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She Writes the Songs

Acouple 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...
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Acouple 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 sexual identity. In her decadelong 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."

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 20, Ferrick was trafficking in acoustic, folk-singer-on-a-coffee-house-stage fare when she got a call to open for Morrissey in Boston; Phranc, the notorious Jewish lesbian folk singer, 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 14 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 Blur is 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 her, 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 labellessness 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."

Picking herself up after life's little kicks in the proverbial ass is among the themes on Ferrick's latest release, Freedom, her third recording for the Boulder-based indie label What Are Records? (following 1997's Melissa Ferrick +1 and 1998's Everything I Need). The writing and recording of Freedom was an experience Ferrick describes as truly cathartic: For the first time in perhaps a decade, she wasn't involved in a serious romantic relationship, an aspect she explored openly in her music. The album's title track, for example -- a moving, acoustic rock ballad reminiscent of a harder-edge Indigo Girls -- delves into fears about relationships: "I'm afraid of settling down/Into a love that ain't love at all." And on "Win 'em Over," Ferrick repeats a mantra of sorts that sounds like it comes from a pre-concert pep rally: "But you win 'em over/With your smile/You win 'em over/With a charming sense of humor." Ferrick also dishes out some seductive, whimsical trips on tracks like "Hold On" and "Drive," a sexy ditty about, well, sex.

Though creating Freedom was in many ways therapeutic, it also brought to light some of the pitfalls of being on an independent label -- namely the lack of financial support available when it comes to production. In the era of record-company conglomeration, Ferrick is in an awkward (but not uncommon) position of operating, to some degree, as an independent artist, despite label backing. Though she describes her relationship with W.A.R.? as a largely satisfactory one, Ferrick realized early into the recording of Freedom that she would have to contribute more than just artistry in order to make the record sound like she wanted it to. With a budget of $5,000, the musician slept on a friend's couch, got her daily dose of coffee from her bass player, who stole the java from the cafe where she worked, and kicked in $2,500 of her own cash just to finish things up.

"It was just ridiculous, the length to which I was forced to go to as an artist to make this record. I think the label is pretty well aware that I feel that way," she says. "We went to any length to make this record, and I think that shows. There is a part of me that's very angry at my label that they would treat me or any artist like that because they won't spend any money."

Despite Ferrick's criticisms of the label, W.A.R.? maintains a positive attitude about Freedom's potential in the marketplace. "Sales for Freedom are 60 percent ahead of our last record in the same week, so things are good," says W.A.R.? founder/president Rob Gordon. "The money you spend [on making a release] does not equal the quality of product, and there are many different ways to go about producing music. There was minimal production involved, but it's very true to her live sound. I'm sorry that Melissa is mentioning [money], because I don't think it really matters," he adds.

Funding squabbles aside, W.A.R.? -- which recently signed heavies Tim Finn and Frank Black -- prides itself on enlisting hardworking musicians, and Gordon says Ferrick is no slouch when it comes to the musical work ethic. "Her songwriting is quite good, her live performances are phenomenal and her personality onstage is magnetic," Gordon says.

That magnetic personality, along with the musical highs and lows Ferrick has experienced, is exactly what attracted the attention of Washington, D.C., filmmaker Wendy Tumminello. Along with the likes of Jane Siberry and New York City's Moxie, Ferrick is featured in For the Love of Rock, a documentary that will be unveiled next October at a D.C. film fest that profiles top women musicians doing what they love to do: writing and playing music on their own terms. "Melissa has gone through a lot and she's grown so much," says Tumminello. "We put these musicians on such pedestals, and even when you're at the level of, say, Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls [who also appears in the flick], they're just like you and me, trying to make a living. Listening to Melissa worry about financials, is she going to get more people at her gigs, it's stressful. For musicians and artists like her, it's a craft with them. They just haven't gotten their due, and hopefully they will."

Getting her due is exactly what Ferrick strives for these days, but she's also quick to point out that she's willing to share space on the musical block with the New Kids of today and musicians from other genres. "I have pictures of Christina Aguilera on my visor, and I listen to Britney Spears," she explains. "I mean, no shit. I understand there's space for everybody and everything here. I don't need the world to become some utopia for women's music, but there is a space for it, it exists, and it's not going away. I want to be validated and feel validated, just like the other acts."

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