A GoPride Interview

Melissa Ferrick

The “Truth” will set you free: an interview with Melissa Ferrick

Fri. June 28, 2013  by Gregg Shapiro

This record reflects freedom to me. There's so much happiness on this record it can't be denied.
Melissa Ferrick
Melissa Ferrick, once known as the other Melissa (arriving as she did just a few years after Melissa Etheridge), wasted no time in establishing her musical identity. Publicly out from the beginning (unlike Etheridge), Ferrick made a name for herself as a riveting live performer, renowned for busting guitar strings as she worked over her guitar. Initially a major-label artist in the early to mid-1990s when the record execs thought it was profitable to have female singer/songwriters on their rosters, Ferrick later did time on an indie, as well as her own label. Now comfortably at MPress (run by fellow queer singer/songwriter Rachael Sage), the prolific Ferrick returns with The Truth Is on which she explores her torch and twang side. Not an easy listen – no one does heartbreak like Ferrick – she hasn't lost her knack for making the personal universal and framing it in memorable musical arrangements. I spoke with Melissa about the new record in June 2013. (Melissa Ferrick performs at the Backlot Bash on Fri., June 28 at 9 p.m.)

GS: (Gregg Shapiro) Your new disc The Truth Is opens with the Nashville twang of "Wreck Me," a sound that resurfaces on the title track. How did Nashville find its way to Massachusetts?

MF: (Melissa Ferrick) I think what first sparked it, the pedal steel specifically, was touring with (Americana act) Field Report. I did a tour with them as I was beginning to write this record. There is a pedal steel player in that band and I would watch them play (while we were on tour). By maybe the third show of a solo tour I was doing after that I asked them to sit in with me, particularly on a song called "I Don't Want You To Change." It certainly wasn't the first time I thought about pedal steel. I'm a huge Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams fan; the kinds of Americana rock and roll players that incorporate some what I guess you would call "Nashville" in their sound. Not using any electric guitars on this album was also conscious decision. I wanted to make a wider, more Americana record, that's for sure.

GS: There's also a touch of bluegrass on "Home." Did you ever think you'd write a song that would be played on a mandocello?

MF: I always heard that song "Home" as a minor blues. Forrest O'Connor, who plays mandocello (on that song), owns a company called Concert Windows which does a lot of live streaming of shows -- that's how I met him. His father is actually a professor at Berklee (College of Music in Boston), Mark O'Connor, the famous fiddle player. It was a weird coincidence. I went to pick up a guitar of mine that was being repaired. Via a Kickstarter (fundraising) for a previous album, I was able to have a lot of my guitars worked on, because my fans helped fund that. I was picking up the first guitar I ever bought, my old Takamine at a place on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge and Forrest walked in. I only knew him as the Concert Windows guy, a tech geeky guy. He said he was picking up a mandolin and I asked if he played music. He said, yes, I play a little bit. Then he went into the hallway and started ripping on this mandolin. I walked up to him and told him he was incredible and then I realized his dad was Mark O'Connor. When I was in the studio making "Home," I knew I wanted a "lead instrument" on that track. I thought it was going to be guitar but Kevin Barry was on tour with Ray LaMontagne. I called Forrest and asked him to listen to the track. I didn't want mandolin because it's too high and he suggested mandocello. He brought that crazy old instrument and I think it sounds great.

GS: You play the flugelhorn on "Wreck Me" – was that an instrument you played in school as a kid or was it something you just picked up as an adult?

MF: I started playing trumpet when I was in first grade. That's the instrument I was on scholarship for at Berklee. I've been playing horn for a very long time. When I tour with Ani (DiFranco), sometimes all played trumpet with her, and I've played with moe. I played on a Lisa Germano record years ago. Whenever there's a horn part that I hear, I'm able to do that on my records.

GS: One more question about "Wreck Me," Paula Cole can be heard singing on that song. How did that come about?

MF: Paula and I were at Berklee together as students. She graduated in ‘90 and I was there from '88 to '90. Then she got signed and I went on the Morrissey tour. I think I ran into her once when she was on tour with Sarah McLachlan. In the last two years she's been coming in to Berklee to do some special artist-in-residence things. We connected and had dinner. Then she was making her first indie record and we have the same agent now, so our friendship has bloomed again. Paula was someone who was in my life when I was a teenager and then went off and had her path and I went off and had my path. Different levels of success but in some ways similar stories. Now she's starting to put records out on her own. We don't live that far away from each other and we are in each other's lives again. It's a beautiful thing. She someone I care about a lot and asked her she would come and sing. I sent her "Wreck Me," "Pity Song" and a third song, but Paula chose "Wreck Me" to sing.

GS: In addition to Paula there are other amazing musical guests on the disc include Natalia Zukerman, Rose Polenzani, Anne Heaton. What does it mean to you to have a community of talent such as this from which to draw when making a record?

MF: It's enormous as I'm sure you know. There're two sides to this. The beginning of the making of this album, because it came from such pain… I had a terrible breakup with someone I had been back and forth with for a few years. As soon as I started writing, I wrote "Pity Song" and "Everything You Were" and "Overboard." Then I reconnected with Paula and Natalia and Rose, and Anne Heaton came back. I mean full force, friendships I had for decades; people that had been in my life and loved me were not in my life when I was in this relationship. Rightly so; I was not the fullest self I could be. A lot of the most important relationships in my life had fallen to the wayside because of that. They came back, my friends came back and supported me. To then call on them to come play on this record was an effort on my part (to say) "will you come be a part of this beautiful thing I'm making?" And, of course, their answer was yes. The making of this record was so joyful that any pain I had been in at the beginning of the year was erased by the time I was able to make this record. It's really nice to have my friends and their talents on this record.

GS: I'm glad that you mentioned "Overboard" and some of those other songs, because no one writes pain like you, Melissa.

MF: [Laughs] Thank you!

GS: Do you ever wonder if there are women out there thinking "I'm not going to get into a relationship with Melissa Ferrick -- she's going to write about me when we breakup!"?

MF: I know! I actually joked about that on stage in New York the other night after I played "Overboard." I said, "I bet you're glad you're not her." I'm not really all that concerned at all just because I don't think that person would ever buy a record by me anyway.

GS: Well then good riddance!

MF: Exactly [laughs]! I did a podcast with (musician) Teddy Goldstein and we talked at length about is it imperative to be in pain and frustration or to be going through things as a writer. My instinctive answer is yes. I write better from pain. When I step back from that a little bit I wasn't able to write "Overboard" until five months after going through it. I'm so glad that the first thing I wrote was "Everything You Were" and my reaction to being cheated on and betrayed [laughs] was forgiveness. Even though there was an enormous amount of anger, I didn't go to anger first. I went to heal myself, to take care of me. That's a huge thing for me. I think it's because I'm 40 and not 22 and stuck in "it's everybody else's fault." This record reflects freedom to me. There's so much happiness on this record it can't be denied.

GS: Equally as intense as "Overboard" is "Take In All The Plants" which sounds like a song about a natural disaster crossed with a personal disaster.

MF: It is, yes. It's a metaphor for where I was. That song was written two weeks before Hurricane Sandy hit, which was weird. Trina Shoemaker, the woman who mixed this record, lived through Katrina. She pulled that song up second to mix after mixing "Wreck Me." She experienced carrying her infant son through floodwaters -- she lost her entire house and her studio. She and her husband and her son now live in Mobile, Alabama. That song means a lot to her, but for me it was a reflection of how I felt at the end of 2011, the beginning of 2012. It was a devastating New Year's. That whole idea of getting into an interior room (during a storm), "put a pillow over your head" was a reflection of how I felt, but I wrote it after it happened. I knew that was going to be a good metaphor for how I felt. I usually put the piece I'm most proud of lyrically last on my records.

GS: Now that you've gotten this country record out of your system, are there other musical areas you are exploring? Do you maybe have an EDM record in your pocket?

MF: I'd love that! I love how many acoustic guitars are on this (record) and the width of this record. I think my production chops are getting really tight. I've been talking to Trina about that and she's been encouraging me to try to produce records. I'm going to make a record with Alix Olson this summer. But I think that what will probably happen with me next is I'm very interested in what's happening with this Daft Punk record. Opening myself up to working with other people, whether it's co-writing or co-producing or just playing or being around other people who are dabbling in different forms of music is inspiring and interesting to me. For example, I'm going to see Patty Griffin on Friday night and then next week I'm going to see The Postal Service. I'm crazy about newer music and newer sounds. I love making records and I love pushing myself musically. JD Samson (of LeTigre and MEN) and I have been talking about doing some remixing or writing together. That would be really cool. There are so many projects I want to do, I just think it depends on the batch of songs I write next.

GS: You have upcoming dates playing both the Backlot Bash in Chicago and the National Women's Music Festival near Madison WI. As a regular performer in the Great Lakes Region, what do you like about performing here?

MF: I've said this so many times before, but it's the truth, if my family didn't live with a live, I'd lived in Chicago. It's my favorite city in the United States, hands-down, period. I love everything about it. I love the people there. I love the architecture in the art. I love the music, the scene there. It's always been strong. I love the food [laughs]. I have another important part of my life; my recovery is very strong there. I love that. I know that when I go to Chicago I feel at home, in more ways than one. The audiences are incredible. They're great listeners. There are great rooms to play. I did Backlot Bash a few years ago and I did it solo, with Edie (Carey) and Rose (Cousins). This time I'm bringing my whole band [laughs]. It's going to be really fun. I haven't played National Women's Music Festival in years. They asked me to play this year and I said yes.

Catch Melissa Ferrick, part of the Backlot Bash on Fri., June 28 at 9 p.m. For tickets and more information visit backlotbashchicago.com.

Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.