Melissa Ferrick Interview

6/19/07

Melissa Ferrick InterviewUnedited TranscriptFrom Boston to The Desk 6/19/07

Melissa FerrickJames Campion: I usually start a songwriter interview with this one: Where are you at now? A good place, still? The reason I ask is the last record; “In The Eyes of Strangers”” reflects that you are or you were in a good place.

Melissa Ferrick: I’m not in the place the record reflects now, mainly because it came out in November and I wrote most of those songs, I guess, over maybe an eight month period before the record came out, but I would say I’m in a new place. It’s a great place, though. I’m having a great summer. The weather’s been good.

The reason I bring it up to begin is the record really does reflect a sort of “turned the corner” thing, whether its love or other personal relationships and an honest confrontation with inner turmoil, politics or social issues – all good song themes, by the way.

Yeah, I hope so. That sounds good (laughs). Certainly any time you turn a corner there’s other corners. It’s sort of how life goes. Once you clear an obstacle you get breathing room for a while and then there’s another one. But that’s what keeps it interesting.

I’m kind of at a crossroads of adulthood now. I turned 36 years-old and I’m saying good-bye to a lot of youthful things I held onto through the beginning of my thirties; that whole idea of new love, falling in love, going from one relationship to another over and over and over again has gotten boring to me now. That high doesn’t really interest me anymore. (laughs) So that’s kind of cool. And also sad at the same time. There’s a certain amount of sadness that goes along with realizing that you don’t get the same kind of jolt out of that behavior anymore. It’s like saying good-bye to an old friend.

That’s what I get out of the first song on the record, “Never Give up”, this idea of “settling in”. Some may consider the word, “settling” as a negative, but here it comes out as a positive.

Yeah, you’re absolutely right. That word “settling” can be used in two different ways, implying that you’re settling for less. But it also implies that you’re settling into a comfortable chair, which is how I was using it. Settling your feet into the ground. I play golf, so it’s like the way you settle your feet when you play golf, or you’re up at bat, the way you set into your stance. That’s more a positive than a negative, but you’re still getting your footing; “I want to get myself set into this, but not quite there yet.”

Right, if I can continue the sports analogy, it’s as if you’re settling into a sprinter’s stance, and in a sense starting to run into a new time in your life.

Yeah, definitely, but it takes a while to understand what you’re doing consciously. When I wrote “Never Give Up”, it was the summer of last year and I was at my sister’s house with the kids, my sister’s got three kids, and the older one was egging the younger five-year-old boy to dive into the deep end, and I was realizing how scary it can be when you first venture into the deep end of the pool and you want everyone to watch you. So you just give up and jump. You just have to jump in at some point. So, yeah, I was a lot better at taking those kinds of risks and doing those things when I was little. It’s just a matter of trying to regain that youthful fearlessness.

I was just writing an essay about that last month; the envy I have for the fearless nature of youth, and like you say, the very early stages of our development, unencumbered by the fear of experience. Experience is the death of fearlessness.

Right, exactly, yeah.

Would you say the country/folk style lends itself to this kind of reflective songwriting? Assuming it’s okay to label you country and/or folk.

Sure.

So do you think working in that genre lends itself to the act of being reflective or introspective, more than any other style of musical expression?

Yeah, I think it does. Although I always considered myself more of a rock and roll songwriter in the truest sense of the word, in the vein of…well, I always really loved Springsteen a lot, the early E Street Band stuff. I always considered myself to be that kind of songwriter. I don’t have a band, but I always envision my songs with a rock and roll band behind me; in that introspective “thinking rock and roller” vein, as opposed to the “screaming rock and roller” type; a blue-collar folk musician or songwriter rather than a white collar one. You know what I mean? (laughs)

I’m more apt to write from a place of introspection or reflection on how I’m feeling, or how my direct actions create a reaction.

I’m more apt to write from a place of introspection or reflection on how I’m feeling, or how my direct actions create a reaction. I normally tend to create reactions in my life, do things to create a reaction, whether it’s physical or emotional; talking with people or something in less than a quiet way. I’m not much of a quiet wanderer. (laughs) I like to interact with people and get them to talk, get them to tell me what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling as best they can; but in a way that’s not destructive to either them or me – so as to not drag them through the trenches of my life. (laughs) It’s kind of an interesting crossroad.

Glad you mentioned Springsteen. I recently watched one of the mid-seventies concerts with the E Street Band that’s out now on DVD. I must admit I grew up in Freehold, New Jersey, so I was inundated with the whole Bruce thing to the point where I rejected it. It wasn’t until college or even the last few years that I have come to respect this kind of beat poet thing he had going with the band, this kind of revival thing that people love about him. And I was reminded of it the one time I watched you perform. It’s there, with just you and the acoustic guitar, this revival, gospel sort of presentation.

Well, thanks, that’s really nice.

Certainly.

I just think the whole period of the late eighties, early nineties, when this barrage of “folk” music came out again, it was really a word they attached to female singer/songwriters, because there was such a lack of them happening in the eighties when we were inundated with The Cure, and The Smiths, and Jean Loves Jezebel, and things like that, which I love, I loved that music too, but it was just this era of pop music devoid of women voices. For me, really, that Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians record, “Shooting Rubber Bands At The Stars”, that was really the first experience for me, in my growth, in my high school years of hearing anything that didn’t have a synthesizer on it. And they called it folk because there was an acoustic guitar on the track. And then of course we have Suzanne Vega, and her first album is way more “folk” than the second, “Solitude Standing”. I mean Luka, the only thing folk about that song is there’s an acoustic guitar playing the lead part instead of an electric guitar. I don’t know, when I think of folk music and what it means I think more Alro Guthrie. I don’t even consider Joni Mitchell a folk artist either. Do you?

Not particularly. I always thought of her as more hippy music. (laughs)

Not that it’s a bad word, folk. It’s interesting though that it got transferred from these classic troubadour singer/songwriters, Woody Guthrie and Dylan and all those guys who were traveling around telling stories that they had heard or experienced, the transfer or the telling of stories, really. I don’t even know if rock and roll really exists anymore, and I really don’t understand why they attach the term “folk” to female singer/songwriters and not so much to guys.

I’ve spoken to Ani DiFranco about the same thing, this idea that a woman writer is being aggressive and nasty and attacking, when if it were a man it would be considered brave and edgy and whatever. It’s the same old stuff; proactive males are envied and the same quality in women is to be feared and shunned or mocked as in, “She’s a bitch.”

Right. Right.

It’s interesting you mentioned the term “troubadour”; Dan Bern and I always talk about that, this idea of the traveling poet to a commentator on life as it happens, and “folk” can go into that category as this idea that the songs are coming from the land or of the people. For instance the Irish folk music is so much fun to sing, so rousing, really a group purging, although they deal with grim subjects, they are so much fun to sing.

Yeah, totally. My friend Aram Kellem says they call it a chorus because everybody’s supposed to sing along.

(laughs)

(laughs) And I love that about folk music, that there is a sense of everybody knowing the story, everybody having their own personal attachment or life experience to the story you’re telling, whether it’s about your heartbreak or your breakfast in Demoines.

Mellisa FerrickThat’s what great about being a songwriter, you get to play these songs and have people sing along with them, and they know every word and they go, “I heard that song as I was traveling wherever”, or maybe, “I was going home to bury my dad,” really personal deep shit, or not even deep at all, like “I was riding my bike to the beach and someone’s car was parked there and your song was playing and I asked, ‘Who’s that?’ and the person says, ‘Melissa Ferrick’, and now here we are having a cup of coffee and how weird is that?’ But I tell them, it’s not weird, it’s life. It’s kismet. It’s supposed to happen. And that’s the invisible power of music as a spiritual connector. I truly love that about music.

It’s truly a catharsis.

Yeah, it’s a vehicle to meet people and to have common ground; the ultimate icebreaker.

Speaking of folk and folk singers, can you reveal the subject of “Come On Life”? The folksinger “who is out here stabbing”? I don’t know why but I assume it’s you. By the way, I wrote here in my notes, “It’s the best song written about ‘justified paranoia”. (laughs) So, am I correct in that assessment? And also, is that about someone in particular or is it about you?

That’s a very good question. It’s about both me and an actual thing that happened to me. But after I wrote the song I realized that I had done that to people in my life. So, that’s what I love about that song, that the listener doesn’t know, and therefore as a listener you can be either the one who’s been a backstabber and the one who’s been backstabbed. When I first wrote it and started playing it live I didn’t have the ending part, the last line; “There’s a singer out here and she’s stabbing.” That happened when I was playing it live in some city and I thought, that’s how to turn this around and have the audience think that maybe it’s me I’m singing about.

That’s true art when it’s malleable like that, not set in stone. It’s a wonderful song. Great imagery. You mentioned musical influences; do you have any specific literary ones?

You know, I’ve never been a big reader. Poetry mostly; Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, Burroughs are probably my favorite poets. I used to read a lot of poetry in high school and college and studied a great deal of Jungian stuff in college. I went to Berkley College of Music, but all of my extra-curricular classes that I took were all in poetry and spirituality. So I learned a lot about Jung and the Krishna thing, Judaism and Christianity. I was always, and still am, intrigued by different religions and people who are religious in the truest sense of the word, you know? I think a lot of people consider themselves religious, but to actually have the kind of discipline it takes to practice a religion is intense.

I lived in Los Angeles for seven years above a Persian family who were very religious, by the book, and it was intense. I’d never seen that before. I grew up in a regular run-of-the-mill Catholic family, where you go to church on Sunday and that’s about it. And as I got older I went on the holidays. (laughs) There was no real discipline in my religious upbringing, so when I got to college, that kind of spirituality was something I wanted to study and get interested in, and also the types of people who are as disciplined about their religion as I am about the music, like horses with blinders on – a way of life, of touring and playing music and making records, and just doing this. You can transfer it to anyone who is obsessed with their work or with their way of life.

I’m loathed to promote my work during interviews, but you might dig my third book, Trailing Jesus. I spent a month in Israel and Jerusalem literally trailing the historical Jesus, and there’s a good deal in there about a similar path I was on driven by curiosity and spiritual pursuits beyond my equally pedestrian belief system.

Oh, wow.

Maybe I’ll throw you a copy when I see you.

Oh, yeah, cool, that’d be great. A friend of mine went to Jerusalem. She’s Jewish, her father was born in Israel, and she actually went to there for Chanukah, and she hadn’t been there since she was a kid, but she has family that was born there and live there. It’s so interesting, because she says her father doesn’t claim himself as Jewish, but Israeli.

Where did you grow up?

Ipswich, Massachusetts.

So you’re a New England girl.

Yeah.

Can you talk a little bit about your record company, or your self-producing, independence within the industry now?

Even when I was on a major label – I was on Atlantic for a couple of records – I didn’t have the quintessential classic horrific experience that people automatically assume I would have, and you have to remember this was ’93 to ’95, so it was right when grunge really hit and Liz Phair’s record came out, and to be completely, brutally honest, I made records that weren’t the right sounding records for that time. And that is the reality of being on a large label. It’s a huge business. It’s about making money. It’s not about supporting a growing, young songwriter. At the time, I thought I had found a home at Atlantic. I signed a seven-record deal, I thought I would be around for seven years, but “room to grow” on a label like that didn’t exist anymore. And for me it all started to happen in the nineties, when the music industry became this huge machine of making pop, real pop. After grunge hit, that was the end of record labels putting out songs. Even Liz’s record, which was a brilliant album, the next thing you know, it’s the Spice Girls, and it was over.

I would certainly love to have more of an artist community. It’s one of the things you lack being an independent, it breeds isolation, and that’s one of the problems I’m starting to see in my community. There’s all of these artists putting out records on their own and I can’t find any of them.

I certainly prefer putting a record out on my own label now. It started in 2000, and it’s what I needed to do, because I needed to put a record out and I couldn’t get a deal. I had been on an independent label and I realized that wasn’t making any sense financially, so I was like, “I’m just going to do this myself.”

Obviously, Ani is such a great example of what you can do on your own. She completely blew up and got huge from an independent perspective. And I started see Aimee Mann open up this United Musicians thing she’s got, hooking up with her friends Bob Mould and Michel Penn, and kind of making these little homes for independent artists and helping each other, I thought it was awesome.

Also, I think that the jam bands scene out of all that pop Britney, Back Street Boys and N’Sync insanity – Phish, MOE, and the String Cheese Incident – were putting records out, and getting in tour buses and doing festivals and not paying any attention to corporate music America, so I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve become pretty good friends with the guys in MOE, and I’ve gotten to jam with them a lot. I’ve been given the opportunity this year to play with Ani (DiFranco) a bunch, and that’s awesome, and Dan (Bern). And certainly, Dan has had his bouts with being on labels and whether he should be there, but Messenger Records has proven to be a really good home for him, that guy Brandon (Kessler) is a really good guy, you know?

Yup. He is.

He believes in Dan, and he believes in his talent, and I know Brandon is not just doing it to make money. I think that’s what it really comes down to. I would certainly love to have more of an artist community. It’s one of the things you lack being an independent, it breeds isolation, and that’s one of the problems I’m starting to see in my community. There’s all of these artists putting out records on their own and I can’t find any of them. (laughs) If we were all in the same agency, or if we networked better, and I think that’s something being on a label with other artists, or being at an agency with other artists that you are a fan of, I think that’s one of the things that can help.

I’ve been fortune enough to be with Fleming now for seven years and that’s how I got to play with Dan for the firs time, and that’s how I met Chris Whitley. There’s a number of people, Kelly Joe, Willie Porter, the list goes on and on. People I’ve never heard of – Rachel Davis, who I think is brilliant, Natalia Zuckerman, who is brilliant, there’s a bunch of artists on Fleming who are not as popular as a Kelly Joe Seltzer or Willie Porter or Dan Bern, but are all incredibly talented. So, that’s been a real home and a real community for me. It would be nice to be on a label that had other artists that I dug and I could get them to come hang out and play on my records or whatever.

It just takes a lot of work because you’re traveling and making records an making tee shirts and finding somebody to come travel with you for hardly any money and help you out on the road, and in the meantime you’re supposed to make friends with all the artists you love and admire, so that you guys can tour together and more people will be at your shows. (laughs) It takes time and it takes patience to do it independently. If there is anything that’s lacking in the DIY world it is community. As long as we stay aware of that and are willing to admit that, and as long as we work hard at build a community, even though it’s hard, I think we’ll be all right.

It reminds me of the United Artists concept with film at the beginning of the 20th century, this idea that all the people making the films should work together to create something meaningful, artistically and economically, and feed off each other and promote each other is quite a noble and productive idea. I wish they had that for writers, beyond unions and such, a community made up of artists. I would champion that, for sure. Is that something you have actively pursued recently, or has it just sort of dawned on you after it being there subconsciously?

The only way I’ve figured out how to do it is by sticking around. There’s got to be a way that it doesn’t takes seven years for other artists, because a lot of people wouldn’t give it seven years. They can’t afford it. They can’t live at their parent’s house and get someone to give them a credit card, play five college gigs so they can buy a car. They don’t think in terms of that. There are conferences like the Independent Music Coalition, which are a really great group of people.

I just think there’s more need for…it would be good if there was more than one conference like that. It would also be great if it didn’t cost hundreds of dollars to go to the conference. The people who need the help, once again, are the people who don’t have any money. They don’t have $250 to register. Somebody like me does have the $250, but…(laughs)

It’s this idea I’ve always had with record deals; they’re always backwards. You know, you’re a brand new artist; you don’t sell any records but you’re really fucking talented, then you should be making seventy percent of the record sales. (laughs) And when you’re an artist that moves fifty thousand copies maybe you should make forty percent of record sales. You give back sixty percent to the label or whomever you’re working with so that they can help the artist that doesn’t have any fans. Spend your money there. It’s so backwards. Rich people never pay for dinner and poor people don’t have any food.

I usually try and keep these things to a half hour, but I have two more questions for you.

Okay, yeah, sure.

I’d like to ask you one political question, if I could; and it might be touchy, but I know you have been open about your sexuality, and forthright in covering it in your work, so I wonder if you could comment on the subject of gay marriage, or the civil union issue that is, I believe, sadly misinterpreted and has gone way off the rational rails in this country.

Melissa FerrickSure. I don’t think the subject is touchy at all. I think the fact that people think it touchy is part of the problem. I think people should be allowed to marry whomever they want to marry. I think separation of church and state is at a huge crossroads here. I don’t really see too much separation these days with George Bush in office, and I think it’s really important to remember that the foundation of this country is people escaping a country because they couldn’t practice the religion they wanted to practice, so they said, “Let’s separate government and religion!” Even the abortion issue, at its crux, is an issue of religion and faith, and not whether or not it’s a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body. And I think it’s the same with gay marriage. Mostly it’s the fear of white straight men, who are homophobic. They’re afraid of gay people. It’s fear. All fear based. If people would just live and let live more the whole world would be a better place. And that includes letting the “fear-based straight white guys’ live the way they want to live. I understand that much.

The whole “fear-based”, religious point is well taken, but here’s my point, and I’d like to get your feedback on this. I feel that’s all well and good, you can be afraid of whatever, you can debate it, like with abortion, when does life start or what is murder and what is the role of the state in mandating the personal, emotional, moral, and most importantly, physical actions of a citizen, but gay marriage is not even in that ballpark. It is a civil issue. This, to me, is a basic constitutional, Bill of Rights issue, which I believe would sink in the face of legal investigation and final decision.

This is why the Bush administration was trying to enact a Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage, to usurp the letter of the law and not make it a civil rights issue, to subvert the rational, legal argument by defining it as a union between a man and a woman and deny, amazingly, the rights of adult citizens to gain the advantages of civil unions, and not religious ceremonies, because they know they will lose.

This is the same argument opponents of granting women the right to vote used; “Well if you allow women to vote, they what’s next? Dogs? Lamps? Five-year olds?” Now they just say; “Two men or two women marrying? What’s next? A man marrying a cow? A woman marrying a two-year old?” These are ridiculous assumptions, as were postulated with the civil rights issues of the fifties: “We allow black and white children to sit on a bus together the very puritan fabric of our nation will crumble!” The religious issue, jamming it together with abortion, which is philosophical, eventually and cleverly clouds its true insidiousness: Denying basic freedoms to tax-paying citizens is a civil rights abuse.

What I remember in reading about it is they haven’t amended the constitution in a really long time, and they were actually going to do it to ban gays from marrying. So it’s unbelievable, to me, that everyone can’t see how fucked up that is.

Right. The difficulty in anyone seeing it the way you see it, which I totally agree with, is the fact that it brings up the issue of someone thinking about what it’s like to have a man having sex with another man. (laughs) It’s just that simple. And yeah, you’re right, it’s the same issue as women voting, or black people voting, or interracial marriage, equality.

You’re right, it’s a civil rights issue, and the fact that Bush wants to make it an amendment to the constitution in and of itself is so huge. I don’t remember the last time it was done. What I remember in reading about it is they haven’t amended the constitution in a really long time, and they were actually going to do it to ban gays from marrying. So it’s unbelievable, to me, that everyone can’t see how fucked up that is.

It is the most absurd issue. I hope five years from now, but I fear it will be twenty years from now, maybe thirty or forty, but people are going to laugh at this that way we do now at the way they mistreated women or minorities the way they did, or whomever they were trying to deny, laughably, the basic rights given to the citizenry of this country since its inception. It’s the same shit every friggin’ generation. It’s the same shit.

Yeah, I know. What’s the big deal? It’s such a big problem you’re going to amend the constitution? Is it that dire? I mean, what’s the divorce rate? (laughs)

(laughs) All true. One last one before you go: How do you like to write? Do you do so better at home or on the road, in a coffee house, in buses, in hotels? Do you get your best songs from observation or contemplation? Do you create better in a vacuum or in a swirl of events? Where do you get your material? What is the best way for Melissa Ferrick to practice her craft?

Best way for me is at home, just sitting in the living room with the computer on and the television on. I like to have a lot of stimulation. So, I usually have a TV on mute and a guitar lying around on the couch and I start. Certainly all the best songs come from absolutely nowhere, out of the blue, and you just write them. But I do notice that I usually right before I have a spurt, because I tend to write a lot and then I won’t write, I’m a little agitated or annoyed with something, something’s bothering me but I don’t know what it is, you know?

Sure.

And then usually a week or so after that I’ll write a bunch of songs and I’ll go; “Oh, that’s what it was! I guess I just needed to get words out of my head or emotions down on paper.” Whether or not they make any sense or even have anything to do with what was going on then, it’s just a release. I’m not really good at writing on the road. I have a hard time with that. I’ve never been very successful doing that, but I’m sure that I utilize all my life experience, or I hope I do, in the art that I make.

I think it all ends up out there. Sometimes more hidden than others, and most of the time it’s a good song if I don’t even realize what its really about. I like the songs that other people help me understand what they’re about, and then I’m like; “You know what? You’re right.” That’s kind of the experience I had with “Come On Life”, like after I sang that part and somebody asked if the song was about me because of the last line. And I said; “Oh, really?” Then I thought, it could be, and now that’s what I like about that song. So those are the ones I like the most, the ones I learn from.

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