AND FEELING HAPPY
by Julia R. DeStefano
“Songs are snapshots of what you’re going through, and mine involve questioning, searching for completion, joy, and truth, and desperation for relief. I’m satisfied with my progress as a writer and a human being, and I know I’m going to get better at both. There will be times when I’ll feel like I’m not improving, and I’ll get through that.” ~Melissa Ferrick
Melissa Ferrick is a woman of many facets; an individual who has shared the stage with Bob Dylan, Paul Westerberg, Weezer, Ani DiFranco, and Morrissey, and who plays over 150 shows a year. A six-time Boston Music Award winner and Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards (GLAMA) winner, Ferrick is renowned for her accessibility and touching honesty, refreshing qualities that put her in the league of alternative rock compatriots Liz Phair, Paula Cole, and even Carina Round. Over the course of a career spanning twenty years, Ferrick has released an impressive discography and, among other things, penned some of the most “guaranteed-to-make-you-blush” songs in our recent music history, and we continually love her for being that open book—for being unafraid to speak of the things that we cannot quite muster up the courage to say but wish to. She is, in fact, so approachable that she is undoubtedly the non-judgmental friend you’d love to divulge your innermost thoughts to over a glass of fine wine.
Widely hailed as a “bold new direction,” Ferrick’s highly anticipated upcoming record, The Truth Is, is a testament to her continual evolution as both a human being and an artist. Although rooted in the enormous amount of pain one experiences after a horrific breakup and the subsequent effort one must make to carry on, its overarching message of hope is powerful and comforting. The album itself is chronological, was recorded with a live band, and is presented in a cinematic, legato manner. To quote Ferrick: “That is what the songs wanted from a production standpoint.”
It would be fitting to classify the zealous Ferrick’s lust for life as infectious. She wears her creative passion unabashedly on her sleeve, a refreshing character attribute that becomes apparent as she fervently speaks of her childhood and adolescent years—essentially, a time when she became aware of her musical prowess through a remarkable catalyst: “I was really young when I first started to talk about music, like four. Though I don’t remember doing this, I’ve been told by my parents that I went to them and spoke of wanting to play the violin since before I was born. My dad was a schoolteacher and my mom was working at the mall, so they don’t come from a lot. There’s not a lot of money; there’s a lot of love. They found a way to get me a violin for Christmas of 1975 and lessons, and that was the beginning of it. I did 12 years of classical violin training before moving onto trumpet. At this time, I also began playing bass guitar and taking lessons at Berklee with Rich Appleman, who recently retired as the chair of the department. I became involved with jazz and studied classical trumpet in the Conservatory for two years as a member of their extension division.”
It is with a sense of nostalgia that Ferrick begins to chronologically discuss her high school years and her vast body of influences: “The songwriting part of it didn’t start to come until I was 16, when I began writing on a guitar that my aunt gave me. At the time, there was a record that came out by Edie Brickell calledShooting Rubber Bands at the Stars. It was her first album and, up until that point, I hadn’t ever heard a woman singing about how she felt—a woman making music in my generation, as I was a teenager and she was probably in her twenties. The Eurythmics was also incredibly famous, so I had Annie Lennox and before her, Grace Slick, and the Jefferson Airplane revival. There was Patti Smith, and though I wasn’t into punk yet, I knew she was powerful. But it was Edie Brickell who rocked my world because I felt like “Little Miss S” in a mini dress. That’s who I was, and that was the song that really struck me. The next year brought Suzanne Vega’s record with “Small Blue Thing” and “Marlene on the Wall.” Tracy Chapman followed with “Fast Car,” as did Shawn Colvin. Every year, a new female singer-songwriter emerged, making me believe that there was a space for this and it helped me realize how music, at least I hoped, would finally express itself in a way that felt like it completed me. I later fell back on what my parents had been playing me all along, which was Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell, and Rickie Lee Jones, but since that had been their music, I couldn’t attach myself to it. Finally, I was like: ‘Man, that’s a good album!’ and Zeppelin, realizing that 80 percent of the instruments were acoustic: ‘What a concept! There’s a freakin’ mandolin on that record!”
Once something is made the main focus, it then has the chance to blossom in a way that it couldn’t fully before. “You can be good at a lot of things or be great at one,” an invaluable piece of advice that Ferrick was fortunate to receive from Appleman. For her, it is purely talent, a word that she considers interesting. “If you’re born with this vessel, how many things do you want to try to carry in it?” a rhetorical question that ends in heartwarming laughter and only serves to make Ferrick more endearing.
For a woman who has been shaped by her vast experiences and profoundly impacted by her influences, one would be correct in imagining that Ferrick’s songwriting process is equally as significant and that it involves an immense amount of diary writing. “The best songs come really quickly and all at once, and they’re complete gifts. I am a firm believer that I am the vessel, as it comes out of nowhere, and that it is my job to make it as good as I can make it. That’s where the work comes in, and being able to be enough outside of myself to know when I’m giving up on a line, not willing to do the work on a bridge, or not paying attention to whether or not my melody is strong enough, and being willing to change it. This is something that I just started to get better at on Still Right Here. Up until then, I was a stream-of-conscious writer and would have told you that structure, melody, and rhyme scheme just came naturally. Now I probably work on the songs for at least six months before I feel like they’re good enough to be recorded.”
There is no doubt in Ferrick’s mind that her songwriting has progressed, stylistically and lyrically, over the course of her career. Such an evolution is especially evident throughout her upcoming record, The Truth Is, mixed by Grammy Award-winning Trina Shoemaker (Brandi Carlisle, Sheryl Crow) and engineered by Rafi Sofer (James Taylor, Juliana Hatfield). “I didn’t write from a place of anger, which was really huge for me. Actually, I didn’t write anything for five months, and I took seven months before coming out of a cocoon of self-care. The record opens with ‘Wreck Me,’ which is about an affair that I had before this whole thing blew up. What follows is ‘Everything You Were,’ which is the first song I wrote from this experience and one that is about sadness and letting go. There is a line in it: ‘I can give you to God, but I’m going to need you to stay out of my way,’ and that is what I was constantly doing for five months. Another line: ‘…out here walking these streets, practicing forgiving you’ is literally what I was doing in that moment. Already, the song means something very different to me. The anger comes in a little bit with ‘Pity Song’ and definitely with ‘Overboard,’ which I wrote third. Then there was this whole new light, a ‘waking up’ in my life where all of my friends, old and new, started pouring in and brought me lots of joy and love, which was exactly what I needed. I wrote the remainder of the record around that, and around them, though I didn’t realize I was in the middle of writing an album. The title track, ‘The Truth Is,’ is about having a particular person, someone who was in my life for years and years, who I was madly in love with but didn’t speak to for three years, come back into my life. That is unbelievable and such a huge gift. At the time, it was like: ‘Are you kidding me? I’m going to get you back? Get out of here! There’s no way. I never thought you’d ever talk to me again.’ Getting a friendship back like that is something that you want to be really careful with because you get the opportunity to do it again, and you have to show up as a person who has learned and not just making the same mistakes over and over. There has to be forward motion.”
“Even though The Truth Is isn’t even out yet, there are already things that I would change, but I thank God for that because it means I’ll make another record. I can’t negate the fact that analyzing my own work started when I began teaching and saw how hard my artists work at their craft, and in the curriculum that’s set in place around concepts of songs, songwriting, lyric structure, and rhyme scheme. When I’m done thinking I can get better, I’m screwed! Even so, I live a life of believing that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’m satisfied with my progress as a writer and a human being, and I know I’m going to get better at both. There will be times when I’ll feel like I’m not improving, and I’ll get through that. It’s about the process.”
Ferrick’s record release party for The Truth Is will be held on May 15th at the Sinclair in Cambridge, MA.