The Boston Phoenix
March 30 - April 6, 2000

[Music Reviews]

| clubs by night | bands in town | club directory | pop concerts | classical concerts | reviews | hot links |

'Drive' time

Melissa Ferrick gets sexy

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Melissa Ferrick During her CD-release party at Passim last month, Melissa Ferrick was on stage doing something that's hardly ever done within the hallowed walls of that Harvard Square folk club: singing about sex. Her current set closer, "Drive," is a seduction song of unusual erotic frankness, and it catches her live audiences off guard -- though this night its more daring lines drew some whoops from the mostly female crowd. She may have come on stage as a casual folkie, but by the song's end, she'd claimed a territory that few songwriters -- other than Prince and Madonna, who've made careers of it -- ever get to.

The surprise highlight of her new album Freedom (on W.A.R.?), "Drive" is a rarity for Ferrick, who's usually more concerned with the heart than the nether regions. But it also typifies her songwriting habit of staying a step or two out of the comfort zone. When she first appeared on the local scene, in the early '90s, her songs were just a little too self-lacerating for most people to deal with -- save for the cult audience that loved her for that reason. She's refined her approach over the course of five albums, which have as many beautiful moments as brutal ones. Her best overall release since the 1993 debut, Massive Blur (Atlantic), Freedom is also the most explicitly autobiographical: its 11 songs (plus a punky reprise of the title track) trace her life since the break-up of a long-term relationship last year. As usual, she had no qualms about using personal details as song fuel -- and when she wound up getting her heart broken, she chalked it up to research.

"I knew that Freedom would be the title -- that was the first song I wrote, and it was about ending a three-and-a-half-year relationship," she explains before the Passim show. "As soon as I wrote it, I knew the next year would be about being alone, getting into all sorts of decisions about who I am, what I want in my life. What wound up happening was that I ended up having these short relationships, little one-night-stand kind of things, and I wound up becoming totally obsessed with somebody. That's what the song `A Little Love' is about. And it was just horrifying, because I've never had that happen. I've never been the one saying, `What do you mean, you don't feel anything'? So it was difficult, but it's important to get your heart broken. Now I'm a successful survivor of that, just like everybody else."

As for "Drive," it was written on a dare and never intended for the album. "I'd been listening to a lot of Janet Jackson at the time and thinking, `I can't believe she does this on her records -- this is so hot.' Then a friend of mine asked why I didn't write a song like that and I said, `I don't do that, I'm a folksinger.' Then one night, I gave it a try. The song was originally 10 minutes long, and I made just one CD copy of it. Then I played it for Jen [her tour manager]. I said, `Look, go get some iced coffee, light a cigarette, go upstairs, and play this. And I'm going to go do some laundry, because I can't be here while you listen to it.' And she told me I was crazy if I didn't put it on the record.

"The song is not my actual sex life. Not that I'd be ashamed if it was, but it's made up, just something nice to think about. I'd love to be that free sexually, but I'm a Virgo. Some funny things happen when I play that song live -- sometimes these girls get a little tipsy and things start coming off, like a Tom Jones kind of thing. They're fine with the first verse, but when I get to the parts about doing it in the shower and tying someone up, they're not sure how to react. I like the nervous laughter the best, because that makes me sink into it more."

Since Ferrick plumbs her relationships so freely in songs, one has to wonder how the people she gets involved with feel about it -- especially a song like the new album's "Some Kinda Nerve," which outlines an ex-partner's failed attempts at reconciliation. Then there's her close relationship with her audience, which can look threatening if you happen to be her girlfriend (and as she revealed years ago with an admirable lack of hoopla, her partners are indeed female). "That's a funny thing, because the last person I was with was the first one who's ever told me how hard it is to be my girlfriend. I'm so oblivious to that end of what I do. Maybe that's the fear of success, or that I don't want to be different from my audience; I don't want to be someone untouchable. So there's a camaraderie there between me and them, and with that might come a lot of jealousy. But there is that element. I do let people in. And if my partner can't deal with that, then it's not going to work."

Any fans who have met Ferrick would likely be surprised at how approachable she is off stage, especially in the days before the first album, when her songs were a lot more despairing than they are now. Was she ever really the tortured soul that she appeared? "In some bizarre space in my mind, I thought that I was. I didn't even record some of the most tragic songs I had -- I had one called `The Masochist,' and one called `Building My Wall.' It seemed very real to me then, and now it makes me smile to think about it. Not to make fun of myself, but it's kind of endearing to think back on that period of my life -- when you're 19 and the world is against you and everything is very, very important. It's like being in college, when the term paper you're writing is the most important thing in the world. When you get older, you get a better perspective on what's really important. And you know what? Not many things are.

"But at the time, I saw myself as this tragic figure. And it's the same thing that I always wanted to be in a punk band. I wanted to dye my hair red and be pierced everywhere. I basically wanted to be anything other than myself. But in a lot of ways I still am that geeky 13-year-old with braces and glasses. I'm a big nerd. I was one of the kids that nobody liked but that nobody could make fun of because my dad's a teacher. But I was a totally geeky kid. I was in a band and I was a tomboy, and now I get to be on stage, and nerds rule. I felt the same way when Shawn Mullins had his hit -- `Whee, another win for us geeky singer-songwriters!' "

The other up-and-down relationship in Ferrick's life is the one she has with the music business. In some ways it peaked early, when, barely into her 20s, she was handpicked to open a Morrissey tour in 1991 (thanks in part to a mutual connection, Jodi Goodman of the Don Law Company). She signed to Atlantic and relocated to Los Angeles soon after, and she took some musical detours as well. Last summer she played the Paradise with a full band for the first time, but the group, drawn mainly from Berklee, didn't last beyond a couple of gigs. Now she's back to the DIY approach. She and bassist Marika Tjelios are the only musicians on Freedom. Thanks to her much-developed guitar skills and some tasteful use of drum machines, the sound is no less full than it was on the major-label productions, even though the recording budget was a measly five grand.

Thinking back to the Morrissey experience, she notes that "a friend of mine said that God showed me the end of the road first, and now I have to work back up to it. Because it was wild and unbelievable, but it was also hard to transition out of. Until then I'd only done two years of open-mikes at T.T. the Bear's, and that's not a long time. So I went from that to limousines, Four Seasons hotels, first-class planes with David Bowie . . . I didn't have a clue what was going on, and suddenly everybody was talking about me. So when the first record didn't break, I had to learn to work as a musician. I was just beginning to figure out how to call a club, find out what time to show up, all those simple things."

She bottomed out before leaving Los Angeles. "There was a period when I was thinking, `That's it, I had my 15 minutes. I can't make a better record than I already did.' So I played in a hardcore band in LA, wore a lot of vinyl, and played really loud music. I couldn't understand why we weren't getting signed, but it was horrible, so thank God we didn't. I was a mess. I was drinking a lot and thinking, `I need to do this alternative-rock thing, because that's what's getting signed.' It was the only time I've ever caved in to the industry, and it was horrifying. So I fired the band and spent another year drinking. Then I started writing acoustic songs again and started all over, booking myself in my Honda Civic. And now it's fun again."

Ferrick's habit of talking straight extends to, well, the subject of not being straight. "I've been out since '95 and really, it's never been an issue. It hasn't hurt my record sales, but it certainly hasn't helped them either. So there's no bone to pick here."

Besides, if she'd never come out, she couldn't do the nifty cover of Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" that she's been playing live. "I do feel that I need to work on my being over-the-top out. Because lately I've been talking a lot on stage about being gay, making a lot of gay jokes. It was really getting kind of raunchy. Then a woman came up to me in New York and said, `I really enjoyed the show -- and by the way, you have straight fans, too.' So I thought, there's something to keep in mind -- making sure my straight fans feel welcome. But it also made me think, `Now you know how we feel all the time.' "

Melissa Ferrick plays Club Passim on April 14. Call 492-7679.

[Music Footer]