[Q&A] Sky Ferreira deconstructs her experiences in the major-label system / playing TT's tonight


SKY FERREIRA has spent the past five years of her life navigating the grossness of the major-label music industry: money-obsessed producers, being pushed around like a commodity, dealing with businessmen who value commercial viablity over artistic integrity. Not to mention all of the ageism and sexism that comes with being a teenage girl in the music world.

As a 14-year-old living in LA, Ferreira channeled her love for Fiona Apple and Laurie Anderson into quick demos she'd record with friends and post to MySpace. She was eventually plucked up by EMI, and would proceed to spend her latter teen years navigating the worlds of Parlophone and Capitol Records, who attempted to turn her into the slick pop star that she was not (see: her 2010 video for "One"), ultimately shelving record after record. After over five years signed with a major label, her first full-length I'm Not Alright is finally due in 2013.

At 20 years old, Ferreira is finally releasing the sorts of songs that she's apparently always wanted to make. "The truth is, now I’m not a 15 year old, so people can’t bully me around anymore," she told The Phoenix. "I know what I’ve always wanted to do, but no one would listen to me." See the moody downer synth-pop of her Ghost EP for proof, released this fall and produced by Jon Brion, who has also worked with Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, and Elliott Smith, to name a few. Her most recent single, "Everything Is Embarassing", might be one of the year's best pop songs.

"They told me the nastiest things," she said of her labels' constantly pushing back her record releases. "Like, 'Sorry, there’s already one girl coming out at the moment, we can’t do two'. And I was like, 'Fuck this, I don’t want anything to do with this'. I want to sing music that I actually like singing, and write music that I actually like writing ... Now I just write songs that I like and that I would listen to. Songs that actually mean something to me."

In advance of her show tonight at T.T. The Bear's, and the acoustic session she's playing for WFNX at Fourth Wall Gallery this afternoon, we spoke with Ferreira about her experiences as a teenager in the major-label machine ("It's really disgusting... It's really dirty out there"), the difficulties of growing as an artist when the entirety of your teenage years has been documented on the Internet  ("I believe in taking time to find yourself") and more.


How has it been working with Jon Brion?

He’s definitely helped me start to figure out where I want to go with my writing. He influences my writing a lot. I was a Jon Brion fan to begin with… I was so intimidated by him at first, even though he’s not an intimidating person at all. Fiona Apple has always been my number one favorite female artist. I remember seeing the Criminal video when I was 6. I’ve been listening to her for 14 years, which is the majority of my life. And Elliott Smith is one of my favorite songwriters. Jon also worked with him. And Aimee Mann too. Everyone I love, he’s worked with.

In a lot of recent interviews you've conveyed this general vibe of having more creative control over your music now than in the past; a clearer vision of what you want versus what your label wants. Has that shift been a result of working with Brion?

The truth is, now I’m not a 15 year old, so people can’t bully me around anymore. I know what I’ve always wanted to do, but no one would listen to me. [I'm working with] all new people now. They’re open to letting me try things and do something different. I think they know in order for me to in some sense succeed, I need to be different.

You've said in interviews that you're excited to work with Brion because a lot of other producers were only concerned with making money. Working within the major label machine, have you found it hard to trust producers and people in general?

Yes. People have their motives. They want what’s best for them. Unless people truly believe in the artist, when you’re going into a room every day with a new producer and writing with a new person on the spot .. This doesn’t work out for me. I just don’t take [songwriting] very seriously when I do that. So now I pretty much stick to Ariel Rechtshaid and Jon Brion. Those are the two producers I work with. I like to collaborate with other artists, that’s one of my favorite things … but I don’t like going into a room with a producer and being like, “Okay, we’re going to make a song for the radio.” What’s the point? Why sing something that anyone else can sing?

I actually want to write my own songs and express myself and sing something that means something to me. At times I will take songs if they sound amazing. I don’t need to write all of my songs. I know I write most of my songs. So if a song sounds amazing, I will take it, but it’s going to mean something. I won’t take it just because I think people will like it. People can take it or leave it. As long as I like it, I’m good.

What are your goals as an artist?

Obviously at some point I would like to be successful. But not [in the same way] as in the past … I just did not know what I wanted to do. I was manipulated into thinking that I had to go through this big giant monster of being on the radio and hitting number one on the charts in order to succeed in general. They told me I wasn’t good enough to do anything by myself, you know? I was 14, 15... They would say, “you can do whatever you want, after you reach this type of success.” Which is not true at all, but they convinced me of it. And then I hated it and openly admitted that I hated it the whole time I did it, so [laughs] it kind of backfired.

And then I took a break for a year, writing. I worked for two years on this other album. I turned in five different albums and none of them made sense. It was just one thing after the other and getting shelved. And they told me the nastiest things like, “sorry there’s already one girl coming out at the moment, we can’t do two”. And I was like, “fuck this, I don’t want anything to do with this”. I want to sing music that I actually like singing, and write music that I actually like writing. Not just for the sake of writing it. I’m not just another person. They kept telling me I was being so ungrateful and it would be so easy for them to go find another me. So I was like, “Okay, well if that’s the case, then go find another me.” Now I just write songs that I like and that I would listen to. Songs that actually mean something to me. If you’re making a song that you wouldn’t listen to, that’s an issue. If you’re singing it and thinking, “this is so bad, I wouldn’t listen to this”… that’s a problem.

From hearing who your influences are -- Fiona Apple, Laurie Anderson -- there’s clearly a divide between that and the sort of music you were originally putting out, when your label was trying to make you into the next Brittney Spears with the next number one hit song on the top 40 chart.

Exactly. My music isn’t … I wouldn’t say it’s sad, but there’s definitely a kind of sad undertone. It’s not just songs about partying. Because I don’t really do that. That does not inspire me what so ever to write about. And I’m also not just writing songs about how badly I need this boy in my life. Which is what radio programmers [want] … I don’t know. I would love to make money at some point by making music. That’s why I keep doing the modeling stuff. I keep doing the modeling stuff because I make the majority of my money from modeling. If that gives me the freedom to do whatever I want musically, then fuck it I’ll do fashion stuff too. I’d rather stay around for 10 years [as a musician] than have a big number one hit and make millions of dollars for two years and then disappear without anyone actually respecting me as an artist. Yeah, I am careful with business decisions. I’m very aware of what I do. But I am not a business woman. I am not a brand.

It sounds like the major label system has put you through hell. Is that a fair assessment of your experience? 

They put me through hell. But now there’s a whole new crew of people I’m working with, and they aren’t. I think it really just depends on the situation. If you’re a smaller band and you have some moderate success, [major labels] can’t really bully you around. If you started out on a smaller indie label and then go to a major label… you’ll have a bigger budget, maybe some more pressure to make a big single. But they don’t look at those bands as some commodity or product the way they look at me. They look at me and they’re like, “Oh, ummm, teenage American girl who sings. Let’s make her into Brittney Spears. Let’s make her into a pop star, let’s make her into Katy Perry or Lady Gaga.” You know what I mean?

That whole vibe of looking at artists, at people as commodities... it’s so gross.

It’s disgusting. But I’m sure that’s how those people thought of me for a long time.

In this change that you’re taking with your music, starting to have some ownership over it … I feel like that’s the sort of thing that often time female artists are way more scrutinized for. When they start owning their image.

It’s funny. I played all of these CMJ shows and people are already ready to have their knives up. They’re like “oh she’s totally fake.” As if automatically because I did pop music before, I’m fake. It took me the certain amount of time to get some attention or find the songs I wanted to be singing. Then I’m man-made and its all the people working with me and I had no input. That’s complete bullshit, but whatever. People are assholes. People are like, “she was pouting in her videos”. If some guy was doing the same video, people would be like, “oh wow … nice… it’s so simple…” Some of the reviews were so disgusting. I’m not trying to pull a feminist card, but it’s really true. People are really fucking sexist. 

I noticed it before with my record label. Now I notice it with fans and people in general. People think that because I have some kind of success, I just sort of batted my eyelashes to get my way. They think these producers and writers are the ones who are really responsible, even though they’re not.

It really is this gendered thing.

After my CMJ shows, every review had something to do with what I was wearing. Someone talked about how my eyes were saggy. How is that relevant? It’s just insane. Someone wrote, “She was pouting. Her lips were bigger in real life.” It’s just so strange. It has nothing to do with music. I don’t see them writing that about other bands … It’s fine to have an opinion. But [some writers] are just pulling at these things that have nothing to do with music.

As a 20 year old, it must be daunting to be criticized for decisions you made when you were 15.

I believe in second chances. And first of all, I don’t think I was ever given a real first chance to begin with. I believe in taking time to find yourself. It’s not like, “oh she already had her chance”. It just depends. With all these record labels. They’re all looking for a ‘hit’. Well what’s a hit? You never know what’s going to be a hit.

The mainstream, major-label conception of success as a musician is so fucked.

That’s what John and I were just talking about. People get so crazy about percentages and points. Its like, why are you getting so crazy over it? Even if a song goes to number 1, it’s not like any of those people are going to make tons of money.

If your goal is to connect with people and make music and write songs, there are plenty of people who do that without major labels. If you’re not concerned with making tons of money … being on a major label is not necessary at all ... Do you feel like you’ve had to make a lot of compromises? Are compromises worth it?

I mean, it depends on the situation. Most of the time, no. But if it’s someone I like and trust… If Jon says, “I think you should do this.” I know he has good intentions for what’s best for me. It just depends on the situation.

You were talking about how when you were younger, people would try to make decisions for you. How has the concept of ageism impacted your experience?

Even more than sexism. Well, the sexism is a big part of ageism. I started making music when I was 14, posting demos I made by myself with my friends. I was 15 when I got a deal. At the time, every single record label was trying to sign me. Literally I could have signed to every label that existed in major label land. Universal, Sony, EMI. Or any of the sub-labels in them. I literally met with … I don’t even know. I was offered millions of dollars. Ironically I chose EMI at the time because I thought I would have the most creative control. I can’t even imagine if I’d gone anywhere else.

When it came to decisions and songs, I was too young to make decisions. I was too stupid. What does this little girl know? They'd say “she’s a brat” because I didn’t agree with them. Automatically, I’m “a bitch” or “an immature child.” But really I was probably making decisions better than them. Then when they wanted to work me like an adult, working with producers for seventeen hours a day, and then getting right on an airplane, that's when I was an adult. But when it came to making decisions, I was child. And I was automatically stupid on top of it all.

They said I didn’t know what I was talking about, even though I did. I would go into these sessions with producers and they’d just be like “oh whatever, she’s some bold kid, don’t pay attention to her”. I was so manipulated. And then on top of it all, they assumed since I was young, that I wasn’t going to say anything or do anything, and they would like, hit on me. They would try to sleep with me. I was 16 years old.

That's fucked up.

They thought they could say, “oh this 15 year old is trying to be famous. Let me tell her if you sleep with me, I’ll make you the biggest thing in the world.” It was fucking gross. And then they'd try to give me drugs. Or get me wasted. It's really disgusting. It's really dirty out there.

That's fucking scummy.

They want to do that, but then they also want to market you like fucking Hanna Monatana or something. Or they wanna make you like kiddie porn. 

It just seems really exploitative. It's fucked up to see young people exploited like that.

And half of them go crazy. Because they're treated like little robots the whole time and they're so focused on wearing a purity ring and talking about Jesus and not believing in sex, and they can't even say the word God or hell because they're supposed to be these role models for kids. But then the moment they turn 18 or 19, suddenly they do this whole "good girl gone bad" thing. Which is so over the top and ridiculous. “I’m growing into myself, I’m now an adult.” That's not what being an adult is. I think that has a big part to do with it. 

It seems like it would be really damaging and strange and difficult to grapple with all of these experiences and your identity as an artist. How do you make amends with the major label music industry and continue to go ahead with it, given all of this?

You can take it for what it is, but at the end of the day, it’s what you make it into... if you really want it that badly you can do it but that doesn't mean its going to happen. At the end of the day, you're taking a risk either way. It can seem like its based on luck but it's definitely based on hard work. It can pay off. It just takes longer. 

Given all of those experiences, what excites you most about what you're doing now?

I think I needed those experiences, so I don’t take for granted what’s happening now. I’m playing rooms for 200 people, but I'm always surprised when there's 10 people there. Some things are really unfair, like how I constantly need to defend myself, when I know I’m putting out better music than so many people.. . I think I'm treated unfairly because of my past being very public and on the internet. I’m not ashamed of it. That was part of my life. But it’s annoying, I don't know why i still have to prove myself to people constantly. The most satisfying thing to me is when I play shows and its completely packed and people know the lyrics. After constantly being told by the label that if I played these sorts of songs no one would be into it. Now I’ll play these shows in LA or NY and there’s a line down the block and it’s fans who actually want to see it. 

The fact that people at your label told you you would never be successful or have that kind of connection with fans just proves how fucking delusional so many people in the mainstream music industry are that they don't understand there can be a middle ground.

Yeah definitely.

You were saying how you're not trying to run away from your past. A lot of people around our age group have this weird situation of having to cope with this sense that our whole teenage and young adult lives are documented on the internet.

Half of my life is on the Internet. All of these music writers who write about me, I want to be like , show me something you wrote when you were 14. Show me who you were when you were 15. The shit people find on me is insane. I’m always wondering like, how did you find that picture of me when I was in 8th grade? How the fuck did you find that? And why am I having to explain myself about it on top of that? 

It’s kind of unfair to our generation. In the past, it was easier for people to grow and put your past behind you.

Every huge artist you can think of, these huge icons, they had pasts and a lot of them were in really unsuccessful bands beforehand, making completely different music than what they’re known for. But I don’t have the opportunity to do that and disconnect, without someone feeling like they have to say something about it. Because it’s on the fucking Internet.

In this weird way we all have really grown up in “public”.

People will say, “she’s changed! she looks different!” Yeah, I look different, I was 15. I finally got through puberty. I'm sorry. Sorry i took my braces off. They’ll be like, “She had brown hair … she’s so fake… she looks different, her face looks different.” No? I'm just older. "Her mouth looks different. Her lips look different. She got a nose job." Uhh, when? During my record deal, I was in hell for two years ... but I didn’t disappear. There were pictures of me being posted constantly. When I was modeling, I was still around. I don't know when I got this nose job done and my lips made big. That’s what my family looks like. My mom has these giant lips. I look like my parents. The thing is, the worst part that drives me crazy is -- the fact that people act like I have to prove myself and explain every thing I do.

I’m not doing anything that needs an explanation. “Why is your video black and white, why are you on a playground?” If you don’t get it, you don’t get it. I shouldn't have to explain this 50 times. I shouldn’t have to explain why my hair looks a certain way. It’s so stupid and has nothing to do with anything important.  Or anything to do with music at all.
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