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Melissa Ferrick, once known as the other Melissa – arriving, as she did, just a few years after Melissa Etheridge – has been out from the beginning of her career, unlike Etheridge. Ferrick made a name as a riveting live performer, famous for busting strings as she worked over her guitar. Initially a major-label artist in the early to mid-1990s, when the record execs thought it was profitable to have female singer/songwriters on their rosters, Ferrick later did time on an indie label, as well as her own.
Now comfortably at MPress, which is run by fellow queer singer/songwriter Rachael Sage, the prolific Ferrick returns with “The Truth Is,” on which she explores her torch and twang side. Not an easy listen – no one does heartbreak like Ferrick – her latest release shows that she hasn’t lost her knack for making the personal universal and framing it in memorable musical arrangements.
I spoke with Ferrick about the new record earlier this month.
Your new disc “The Truth Is” opens with the Nashville twang of “Wreck Me,” a sound that resurfaces on the title track. How did Nashville find its way to Massachusetts?
Melissa Ferrick: I think what first sparked it, the pedal steel specifically, was touring with (Americana act) Field Report … as I was beginning to write this record. There is a pedal steel player in that band. By maybe the third show of a solo tour I was doing after that, I asked them to sit in with me, particularly on a song called “I Don’t Want You to Change.” It certainly wasn’t the first time I thought about pedal steel. I’m a huge Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams fan. Not using any electric guitars on this album was also a conscious decision. I wanted to make a wider, more Americana record, that’s for sure.
You play the flugelhorn on “Wreck Me.” Was that an instrument you played in school as a kid, or was it something you picked up as an adult?
I started playing trumpet when I was in first grade. That’s the instrument I was on scholarship for at Berklee (College of Music in Boston). I’ve been playing horn for a very long time.
In addition to Paula Cole, there are other amazing musical guests on the disc, including Natalia Zukerman, Rose Polenzani, Anne Heaton. What does it mean to have a community of talent such as this from which to draw?
It’s enormous, as I’m sure you know. I had a terrible breakup with someone I had been back and forth with for a few years. As soon as I started writing, I wrote “Pity Song” and “Everything You Were” and “Overboard.” Then I reconnected with Paula and Natalia and Rose, and Anne Heaton came back. (These were) friendships I had for decades – people that had been in my life and loved me (but) were not in my life when I was in this relationship. Rightly so. I was not the fullest self I could be. A lot of the most important relationships in my life had fallen to the wayside because of that. To then call on them to come play on this record was an effort on my part (to say), “Will you come be a part of this beautiful thing I’m making?” And, of course, their answer was yes. The making of this record was so joyful that any pain I had been in at the beginning of the year was erased by the time I was able to make this record. It’s really nice to have my friends and their talents on this record.
Do you ever wonder if there are women out there thinking, “I’m not going to get into a relationship with Melissa Ferrick – she’s going to write about me when we breakup”?
I know! I actually joked about that onstage in New York the other night after I played “Overboard.” I said, “I bet you’re glad you’re not her.” I’m not really all that concerned at all, just because I don’t think that person would ever buy a record by me anyway.
Well then good riddance!
Exactly (laughs)! I did a podcast with (musician) Teddy Goldstein, and we talked at length about is it imperative to be in pain and frustration or to be going through things as a writer? My instinctive answer is yes. I write better from pain.
Equally as intense as “Overboard” is “Take in All the Plants” which sounds like a song about a natural disaster crossed with a personal disaster.
It is, yes. It’s a metaphor for where I was. That song was written two weeks before Hurricane Sandy hit, which was weird. Trina Shoemaker, the woman who mixed this record, lived through Katrina. She experienced carrying her infant son through floodwaters. She lost her entire house and her studio. That song means a lot to her, but for me it was a reflection of how I felt at the end of 2011, the beginning of 2012. It was a devastating New Year’s. That whole idea of getting into an interior room (during a storm) … was a reflection of how I felt. I usually put the piece I’m most proud of lyrically last on my records.
You have upcoming dates playing at the Backlot Bash in Chicago and the National Women’s Music Festival in Middleton. As a regular performer in the Great Lakes region, what do you like about performing here?
I’ve said this so many times before, but it’s the truth: If (not for my family), I’d live in Chicago. It’s my favorite city in the United States, hands-down, period. I love everything about it. I love the people there. I love the architecture and the art. I love the music, the scene there. It’s always been strong. I love the food (laughs). I have another important part of my life – my recovery is very strong there. I love that. I know that when I go to Chicago I feel at home, in more ways than one. The audiences are incredible. They’re great listeners. There are great rooms to play. I haven’t played National Women’s Music Festival in years. They asked me to play this year, and I said yes.
Melissa Ferrick performs at the National Women’s Music Festival on July 6 in Middleton. For more, go to wiaonline.org.