Melissa Ferrick‘s career kicked off with a freak chance of fate back in 1991 when she was called in last minute to replace Morrissey‘s opening act less than an hour before showtime. She seized this golden opportunity and built an insanely loyal fan base by touring the world and releasing 12 studio albums (plus four live) over the last 20 years. Many have been introduced to Melissa through her tours with fellow female-centric, gay friendly, acoustic singer songwriters like the Indigo Girls, k.d. Lang, Tegan & Sara, Rachael Sage and Ani DiFranco, in particular. However, she is probably best known as the singer of “Drive,” that uber sexy song you love from the mix tape your ex-girlfriend gave you.
Her live shows are a unique experience as she draws the audience into her inner world, sharing the back stories and inspiration behind many of her songs. After a four year hiatus, her frustrating bout with writer’s block is finally over with the release of her new album, Still Right Here.
I chatted with Melissa about life as a sober musician on the road, her friendship with Ani, her coming out story, the inspiration behind “Drive,” and why she’s a little irritated that the lesbian anthem was never used on The L Word.
What’s the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you on stage or on the road?
Well, I had a show in Buffalo where I was in the middle of playing an older song and – this isn’t the first time this has happened – and a fan who had been partaking in far too many alcoholic beverages decided it was time to come up on stage. I was literally in the middle of playing a song and she walked up on stage and started talking to me! Like, “I need to tell you about my girlfriend….” and I’m still playing the song and the crowd has obviously got my back. She’s stumbling a little bit and I know tomorrow she’s not going to remember that she’s done this thing so that’s horrifying. There were wires everywhere and she was obviously intoxicated and I didn’t want her to fall and hurt herself, so I ended up talking back to her like, “Oh that’s really neat! I will totally hang out with you after the show, but you need to get off the stage because you’re gonna fall down.”
So, really weird things like that happen. I remember in Northhampton I walked over to the side of the stage and there was a girl sitting on the stage and I went over and she was just smiling at me. She seemed really nice, so I made out with her. She just seemed like someone I would make out with and I wanted to kiss her, so I did.
Because sometimes I play and I feel invisible, you know? It’s an experience for me too — it’s kind of a give and take thing. That show was packed. It was standing room only and Tegan and Sara were opening for me, so it was huge. This was at the height of that scene in the early 2000s and I just thought “fuck it, why not!” I will say I did manage to keep playing the guitar while I made out with her, so I was pretty proud of that! I can kiss and play guitar at the same time.
How is it to be a sober musician playing in bars and clubs? I have friends who are musicians so I know they are sort of obligated to hang out after their shows and party with the crowd and club owners. How has it been for you?
Most of the time, 95% of the time, I just don’t have the desire to drink anymore. But that comes and goes. Sometimes I do want to, but I don’t drink. It’s not that I feel any sort of obligation to drink — I’m an adult and I never feel any pressure from club owners to hang out with them. If I were to say that I feel pressure to drink and hang out, that would just be an excuse, you know? It’s my responsibility. If I drink or do drugs, it doesn’t work for me. I’ve done it, and it doesn’t work for me. I’m really comfortable with just trying to be who I am. What I do struggle with is fear, which is part of being an alcoholic. For me, fear expresses itself in anxiety and panic, and when that happens it’s difficult for me to interact with people. It’s difficult for me to take care of myself physically, so I lose weight. I get anxious. There are lots of people have that problem.
Was there a defining moment when you decided to quit drinking? You were 26 or something, right?
That part of my story I’m really not comfortable sharing because it’s so private. I think I’m comfortable saying it got to a point where I had a moment of clarity where I felt that I could no longer continue to live my life as I was. That has happened to me in sobriety. It’s not just about the drinking. The disease of alcoholism is a mental and physical experience. It’s a lifelong problem. It’s literally a day at a time. Some days are really easy, and some days my head feels like I need a drink. It gets crazy up there and other people who have this problem will relate to that.
You teach song writing at Berklee, right? What advice do you have for singer/songwriters looking to get to the next level of their career? Obviously there are the competition shows like “The Voice” as a fast track to a career, but so few have that opportunity.
Well, for the students I notice that everyone is trying to be somebody else, and the point is that you already are somebody. You don’t have to try to be anybody else. Taking that pressure off is something that has to be re-taught over and over and over again. You need to be reminded that you can stop trying to be somebody. You have to play live. And the truth is, in the indie world you have to do it all yourself. You are responsible for your own career.
I highly suggest they take music and business classes. It’s incredibly important. There is a lot of great co-writing that’s going to happen and stuff that you can learn about melody and metaphor and similes and beats of measures that make songs stronger. It’s a craft, and it’s something I’m still learning. I’m currently auditing four classes right now at Berklee. For a long time I didn’t really believe you could teach songwriting, but I think I’ve changed my mind about that. There’s a lot of talent. There are women and men who are writing circles around me and other people that I know who are really inspiring me to be a better writer and that’s what I love about it.
A while ago you had said that you don’t mind people downloading your music for free online. You likened it to sharing a mixtape with a friend and people discovering you that way and you’ll make the money other ways, whether they’ll come to a show or buy merchandise. Do you still feel that way about online piracy?
That’s a good question. My instinct is to tell you yes, I’m still cool with it. But I gotta tell you, I’m quite certain that a lot of people have stolen my song “Drive” and I would probably be retired if every single lesbian had downloaded it legally, versus what I’ve made from the women who’ve actually bought a ticket to watch me play live. I don’t know? I think the real question is, aren’t you supposed to get both?
When I go to YouTube and I see people using “Drive,” particularly to edit better scenes from the The L Word, when my song was never in The L Word! I have a little bit of a problem with that. I don’t think that’s really fair. First of all, it’s just misrepresentive because I never got placed in that show, that song never appears. The whole world of intellectual property and copyright law — Oh my god, I get ramped up over that. It’s crazy. But do I care? Ultimately no. I just had ravioli and I have a car in the parking lot. I paid my mortgage this month. Ultimately, everything is cool. I think I just can’t get wrapped up when I think I’m owed. It’s such a negative space to be in like energy wise. I can’t walk around thinking people owe me stuff, you know?
When “The L Word” was on the air were you actively trying to get a song of yours played? Did you submit to the music supervisor (Elizabeth Ziff aka EZGirl)?
Yes, yes… I was offended that none of my music was on “The L Word.” I was disappointed and kinda shocked, actually. Even though I didn’t actively pursue it, I know the creator of the show and I know the music supervisor. But I was never asked, so that’s a bummer. I would’ve written a song — I probably would’ve let them use it for free! But I’m still a fan and I’m a fan of those people. I still like them as people. But I thought it was a little odd.
How do you know Ilene Chaiken?
I filmed my first music video at her house in Los Angeles. I was friends with her ex. I’ve had many dinners with her.
Wow, that’s funny.
That’s one word for it! [laughing]
What do you think of The Real L Word?
I think it’s awesome! I think it’s like The Bachelor for lesbians! [laughing] It’s so bad it’s fantastic! I love it. I’m obsessed with that girl with the fucking dreads.
I hate her and I want to make out with her. You know what I mean? I love it! It’s not like I DVR it, but if I’m home from a tour and I’ve missed three weeks of The Real L Word I better watch all of them. It’s reality TV for lesbians.
We need to talk about “Drive.” How did the song come about exactly? Your girlfriend at the time dared you to write a song about sex? Were you avoiding writing something that was so explicitly sexual before that?
Ok, well Janet Jackson‘s Velvet Rope album was a huge record and I fell madly in love with this girl who lived in California. I was moving back home to Boston and she drove across the country with me, and while we were driving she played me Velvet Rope. And Janet Jackson was making these sexual noises on that record and I cannot even describe… I’m just like… hearing sex drives me crazy. Seeing sex — if you were just like watching sex on TV with no sound — it wouldn’t phase me. But I’m a sound person, obviously. So she played me this record and I couldn’t even listen to it because it just worked me up so much. And so, you know, we had to drive across the country and there were some car moments with the record [laughing]. We would fool around in the car while Janet Jackson‘s Velvet Rope was on, and that’s how it happened. I was like “This is unbelievable. Janet Jackson is so ballsy to do this. This is amazing.”
And my girlfriend at the time was teasing me saying, “You could never do a song like this.” So I basically wrote the song for her to show her I could do it and she said I was crazy if I didn’t release it. The original version I sent her was like 14 and a half minutes long but I don’t have a copy of it. She still has it.
What are you listening to right now?
Honestly, and this is so boring, but I mostly just listen to classical music. And not to give another nod to my friend Ani, but her new record is brilliant and “Hearse” is just absolutely amazing.
That’s my favorite song on her new album.
As soon as I got the record I let her know. I just replied to her immediately and was like, “Forget about it with ‘Hearse,’ It’s awesome.” It’s a killer song.
How did you and Ani meet and become friends?
I met Ani originally in 2005 in New Orleans. I was playing a gig there with her old drummer and keyboard player, so she came and hung out backstage after the show. It was really random. The next day we were off, so she invited us over for dinner. Then we did a tour together — the first of a bunch of tours we’ve done together. We’re becoming great friends and she’s just an amazing human being and an incredible artist. She’s the real deal, ya know? She’s trying to be the best person she can and I really admire that about her. I admire her generosity and also her ability to separate her artist self from her personal life and set boundaries and take care of her personal life. There are really different sides to her. I don’t have that ability, so I really like to learn from that.