For Babehoven and Squirrel Flower, Songwriting Feels Like Divine Intervention

Maya Bon and Ella Williams catch up.

Ella Williams is a singer-songwriter who performs as Squirrel Flower; Maya Bon is one-half of the Hudson, New York-based folk duo Babehoven, which she formed with her collaborator Ryan Albert. Babehoven’s latest record, Light Moving Time, was just released on Double Double Whammy, so to celebrate the two friends caught up about it and more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Maya Bon: Should we ping pong? You ask one, I ask one? 

Ella Williams: Yeah. Well, first, I just wanted to note, on the record: the first time I heard your music was in January of 2022 when “Fugazi” had just come out, and it literally stopped me in my tracks. The song and the video were so beautiful. I was holed up in this kind of warehouse that my little sibling and my lover live in — it’s like this old furniture factory, and it’s not even converted, it’s just this big building Friends have lived there for a very long time, and they’ve built walls with drywall and plywood and kind of made it like a home, but it still feels kind of industrial. And the windows are pretty much only glass brick, which is very classic Chicago. 

It was a bitter, bitter cold streak in Chicago, so I was just in there trying to find some warmth. I plugged in my phone and played that song on repeat in their living room and was just, like, swaying and dancing. It just really struck me and did the thing that, in my mind, music is supposed to do, which is: you hear it, and at first you don’t really know what it is, but you feel that it is shifting your state of being. So that was my first experience with your music, and then I became a big fan. 

I guess my first question is about Ryan and about collaboration.

Maya: Yes.

Ella: So much trust goes into making music and into collaborating with other people, and I’m curious if there was a moment you knew Ryan was your collaborator, like your person musically.

Maya: It’s funny, I have a lot of collaboration questions for you too. There wasn’t a distinct moment — Ryan and I have been together now for almost five years, and it’s been a long road of learning how to be working together and to be trusting each other. I have a really hard time with releasing control, and he’s definitely the only person I’ve ever really felt that comfortable with. But it wasn’t initial. Initially, the reason we started recording together was because it was a heat wave in LA when we had just started dating — he was living in East LA, right near where my mom’s studio was, where we both worked, and I ended up just kind of living at his house all the time. I loved his housemates and I loved being around him, and the type of invasive, melting, disgusting heat that happens in the summer in East LA — it was like we couldn’t leave the house. And the air conditioning almost wasn’t doing anything in the house, it was so hot. So we just, like, got naked and recorded in his room on his four-track tape machine, just because there was nothing else to do. We literally had blackout blinds covering so that there was no sun coming in.

Ella: that’s a way to create a studio vibe.

Maya: [Laughs.] Butt naked, really stinky.

Ella: Like, fuck mood lighting. Just get naked. [Laughs.]

Maya: It was so gross in there, honestly. And he’s a clean person, it’s not like… whatever. It was just like, gross, hot, sticky, dirty. We recorded Yellow has a pretty good reputation, and we didn’t expect to do anything with it, because I had just moved from Portland and I wasn’t even really taking music that seriously. I mean, I’ve always loved to play — and that’s something I really want to talk to you about too, because I recognize that in your songwriting. You are expressing something separate from wanting to share. It’s like a playfulness.

So we were just playing around in that department, and we really enjoyed it. And he is a thinker that I like; I like his thoughts for many reasons, but one of the main reason is that he is different than I am, in the sense that he listens to a much wider variety of music. Ryan likes most types of music, he knows a lot about most types of music. He’s really put in the time. And I’ve always been interested in more experimental, avant garde kind of minimalist music — and he has a lot of knowledge in that department, and he that’s like kind of the majority of music he actually makes. So he definitely brought that into the [EP]. And that was exciting for me, because when I recorded Solemnis and Sleep, I recorded it in my friend Jessie’s basement in Portland and it just was like, my friend Elias Williamson was on drums, my friend Skyler Pia was on bass, and we just recorded it exactly as it was live and didn’t really play. Because to me, playing was scary.

With Ryan, the recording process was the play. We really fiddled and thought about things. and we had time for that. And every album successively since then has become more and more this process of learning how to play together, and so much so that I’ve been able to write the song and then give it to him, and then he’ll spend, like, six hours alone working on it. 

Ella: That’s huge amount of trust.

Maya: Yeah, exactly. And then I can come back in and say, “yes, no, yes, no,” and he’s never, ever defensive. That’s really helpful. He’s never like, “But I really like this,” you know? He’ll be like, “OK, that makes sense.” Or like, “I like that, but I understand.” He’s really egoless in that department.

Ella: That’s honestly the most important trait in the music world, and the rarest one to come across. So that’s really special. I mean, it sounds like the point where you are with him as a collaborator is the type of thing that can only come from years of being with a person and making music with a person.

Maya: Yeah, it feels that way. It makes me feel emotional, like how grateful I am to have found him. Because I don’t think I would still be even be doing this if it weren’t for Ryan. I’d still be writing songs, that’s always going to happen, but would I be recording them? Probably not, because recording is stressful.

Ella: I’ve been thinking of it lately as alchemy. Like you have a song, and then you bring it into a studio — or your room, or wherever you’re recording — and you have to transfer this thing that is kind of just floating around you and is different every time you play it into something that’s permanent and in stone forever. 

Maya: Yeah!

Ella: And that process is honestly terrifying. It’s fun and it’s playful, and you have to be very curious and inquisitive and open, and it’s an amazing process. But it’s also very scary and it feels like magic. That’s at least how I’ve been thinking of it lately, like something’s not there and then suddenly your song is a WAV file forever.

Maya: [Laughs.] I know. I wanted to ask you about collaboration. Something that I was curious about, kind of bleeding into recording as well, is that I know you collaborate a lot with your siblings and work with them in a similar trusting capacity. Having spent time with you and your siblings, it’s just so beautiful that you all are able to work together and find music as a connecting thread as well. So my question is, how has it been for you to collaborate with people at large? How has it been to collaborate with family? And also, do you consider it a collaboration? Like, how do you define where the collaborative ties are, and how — I guess it’s a many-faceted question —but how has that impacted your experience of recording? Like, do you guys record together?

Ella: I mean, we’ve been collaborating since we were babies. [Laughs.] Our dad is a professional bass player, so our childhood was surrounded by music — like, literally. We would be at bar gigs that he would be playing that were definitely strictly 21-plus, and we’d be these little toddlers in these crazy environments, just watching and hanging out with these old musicians. Or at home, every Sunday my dad had these jazz bands, and they would be playing in the basement. I would wake up to fucking “Chameleon” every single weekend. He was always on tour, so touring was a very normal part of our childhood. Like for most of my childhood, he was on tour with this band — it was, like, 10 of them in a minivan. It was very scrappy and they would tour for six weeks at a time, all the time. 

In terms of us actually making music, that was a huge part of our childhood too. We would constantly be playing together. Our parents would encourage us to play; we all took music lessons, but also just fucked around on the instruments that were lying around the house. So it’s really always been a part of how we’ve communicated with each other. 

The pandemic kind of happened shortly after [we all graduated college], and we were all quarantined with our parents, and that’s where it really started again. We would go into the basement and just have the most deranged jam sessions for hours upon hours. It was just this release. And there’s such a lack of boundaries between us that jamming is something that’s actually enjoyable, and you can excavate things because you’re not nervous at all and you fully trust the people you’re around and you’re not trying to be cool. So that kind of started the past two years of us having these jam sessions and like writing together.

It’s pretty separate from what I make as Squirrel Flower, but it actually has really informed my songwriting. I’ve been really encouraged by them to take new steps with songwriting. In terms of Squirrel Flower, my older brother has played on a lot of my records, and he recorded my cover of “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” — we recorded it together in our parents basement like a week into the pandemic. He played all the guitar on that, and in my mind, the guitar is what makes that song what it is. I just trust his intuition musically so much. I wouldn’t say they play a huge role in my music as Squirrel Flower, but they’re kind of always there — you know, Jamison sometimes comes on tour with me and sometimes records with me, and Nate is always listening to my shit and giving me tips. Or mostly just listening and being like, “Yeah, that’s nice.”

Maya: Yes! I love that. That’s so important. I think having a “yes” person — I really value that part of my relationship with Ryan. Like, I don’t like creative criticism; I don’t even like critical feedback that would help me. I just want to write for myself and I just want to hear that it’s good. [Laughs.] It’ll be very rare that Ryan will sometimes say, “Maybe you should try taking this out,” or like, “what if you added something here?” On the production side, he’ll totally do that. But in terms of songwriting, it’s very rare that he’ll suggest anything other than just like, “that was amazing.” And I’ve created that dynamic. Like, he never tried initially, but I really—

Ella: You were like, “Don’t touch my fucking songs.” I feel the same way. I’m like, “This is my song. I wrote it this way because this is how I like it. If it doesn’t have a chorus, I don’t give a fuck.”

Maya: “I don’t want a chorus! It’s not about a chorus.”

I wanted to ask you about your songwriting process. I think “Desert Wildflowers” is one of the best songs on the planet that has ever been written. That song, like, excavated my heart. When you performed at the house show, it really shook me to my core. I’d heard it before, because I listened to your music before and it definitely struck me then, but it wasn’t until I had seen it live that I was fully eviscerated by it. I remember telling you I had to come up to my room and I just kept crying afterwards, which has never happened to me before. I think that I have the lyrics written down, but, “Closer to the stars than I am to the ground/I’m not scared of the water/The rain is my parent and I am the daughter” — that’s just mind blowingly beautiful. And has so much to do with the current state of the world: climate change, tides rising. It’s so visual, like I’m there floating with you. 

Anyway, I could go on and on and on. But my question really is, how do you find yourself writing? Did you write this stream of consciousness? Did you write it consciously writing it down, as if it were a poem? Did you write it with the music? So many of us do very different things, and I’m curious what your process is.

Ella: Well, firstly, I just want to say thank you. That’s really meaningful to hear. I also feel like that is one of the best songs I’ve ever written, and I feel like it’s one that’s been overlooked on my album. I think it’s this way with my music in general: it just doesn’t hit the same as when it’s live. And I’ve always been someone who has championed live performance as my main, ideal way of sharing my music. But yeah, that was the first song that I wrote that ended up being part of Planet (i). I had just gotten back from a tour in the summer of 2019, and it was my last DIY tour that I ever planned before getting a booking agent. It was a month long, and I had a concussion for half of it, and it was really challenging but also really beautiful. I had the bare bones — I had certain lines of the song written in my notebook. 

Maya: With music, or did you just write those?

Ella: No, just the words. And I came back and I was living at my parents house at that time. I was sitting on my bedroom floor going through my notebook and saw some of the lines, and I think I just recorded a voice memo and riffed on it, and the song spilled out. And it wasn’t fully formed the first time it came out — I finished the voice memo, made a new one, slightly tweaked it — but it definitely was one of those moments where it feels like it’s just coming out of you and you’re the vessel for it. I feel that way a lot with my music. I feel like lately, a lot of artists are like, “It’s not divine intervention, I’m calculated about my songwriting,” but I feel the opposite of that. I feel like my songwriting comes from a mystical place. I have to show up for the songs to come out, but I think my best songs do feel like divine intervention. 

I wrote that song and in the moment I knew that it felt different. It felt like a very powerful song. And I think it’s because not all of my songs are autobiographical — they’re not all about me and my soul — but that one really is. It, for me, is a statement about staying somewhere in the face of something terrifying. And sure, there’s the climate change imagery, but it’s also, in terms of my life, [about] not shying away from challenges. Especially because at that time, I was coming off of six months having concussions and was just having a really hard time. But I got back and I was like, I also just completed a tour that I planned myself, and it was beautiful. I’m not afraid of these challenges and cosmic struggles

Maya: I feel the same way — I also record my songs on voice memos and just let it spill out. That’s how I write pretty much every song. It feels like divine intervention for me too. I often wonder about the hating on stream of consciousness, like “This isn’t easy, you know!” Because it’s not easy, but it’s an easeful practice. It’s allowing it to come out. I don’t know if you ever feel [like this] — sometimes I feel like I’m pregnant with the song. Like, I don’t know exactly what’s coming, but I’m like, I have to go get the guitar, because I’m about to give birth, or take a huge shit.

Ella: But similar to giving birth or taking a huge shit: just because it’s coming out with weight and with inertia doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. [Laughs.] This is getting too graphic, but the creative process for me is really painful.

Maya: It’s intense. 

Ella: I just want to say, I can’t wait for your album to come out. I’m so excited for you. Your music is just like a golden light, and I’m really grateful to be your friend. 

Maya: I’m so excited to hear your new music. I also would love to collaborate at some point, in any kind of capacity — and I feel we both know that that will happen at some point. 

(Photo Credit: left, Felix Walworth)

Maya Bon is the singer-songwriter behind Babehoven, formed with her collaborator Ryan Albert. Babehoven’s latest record, Light Moving Time, is out now on Double Double Whammy.

(Photo Credit: Jessica Chappe)