Music State of independence 

Melissa Ferrick takes a tortured path from major-label washout to self-released success

Melissa Ferrick is hiding in her Pittsburgh hotel room, desperate for a cup of tea and genuinely thrilled at the fact that she's going to watch Mr. and Mrs. Smith tonight. Her voice is still a touch raspy after losing it yesterday. The fact that she has played gigs seven nights in a row might have something to do with that vocal infirmity. For a singer-songwriter who tours religiously, this is par for the course. Her record, after all, is 10 shows in 10 days.

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Melissa Ferrick: building word-of-mouth with relentless touring.

A product of the New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music (also attended by one of her heroes, Aimee Mann), Ferrick's career began with a bang that, depending on how you look at it, either fizzled too quickly or landed her in a position most musicians only dream about. At the age of 20, she got a call from a local promoter she knew - Morrissey was in town and his opening act bailed, due to a family emergency. Could Ferrick cover? Of course she did and, at the end of the night, she got up the nerve to plant a cassette of her work in the celibate crooner's hand.

"Two days later, his tour manager called and left a message on my machine," Ferrick says. "Moz had listened to the tape and he wanted me to finish the tour. There was a car coming to pick me up and a flight booked, so it happened fast."

Not long after, Atlantic Records came calling with a record contract that Ferrick quickly signed. Two albums later, the label dropped her due to unsatisfactory sales. Twenty-five by this point and without label support, she became consumed by a drinking problem.

"I definitely got my fill in that last year before I got sober," she recalls. "This happens when addicts tell their story so much, but that kind of openness can also help to reinforce a person's conviction to stay sober. The last year of my drinking, it got to the point where it wasn't a very pretty thing to witness."

Everything changed during a train ride to Boston a year after Atlantic cut her loose. "I had a moment of clarity," she says. "I was in the drinking car having a Beck's, went up to the bar and got another Beck's, and then I went up to get another one and I looked at the bartender and this thought just came into my head and the thought was, 'That's it.' Haven't had a drink since, thank God."

A three-record stint with What Are Records followed, but it still wasn't the right fit for Ferrick. Deciding to follow in the footsteps of maverick singer-songwriters such as Mann and Ani DiFranco, she went independent and established her own label. Four albums later, she found herself recording her latest indie effort, The Other Side, in her apartment. Hours of operation were limited by the building's thin walls, but she pulled it off, performing, arranging, producing, engineering, and mixing the record by herself. The result is an exercise in frenetic guitar work and honest songwriting brought to life by a voice that's only grown ever more confident over the years.

"I think that's the greatest thing about my career - it's been kind of backwards," Ferrick says. Most artists dream of ending up with a major label, with a big-wig producer backing them up, but she started there and ended up here. Though label support would be appreciated, she's supporting herself entirely off her album and (especially) ticket sales, a remarkable accomplishment for any indie artist.

Melissa Ferrick

Fri, Sep 23

Jack's Patio Bar & Grill
2950 Thousand Oaks

The relentless touring that's built her fan base over the years comes with a price, though. "I'm so used to it, it's more interesting and difficult for me to switch over to being home," she says. "I guess I like feeling like I'm moving forward. I like being busy. I don't think I've taken a real vacation since 1994, when I went away for a weekend on someone else's dime. The idea of going on a vacation and not having a guitar is terrifying to me. Like what do you do, sit on a beach? It's just bizarre." However, she does insist, "I'm going to try to take a break this winter and go somewhere."

It's difficult to believe her when she says this, considering the all-consuming dedication to her work that's often accompanied by panic attacks. It's almost enough to make you wonder if perhaps there's something Ferrick is avoiding in fashioning this hectic life she lives. But that's a debate for another day. In December, she'll head back into the studio, though she's not certain which studio that will be. She hasn't even decided if she'll be bringing in another producer this time out, if only because she's aware that being so independent comes with certain risks. "Isolation breeds insanity, at least for me," she laughs.

At the moment, though, it's time for her to get to Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which has her all worked up. "It's, like, so annoying that the two most attractive people in the world have to be together, which is retarded, right?" she says. "I'm vicariously in love with both of them. They completely feed into my bisexual nature. I can't even stand that they're both in the same movie. Ridiculous."

By Cole Haddon

More by Cole Haddon



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