Melissa Ferrick: Songwriter getting out of her own way
ALBANY, N. Y. - Things are looking up for Melissa Ferrick.
Two years ago, the songwriter was mired in a long bout of writer's block, and questioning if she wanted to continue in the business as a performer. She'd begun teaching some courses at Boston's Berklee College of Music, and started to envision a career focused on the classroom, with occasional local gigs to blow off some steam as a performer.
She did finally put a record together, last year's "Still Right Here," but it was hard going. This week, she finished recording what she sees as a triumphant follow-up. She's extremely upbeat about the new work (which she describes as lying in the acoustic, Americana vein) and about her musical future.
"It was a battle to make it. It was a battle to write it," Ferrick says of "Still Right Here." Though it includes plenty of upbeat sentiments (particularly the life-affirming "Seconds Like These"), she says it was written and recorded over an extended period of time, and may not link together as a unified statement.
"I'm really, really happy I'm not in that head space today. That's really very clear right now, how happy I am that I have my health and my head and my heart, all in one place. It's really great: when you're lined up, you're lined up."
Ferrick plays The Linda, WAMC's performing arts center, tonight at 8.
She talks on the phone before a class at Berklee, one of four she's auditing this semester before taking on a full teaching load in the spring. For a few years she's led a five-week summer program aimed at high school students, but this will be the first time she's teaching full-time at the college level.
The experience has helped lead her back to her own work.
"It has really helped me get out of my own way, and that began the process of finding a love again for writing songs and making music," she says. "I learn tons. First of all, it makes me write more because I'm doing the work that they're doing. Then I'm inspired to write more I'm constantly engaged in learning, and I'm constantly engaged in musical thought, and talking about music, listening to music, thinking about music."
She'll be teaching courses like Lyric Writing I and Essentials of Songwriting. They're topics she has plenty of experience with, across 17 albums released since 1993.
Raised in Ipswich, Ferrick experienced success early when, in a story that's taken on mythic importance in her biography, she filled in on about an hour's notice as the opening act for a Morrissey concert and the singer brought her along on his national tour to repeat the feat nightly. She was quickly signed to Atlantic Records and released two albums before the major label dropped her.
She put out three subsequent albums on an indie label, before starting her own label and releasing her work for over a decade. Along the way she earned a rabid fanbase as a bold, emotionally direct songwriter who is frank about her life as a gay woman but who resists labels, musical or otherwise.
Her records usually feature full-band arrangements of her songs, but in concert she plays solo acoustic guitar with a raw energy and taps into her classical training to play the occasional trumpet. Part of the bond between Ferrick and her audience may come from her openness with fans and the press about her emotional vicissitudes and past difficulties with alcohol and other drugs.
"I have to be very vigilant about taking care of myself and not getting depressed and not getting too hard on myself and staying healthy and all of those things," she says. "I have a little bit of a fragile disposition. They have fancy words for it and they have pills you can take for it, but I don't do any of that stuff. I have to just ride with it."
One recent change was the decision to sign with a label again, MPress, which released her last album and will release the next one in May. It's been a relief ditching some of the do- it- yourself ethos of the previous decade of work, she says.
"I think when I put records out on my own, I'm not sure that the fans really understood it meant just me. I didn't have anyone in an office answering the phone or helping. I didn't have a publicist," she says.
Who: Melissa Ferrick
When: Tonight 8
Where: The Linda, 339 Central Ave., Albany, N.Y.
How: (518) 465-5233 extension 158; www.thelinda.org