Keeping Up With Melissa Ferrick


Melissa FerrickMelissa Ferrick's new documentary, Decade

Melissa Ferrick’s 12th album is titled Never Give Up but she may as well have named it Never Let Up. The woman must be equipped with a bonus battery pack, relentlessly touring and making the festival rounds, and releasing a new album almost every year from 1993 to 2004.

Ferrick spent the better part of the past year producing Decade, a documentary on the first ten years of her storied career. She put it together from her ragtag collection of concert and backstage footage.

“I really just needed to get rid of all those Hi8 tapes,” she says.

The 35-year-old singer/songwriter is always pushing herself, and her boundless energy is never more evident than when she takes to the stage — something she does with great frequency. She’s a fervent vocalist and bad-ass guitarist whose live performances aren’t complete without at least one broken string.

She began playing violin at age 5 and is also a longtime bassist. She picked up the trumpet in elementary school and her proficiency with that instrument later secured her a scholarship to Berklee College of Music, alma mater of Patty Larkin, Paula Cole, Branford Marsalis, and that other Melissa.

Ferrick works hard to cultivate a relationship of mutual devotion with her fans, the most loyal of them calling themselves “Ferrick heads.” She is also adamant that everyone feel comfortable and welcome at her shows, whether it’s “the straight couple in my crowd that wants to grind and drive like the dykes in the front row” or the women getting amorous with each other: “You gotta be able to make out with your girlfriend in the crowd and not get slapped in the back of the head,” she points out, adding that “really it’s about inclusion.”

She has a tattoo that reads “acceptance is the answer.”

This past summer Ferrick was invited to perform with the band Moe. — something she found especially rewarding given the new audience it brought her. She is accustomed to playing before a relatively small, mostly queer, predominantly female audience, although her shows are increasingly packed with larger numbers of people from all walks of life.

But Moe. put her in front of a crowd of 6500, most of them young straight guys. “Moe. loves it because they get to put what to them is a very strong, independent woman on stage,” she says. “It’s important to them to support a queer artist and important for their crowd to see.”

It’s also important to Ferrick, “because when those guys have never seen me before and they freak out after I play a song, and they start clapping and hooting and hollering, it just makes me feel like I’m still winning fans over.”

Melissa FerrickShe’s grateful for the new fans she gains when she headlines, but she’s especially inspired when she commands the esteem of audience members who have only stumbled upon her as an opening act, as happened when she was the last-minute opener for Morrissey in 1991 and was promptly invited to join his tour.

It’s been a long road since Ferrick generated that initial buzz.

“When I made my first record, people were saying to me: you’re going to have wheelbarrows full of money, you’re going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone,” she recalls.

But the scene changed overnight, and her place in it was unclear: “Liz Phair made that brilliant album Exile in Guyville and it was over.” She describes Phair’s 1993 album as one of her top ten records of all time, and refers to her own concurrent release as “the wrong record at the wrong time.” She chalks that up to having a Toad the Wet Sprocket/Toni Childs sound in a Liz Phair/Nirvana time.

Ferrick later found herself living in LA, working a full-time job during her first year of sobriety, trying to make Everything I Need (1998) on a $7,000 budget. She describes that as the hardest year of her career. To boot, she “had to wear a dress, nylons and makeup to work every day” at her job answering phones at a spa.

Eventually the Ipswich native returned to her home state, where she now lives north of Boston in Newburyport.

In 2000 she decided it was time to branch out on her own. “I had been on a major and then I was on an indie and it wasn’t really working,” she recalls. “I was still living at my parents’ house, not paying rent, just really on a tour-by-tour basis.” So she started her own label, Right on Records, “really as a means to an end.”

She’s proud to have come so far, “to be able to make a living as an artist without having to pour coffee three times a week” as she once did. “I’ve been successful at doing that since 1997, and I’ve continued to be an artist and somehow retain some integrity and pay my bills every month.”

She credits her fans with keeping her afloat: “It’s literally one ticket at a time. The people who come to see me are the people that enable me to pay my mortgage and put the gas in my truck. It’s that simple.”

People have been coming to see her all year, as she wends her way across the U.S., occasionally wandering into Canada. She rarely finds herself in one city for more than five days, but manages to write new songs while on the road. She wrote a song called “Inside” while on the road and played it for the first time in Iowa City earlier this year. “There will be other new songs as I get to Seattle,” she promises.

With her new record she plans to step back from the do-everything approach she took with her last one, 2004’s The Other Side. “I don’t want to engineer it, run around, set the microphones, get behind the thing, press record and say ‘go,’” she explains.

This time around she’s going with a band, an engineer and producer, and a professional studio rather than the one located on the third floor of her house.

Her band, which she is currently touring with, includes Julie Wolf — a solo artist who has also spent many years backing a number of other artists, namely Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls and Dar Williams — on keyboards. And on drums she has Allison Miller, who has played with Natalie Merchant and, more recently, Erin McKeown. McKeown recently joined Ferrick’s tour for several East Coast dates. She will lend some vocals to Ferrick’s new record, as will Tegan Quinn of Tegan & Sara.

Never Give Up is still in progress, but Ferrick is already dreaming of her next venture: “I would love to do a side project, these cool projects that people are coming out with now, when they put things out under different names, like My Morning Jacket and The Postal Service.”

Yes, this rocker/folkie wants to dabble in electronica. Taking inspiration from the first Throwing Muses record, Alison Moyet, ”everything [British label] 4AD put out,” and especially the Cocteau Twins, she says she’d love to make a record with wordless, atmospheric vocals. “My music is so based lyrically,” she explains. “I would love to convey emotion musically without words.”

Words or no words, Ferrick can certainly be counted on to keep conveying her emotions and high energy through her music.

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