DOWN TIME: “I thought a lot about what the gift has given, and what it’s taken away.”
It’s always an inspiring moment when an artist goes independent, breaks from the major-label corporate structure, and joins the brave new world of DIY. It’s a less inspiring moment when the same artist collapses from exhaustion a few years later.
Melissa Ferrick has been around the block a few times by now. Twelve years ago she was a wiry, intense folk-rocker just out of her teens, writing lacerating songs about tragic relationships, tearing her vocal cords on every tune, and scaring the pants off as many audience members as she attracted. With the help of some influential fans — including Morrissey, who had the unsigned Ferrick open a tour — she went straight to the majors and released Massive Blur (Atlantic, 1993), a fully electric album that caught much of the early intensity.
She hasn’t rested a lot in the interim; for the last few years she’s largely run her own career and released her own music. The albums have chronicled some of her personal changes: she came out as a lesbian early in her career, broke with drugs and alcohol a few years later, and went through a stormy relationship or two (2000’s Freedom, her most explicit album, may well be her best). The new In the Eyes of Strangers is her eighth studio album and 11th overall, and her sixth release on her own Right On label.
On the surface, not too much has changed. Ferrick’s urgent singing and percussive acoustic guitar style remain recognizable, and tortured love songs are still a specialty (when she writes a hopeful one, like this album’s opener “Never Give Up,” she tends to get it out of the way early). Look closely, however, and it sounds very much like a transitional record. She’s written self-depreciating lyrics before, but never quite as pointedly as on “Stuck” (“Everybody look at the folk singer, waiting on the love of her life. Come on and need me!”). “Rest Now” marks the first time she’s written about losing a friend — in this case the late singer/songwriter Chris Whitley, who she got to know on tour. And the subject of rest also comes up in the final track, “It’s Been a Long Time,” which is about catching one’s breath for the first time in years. Ferrick also wrote that one from experience, having cut a tour short last year when exhaustion caught up with her.
“I would always hear the stories that so-and-so got hospitalized from exhaustion, and I always thought it was bullshit,” she said recently from her home in Ipswich. “Then my body gave out. I was touring so extensively that I got walking pneumonia, and went to the hospital in a high fever. My mind was fine but my body was killing me everywhere.” Forced off the road, she found herself confronting a bunch of large issues at once. “I spent a lot of time being sad and depressed. Having those kinds of thoughts: why am I doing this? Do I want to settle down and have a kid?”