Melissa Ferrick: 20 years, 16 albums, no regrets

An interview with Melissa FerrickBY CANDY PARKER

After two decades in the music industry, Melissa Ferrick is very much “Still Right Here” as her most recent album defiantly declares. The Boston-based singer/songwriter has spawned 16 albums, accumulated a legion of devoted fans and, as she approaches her 42nd birthday later this summer, seems very much at peace with the breakdowns and breakthroughs that have shaped her music and career over the years.

Ferrick first gained notoriety in 1991 when she was named a last minute replacement opening act on Morrissey’s tour. She went on to sign with Atlantic Records, a union that produced her first two albums “Massive Blur” and “Willing to Wait,” but, despite Ferrick’s affecting vocals and insistent instrumentation, not the commercial success for which the label was hoping.

Ferrick’s next few works were released on the What Are Records? label and, finally, in 2000 the singer launched her own label, Right On Records, under which she produced all but her most recent release.

Ferrick’s favor with her fans is due in no small part to the raw honesty portrayed in her lyrics and her extraordinary talent as a musician. To see her play live is to witness a musical catharsis—just be prepared to sit through at least one break as she restrings her guitar, an entertaining event in and of itself as she fills the performance void with humorous anecdotes and self-deprecating banter.

The hardworking Ferrick performs live an average of 150 times per year at small- to medium-sized venues and numerous festivals across the country. She recently picked up the Songwriters’ Award at the Roots on the River Festival in Vermont and just finished a stint where she opened several shows for Ani DiFranco. It was on the heels of that run that we were able to catch up with her.

Tell us what you have in the works for the summer of 2012. It looks like you’re planning on sticking pretty close to home with a lot of shows scheduled for the New England area through September.

Yes, I am teaching most of the summer at the Berklee College of Music as a visiting professor. I teach the vocal summit program, the five-week performer songwriter program, and the four-day songwriter seminar. On top of the teaching I will be playing shows on weekends, so the summers are actually becoming busier for me than it may appear on my online schedule. I love, love, love teaching so much and every summer these students pull new songs out of me; I am rejuvenated and full of hope so I always look forward to this time of year.

Is it true that you dropped out of the Berklee College of Music? If so, any regrets about having done so?

Good question. The only obstacle in not having my bachelor’s degree seems to be that it would make it a bit more difficult to get my master’s and or law degree, which I am interested in doing. I don’t like regretting anything, really, so I would have to say honestly that, no, I don’t regret it. Maybe I’ll have to work harder now instead of back then, but I wasn’t paying attention in class anyway.

You recently Tweeted, “Rain rain rain…write write write.” Which would you say influences your creative process more—the weather or your relationship status?

Ha-ha. Hysterical. The question may be, “Which comes first?” I am definitely affected by the weather. I can feel barometric changes in my body. And, as far as relationship status, most of my songs come from places of personal growth, which are masked as pain, challenge, fear, loss, heartbreak and confusion. All of those words could be attached to the weather, too, so I guess there is a connection. Women are as unpredictable as the weather and so am I.

In your youth you learned to play a variety of instruments including the violin, piano, trumpet, bass and, of course, guitar. Did you have other interests as a child (sports, hobbies, etc.) or was your life fairly music-centric from the start?

As a kid I was really into sports, too. I was quite the golfer (and am still pretty okay at it). And up through my sophomore year in high school, I participated in field hockey, basketball and softball. My sophomore year, I was pitching batting practice on the varsity team and a line drive hit me square on my left ear. It broke my eardrum and caused me to develop a fear of the ball. That moment pretty much ended my high school athletic career and resulted in me starting to concentrate on music 100 percent.

You’re self-taught on the guitar and have a very recognizable, aggressive style when playing live. Who were your greatest influences in this regard?

Any performer who I see who loses their ego is inspiring to me. I can think of a few right off the top of my head, like Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Amy Ray, Chris Whitley, Kurt Cobain, Patty Griffin, Thom York, Stevie Wonder and k.d. lang. To me, it seems these performers allow a spirit to take over and run the show, rather than their trying to control it. I personally prefer selfless singers/musicians on stage. Some people really like a showman/woman, but that’s just not my taste.

As a Boston native, you grew up in Red Sox Nation. Who would you name as your all-time favorite player?

Wow! When I was a kid it was definitely Carl Yastrzemski. Now, I think it would have to be Dustin Pedroia.

“Drive” has been somewhat of a mixed blessing for you—the tune brought you heightened popularity among apparently sex-starved lesbians, but we’ve heard it’s one of your least favorite songs to perform live. Do you think the tune will be forever cast in stone on your concert set list?

Yes, sure, it will. You know that saying, “Be careful what you wish for, for you might get it?” Yeah, that’s my battle with this song.

It’s hard because I have written and worked on so many songs that I am proud of lyrically and melodically, but “Drive” is a three-chord groove with a decent melody in the chorus. Lyrically, I can’t completely dismiss it because there are a few good lines in there, specifically, “Your heart is heavy and red.” I like that. And I like the last verse, “This is it, this is where I want to live, right here between your hips, is where all the love you hold and hide for me exists, this is where I want to live.”

So I play it at every show, unless there are kids with paint on their faces or a theater show where it just doesn’t feel necessary to play.

Listen, this song means a lot to a lot of people. They drive long distances, get a babysitter, take time off work and want to hear that song. So I feel it’s really my duty as a performer to play it.

On the other end of the spectrum, which song is your favorite to play live? Why?

I love to play whatever is brand new. If I could just play brand new songs at every show, that would make me happy. I think it’s because I am still negotiating them and the audience reaction to new material is really the best way to know what parts are working and what parts need help.

Your video for “Still Right Here,” directed by Stephanie Stender, garnered two awards from RightOutTV at their 2011 Video Music Awards. Are there plans in the works for another video or any other collaborative efforts with Stephanie who you thanked profusely in your video acceptance speech?

There are no plans now to make another video, at least, not until my next album release. I just love Stephanie and her goofy, amazing personality. She really came though on this project. She listened to me about the fan footage and made it happen. We all smiled the whole time we worked, which is really a great way to get a creative project done.

After years of distributing your music via your own label, Right On Records, you made the decision to sign with MPress. Talk to us about making that decision and the impact it’s had for you since.

Making a record with MPress took the pressure off me in so many ways. The organization, promotion, radio and having a staff that goes into an office every day—all of the things I didn’t have on my own. They gave my record a push I couldn’t have and for that I am forever grateful. I have a great relationship with them and feel at peace with the decision. I think releasing “Still Right Here” on Mpress increased my visibility—especially in the press—and it certainly put my records in more stores and, ultimately, in the ears of listeners I wasn’t reaching before.

Are you the type to get out and explore the towns and cities you visit while on tour? What’s been your best tour-related tourist experience?

I spent years never leaving the hotel or venue or my truck/van/car and that really set in motion the development of an unhealthy “bubble” that kind of exploded in 2007. So now, yes, I try very hard to go out and see the cities I am in. I like to head out to see shows by up-and-coming artists, go to the best kept secret coffee shops etc. This way of traveling has really invigorated my heart and spirit and certainly helped break the “bubble” syndrome.

So what’s in the works for you in regard to a new CD? What mood or tone can your fans expect with your next release?

Mood? Well, definitely some old-school frustration/anger and some new-found very soft heart parts that I never thought were there. I am writing a lot right now. I am five songs in and I’d like to have 15-18 going into the studio. I am hoping to work with a producer “of note,” but we will see how it all pans out.

Which songs or artists are in heavy rotation on your iPod these days?

The new Cat Power single “Ruin” and the entire new Fiona Apple record. I love it! And for the last month, “I Didn’t” off Amy Ray’s most recent release.

We saved the tough question for last—what’s your favorite iPhone app?

Ha-ha. Well, “Words With Friends” is a must. And I just got an app that tells me the moon’s calendar, which I love. My nine-year-old niece recently put a game on my phone called “Fair Food Maker,” which is hysterical. And I really couldn’t do without my guitar tuner app and metronome.

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