rock star’ for the NME.”
Wolf Alice recently became part of the cultural conversation around another rock star when Rowsell spoke up against Marilyn Manson. After several women, including the actor Evan Rachel Wood, accused the shock-rocker of sexual abuse, the frontwoman alleged on Twitter that he once filmed up her skirt backstage at a festival (Manson has not commented on her claim, but has denied the other allegations made against him). In a development that will shock no-one familiar with the toxicity of social media, she was victim-blamed, faced accusations that she was lying and was reprimanded for tweeting about her experience.
At the time of the alleged incident, ‘upskirting’ wasn’t illegal in the UK. After victims campaigned against this, the Government finally defined the act as a criminal offence in April 2019, meaning that perpetrators could face up to two years in jail and find themselves on the sex offenders’ register. Are things getting better for women? “In some cases [they are],” Rowsell says. “But in some cases, it’s probably going backwards so there’s no one answer to that.”
“You have to be older and a little more experienced to [have more confidence in yourself]” – Ellie Rowsell
In a recent interview, Oddie suggested that regulation was the key to making the situation with sexual misconduct cases better. By that, he says he meant translating movements like #MeToo into societal power and cementing laws that protect not only celebrities, but everyday people too: “I think stuff like #MeToo’s fantastic as a catalyst and a talking point, but now we need to work out how we shift those cultural norms to make sure that the message is translated to everyone, not just the people who have Twitter accounts and lots of followers.”
“So it’s not just a hashtag,” Rowsell adds.
The 28-year-old singer’s accusations against Manson were picked up by the tabloids, marking her second appearance in the red tops. The first came in 2018, just after the band won the Mercury Prize, when The Sun decided she had bought a house in Margate and was engaged to Slaves frontman Isaac Holman. The aftermath of the Mercurys appeared to kick things up a level for the group. As well as being in the tabloids, Wolf Alice were all over the broadsheets and the BBC. But with the cheer came some chagrin – they were also the subject of a backlash. Some commentators online considered them a ‘safe choice’ and were maddened by their victory.
Ellis says of the whirlwind: “I already had a bit of imposter syndrome anyway so it didn’t fucking matter. And there’s always backlash – that’s just the nature of winning something.”
“Yeah,” Amey jokes, “and usually the backlash is from me.”
After they were crowned victorious that night, the band headed straight for their beloved Hawley Arms, the legendary pub just off Camden High Street, where you’ll see polaroids of the group dotted around the walls downstairs and a big print of the ‘Visions Of A Life’ artwork hanging upstairs. “We definitely celebrated really well that night,” Rowsell grins – and there’s at least one video on Instagram that backs up her claim.
In it, the singer is standing at one end of the Hawley bar, holding what looks like a broom in one hand and the Mercury trophy in the other. In front of her is a line of glasses of Red Bull, shot glasses of Jägermeister balanced on top of them – a ‘Jäger train’. Using the trophy, she sends the Jäger toppling into the Red Bull like a row of dominoes falling down and the crowd around her explodes into cheers. The next morning, the band had to fly to Australia.
“Walking around Terminal 5 at Heathrow was weird,” Oddie says, shaking his head. “‘I feel bad, but I feel good?’ It was a pretty nice hangover.”
As well as the shiny silver trophy – which Ellis confirms is still at the Hawley, displayed “behind the crisps” – Wolf Alice won £25,000. In red carpet interviews before the ceremony began, they suggested they might use it on a studio or rehearsal space. “We still haven’t spent it,” she says.
“We’re waiting for a grand plan together,” adds Oddie. “We had some ideas kicking together a little while ago but it just didn’t feel right at the time. It’s still put aside and we want to spend it on something decent.”
Perhaps that something will come to them on this third album, which arrives on June 11 – a mere 10 days before all coronavirus restrictions are scheduled to be lifted. “Should we push the album back to June 21?” Ellis asks his bandmates. It’s not a serious request but, with its rushes of euphoria and stiller, softer moments, ‘Blue Weekend’ would make for a perfect first album to hear when we’re free from lockdown, ready to set our own stories of drama, love and adventure to.
Wolf Alice’s ‘Blue Weekend’ is out June 11