Classic Interview: Melissa Ferrick Speaks Freely
On a chilly Saturday in December, Melissa Ferrick climbed behind the wheel of her massive maroon Suburban and drove west from her home near Boston to Northampton, Massachusetts. After a year of nearly constant touring, Ferrick is used to long hours spent driving in her truck, which functions as her tour bus when she's on the road. Since the release of the sexy single "Drive" (from her latest studio album, Freedom), she's also been getting used to sold-out shows with screaming fans who have been known to "get carried away," as Ferrick puts it, and throw their panties on stage. This journey to Northampton, where she frequently performs, brought her not to a club, but to the kitchen of my home-away-from-home in Northampton. During our four-hour interview, she drank tea, snacked on Brie and crackers, and excused herself only once to indulge in a cigarette, which she smoked standing in the snow with Jen Perry, her road manager, at her side.
Ferrick has been performing her deeply personal brand of folk rock (or "rock folk," as she calls it) for more than a decade. She's put out a total of seven CDs, including her latest, Skinnier and Faster Live at the BPC, which was the first record released on her own label, Right On Records.
An out lesbian since 1995, Ferrick knows the fierce loyalty of her lesbian fans has helped her, and that her visibility is especially important to young people, but she doesn't believe her status as a lesbian has significantly helped or hindered sales. "I used to think that I didn't get played on the radio because I'm queer, but other acts have been successful, so that can't really be true. At this point, it's really old news," she says.
Ferrick's career has been a roller-coaster ride. She got her first record deal with a major label (Atlantic) when she was just 20, but when her first two records didn't make it big, she was dropped. Ferrick took the loss hard and drank heavily. "I didn't really think that I was that good and [I thought] what's the point?" she says. But in 1996, she got sober. That's when she says she started to "keep the music sacred" and face her fear of success. Her latest demons include serious tendonitis in her right arm -- which almost forced her to stop touring last year -- and a panic disorder, which never manifests itself on stage, but which makes her daily life a struggle.
The most obvious manifestation of the strains of a life spent touring compounded by pervasive anxiety is her weight. At 5'6", Ferrick weighs just 106 pounds. Her weight, and her health in general, are issues she focuses a lot of energy on these days. Despite her affinity for sharp cheddar cheese and strawberry Pop Tarts, Ferrick struggles to eat while on the road. "I would like to get to a point where I could tour in a capacity that is a lot more healthy for my body and for my spirit. It's becoming a big issue," she says.
Ferrick turned 30 in September and she says she is now working harder than ever. In many ways, she is a phoenix rising. After bottoming out in the early 1990s, she and her band have been playing sold-out shows all across the country and she was a hit this year at large venues like the Newport Folk Festival and the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. When she toured with Lilith Fair in 1998, Everything I Need outsold albums by every other artist on the bill at the Boston show. She's also won her share of awards, including Best Female Singer/Songwriter and Best Folk Rock Band at the 2000 and 1999 Boston Music Awards, respectively.
Despite her birdlike figure, Ferrick exudes stray-cat toughness. Off-stage, she seems vulnerable, but intense. Her icy blue eyes are striking, her features slight. Her shoulder-length brown hair is so fine it feels like a baby's. She often tucks it carelessly behind here ears or into a hap-hazard ponytail, but strands quickly escape and fall into her face. As she talks, she pushes them behind her ears or corrals them into a new ponytail but, like Ferrick, they want their freedom too much to be held back.
In here usual winter outfit of a battered leather jacket, loose turtleneck sweater and worn-out jeans, she'd be hard to pick out of a crowd. She hunches here shoulders, slightly when she stands, and when she sits, she curls further in on herself, as though folding in her wings will shield her vulnerable heart. But when Ferrick steps on stage and plugs in here guitar, something changes. She becomes infused with a power and sexuality that literally make her shake and drive audiences of hundreds of women to press themselves into a screaming mass at her feet. When she performs, she seems absolutely invincible.
When she smiles, her whole face rearranges into a lighter, joyful version of itself with lots of wrinkles around here eyes. When something's really funny, she tosses her head back quickly and laughs, then looks down smiling. When she thinks, she often looks down into a space near the floor, as though she may have left the answer lying there. She looks into your eyes when you speak to her, and whenever she talks to fans who are over-whelmed by her presence, she touches them as much as possible to put them at ease. She's silly and goofy and sick and serious. She listens as well as she talks. And she loves to play music.
She talked candidly about love, sex, her music and the virtues of drinking tea, among other things. Then she showed me the tattoo on here butt, but that's another story. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
The intensity that you have when you perform on stage is incredible. What drives your live performances?
I love, love, love playing live because I love the way my guitar sounds through my monitors. It's like a fight. I feel "less than" the guitar. I will never, ever win that instrument, and it always wins me live. When I play live, I'm just a little misguided navigator ... the show is in charge.
Do you have a pregame ritual? Something you do before every show?
I always say, "Please let me be of service."
And who are you talking to?
To God. I say, "Please let me get out of the way." In my head. I started doing it when I got sober. I was getting on my knees for a while. Before some shows, when I'm really nervous, I get on my knees. During the Freedom solo tour, I was also doing this thing where I wore the same pair of leather pants for every show. I would dance around in the dressing room for Jen in just my underwear with my socks pulled up real high. And I would make all kinds of silly noises, so I wouldn't take myself so seriously ... I'm just, like, the biggest nerd.
What kind of underwear were you wearing?
You know, little Victoria's Secrets or boxers. It depends. Sometimes I wear girl underwear, sometimes I wear boy underwear, but that's me, you know, top/bottom. It doesn't really matter. [Laughs] I can be whatever you want on any given day. [Laughs]
What about after the show?
Smoke. I hate that I smoke, but I definitely smoke a cigarette. And drink water, and sit. I'm tired. And I don't really want to talk to anybody. I feel really bad, because I love talking to the fans ... I work so much harder now. I'm 30; I'm not 22 any more. I just don't have the energy. ... Also, I absorb a lot of people's energies. ... Everybody that touches me is in me, so after the show I need a shower. I take salt baths, special soap. I started seeing a naturopath and a colorist in 1996 when I got sober.
And you started having anxiety attacks?
Yeah, I have a panic disorder.
What do you do about it?
And that works for you?
When did that start?
It started when I was really young; it's something that I'm just starting to deal with now, so I don't really feel comfortable talking about it. I'm very excited about the prospect that there is hope and help for me. I'm thrilled. I'm seeking outside help for it.
Let's talk about "Drive." Lesbians around the world are having sex to your song. What's that like for you?
Uhh ... I think that I am all for it. I don't think that I feel weird about that at all. It's just becoming more and more difficult for me to find somebody to go on a date with who hasn't already had sex to my voice. [Smiles.]
I know that you wrote "Drive" because your girlfriend (at the time) dared you to write a song about sex. Why'd you decide to put it on the record?
Yeah, it was a dare.... I wrote the whole thing in, like, five minutes. All the lyrics, then I recorded it that night. My ex-girlfriend has the original. It's about 12 minutes long. That was the first time I've written a song for a girl before. ... I think it was a pretty nice gift. I was never going to put it on the record. But I gave Jen a cigarette and a coffee and I said, "Listen to this." And she said, "You are high if you don't put this on the record." ... There's a live solo version on Skinnier, Faster and a dance remix that should be in clubs this summer.
In everything I've read about "Drive," you've laughed it off. You say that it's just a fantasy. I'm wondering why you do that.
I don't know why I do that. I think it's fear. I'm glad you brought it up, because I think that by laughing it off, I created a safer environment, but I'm actually diminishing the song. ... Owning it is difficult. Singing it is easy, but talking about it is harder. It's not that I haven't done those things, because I have; I'm not ashamed or afraid to say that. Although I don't like having sex in public places ... I've always wanted to have sex in a dressing room, though, and I had sex in a car, finally. I think that I would like to watch other people have sex in public places. I think that's a lot of what "Drive" is about. I'm definitely a voyeur. Absolutely. Right now I'm just trying to find someone that I want to make love to.
What do you think about the whole Napster thing and MP3s?
Napster is an essential and amazing source of music, but ... I can't stress enough how much Napster has affected my sales. I'm sure it hurts artists who make lots and lots of sales, too. I'm sure that it must really suck to sell 14 million records instead of 15 million records, but the difference for me between selling 20,000 albums and 30,000-45,000 is huge. ... It impacts everything from my ability to get opening slots on major tours, to getting on the radio, to getting a record deal. ... I always ask my fans to download all they want, but please don't burn my music and please buy the CDs. The sales numbers really count.
I love the your cover of Train's "Meet Virginia." It was even better than the original.
Yeah, everybody's sayin' that [laughs]. I love the song. ... I like the play on words. I like to do songs that guys do, and then when a girl sings it, that I don't change the pronoun. We'll put it on the next live album.
You've been called "the queen of the anti-love song."
I know! I'm not very happy about that! That just started ... I was "the other Melissa" for three years, now I'm the "queen of the anti-love song," ... I think I'm the queen of the I-want-real-love song. ... I am certainly not anti-lovel ... Not today, anyway. [Smiles.]
All of your songs are about love, in some way. You're either looking for it, in it, or getting over it. How many times have you been in love?
I love the cover of Freedom. You're wearing a T-shirt with a story, and finally there's a shot of you that isn't all soft-focus and straight-girl-looking ...
Yeah. In the past, I've been a baby [about asserting herself on photo shoots] ... I think the shot looks like me this time on "Willing to Wait" I looked like freakin' Demi Moore or something ... The T-shirt says "Proud." My friend Philip gave it to me. It's from his first gay pride in Washington, D.C., in 1977 ... the Japanese characters on the front of the CD also mean "freedom."
Tell me about your new label, Right On Records.
I incorporated that name one night in a panic online with Jen because I knew I didn't want to work with W.A.R.? anymore, and I wanted to do the Skinnier and Faster Live album. I'm not against signing with another label. I'd really like to. I'm not Ani DiFranco. [Laughs.] I so respect what she's done now; it's a lot of work.
Look for more classic interviews with Ani DiFranco, Melissa Etheridge and kd lang coming soon!