Melissa Ferrick makes me uncomfortable, and I told her so. Nothing against the singer/songwriter herself; a high octane performer whose perfectionism fuels her prolific album output, Ferrick has proved her staying power.
It’s that song, “Drive.” I first heard it as a recently-out college sophomore. Of course some love interest had added the song to a mix tape. Of course I was wearing overalls. Walking across my hilly campus, I felt my face heat. Already concerned that my newly acquired queerness divided me from my peers, now I wondered if they could hear the frankly sexual phrases funneled through my headphones. What sort of person, I wondered, could stand on stage like a carnal conduit, her thoughts and experiences on display?
As a performer Ferrick marries doggedness and vulnerability, as a person she seems equally open, willing to confront her perceived weakness and discuss her emotional ups and downs with a clear-eyed detachment born of having survived them, knowing she can do it again. With The Truth Is poised to drop in spring 2013, Ferrick spoke with AfterEllen about her own comfort level performing “Drive,” the happiness she’s found teaching, and the her album’s tumultuous origins.
Photos by Laura Crosta
AfterEllen: You’re limiting the length of recent tours. Why?
Melissa Ferrick: So much has changed in the last five years as far as touring and ticket sales and the internet and Youtube. Not like it hasn’t been out of control for a while, but right now, it’s really crunching the live market. I never thought it would be as difficult to get people out as it’s becoming, even for friends of mine who sell more tickets than I do.
It’s frightening out there. In the last couple of years I’ve tried to be more creative about the rooms I’m playing, the length of time I wait to return to to a city. Although I will say about Chicago particularly — Chicago, Boston, New York, San Francisco, LA — these are cities I can go to more than once a year because my fans are so awesome there. I wonder if not waiting and doing one or two shows in a larger room once a year might not make more sense for everybody, because it’s not just me who has to sell tickets to make a living, it’s the club owners and the agents and the record labels and the bartender and the sound guy. It affects a lot of people. And I also just think I’m not as insane as I used to be; a three week tour would be the longest I would do again. I used to be in a van for four months and then I’d stop for five days, then go out again. But that’s how I built the audience that I have, so now I am capable of going into Chicago and selling 300 tickets in advance. That’s because of the work I’ve done. I’m really grateful for that and I’m grateful that I don’t have to do that anymore.
AE: You touched on the mathematics of touring. I imagine being drawn to a career in music because one loves to write or perform. Was the business aspect something you evolved to appreciate?
MF: I’m a total geek about thinking about how the business is run. I got introduced to the music industry at twenty. My first manager was Sting’s manager so I hung out with extremely famous people who made lots of money. It was really crazy to watch that as a fly on the wall. The Morrissey tour, playing places like Madison Square Garden and Wembly — it becomes very clear the kind of money people are dealing with, but more importantly, the amount of people that have to get paid. I realized, just because a show grosses a certain amount of money, that’s not really how much the artist makes.
Then in 1999, when I put out Freedom, I remember being really — confused is a nice way to put it — by the fact that I had been given a five thousand dollar budget to make that record. I felt artistically offended by that budget. Ani was blowing up and selling her own records and then Aimee Mann, someone I always looked up to, went independent and I thought to myself, if I sold 10,000 records and I cleared two dollars a record, I could make 20,000 dollars, which is four times the amount of money that this record label is willing to put up against me making a record. And at that moment I thought, I want to do this on my own. That was the beginning of really learning how to budget a tour. It’s an all encompassing endeavor and as an indie songwriter out there on the road, if you don’t love all the parts of it, you’re in big trouble. It’s amazing how many musicians don’t have any idea how much money it costs to tour. I work a lot at Berklee with students about this.
AE: Do you feel like your teaching informs your writing and vice versa?
MF: I took a gig in their five week summer program for high schoolers four years ago, because I didn’t know if I was going to make records anymore and I was trying to reshuffle my cards a little bit, not to fix anything but to have a purpose. And if you want to feel like you have a purpose, teach. It changed my life. It made me love music again, it turned me on to all the new bands. I felt a renewed sense of energy and the students made me want to play live again. I don’t know how else to describe it: it made me happy. I love the structure and I love being inspired on a daily basis. The Truth Is is probably the most brutally honest and revealing and complete album I’ve ever made. I definitely think my writing is better just from being around other songwriters and musicians, surrounding myself with a community. That is ultimately what Berklee does for me.
Photo by Shervin Laniez
AE: You mentioned feeling happy leading to better songwriting. Does that mean despite popular belief, it isn’t necessary to be tortured to write?
MF: I do think you have to be tortured to write well. I think you have to live it to write it. I mean, you’re a writer, sure you could write an historical piece or something, you could write about say, Joan of Arc and try to put yourself in her place and write what it felt like, but you weren’t fucking Joan of Arc, do you know what I mean? When I was seventeen, I wrote songs about heartbreak and love that I felt as if I had lived through. Now when I think about the songs that went on my first album, I shake my head and smile with compassion because I think it’s amazing that I thought I was in so much pain. I’m happy to have experienced that bravado of youth, but I’m also really happy that I’m no longer coming from a place of terminal uniqueness.