Melissa Ferrick loves Chicago. Each time I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing the prolific singer/songwriter, she’s made a point of telling me. “I love the art, I love the architecture, I love the hotels, I love the shopping,” Ferrick says. And Chicago loves her right back. On the heels of her new album The Truth Is, Ferrick will hit the Windy City just in time for Chicago Pride. Meanwhile, she took time from her intense touring schedule to discuss social media, the pros and cons of being an independent artist and of course Chicago.
Our Town You have a great new video for "Home." Can you share any behind the scenes gossip?
Melissa Ferrick Well, the actress who played my girlfriend is really pretty and she made me really nervous. And her boyfriend was the director of photography and then right before we started shooting on the couch where I’m like, flirting with her she was like, “Just so you know, I haven’t only slept with men,” and I was like, “Oh my God.” And the woman I’m with was at the shoot so she was watching this go down. But the video is really cool. And the fans have really enjoyed the east coast shows I’ve done so far. The band is sounding really good and people are buying the record. It’s nice when you know your fans like it. That’s always the most nerve-wracking thing. You try to not think about it but it’s a long six months to wait. I finished the record in December so I’ve been sitting on it for a while.
OT When you’re writing, do you think about how fans will respond?
MF Not when I’m writing. Unless it’s a song that feels poppy like “Go Easy On Me” or “Closer” or "Never Give Up"--songs like that, as soon as I start writing them I think, well, maybe this could get radio play, so that can creep into your head. But I don’t think about it when I’m recording. I focus on what makes the song work best and what kind of groove I want under it. And whether the reciprocity is working, like, does the music relate to the lyrics, or should I make it the opposite, not have the lyrics and music reflect each other?
OT What’s your favorite song off the new album?
MF “Take In All The Plants.” I feel really proud of the whole arrangement. I actually dreamed the drum part. It’s the first time I’ve ever written something that outside the box, that metaphorical. I worked a really long time on the lyrics. I wrote the whole thing in first person and then switched it to second person. I also took the word ‘and’ out of the whole lyric except for before the word ‘pray.’ That was hard to phrase. And I worked really hard on the last verse which switches to first person. I’d been saying “I am, I am I am,” but I realized what I really wanted to say is ‘I think therefore I am,’ meaning I am alive. I’d worried it would be too pretentious. Second person can be a pretentious place to sing from anyway. You gotta be really good to get away with it. It’s gotta be a social change song or really coming from a place of inclusion. But when I looked up the quote I realized there was a line before it-“I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.” I thought if I could sing the whole original quote that would take it out of pretension-land.
OT I’m interested in what you’re saying about point of view shifts. How does point of view impact a song?
MF I’d always written in first person but that can get really boring and limit me as a writer. As soon as you take it out of first person, it opens you up to fantasy and change. When I write in first person I feel more obligated to my own person truth. I’m not as good at getting creative in first person.
OT You mentioned a drum part coming to you in a dream. Is that normal for you?
MF Music, not lyrics usually. I’ve started doing some dream journaling. The alarm will go off on my iPhone and I’ll open the memo and just say into it what I remember--that’s some 21st century dream journaling, you know? I do dream in sounds a lot. So the slow drum sound in “Take In All The Plants” I dreamed. I wanted a New Orleans sounding snare part, like a death march in the distance. The dream was very cinematic. I saw the end of the storm as a person surviving and everything around them being destroyed.
OT Even in this age of social media, you seem unusually engaged with your fans via Facebook
MF Thank you for noticing. I’ve hired this incredible company called Tool Shed. They do social media marketing. I had all sorts of ideas but I wasn’t sure how to put them into action. I am obsessed with staying on the cutting edge. And my students keep me hip to new trends. I also have a blog, ‘Life is a Remix,’ and I’m going to start reviewing albums. I’ve always reviewed albums in my head. I’m going to review the Natalie Maines record. I got so excited when I saw she had a solo album. I’m a huge fan of her but the record is horrible. I’m so mad at her. And Peter [Zimmerman of Tool Shed] was saying to me that he thinks a lot of the time artists don’t have the backbone to really say what they feel on social media because they’re too afraid of backlash. He thinks it would be great if I was willing to really say what I didn’t like about it.
OT Obviously reviewing is an honorable profession, but do you worry at all about the person whose music you’re critiquing?
MF I definitely care but I’m not worried. First of all, it’s not like I’m ever going to be friends with Natalie Maines and Ben Harper. And Peter said, “plus they’d probably respect you for what you’re going to say.” Again, I love her, but what were they thinking? Were they sleeping together? What was going on? Natalie sings her face off but you can’t hear the band. But I think there’s a way to critique that is educated and cutting and kind.
OT You’ve been vocal about dealing with anxiety, specifically flying-related anxiety. Recently you had to get off a plane. can you talk about that?
MF This hadn’t happened in a while. I had to get off the plane that was going to New York and then to Punta Cana for Olivia, which sucks because this has happened with Olivia like three times. I think it’s a combination of flying and flying to a place where there are going to be five thousand lesbians who want to hear me play “Drive.” Plus I was alone. I flew from Boston to New York and had no trouble but when I got on the plane in New York I was just overwhelmed with fear. I started crying and I had to walk off the plane. And the medic comes over and they won’t let me get on the plane. I wasn’t screaming or anything, I just couldn’t stop crying. I was supposed to play that night so there was no rebooking. It’s a real shame.
OT I was impressed by how straightforward you were.
MF There are some people who are still upset about it. I understand. People spent money and were disappointed and there are gonna be some people who aren’t going to forgive me for that. But I can’t hang myself on the cross. Flying, I can’t take medications to knock me out because I’m sober. That will lead me to a drink and then I’m no good for anybody. There are things I can be aware of though that set me up for anxiety. You know, hungry, angry, lonely, tired. I’d had some personal issues with girls, I was lonely and I was exhausted. So I was three out of four. I should have been more careful. But I’m not perfect.
OT There was a whole fan backlash against Pink recently when she canceled a tour date because of the flu. It’s odd to me that fans would get angry about something like that. Do they not realize performers are people?
MF Right. And some people don’t realize independent musicians don’t get paid vacations or sick days. We play on Thanksgiving. We don’t have retirement accounts. If I break an arm I don’t get paid disability. If I lose my voice and have to cancel a show, I lose money. But people don’t think about things like that. Like, my friends will ask me to go skiing with them and it’s like, if I sprain my wrist I can’t work! Or, for me, talking to fans after shows can push me over the edge to lose my voice. That happened this tour. I literally could not talk and this fan kept asking me questions and getting madder and madder. And I was like, I don’t know how else to communicate to you that I literally can’t talk.
OT Recently the ongoing controversy surrounding the Michigan Women’s Festival’s trans exclusion policy has come to a boiling point. You’re performing this year, but artists like The Indigo Girls have said it’ll be their last. What are your plans going forward?
MF I reached out to Amy [Ray]. They got back to me right away and discussed their stance. I also talked to trans friends at length to make sure I was informed about trans issues. Ultimately, I just sat with myself about it. My position is that I refuse to boycott a women’s festival. I think boycotting is something that we as activists should use last. The last tool in the toolbox. I think all of the anger should be worked out through communication. I understand this has been an issue for a while but I believe that the festival meets the needs of a lot of women. I am happy to be a part of conversation about change and I do think Michigan’s policy needs to change but I think it’s inappropriate and unjustified to boycott artists independent female artists which is what you’re actually boycotting when you boycott the fest.
OT You’ll be playing Backlot Bash for Chicago Pride.
MF I played it once before. It was a blast. I’m bringing the entire band. At first the woman who booked it was like, “I don’t see this as a rock thing, I see it as a sunset thing,” but I was like, “yeah, well, I’m playing with a band right now, so I’m bringing drums.” They’ll be a few rockier songs but it’s alt-country, Americana goes wild. it’s acoustic-based.
OT What are you looking forward to doing in Chicago?
MF Chicago is like my favorite city. I’d be living there if my sister didn’t live here [in Boston] with her three kids. Two of my best friends live there. And the city? Evanston is awesome. I’ll be playing Space in September. Downtown feels really good. I love the art, I love the architecture, I love the hotels, I love the shopping. I always go shopping on Michigan avenue. I basically go to Chicago and spend the money I make. I’m a sucker for Chicago.
Melissa Ferrick plays The Backlot Bash Friday, June 28th.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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