Wolf Alice frontwoman Ellie Rowsell transitions from teen recluse to indie heroine 

click to enlarge A failed solo performance led Roswell to start Britain's most acclaimed new act. - CHRISTIAN BERTRAND/SHUTTERSTOCK
  • Christian Bertrand/shutterstock
  • A failed solo performance led Roswell to start Britain's most acclaimed new act.

The past two years have been jam-packed with accolades for British alternative quartet Wolf Alice and their grunge-guttural debut disc My Love Is Cool. To date, the group has earned two NME Awards, a Grammy nomination, and the iTunes Best New Artist award.

Meanwhile, the North London band's stand-alone single "Baby Ain't Made of China" finds even more aqueous melody being added to the mountainous fuzzy, buzzy mix of previous singles "Fluffy," "Freazy," "Giant Peach," and "Moaning Lisa Smile."

All this from a group whose 23-year old frontwoman, Ellie Rowsell, never harbored dreams of becoming a rock and roller — simply because she was too shy.

The singer's transformation into the commanding stage performer she is today happened gradually, almost unnoticeably. In grade school, everyone learned recorder, which was, for her, how it all started.

"I lived in quite a big Irish community, so they were teaching kids to play Irish music, I learned the Irish recorder," she recalls. "We were going to pubs and playing sessions as an afterschool thing. And I was really scared, because we wound up singing songs, as well. And they always asked me, 'Do you want to do the singing?' But I was always too afraid. So it didn't put the bug in me at all. But I guess it must have done something to me, maybe subconsciously."

Once she reached college, Rowsell began taking courses in writing, theater, and sound design.

"I wanted to do something creative, because I like reading, art, and drama," she says. "So I thought maybe I'd do something with film, because I like Miranda July, who writes stories, makes her own films, and acts in them, too. I just wanted to do something — I wasn't sure what. But going to university was a dismal failure."

Rowsell decided to change direction after her Practical Acting professor told her to pretend that she was an atom. "And I was like, 'No, I don't have the emotional depth for that — sorry!'" she laughs. "Plus, I didn't have any friends and I wasn't enjoying myself there. I just wasn't cut out for it."

Not long after, she hesitantly entered a local songwriting competition in London, where she got up enough never to sing and play guitar before the judges. It was her first time onstage, and her strumming was so poor, she says, it was embarrassing.

Still, the experience showed her two things: She'd enjoyed being in front of an audience for the very first time, and she really needed to be accompanied by a talented musician.

Ashamed to ask any of her close friends, she logged on to an online guitar forum and soon found axeman Joff Oddie, who had just moved to town and was eager to form a band. As a duo, they started gigging at pub open-mic nights. "AKA the Toilet Circuit," she smirks.

Taking its name from a gruesome short story by Angela Carter, Wolf Alice set out down the acoustic folkie path, but crowds weren't paying attention. So they went electric, played louder, and added bassist Theo Ellis and drummer Joel Amey. A contract with hip overseas imprint Dirty Hit soon followed.

In retrospect, Rowsell says she didn't find her true voice until a few years ago. The manifestation of that more mature sound of last year's "Baby Ain't Made of China."

"There was a theme to our album, but now it's changed," she explains. "Most of the stuff I used to write about from 15 to 19 — that's when your brain is the most crazy, and it's all introverted, so the most tiny thought becomes immense. I'm still finding my feet when it comes to songwriting, but I feel like I'm changing now, so that won't be so much of a theme anymore."


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