It’s been a while since out singer-songwriter Melissa Ferrick released a studio album. Five years, to be exact. But given her prolific 20 years of recording albums and many, many tours and performances, you can’t fault her for taking an artistic breather. Or, as she describes it, writer’s block.
“I put out a covers record a couple of years ago to buy myself some time,” Ferrick explained. “I needed to keep working. Sometimes learning other people’s songs is a way to help get you out of a writer’s block or life block. It’s been five years since I’ve put out an original album.”
That breather almost became permanent. Years of toiling away as a touring musician on both a major label and as an independent artist became such an undertaking that she almost gave up on making records all together.
“After doing it completely on my own for 10 years ... first of all, about three years [ago] I started to have a writer’s thing,” she said. “I just was not writing anything. Nothing seemed inspiring. I had turned 37. I got offered a teaching gig at Berkley College in Boston. I really enjoyed that. I was at one of the places in my life where I thought maybe I’m not going to make records anymore. This is what the world is giving me and I’m enjoying it. I got into a pretty comfortable place. I kind of was over it. I was also sick of the financial stress of putting records out on my own. It’s not like my record label was a real functioning oiled machine of people. It was me. It was an enormous endeavor to do it for 10 years and that just took it all out of me. I couldn’t hold up the business end and I was in debt and I was sick of it. I wasn’t having fun anymore and I stopped.”
Luckily for Ferrick and fans of her work, she found her way through her writer’s block and got inspired to create a new record, “Still Right Here.”
“Before my 39th birthday, I started writing again and I’m 40 now,” she said. “When I started writing, I started writing a lot and I started liking the songs. I started writing another record. What am I going to do? Do I just throw this against the wall again and ask all my friends to play for free and make it in my attic for next to no money and have it sound OK? I thought I should call Rachel Sage because she has a record label [MPress Records] and maybe she’ll help me put a record out. So I called her and it was that simple. I chose to go with a full-on record deal because, if I’m going to work with other people and accept help to function as an artist, I should go all-in.”
Ferrick added that putting her new record out on a label instead of independently was necessary for her as an artist and the right move considering the state of the music industry.
“It’s changed so much. My career has been completely backward. I started out on a major, went on an indie, put out records on my own and now I’m back on an indie. Maybe I’ll be back on a major in five years. I have no idea. I’ve been lucky enough to make a living without having a second job since 1998. The blueprint now is that there isn’t one. Three to five years ago, it was like you’re either on one of the two or three major labels that are left because you’re a mainstream pop, R&B or hip-hop act or you’re a completely indie artist and you play festivals and you’re putting out records on your own. Now I feel like it’s way more driven by singles. It seems to be a lot more interest in remixes and YouTube. It’s different.”
“Still Right Here” — an exceptional collection of songs by the way — features appearances by Ani DiFranco and Kaki King. The album’s title song was inspired by a friend of Ferrick who had fallen on hard times, but the singer said the title applies to her life as well.
“That song I wrote last November while I was on tour with Ani,” she explained. “I let my best friend borrow my car to help her sister move and she got into a horrific accident and totaled my car. She walked away from the accident, miraculously. That’s how the song started because she’s been having a lot of troubles in her life. She was kind of losing everything in life, then she got into this terrible car accident and she survived it. The lyrics of the song take on some of my life, which always ends up happening, and I ended up writing about myself: It’s the concept that I signed a record deal and the subtle fear of some of my fan base judging that or not thinking that I was worthy of their praise because I wasn’t going to do it all by myself anymore. I was a little concerned about that. The song to me represents a statement of, just because the logo on the outside of the record has changed doesn’t mean that I’ve changed in a negative way. The part of me that is indie and in control of my career is still here.”
When reflecting on the many artistic accomplishments that make up her career, Ferrick said the personal highlights are more about keeping herself going as a working musician than her moments in the spotlight on stage.
“I immediately go to non-musical things, but continuing to work and produce material,” she said. “Sometimes I think I couldn’t possibly write another song or this is the best song I’m ever going to write and I’m not going to get any better. Being around Berkley lately for the last three years, teaching in the summers, has been very helpful. I sat in some poetry classes and was keeping myself a little bit of a student. It’s been really good for me. I think it’s more that I’m still inspired by music. I still go to shows and I’m moved. I hear new music and it moves me to tears. I still get the chills sometimes when I listen to music, and that went away for a little while for me when I wasn’t able to write. Those were difficult years. I felt kind of stagnant.
“So I think I’m most proud of allowing myself to be in that place for the two years that it took and living with it and not sitting and getting ridiculously hard on myself, but then coming out of it and asking Empress to help me. Those are the things that I’m more proud of than the musical things like opening for k.d. lang. That was amazing but those things aren’t difficult things for me to do. I show up and I play. Those are things that I’ve been doing for so long that they come naturally to me. The things that don’t come naturally are letting myself off the hook or being a little bit easy on myself. I need to get better at that. I’m still really hard on myself with my personal life. And allowing people to help me has been the biggest bridge for me.”
“Still Right Here” will be available Sept. 13. Melissa Ferrick performs at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 11 at World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. For more information, visit www.melissaferrick.com or call 215-222-1400.