Melissa Ferrick: Faster, Skinnier, Bolder. (Concert Review and Interview)
“You Outcasts. You Gypsies. You Queers. You Lovers. You Losers. All who love music. You are all welcome here.” -MF
It’s been five long years since Lilith Fair alum Melissa Ferrick has strutted her stuff on an Indy stage, but last Wednesday she kicked off her latest U.S. tour at The Irving, nearly giddy when she learned that it was the last stage that Elvis Presley strutted his stuff on before his untimely death. (The Irving saved the stage from the demolition of Market Square Arena.) After the concert, she granted me a rare, intimate interview, which follows the concert review.
Ferrick is an elite, enduring, and constantly evolving artist, in a class with Ani DiFranco, Rachael Sage, Tegan & Sara, and k.d. lang—female power musicians, writers, and vocalists whose popularity is driven by fans as opposed to media and record companies, and fueled by their own tenacity. With over twenty years in the recording business, sixteen albums, and a rigorous touring schedule, Ferrick’s career has been storied, fascinating, harrowing, and above all triumphant.
As a young girl in the 70s, Ferrick had a storybook childhood that many only dream of--frequenting Boston’s jazz clubs with her father. By age five she was being trained in classical violin, followed by piano, and in middle school she added trumpet and bass to her repertoire. Her enormous talent led to tenures at both Berklee College of Music (where she currently teaches when she’s not on the road) and the New England Conservatory of Music . Despite her strenuous, expert training, Ferrick felt that something was missing, and while studying at Berklee, she taught herself to play guitar.
In 1991, a fluke coincidence led her to replace the opening band for Morrissey with only 90 minutes notice. Morrissey was so impressed with her that he invited her to finish the tour with him. She left Berklee shortly after, and was offered a contract with Atlantic. After releasing two critically acclaimed but commercially disappointing records, Atlantic dropped her. She never doubted her own talent; she merely doubted her place in the music industry, and as her doubts grew, so did her personal problems. In 1996 at the age of 26, she took control of those demons, namely drugs and booze, and she’s been sober ever since—a grueling feat for anyone whose “office” is often a drinking establishment.
Soon after she signed with W.A.R. records, and eventually founded her own label, Right On, in 2000. Owning her label at first brought incredible freedom, but after ten years of playing CEO and navigating crippling recording and touring costs, she was resigned that that the business side was killing her creativity. Like too many indie musicians, Ferrick was left asking “Is it really worth it?”
A chance meeting with friend and fellow indie superstar and MPress Records founder, Rachael Sage, helped her answer that question: “Yes it is.” Ferrick signed with MPress in 2010 and released “Still Right Here,” in 2011, her first studio album of original compositions with band accompaniment since 2006. (She released a live, an acoustic, and a cover song album in the interim.) Considered a landmark departure from her previous 15 albums, “Still Right Here” boasts upbeat tempos, pop-inspired melodies, catchy trumpet solos (which she’ll currently tell you that she regrets), and a subtle Caribbean vibe.
Although her music is meticulously recorded, to judge her solely by her recordings would be akin describing a volcanic eruption after merely seeing a photograph of a volcano. Her live performance banter offers a much-needed balance to her sometimes harrowing songs about break-ups, social injustices, and dashed dreams.
As a special treat to the audience she played many songs from her upcoming album, “The Truth Is,” due out spring 2013. Audience members Dennis and Renee H., who have seen her perform seven times in the past ten years, stated that with the exception of her anthem “Drive,” they had never heard of any these songs live, which is what keeps them coming back. “It’s a completely different concert every time.”
Her songs alternate from poetry: “You buried my love/In lake effect snow.”
To girlish diary entries: “I changed my clothes three times before I left to see you because I’d never been to Brooklyn.”
To chilling confessions: “I’m willing to let you wreck me.”
Ferrick played the first part of her concert alone on stage with just her guitars, both acoustic, both just lying on the floor with no stands, and as long-time fan David G. stated, “It was the most sedate I’d ever seen her, and for a second I wondered, ‘Who kidnapped Melissa?’” Audience member Denise M. added, “I’d never seen her perform this way. It was like she had invited us into her living room for the evening.”
About halfway through the concert she invited her band mates Dave Brophy and Joe McMahon to join her on stage, as well as the opening singer and her longtime friend Anne Heaton, and it was like a second movement of a symphony.
If there’s one song she should be famous for, it’s “Drive,” a song that has long been mis-attributed as the theme song to the Showtime series “The L-Word,” thanks to a confused YouTube poster who used the song in a montage of show stills. “Drive” is, to put it bluntly, poetic pornography, and while she does tire of singing it, she has learned that she sometimes must give the audience what they want. She later explained that the song is different every time, and each time she weaves a different story into the lyrics. On this particular version, she talked about cannibalizing the TV remote batteries for other “appliances” in emergency situations…and the proverbial crowd went wild. But a key phrase kept circulating throughout her ad lib: “Tell me I’m brave and beautiful. Brave and beautiful. Brave and Beautiful.”
A disturbing recent trend in music venues across in Indy, and evidently across America is audience members yelling and singing over the musician. When a rude person in the audience who had spent the majority of the concert competing with Ferrick for attention berated her to play “Drive” for the encore, a nonplussed Ferrick responded, “Did you come in late?” The berating continued, and I personally told the offenders to chill. (Keep in mind that small venues and indie artists can rarely afford security, and while I’m reviewing concerts, I will also encourage you, the audience, to SHUSH offending parties on behalf of other audience members and the singer, and let offenders know that this behavior is disruptive will not be tolerated.) Ferrick later explained that adoring fans often go into the realm of obnoxious, and that after nearly having her rotator cuff torn by a rabid fan, she has learned to dress down offending parties with no qualms.
As for her encore, it was yet another movement of her symphony, running a full thirty minutes. The highlight for many was her rendition of Patty Griffin’s “Moses,” and in true Ferrick cover style, she made it her own. She closed the show in triumph, adlibbing and crying out her own version The New Colossus:
“You outcasts. You gypsies. You queers.
You lovers. You losers. All who love music.
You are welcome here.”
Overwhelmed by the audience support, Ferrick plans to return to The Irving in the Spring. If you didn’t catch her this time, keep an eye on Segment of Society Productions (grassroots organizer Robin Coleman)—Indy’s indiest indie music promoter.
Stay tuned for a CD preview of “The Truth Is” in 2013.
When the lights came up, Ferrick signed CDs and talked with enthusiastic fans for nearly an hour. Around midnight, she invited me backstage to say hello to her band and to make herself a cup of tea. She led me to the stage, sat her stool, and opened up to me like an old friend, as she steeped her post-concert throat tea. Her glasses perched atop her head, she more resembled a college professor than a raw rocker. Her band was getting restless to hit the road, and I narrowed my initial ten questions down to two.
AP: You play at least six instruments and were classically trained in three. You play. You write. You sing. But when did you find your sound?
MF: It wasn’t just all at once, you know. It took some time. I have a jazz background and play the trumpet, and that rhythmic prosody was just in my ear all the time. But I think what really did it, what made me who I am, was teaching myself. See, when you’re taught, it’s completely different. You learn the technique, which is so important. But at some point, you take what you learned and you create your own style. I did that with guitar. I didn’t take lessons. I just picked it up and started playing and experimenting. I also taught myself voice. I taught myself by listening to Joan Armatrading on vinyl “Down to Zero.” I would sit in my room, and play that record over and over, and sing along with it, like all night, until I hit those notes just right. Well, I never did sound just like her, but I kept trying, and in the meantime I was training myself. I was practicing her style and mimicking her passion, but when I sang it, the beats kept landing somewhere they weren’t supposed to, and it finally dawned on me that I was finding my own sound, my own style, and my style is jazz—it doesn’t always follow the rules.
AP: Rachael Sage recently said at one of her concerts that you had been trying to teach her how to not hold anything back. You are famous for your gripping and surely mega-calorie-burning performances, but when did you first learn that you had this gift of “leaving it all on the floor.” You’re like a musical athlete, and every concert is a playoff game.
MF: (laughs.) I don’t know how not to perform like that, because yeah, every concert is a major event. People ask if I get exhausted performing like that, but I do it so I won’t feel exhausted. I need to do this, otherwise it’s just all these thoughts in my head and all this energy in my body driving me crazy. People ask me how I get in the zone, but it’s not a zone. I’m not even conscious of it. There’s no ego; I’m just consumed with the spirit. When I dance, it’s tribal, from a place inside of me that has probably existed for centuries. My body doesn’t leave me, it just becomes one with my voice, and my voice becomes one with the audience. There’s no separation. It’s being take up in spirit and yet still being present. In some ways I’m not even aware of who I am, or my gender. But that makes sense. I’ve never seen people in terms of gender.
AP: Some people say your guitar playing is “ballsy,” but I’m reluctant to call it that because it implies that only men can play with that much passion.
MF: Really, I just don’t get bogged down in gender. Music is so much bigger than that.
Feeling self conscious of taking her precious free time, I asked if she wanted to wrap the interview, but she didn’t. She went on….
MF: When Anne [Heaton] and I were singing [a little while ago], it just took me, and I didn’t know if the audience knew it or not, but I was gone; like out of there. I hit a moment where I didn’t know where I was because I was so emotional, and feelings like that can either make you feel lost, or you can just let them move you. On the one hand I got self conscious because I fucked up the bridge, but on the other hand, I was just letting the spirit lead. See, I gotta let myself be taken up in the wave and convey that feeling. I feel like my music is growing up, and part of that is learning to trust myself. When I write a new song, I can already hear it in my head. I dream it. In my dreams I know how the song will sound.
AP: Dreaming…asleep or awake?
MF: Both! It’s like I’m dreaming it, and there is a big wave behind me, and I can hear it, hear exactly how it’s going to sound, and I’m learning to trust it. The hardest part is conveying that dream of what I’m hearing to the musicians. But once I play it for them, and we work on it, they get it. That wave, that spirit I was talking about earlier takes them too, and I’m learning to trust that, and I feel like my music is going in new places now.
AP: And you’ve built the type of fan base who will follow you no matter where your music goes. You’ve sung their heartaches and healed them through it, and have earned a tremendous trust.
MF: Yeah, when I’m going through something awful, some break up, some confusion, some heartache or disappointment, I have to write about it, to make it meaningful. I sing it, and I can feel the audience just surrendering to it, and in the past, I’d be up there thinking that this was my gift to give, but the truth is the universe gave me that gift. That’s the new direction I feel my music taking.
AP: Brave and beautiful. You kept saying that over and over in “Drive.” Most women would probably just say “Beautiful,” but you emphasized “Brave.”
MF: I did?! Damn! That’s beautiful!
And Melissa Ferrick is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful women performing music today. Here’s a snapshot I took of her when she was reflecting on her duet with Anne Heaton.
Photo copyright Amy Pettinella
(Top) Photo copyright official Melissa Ferrick website