She Writes the Songs

Boston-based singer/songwriter Melissa Ferrick lets Freedom ring on a new recording.

A couple of weeks after Melissa Ferrick won a Boston Music Award for Outstanding Female Singer/ Songwriter in April, she wrote about it in her online journal. But instead of waxing poetic on the magic of her moment -- when her name was announced, maybe, or how she felt when she stepped up to accept it -- she penned the following entry: "This was a very special night. And guess who we got our picture with: Joey McIntyre. WOW! He was really sweet and very wind-burned. He looked like he'd just gotten off a mountain."

Gushing about a chance meeting with the former New Kids on the Block heartthrob -- himself a BMA winner and, like Ferrick, a Beantown native -- is hardly what you'd expect from a singer/guitarist who was recently described as sounding like a "pissed-off Ani DiFranco" by Rolling Stone magazine. Then again, this type of seemingly contradictory behavior is perhaps indicative of the musician herself. Defined over the years as a folkie like DiFranco because of her hard-strumming style of playing guitar and angst-ridden songs, Ferrick has also been described as "the other Melissa" because, like Etheridge, she's a vocal lesbian artist who doesn't shy away from her sexuality identity. In her decade-long career, Ferrick's struggle to move beyond labels has revealed itself in the widely diverse sounds found on her five-album catalogue. And, perhaps, in the way she was moved by the award-show appearance of McIntyre.

"It took a lot of balls for him to show up," she adds, considering McIntyre's yesteryears popularity -- and subsequent banishment from the American musical scene. "That must be one of the most humbling experiences that anyone can go through, to be in the most famous band in the world and then struggle to get somebody to pay attention to you. He learned a very hard lesson a very hard way and I respect that."

Oops! She did it again: Melissa Ferrick has just released her third recording on Boulder's What Are Records? imprint.
Oops! She did it again: Melissa Ferrick has just released her third recording on Boulder's What Are Records? imprint.

Ferrick's empathy for struggling artists like McIntyre and a world of lesser-known players who must fight, scrape and scream for recognition seems born of her own experiences as a working musician. In 1990, at the age of twenty, Ferrick was trafficking in acoustic, folk-singer-on-a-coffeehouse-stage fare when she got a call to open for Morrissey in Boston; Phranc, the notorious Jewish lesbian folksinger, was initially scheduled to perform, but had bowed out because of a death in the family. The audience responded immediately to Ferrick's personal, humanist lyrics and country-infused folk sound; she wowed not only them, but also the supremely coifed Morrissey, who then invited Ferrick to open for the rest of his tour of the United States and Britain.

Ferrick was subsequently signed by Atlantic Records, and she released her debut, Massive Blur, in 1993. A collection of fourteen tunes glossed up a bit from their usual acoustic incarnations, Blur caught the ear of listeners and critics who recognized the strength of the material in spite of the recording's studio-heaviness. "People saw validity underneath the production," she explains, "and writers and reviewers heard that there was a new valid young artist" on the scene.

Massive Bluris a CD Ferrick is understandably still proud of; it was her major-label debut, and it received plenty of rave reviews. But its timing was off. In the early '90s, the sound of the moment was emanating from Seattle. Nirvana was king, and there was this other little movement beginning to build steam: It involved a group of women artists who were picking up guitars and pounding on them angrily rather than creating Ferrick's less confrontational, more easily digestible fare. "There was a woman there at Atlantic named Liz Phair who had this fabulous little record that she spent about eight or nine thousand dollars making. I got that record and I knew I was fucked," says Ferrick. "The industry was moving into grunge and indie-sounding music, and I had just made the slickest 'Toad the Wet Sprocket with a girl' vocal record that anybody had ever heard. It was the wrong-sounding record for the wrong time."

Two years after Blur, Ferrick followed up with Willing to Wait, a rougher, more stripped-down product, and though she toured with national acts like Paul Westerberg and John Hiatt -- and won more critical acclaim along the way -- commercial success continued to elude, and Atlantic dropped her in 1995 at the ripe young age of 25. She's referred to that time as the darkest period of her life, an era during which she battled alcoholism and struggled to find herself as an artist and, even more important, as a person. Five years later, she's able to see the silver lining and appears to have reached a chicken-soup understanding of "why bad things happen to good people." Ferrick now reflects back on her period of labelessness as part of a larger plan.

"I can certainly say that if I had had a hit record [back then], I'm not sure I would have been graced with sobriety as early as I was," she says. "And I also don't think I would have hit the bottoms that I've hit in my life emotionally and spiritually. When you're going through hard times, the only thing a lot of times that keeps you going is knowing that it's happening for a reason and that there's going to be light on the other side. I have to sometimes really just repeat 'This will pass, this will pass, this will pass, this will pass,' because I didn't come this far to get dropped on my ass."

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