The L Stop: Your career has been quite expansive and impressive, but let’s start with a little early info. You were raised on the east coast in Ipswich MA–Great people come out of this town. Full disclosure, I’d like to point out that you and I have a connection here as my ancestors were some of the founders of Ipswich and we still have strong roots in MA. [Small world!] How do you think growing up there has influenced you musically, if at all?
Melissa Ferrick: Ha,..well, I do think growing up in a small town close to a major city definitely influenced how I see the world, certainly also being on the east coast in a predominantly democratic and liberal environment, my father being a public school teacher, my mother a voice of reason and a believer in trusting your instincts, all these things shaped me as a young person. The choice to study music was always encouraged and for that I am really grateful.
TLS: You began taking classes, formally, when you were only 5 years old (with the violin, I think) but when did you first start to really feel like this was the path you were supposed to be on?
MF: I do believe asking to play the violin at 4 was a strange request of a child, but I have heard many stories like this from other musicians, so really I do think that music choose me first. As I grew into my teens I think that’s when I was conscious enough and independent enough to really choose music myself, the desire to learn other instruments, the nudge to write songs, to sing, to express my thoughts in melody, that came in my teens.
TLS: Do you have a favourite performance (or one of your favourites)? I know there must be quite a difference between large stages and coffee shops! Do you prefer the more intimate gatherings or energy from thousands of voices?
MF: Well, to answer the first question I can’t choose one show I have played, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of a ton of shows and festivals I would have attended as a a fan let alone share the stage with but, there were two shows I played a month after 9/11 that stand out for me personally one in NY City at the Bowery and one in Chicago at The Double Door. I will never forget those shows. As for the type of venues I prefer, that’s a tough choice because there is nothing like playing in theater’s, meaning 800-1500 capacity venue’s, this is because of the throw of sound I can make and the reverberation in the building’s walls. Also, having more people in a room creates more energy and therefore more feeling, well maybe not more feeling but more specifically a wider feeling. Small rooms or coffee house settings hold a real soft spot in my heart because I have had some incredible moments in a lot of them, and I have also witnessed as an audience member many incredible shows in small venues, so sorry, but I love both the small shows and the big shows, it’s too difficult to choose.
TLS: You have shared the stage with a number of other iconic artists; do any of them (or yourself) have interesting rituals they follow before hitting the stage?
MF: I can’t share about other artists’ rituals, but I myself definitely like to nap before playing for about a half an hour. If I can’t sleep I like to just lay down somewhere with towel or dark shirt over my eyes and stay quiet.
TLS: What motivated you to start your own record company, Right On Records, after you parted ways with Atlantic Records? As opposed to joining another indie label, for example.
MF: Well, I started Right On Records after being on an indie named What Are Records out of Boulder CO, and I learned a ton from being on that label and watching my peers do their own thing. I just realized by doing it that since I was selling under 20,000 units it just didn’t make sense to give half of the proceeds away when I could, in theory, “do it myself”. This later proved to be much more difficult than I anticipated, but it was a great experience and I am glad I made the choices I did.
TLS: You have been an icon in the queer women’s community for many years now, how has that affected you personally? Do you feel the pressure of representing the LGBTQ community in the spotlight?
MF: I think I hold this responsibility much more seriously now than ever before. I never really attached myself to it really until about a year ago. I do feel a sense of pride in my community and certainly try to be responsible and aware of what I say and do in regards to the LGBTQ community.
TLS: What roles do you think musicians do/do not have in speaking out for social causes? For instance, the hot button topic for marriage equality that is on everyone’s lips right now.
MF: I think if someone has the public’s ear and they are compelled to speak their truth they should, I certainly have spoken up on a few issues that “light my fire” and try to show up and support lots of cause’s and communities that I believe in.
TLS: Do you have any advice for aspiring queer musicians? Would you consider yourself to be supportive/a mentor figure or do you think the struggle is part of the growth?
MF: Ah, this is a question I get a lot, my advice is the same for all artists queer or not. That is follow your heart, your truth, your instinct. Try to really listen to your internal compass. I would hope whatever help I can give to anyone would be considered supportive and I do believe all of us as human beings go through struggles and we grow from them, I however am working now personally more form a place of trying to choose a path of less resistance, more of a mantra of “change is effortless, it’s resisting change that causes pain” kind of a life.
TLS: What is your favorite song to perform and why?
MF: Whatever I have just written because it’s fresh and new and I can find out what works about it and what doesn’t form my audience’s faster than I can just playing it alone.
TLS: You have amassed quite a collection of awards (and rightfully so!), which ones stand out for you the most? Obviously, they all are important and much appreciated. But do any of them hold a special place in your heart?
MF: Being selected for OUT magazine’s Out100 Musician Honoree as influential Queers of 2011 felt like a real honor for me.
TLS: You tour. A lot. Estimations land around 150 shows a year or so! Do you see yourself settling down any time soon?
MF: Ha, yes well, I do tour a lot. I used to tour way more than I do now. The teaching job at Berklee has directly affected my ability to tour as much as I used to, but I think at this point performing between say 80-120 shows a year is a decent and attainable amount of playing considering the time and commitment teaching takes.
TLS: You tend to let your music speak for you, but what tid bits can you give us about your personal life? Following what seems to be a very heartbreaking ending to your relationship in 2011, we haven’t heard a lot about your current status. Obviously, being an out lesbian for so long means many ladies have been dreaming about meeting you J Are you single now?
MF: Well I dated two women in 2012 and those, although short lived, really helped me out of my shell shocked state. I am currently dating someone who I met in Austin at SXSW this year, and it’s going really well.
TLS: You have officially ended your first semester as an Assistant Professor at Berklee (congrats!). It’s a lot of responsibility, but also (I imagine) a lot of motivation. How do you feel this experience has changed you? What is the most important lesson you hope you are teaching our future songwriters?
MF: Yes and I am currently in my second semester and the fall is quickly approaching! I LOVE teaching at Berklee College of Music. Teaching there has brought my life a much needed community, routine, and structure.
Touring, existing, as a solo singer songwriter is a pretty isolating lifestyle. Let’s say it’s a lot like living as a moving target, so having a place to go where you do see the same faces in the same room every week, where you do make friends amongst your peers, is something I really never thought I would get out of this job of teaching. This gig at Berklee has taught me that staying in one place doesn’t have to be the scariest thing in the world, that I am capable of letting myself be really seen and that I actually enjoy creating friendships. As for the most important lesson I hope I am sharing, it would be that staying true to your heart, your truth, your instincts, is ultimately the most important asset an artist can have. When I was 19 and at Berklee I pretended I “knew everything” and didn’t ask for help, so I am trying to give as much advise and unconditional support as I can to every student I come into contact with.
TLS: Exactly how many instruments do you play now?! It seems like you are the Superwoman of music.
MF: Ha,..well, first let me reply as to what instruments I can play well; guitar, voice, bass and trumpet. As for instruments I can play and get away with finding parts on; drums, piano, and anything I can find a sound from.
TLS: If you threw a dinner party and could invite 4 people to sit at the head table with you, alive or dead, who would they be?
MF: I’m going to go with alive…then there’s still a chance it could happen:) Anne Lamott, Susan Sarandon, Elton John, Mary Oliver.
TLS: Where is the one place (or one of the places) you have yet to visit and desperately want to?
TLS: What is at the top of your bucket list?
MF: I don’t have a bucket list.
TLS: The truth is, your new album, is an incredible example of raw talent and emotion; you sang, you wrote, you layered all these intricate instruments that you played so the sound blends seamlessly, and you produced it. I’m almost afraid to ask but, what’s next?
MF: Well I had a lot of help on this album, the players are extraordinary, and the engineer Rafi Sofer was integral to the sound of the album as well, Trina Shoemaker’s influence, who mixed this record, is undeniable. What’s next is hopefully a new level of “complete” for me. All I try to do is get a bit better every time, really that’s all I can do.
TLS: Rachel Maddow?
TLS: Peanut Butter?
TLS: Barack Obama?
TLS: The L Word?
Catch Melissa Ferrick Friday Night at Back Lot Bash!
Back Lot Bash – Sunset Concert
$20 Door/Open 5pm / ANDERSONVILLE / 5238 N. Clark / 21+
Back Lot Bash is the hottest, most rockin’ and most attended outdoor women’s festival taking place every Pride Weekend in Chicago. Each day showcases a different mix of music and entertainment for the entire community. Featuring Melissa Ferrick, Edie Carey, Jen Foster, Martha Berner and is hosted by Courtney Jackson.
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About Leah Schein
Leah is a born and bred Chicagoan, and considers herself extremely fortunate to be raised by amazing liberal parents in Logan Square. Coming from a long family history of equality activism, the crazy world of politics feels like home to her. Her upbringing allowed her to fully appreciate her love of tacos, and provided the support needed to be independent and insane. She is a happy survivor of the public school system, all the way through her undergrad years, culminating with a BA in anthropology. Her love of travel and all things adventurous led to the pursuit of a Master of Science from sunny ol’ England, where she happily grasped a conservation degree and ran off to live in a number of rain forests to research nocturnal primates. Through the amazing diversity she was fortunate to be raised amongst, she has an unwavering appreciation of all cultures and peoples, and has used this to form the foundation of her outspoken support of civil rights. You may have seen her running around Boystown/Tuna town over the last decade, or at events she volunteers at for the Human Rights Campaign. It’s possible you spied her at the Silent Film Festival. That strange woman getting into a wrestling match in the leaves on Foster Ave beach at 3am…that definitely wasn’t her. She couldn’t be more excited about sharing her love of science, and it’s role in our daily lives, with the community she loves. Nerds are cool, people. They drink martini’s too.