WILDES is the moniker of London-based singer-songwriter Ella Walker, who started making waves online following the release of her debut single, ‘Bare’, in 2016. She followed it up with a couple of successful singles and an EP, 2020’s Let You Go, which featured a beautiful rendition of Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’. While her music was gaining traction, however, her manager at the time was forcing her into a sound she struggled to feel ownership over. She ended up scrapping the first version of a debut record when, on top of everything, the producer she was supposed to work with stopped contacting her. She had no choice but to keep writing, using her sister’s old bedroom as a makeshift studio in an attempt to process the emotionally abusive relationship she was in for five years. Produced by St Francis Hotel (aka Declan Gaffney), Other Words Fail Me finds Walker both channeling those traumatic experiences and reconnecting with her love of music, setting elegant, full-bodied production against raw and dynamic vocal performances. “I’ll only dream of the woman I could’ve been,” sge sings on ‘Flames’, yet by the time the Flaming Lips-assisted closer ‘True Love’ comes around, that dream doesn’t seem far from reality.
We caught up with WILDES for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her musical journey, being complimented by Bob Dylan, the cathartic process of making her debut album, and more.
You went into writing the album when you were 19, but you weren’t fully invested in the process at the time. What was your relationship with songwriting leading up to that point?
I love writing songs, whenever I have any time I will always try and write just because it’s cathartic. At 19, I released ‘Bare’, which was my first single, and I’d just been writing for fun until that point. I probably had like 30 songs, but I was a teenager, they were all quite immature, and they weren’t crafted songs as such. And when ‘Bare’ came out, it got a really amazing reaction, and people started to ask about an album. I was thinking, “Oh my God, I’ve only written like three songs that I really love.” And from ‘Bare’ coming out to probably the last songs I released before this album, I just completely lost confidence with writing, partly because I felt a lot of pressure from myself and from the idea of the industry and always having music to consume. But mainly it was because of my manager, who was also my record label and was extremely controlling, super critical of my music and really tried to get involved on the A&R side. He just told me constantly that songs that I was writing were not good enough, and eventually, I just believed him. It didn’t take long; I was young, I was quite impressionable, and I really lost confidence with it.
Actually, ‘Flames’, which is the fourth track on the album, is the oldest one on there that I wrote probably in 2019. And that was the first song since 2016 that I felt ownership over, probably because I’d been quite honest with it. And I knew objectively that it was good. He, the manager at the time, actually said, “You need to rewrite the chorus. It’s not catchy enough.” And I was like, “Hang on a minute. That’s the best bit of the song.” So I went from being very confident in myself, as I think most young people are, to having that completely drained away by someone that was an authority figure for me. And writing this album really helped me regain that confidence. Because I got rid of him, I fired him. There was no one there to tell me that I was bad or not good enough. And it’s really good to have that criticism sometimes, but when it was as a means of control – not good. I’m back there now, I’ve rediscovered my love of writing, and this is just the best catharsis.
Has ‘Flames’ taken on a new meaning for you since then?
Yeah, definitely. I have this thing when I write, I don’t tend to think about what I’m saying too much. I kind of just let it come out, and then after I’ll try and make sense of what it means. And I did that with that song, and it shifted something in me. I was really sad, I was quite depressed. And it made me realize that I couldn’t just sit around and wallow. I had to try and be proactive in improving my life. And the first place to start was myself. But in hindsight, looking back on the entire process and the breakup and the bad relationships, that was the start of this album really. Even though there was a big gap between the songs, the change in my consciousness and my attitude to music started there. And even though I was in a completely different place when I wrote that song, it makes so much sense in the world of the album. Kind of spooky to look back on them and still feel so much, especially because at the time, I felt quite numb, and I didn’t really know what I was saying. But it was more of a real need to just express it.
You talked about a loss of confidence, but what did it take for you to find the same joy and fall bak in love with songwriting?
I think the reason that I fell out of love with it was because I was viewing it through the lens of business and the industry, which is how I lived through writing for those five years. It was, “You need to write a new single, you need to get a playlist, it has to be catchy, it has to be radio-friendly.” And whenever I started writing with those parameters, I would just feel so limited and quite uninspired. And I think falling in love with it again through writing this album was because I didn’t set out with any parameters, I just really needed to express myself. When I wrote these songs, there was already a first version of an album in place that had eight songs from across the years. None of them were cohesive, but we just needed to get something together in time. Because that was already going on, I was writing these songs just to sort of try and understand what was going on in my head and to get things out of my head onto a page. And I think the process of doing that with no purpose or no goal or no need to make money off them allowed me to just be honest. The pressure was completely taken off.
You’ve said that the title of the album, Other Words Fail Me, was something you grew into, but it sounds like that also happened with the songs themselves.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, I have all the demos still on a playlist, and I was listening to them, and I can hear now in their finished forms exactly how we got to where we are now. But at the time when you when you’re writing and they’re just demos, they kind of all merge into one thing. And I needed help, and like you say, time, to define them as individual songs and give them an identity. My producer was just incredible at that, because I also didn’t have any confidence in a recording studio until this album. My manager would always come in and he wouldn’t let me speak, he would tell me off, he would say that I was being lazy. So I go in, and all these producers that I was working with would be like, “Why is he here? You’re the artist. Why is he in here telling you how to record a song?” And I didn’t really know any different. I had grown up in music with him always just doing it and being controlled. But this was the first time where I had complete artistic control and a really great encouraging producer that allowed the songs to find their own identity without us trying to force it too much.
Is there a moment that you look back on as feeling that freedom for the first time?
I think it’s probably the first song we recorded, ‘Woman in Love’. Actually, the final version of that song is the closest to the demo out of all of them. There was a moment where we were adding loads of backing vocals and chorus vocals, and I recorded them all. Deck was sort of playing around, putting some effects on them. We ended up calling it “the demon choir” because they were quite weird, squidgy sound effects, different pitches. And I was so uncomfortable with him doing that, because it wasn’t what I had envisioned. I kept trying to shut it down, and he was like, “Just let me do it, and then when we’ve added all the effects, if you don’t like it, we’ll scrap it.” And as he did it, I was trying to relax into giving someone else the control, who obviously was really talented and an authority in their own right. It was a weird moment where I was really enjoying what he was doing, but I was so uncomfortable about trying something new. And that was the moment where it kind of came together and I thought, “Okay, this works. I can trust him to interpret the songs in a way that is right for me and right for the album.” That was it. And from then on, I think we just let the songs take on their own identities.
There’s a line on that song – “Why is the melody sitting like a lump in my throat?” – that I feel hints at how this kind of manipulative dynamic can hold you back not just personally, but also creatively.
Yeah, absolutely. It was almost like a feeling of me censoring myself, because I didn’t want to say something wrong. When I wrote something that was not up to this manager’s standards, I would get shit for it. I would get berated, I would be verbally punished for not making it poppy enough. I did swallow so many thoughts and ideas and words, just because I didn’t want to get into that confrontation, and that had a really damaging effect. But I’m back on the confrontation train now – in a healthy way.
Your music found success early on, and I read that your cover of ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ in 2019 caught the attention of Bob Dylan himself. How’d you find out?
That was crazy. Bob Dylan was probably the first artist that I was really obsessed with when I was a teenager, and such an education in songwriting. I think we needed a gap on that EP that we had to fill in and I was like, “I’ll just do a cover.” I sent it to a friend of mine just to get her thoughts on it, and someone that she knew knew Bob Dylan, or knew Bob Dylan’s manager. And she said, “Can I send it to him?” I was like, “Yeah, of course you can, but he’s never going to hear it. There’s no point.” And she got back, it was probably about four or five weeks after she sent it, and she bumped into him coming out of a gym, he had been to kickboxing class. And she was going into the gym and she said hello, kind of knew him, and he said, “That thing that you sent – she’s got really nice voice. I like it.” And then he just left. And she sent me an email like, “I’ve just bumped into Bob Dylan, he said you’ve got a nice voice and he likes your cover.” It’s such a surreal thing. Kind of sounds like someone made it up, but he played Hyde Park in London, and he invited us to the show. So I went and got to see him live, which is one of my bucket list goals. It was amazing, absolutely crazy.
I assume you have that email framed or saved or something.
I’ve got it starred in my inbox, I should probably print it off just to keep it around.
Other Words Fail Me deals largely with the trauma of an abusive relationship, but there’s a confidence in your vocals and a defiance in how epic the arrangements can get. Was it difficult to reach the point where you felt honest in your conviction?
It was definitely a process. When I wrote the songs, I was still in the relationship. And when we started recording the album, I had probably broken up with him like three weeks before we started it. It was this nearly six-year relationship, I had been really not happy in it for about three, four years. But such was the dynamic and so low was my confidence that I just couldn’t see a way out. I couldn’t leave, I didn’t know how to leave. And I sort of absorbed a lot of the issues as if they were my own problems, which I was manipulated into doing, and that’s the abusive dynamic. But in a sense, because it had been such a long time that I was questioning and unhappy – which I kept to myself, I didn’t tell anyone, and we went about our lives and saw our families and did all of these things that couples do and I kept my mouth shut – I was really at the end of my tether in terms of frustration and anger. And eventually, that bubbled up and came out in the songs.
When we got into the studio so soon after the breakup, I kind of didn’t care about censoring myself anymore, and I felt very free. I was still quite upset, it was very fresh, but Deck, the producer, he didn’t know about – he knows everything now, but he didn’t know at the time about the things that had been going on. And I sort of thought this is my chance to just really brutally express it, and maybe if I can express it musically, that will help me to eventually come to express it verbally and talk to people and be honest about what’s happened. And it absolutely did. I think knowing that I was capable of that anger and that frustration and expressing the quite raw emotion musically made me feel comfortable and safe enough to go and seek help and talk about it with my friends and family. If I hadn’t written the album, maybe I would still be there. I had some time when I was writing it to be by myself and to realize that this isn’t okay.
When you were at that point where you couldn’t express it verbally, were you at all afraid that music wouldn’t be enough to get it out either – in a sense, that it would fail you?
Absolutely. Music and production up until that point had been a real sticky point for me. I had no confidence in the studio, and I didn’t know how to vocalize the thoughts that I had with production of ideas. I was really bad at finding references, and I had no confidence in music, in the arrangement of music. But that’s why my producer was so amazing, because we found a way to communicate what I was thinking, using words like no adjectives that had nothing to do with music production technicalities. He would just get what I wanted to say, and after that I just learned how to communicate properly in the studio. But there was a real fear about not being able to express it musically. We were recording for about three months, and I didn’t have any drum ideas – I didn’t feel like I could express any drum ideas. And one day he said, “Just go and sit behind the drum kit, just try.” And I was thinking, “I can’t do that. I’ve never done that before. My rhythm’s terrible.” He was like, “Just go and do it and stop thinking about it.” That was the first time I’d ever sat by the drum kit. And it was terrible, but I managed to get the ideas across. I think having someone prod me to be accountable and just try was the key to expressing it. And realizing that actually, as the artist, you’re in the studio, you have the power, there are all these boxes and instruments and electronics around you, but they need you to play them.
I noticed that ’Anytime’ ends with the sound of a heartbeat, and on the next track you sing about how “this heart is indispensable,” which seems like an intentional connection.
Yeah, the whole me being bad drums was such a thing on this album, to the point that now, we’re starting out album two on Monday, and I’ve written everything from drums upwards. I’ve started with the drums because I didn’t want to be caught out like we were the first one. But because of my lack of knowledge, I kept coming back to a heartbeat kick. It’s in ‘Anytime’, it’s in ‘Real Life’, it’s in ‘Lightly’. And then lyrically, there’s a lot of talk about hearts and heartbeats. We realized early on that maybe that should be a theme, because a lot of the feeling of my life during those six years was extreme anxiety and fear and a lot of trauma. And for me, that was just my heart, like, trying to jump out my chest, and me trying to contain it. The prevailing feeling and sensation was my heartbeat in my ears, just because of the intensity of this scenario.
Are you going into the next album with a different attitude and mindset?
Definitely, I feel a lot more prepared and capable. Mainly, it’s just going to be a happier album. I just prefer writing sort of tortured music because I think it’s easy to express difficult emotion and sad emotion than to write a song about how great your life is. But I really want the second album to be more fun. I’m so proud of the first and it has played such a crucial role in my life, but I want to express all the things that I’m able to appreciate now, and the relationships I have, and just the good stuff and the fun stuff. There’s still a lot of introspection there, there’s still a lot of searching for answers, because despite lots of therapy and counseling, I’m still dealing with the aftermath of that relationship. And I think I probably will for a while. But yeah, definitely a more confident mindset – a very excited and tenacious mindset.
As a closer, ‘True Love’ feels like a transition into that positive mindset. It addresses someone who’s cynical about life, but I’m curious whether you feel closer to believing that message yourself now.
That’s been released previously and I wrote it about a very cynical person – I mean, that person was also me. And the reason that we wanted to include it in the album is, the whole album is me talking to myself, but we wanted to have that in a positive light, not just in a really intense, sad light. It’s kind of funny listening back to it and feeling the impact of the words. I hear it like being tongue-in-cheek, but I know that I need to believe that. And I definitely do believe that less cynical and more positive and open perspective on life and love and loss that that song has. And it was such a nice way to close the record. We only decided last August that we should maybe put it on the album, and then the Flaming Lips came along and we were like, “Well, maybe this has to go on the album now.” It was good to get a bit of help in the joyfulness, because I think they give it a bit more of a mad feeling.
How did the Flaming Lips go from being a reference point for the song to a feature?
We were working on it, and as you say, they were a reference, so it’s kind of in the vein of them. It took us a while to get to that point. I think it needed to be a bit funkier and crazy, and we were looking for a male vocalist just to add texture, not necessarily a duet or a feature, just to bring some texture to the song. And my producer made a joke about the Flaming Lips, like, “Oh, I think I’ve got someone’s email, I know someone who knows them.” And I literally said, “Yeah, right, cool, great.” And we left the studio and had two weeks off, and then we came back and he said, “You know we were talking about the Flaming Lips?” And I was like, “Yeah, they wouldn’t be on the song.” And he was like, “Yeah, I’ve been emailing and they want to work on it.” And I thought he was joking. I thought he was taking the piss. And he showed me the email chain and they’d been texting for about two weeks, but they were really excited. They were on tour at the time, so they were trying to find gaps in between tour dates to do it. It was definitely worth it in the end. They were so respectful of the song and they supported the production and beautifully added their own distinctive sounds, and I’m so grateful to them. They were like, “We love the song. We want to work on it. We don’t want anything, we just want to work on it because it will be fun.” And it’s such a lovely interaction to have with music because a lot of the time people just get straight down to fees and percentages and “What’s in it for me?” And to have such a successful and well-respected band work with you for the love of it is such a privilege.
Now that the album is out, what feelings that are tied to the making of it do you wish to let go, and what hope is there that you want to hold on to?
The things that I want to let go of – which I think I already have, but it feels very symbolic that it’s out and that it’s public now. There was a lot of shame surrounding this whole part of my life that the album helped me overcome, and obviously, therapy helped me overcome. This innate sadness that I lived with for such a long time that just became the norm for me. It took me this entire process to realize that that is part of it but it’s not a permanent state, and it doesn’t have to be who I am. It wasn’t until last October that I’ve really decided to let go of that part of my life defining me, and that was two years since I left the relationship. It’s taken me a long time to get here, but all the sad stuff and the box that I was put in by him – that’s all gone now. And whilst this album is an expression of that time, it’s not an expression of the box and the limitations. I see it as breaking free from all of those things.
I didn’t even realize until someone said to me recently that there was a narrative of hope on the album. For me, at the time, it felt like desperation. But I think at some point desperation and hope kind of meet in the middle. I feel so grateful we were even able to make this album. There was a point in time where it was not going to happen; legally, there was a point in time where I couldn’t have released it. We’ve defied all of those challenges, and I’ve defied that time and I’ve defied the person that I was made to be, no confidence – which was never me in the first place, it was the way someone made me feel. But the amount of pride that I have over this release and the version of myself that I am today after all of this – I just want to run with it, because I know that I’ve got a lot to offer and I know that I can do it and I just feel so much more confident after this creative process. I just want to keep that positive outlook on life because I’m a really privileged person, and I don’t want to forget that too much.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
WILDES’ Other Words Fail Me is out now via AWAL.
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