Songwriter Melissa Ferrick, coming to The Ark, explores works of others
When you’re a highly regarded songwriter, known for writing emotionally-intense songs and performing them with unusual intensity — and, suddenly the songs aren’t coming to you like they used to — what do you do to break the creative logjam?
Photo by Shervin Lainez
Well, if you’re Melissa Ferrick, you learn and record songs written by other artists, just to keep your musical muscles in shape. And, in her case, it worked.
Ferrick’s latest recording is a mostly-covers album, cleverly-titled “Enough About Me,” which features her own, more spare versions of songs written by the likes of Patty Griffin, U2, Radiohead, Barenaked Ladies, Aimee Mann and others. But she also includes re-interpretations of two of her own, previously released, songs: “Bad Habit” and “Hypocrite.”
“So I went back to what I did when I started out — learning and playing other people’s songs. Then I began playing ‘em at shows and people really responded, so I thought, ‘Well, why not put out a whole album of them?’
“That process really sparked my own creativity, so then, after all that, I spent most of last fall and early winter at home, writing new songs. I mostly quit touring, and just played shows here in New England,” says Ferrick, who is based in the Boston area. She says her album of new original material will probably be released early next year.
Initially, Ferrick toyed with some conceptual ideas for the covers album — “like, ‘should I do one disc of just women writers and one disc of just men writers, or should I just do writers from the northeast?’ But I tend to overthink things, so I just decided to do songs that I really like.”
Melissa Ferrick performing Patty Griffin's "Moses" live this spring:
The covers album commences with Mann’s “Deathly” — fitting, since it was the first song she learned and recorded for “Enough.”
“I’m a huge Aimee fan — I was in high school when ‘Til Tuesday was popular, so I went back and began listening to early Aimee, and it led me to ‘Deathly’."
Ferrick didn’t go into the covers project with thoughts of drastically altering the tone or basic structure of the original versions: “I didn’t want change the chords or anything like that. I just wanted to feel ‘em coming through me, the way I heard them.”
There are a couple of exceptions. U2’s “One” is slower than the original, and Ferrick knew she “didn’t want to incorporate the most recognizable part of the song, which is the Edge’s guitar part.”
She also didn’t want to give in to the temptation to deliver a big, anthemic, bombastic performance — a temptation that U2 succumbs to all too often. “So, the only way to get that out of my head was to do it in a slower time signature, and just play the chords, and boil and it down to the essence of the lyrics.
“With all of the terrible things going on in the world, I wanted to do it as a love song to the world, as opposed to just directing it to one person.”
The other exception was the Barenaked Ladies’ “Call and Answer,” one of their earlier songs. “I remember it from back in the mid-‘90s, when a guy from Atlantic Records said to me, ‘Hey, listen to this new band, I just signed them.’ I love them, but this song had a bridge that just didn’t fit in with the guitar loops I'd created, and it was making me crazy, trying to get it to work, so I finally just cut the bridge.”
Ferrick’s cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” is comfortably compelling, in that it is less bleak than Thom Yorke’s mopey and lugubrious vocal performance of the song. Ferrick casts the character as more vulnerable, less “creepy.”
“Thom is a great writer, and I love their music, and my first intent was to do their song ‘High and Dry,’ but I kept messing with it and messing with it, and I over-mixed it to the point where I felt like I had ‘lost’ it,” shares Ferrick.
“So I went on YouTube, just to see what else of theirs was out there that I had maybe forgotten about, and there was a clip of me playing ‘Creep’ at a club, and everyone was singing along, so I thought, ‘Okay, that’s it.’ So I just went back and in and played it the same way I did at that live show.” Listen to Melissa Ferrick "Creep" (MP3).
Ferrick recorded the entire album herself, playing the acoustic and electric guitars, manipulating some of those guitar sounds to create loops, and employing a new drum machine to create the rhythm tracks.
As for her next album, Ferrick says that, sonically, it is “rougher than what I’ve been putting out lately, more rough around the edges. Based on what I’ve recorded so far, I think it has sort of a Lucinda Williams sound.”
Ferrick says that she is also finding that “the lyrics are also more emotionally raw. I’m turning 40 this year, so I don’t know if that is part of it. But I sort of feel like I’m at a crossroads, like there is some kind of anger or life frustration that is coming out of me now,” adds Ferrick, who, back in ’96, “bottomed out” (her words) with drugs and alcohol before getting sober.
“I’m feeling like I have less patience when dealing with mundane, day-to-day crap, and that I also have less patience with myself,” she confesses. “And those feelings are definitely making it into the songs. I think it’s going to be a pretty intense record.”