AE: You said your new album is more revealing — first of all, how is that possible?
MF: Yeah right? I’m such a perfectionist that I only really like the record I’ve just made. And the truth is, after a year I probably won’t like this record anymore. There are things about Still Right Here that, without completely sounding like an asshole, I feel like I can see through my bullshit on that record. I know some songs are on that album because I needed another song and I let them go because there was a good bridge or one good line and I do believe that as a songwriter, you’re not going to make a record once every year and a half and have every song be unbelievable. It’s impossible. There are a few songs on Still Right Here that I feel like are weak: “Seconds Like These” and “One of a Kind.” [They’re] not like “You Let Me Be.” That one, I’m really proud of. I know that’s a real song. I know what that song is about. I wrote The Truth Is through an absolutely brutal betrayal with my ex, an extremely difficult period of time. Whereas Still Right Here feels pieced together, not only from the writing perspective but from a production standpoint, the new record was written chronologically, so it just feels like a book to me. I don’t know how else to describe it. I hope other people like it. I might be the only person who likes it.
AE: Speaking of older songs, how sick of answering questions about “Drive” are you?
MF: I’m not sick of it. When I made Freedom, I fell madly in love with this girl and we drove across the country together and then she broke my heart in the way that you’re naked, on your knees in the shower crying hysterically, you’re twenty-nine, thirty, and your whole fucking life is over. Needless to say, you will feel other forms of pain in your life, but I wrote that album through that process and actually, The Truth Is feels very much like that to me, but literally ten years later. But sorry, you wanted to ask me about “Drive.”
AE: First, on the subject of heartbreak, when you have a particularly wrenching experience, do you take any solace from the knowledge that you can use your experiences to create art?
MF: In the past I might have. I wrote “Wreck Me” in November of 2011, and then in December I found that I had been cheated on for months. I never thought, I’m going to get songs out of this, not even for a second. In March I wrote “Everything You Were,” which is beautiful and slow and really sad. And then the anger came — anger like I’ve never felt — and I got two songs out of the anger. I actually was so angry I was reluctant to even write about it. I didn’t want to give any power to what had happened. But then I came out of the darkness and all my old friends came back into my life. Ultimately, it was a great year.
AE: Back to “Drive.” How has it evolved over the years?
MF: I just had my photo shoot the other day and the makeup artist on the shoot said, “One of my best friends covers your song ‘Drive’ and I had no idea you were the person who wrote it.” It was actually a really nice compliment. The song —
AE: — has a life of its own?
MF: Totally. I wrote it when I was so crazy in love with this woman, Anna. Now, when I play it live, I feel like everybody waits for the funny part. I do this bit like, “the cat’s under the covers and you hafta get the batteries out of your remote control for the vibrator…” It’s kind of strayed from its essence: just an expression of love, a letter to the person you’re with about what you want to do. I’m thinking about how to approach it when I go out on tour next. I find when I play it straight, for lack of a better word, if I don’t let up and I don’t give in and I make people uncomfortable — it’s more powerful. When I joke, I think it lessens the importance of the song. But it’s hard for me to sing the whole song straight and not falter. It’s like, I’m uncomfortable so I’m going to make a joke.
AE: Right it actually is an uncomfortable experience to see you perform it. I think I saw you do it years ago now.
MF: Did I make any jokes when you saw me? How long ago did you see me?
Photo by Shervin Laniez
AE: Maybe in 2000?
MF: So, close to when it came out. That was the other weird thing. It came out in 19 fucking 99. Just in the last couple years people have been saying “Oh my god, you have to play that ‘Drive’ song.” The makeup artist was like, “Oh, if you come over for dinner, will you play ‘Drive?’ And I was like, “Absolutely not. No I won’t.” If I can regroup myself inside before I play it, and go there and revisit that place that I was in with Anna, and remember — because I can easily recapture that image in my head — and if I can stay with it I think it’s almost like theater and it serves the song better. It’s my fault if I break down and I go into the joke thing — “fault” is probably the wrong word. It’s my ship. I’m the captain of my ship at the show, or the universe is. I mean, definitely the universe and then me and then the audience and then back around again, but I have to stay in charge of that room. I can’t let the audience captain the ship. If it shifts and someone else takes over, maybe someone close to the front of the stage who wants to ask you questions — as soon as you answer one question to a particular person who is however many glasses of wine in, it shifts the power. It’s a tricky thing with a live show to stay in charge without making people feel like they’re not included.
AE: You’re a performer who really takes time to talk during a show, whereas others sometimes move from song to song without interacting with the audience. Was that a conscious choice or did that sort of evolve for you?
MF: I don’t like those shows. I remember going to see one of my favorite bands, The Wallflowers, [and] I was so disappointed because here’s this band that has this great writer, great arrangements, great hooks and leads and everything about them I love, and I was so bored. I was like, do something! It’s a live show. If I want to listen to the album I can sit at home in my living room. Getting people out of their houses for 30 bucks a ticket is difficult enough; your live show has to be worth it for those people to feel like, “Yes, I do want to go to that show. Not just because that bar is really cool, the sound system is amazing, my community is going to be there, but it’s got to be, it’s Melissa Ferrick and every time she plays it’s different and there’s going to be a tangible energy in that room that I can’t get in my living room. That’s my responsibility to bring that. At my Chicago show just last week, we were all working on like three hours of sleep and I said out loud in the dressing room, not as a demand, but I just said, “You know the thing I always have to remember is that every person who has bought a ticket for this show has been waiting for it. They didn’t see the show last night. They’re not going to be there tomorrow. They don’t care that I’ve only had three hours of sleep. They want the best show I could ever play tonight.” And I looked at everyone and they were like, “Totally.” And that just set the stage for us to bring it. It’s a huge compliment that these people paid 30 bucks to sit here and listen to my music and I better be happy about it or I should do something else.
AE: Your songs and onstage and interview persona create an intimacy between yourself and your fans. Does that ever land you in uncomfortable situations?
MF: Sure. I definitely have issues with some people. Some security issues. It’s also very hard to get a date —
AE: Why? Because people feel like —
MF: — with someone who hasn’t had sex to my music.
AE: Is that something you’ve had to make peace with? Not the getting a date part.
MF: [Laughs] The security breaches? It’s not fun to come home from a tour and have your neighbor tell you they had to call the cops because someone was climbing over your fence and taking pictures. It’s unnerving and I’m a nervous enough person as it is — although much better these days. As intimate as this conversation that we’re having is, there are things about my life that I am much more private about than I used to be. Even at the shows I don’t go on and on about someone I’m seeing. I don’t like to talk about my family. There are ways that I just have to draw a line now.
AE: My own experiences with that have been comparatively minor but —
MF: Whether you’re Kate Moenning or me or you, or Ani for that matter — it doesn’t matter. It’s like comparing pain: pain is pain. Whatever level of discomfort you’ve experienced, that’s valid.
AE: Obviously, lesbian audiences are incredibly loyal, but do you ever wonder whether having such an ardent queer following gets you pigeonholed in a way that stops you from attracting a wider audience?
MF: I can’t imagine how [a queer fan base] couldn’t affect the number of straight people who may have heard I was great live but think it’s a gay thing. There are times that I wonder if I would have gotten opportunities to open for people like Dave Matthews or Ben Harper. I wonder about the guys that are out there making music that I love. The opportunities I’ve had to work with men have really opened up an audience that may have heard of me but never seen me play. I just did some shows in New York with Mike Doughty from Soul Coughing and that’s an audience—five hundred people in that room, 35 of which have seen me play and the other 465 are like “Holy shit, we can’t believe we’ve never seen you!” [But] I don’t feel pigeonholed because it’s who I am. I’m gay so I have a predominantly queer audience. Thank god I have the fan base I have because I literally would not be sitting in the house I’m sitting in. I make the music and I work really hard, but I’m very clear about the fact that my living is made by my community.