First published on 28 Jan 2014. Updated on 10 Feb 2014.
Maybe you remember Lorde’s 2013 essay on the music industry, ‘I’m Not a Spreadsheet With Hair’. In it, she described an executive talking about her in terms of “lots of zeroes”. If that makes you baulk, spare a thought for Sky Ferreira. At 17, she was being groomed as “Britney meets Lolita” (kinda reinforced by the MySpace-only track, ‘Lolita’). Now 21, with just one mugshot under her belt, she’s being shoehorned into the “troubled” box.
“I don’t think I’m troubled; I think I’m misunderstood – and I think they’re very different things,” she tells Time Out Melbourne earnestly. Ferreira is promoting her debut album, Night Time, My Time – finally out after a few years of singles and teaser tracks. “That was one of the things that motivated me, but also put unnecessary pressure on me. I thought, once I put an album out, the entire world will understand me and know me and like me… which isn’t really the case.”
It’s true the singer with the chalky voice oozes sleepy-eyed heroin chic (she’s not on bloody heroin, okay?) (or crack), but looking like a jaded Vice pin-up girl isn’t enough reason to clamp on the cuffs. To release an album as unflinchingly honest as Night Time, My Time, through a label better known for sticking sequins on Katy Perry and Kylie, takes perseverance and guts. It also reveals there’s a very dark side to Ferreira – one she’s determined to make you see.
Ferreira may have grown up in California, but she’s never been the glossy, all-American pop star. Of Brazilian, Native American and Portuguese descent, she says her father sold tourism tat on Venice Beach, while her mother was highly strung and strict. Ferreira wound up mainly being raised by her grandmother.
Much has been made of her teenage nightclub hopping in Hollywood and early modelling career, but Ferreira had also been writing songs – hundreds and hundreds of songs – since her early teens. At 15 she wrote to the Swedish production team behind Britney’s 'Toxic' and promised them she would be bigger than Spears if they would just work with her (and skip the fee). Amazingly, Bloodyshy & Avant agreed. She wrote songs for other artists (“that’s how I professionally started, to get me in the door, which worked”) and signed to Parlophone as an artist herself, in 2009.
Her 2012 EP, Ghost, spawned the singles ‘Red Lips’ and ‘Everything is Embarrassing’ (“nobody really paid attention until suddenly everyone else said they liked it”), but any releases prior to that have since been deleted from iTunes to allow Ferreira to distance herself from those more manufactured beginnings.
“No one in my family does music or anything, so when the label told me to do things, I was like, ‘All right, I’ll guess I’ll try it, because I don’t know anything, and these people have been doing it forever.’ I quickly learned that’s not how it should work,” she laughs. “I signed a deal thinking they’d signed me to be me, and in my mind I thought I was going to record an album – because I already had half of it written – and then I was just going to release it, and suddenly the world was going to understand me.”
With the release of Night Time, My Time, it's evident that when left to her own devices, Ferreira can retreat deep within herself. Much of what fuels her confessional writing are a few harrowing incidents of sexual abuse at around adolescence. She’s spoken frankly about this in an interview with teen magazine Rookie, but you can hear it equally eloquently in the tracks ‘I Blame Myself’ and ‘Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay)’. Sexual abuse affects one in four girls – a large chunk of the pop industry demographic – so even though Ferreira says she wrote the songs through a yearning to be understood, it’s still a vital subject to tackle. The only artists who have come close are Kelly Clarkson and Christina Aguilera, who have written songs about the domestic violence they experienced growing up. Ferreira admits recording the album was “the most therapeutic thing that ever happened to me.”
“I’m not a confrontational person and I’m really sensitive, so I feel like the only way I can express what I feel is through song, because I can’t seem to do it in real life,” she says. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘I need to change the world’, but I knew I needed to make a record that represented myself. Because nobody really knew me and I had a lot of stuff to say. I kept it inside for so long. I was so angry and it was sitting in me for years.”
For this reason, it’s the lyrics that resonate most with Ferreira when she’s listening to or making music. “The first CD I ever got was Fiona Apple and I think that’s why I always connect with her, because I knew her, I knew what she was thinking,” she says. “For the past few years, in mainstream pop, there really hasn’t been that. I appreciate who [other pop stars] are and what they do, but I feel like there aren’t other people to relate to.”
You might find surprising the uncensored version of the album cover, in which Ferreira stands exposed in a shower, or the video to first single ‘You’re Not the One’ – a power struggle with an aggressive man in a seedy nightclub toilet. Alternatively, you could view it as defiant. In a sense, Ferreira is a Cherie Currie for her generation; a spitting, snarling cherry bomb (she’s actually a fan of the Runaways, the band Currie fronted). She’s hypersexualised herself in a knowing way, as if to predict your perception of her. Call it a preemptive strike. Call it a warped self-preservation. “If someone's going to exploit me, I'd rather it be myself,” she told Popdash.
But lest you think I’m glossing over the music, let’s talk about that. It’s a greedy grab bag of influences – try David Lynch, early Madonna, Ariel Pink, Phil Spector for starters – begging to be consumed.
Ferreira has worked with mega producers like Greg Kurstin (The Shins, Lily Allen), Paul Epworth (Adele, Azealia Banks), Linda Perry (P!nk) and Dallas Austin (TLC, Sugababes), but for Night Time, My Time, she savvily recruited the team of Ariel Rechtshaid (Major Lazer, Haim) and Justin Raisen to both finish and play much of the instruments for a more cohesive effect.
“I wanted there to be a live element,” she explains of the more guitarry feel, “because when I was younger I used to make all my music on GarageBand and I’d have to just sing along to the track – which is the most awkward, worst thing for me, because I don’t dance. I don’t do any of that. I can’t – it isn’t natural for me!”
Opening track ‘Boys’ has a Raveonettes wall of distorted sound, while ’24 Hours’ is John Hughes prom meets highway motel. There are ’80s guitar sounds straight from the Vapors (‘You’re Not the One’) and the Smiths (‘I Will’) and a lo-fi feel to the production that’s rather more ’90s.
“You know, I would’ve liked to have experienced things from different times, but I’m not nostalgic because I wasn’t really around for it,” she says of the retro influences. “In the ’90s I was a five-year-old, so I was aware of things because I watched a lot of MTV that my parents left on.”
There’s an evident love of trashy film, too. Videos draw from noir-ish flicks like Pulp Fiction (‘Night Time, My Time’), The Hunger (‘You’re Not the One’) and Wild at Heart (old single ‘Red Lips’), while the album title is a Laura Palmer quote from Twin Peaks. Then there was her early video for ‘Obsession’ – in which Ferreira is hanging out with her Britney-style besties… but stalking Michael Madsen, who makes a cameo dressed in his most brutal Reservoir Dogs garb.
“I almost feel like film is a bigger influence on me than music,” she agrees. “When I wrote the majority of the album I kind of stopped listening to music, because in the past I’d find myself writing songs exactly like what I was listening to. This time I approached it differently than any other time I’ve made music. I feel it was mostly experiences that influenced it.”
Despite training in opera at 13 and getting into gospel, these days Ferreira has a casual, slurry style that’s at odds to the post-Winehouse, mannered stylings of Lana Del Rey, Paris Wells, Duffy, Natalia Kills or Rita Ora. Honestly, it’s kind of relief to hear a singer without a shtick.
“The first time Jon [Brion, Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann producer] and I worked together writing songs, he told me his secret was to write the way you actually speak in real life,” Ferreira says. “I swear like every two seconds, so I didn’t want to over-think it. The way I sing and the way I write is how I think about things.”
As part of the precocious too-much-information generation (she’s like the aural equivalent of Thought Catalog writer Marie Calloway), Ferreira grew up in the online arena, touting her music on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. As a result, the transition into radio, print and TV might have been a confronting one. Ferreira often looks like she’s being held hostage in video interviews, but she’s rightfully creeped out by a lot of the attention – there’s even a YouTube series dedicated to her being ambushed by paparazzi and being asked squirmy questions. But the Ferreira I speak to is effusive, rambling and stumbling. She corrects herself frequently (“sorry, not ‘everyone’. ‘Some people’”), in case the slippery journalist accidentally-deliberately gets it wrong, yet she’s friendly and endearingly dorkward.
“I always get really nervous playing live,” she says. “It always changes. Sometimes I’m really upset, sometimes I’m in a great mood, sometimes I’m really nervous my voice is going to go out, or I’m too emotional.”
An undiagnosed vocal cord hemorrhage – which led to her pulling out of a Vampire Weekend tour early – didn’t help her stage fright. “I’ve tried everything, like imagining people aren’t there. Sunglasses really help me. Getting drunk does not help – people used to shove alcohol in my face, but it never helps, it just makes me look stupid and makes me have worse stage fright the next time.”
Now Ferreira meditates twice a day – “no one even knows you’re doing it” – but we also discuss the appeal of Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, whose on-stage moods are so predictable they have become part of the appeal. “I wouldn’t say I’m unstable, but it’s boring when you know what to expect,” she agrees. “It’s like with Cat Power too, she’s honest and at least she means what she’s singing.”
In sharp contrast, Ferreira will be the support act on Miley Cyrus’s US Bangerz tour in February. It seems like a strange match, since Cyrus puts on a strategically SWAT-teamed show.
“Ironically it helps my stage fright singing in front of thousands of people,” Ferreira says brightly, “because I can hear myself but I can’t see any of them. It’s almost like what I envisioned when I was five years old, singing into a hairbrush in front of the mirror. I can feel the energy and I can hear it... but I can’t see their faces.”
Night Time, My Time is released on Jan 31, 2014, in Australia.