The Intimacy of a Solo

Melissa Ferrick touring again, this time on her own

Coming “home” to New York

Melissa Ferrick has three club dates this month. (PHOTO BY: Greg Kessler)

Melissa Ferrick loves the sound of New York, particularly in its clubs. The singer/songwriter has played at a lot of them: from the Bitter End to the Knitting Factory, Bowery Ballroom, and Joe’s Pub (where she has three solo shows on December 27 and 28), to Irving Plaza, where she’s opening for Martin Sexton on December 5.

Ferrick has made it a point to stop by the city often in her professional career, which began with 1993’s “Massive Blur,” and continues, a dozen or so records later, with the December release of her newest CD, “70 People at 70,000 Feet.”

“I lived here for a year in 1990,” she said. And like many another ex-New Yorker she lamented, “I never should’ve given up that apartment! I found a sense of camaraderie here with other artists that I haven’t found in Boston. I feel like my friends in life are in New York or claim it as a second home. It’s where you want to be. Where everybody listens because they’re smart listeners.”

Ferrick is flying solo again in the past few months, playing shows with just her guitar, after a period of about two years of fronting a band comprised of herself and drummer Brian Winton. But the collaboration with Winton was fruitful, resulting in the new live CD on Ferrick’s own Right On Records. The album is a record of one show out of the 200 to 300 sets Ferrick performs all over the U.S. and Canada each year, playing for a fan base that knows the words to her songs before she puts them out on record.

A Ferrick show comes with its own blinding energy, directed by the woman onstage with the guitar. She plays an ever-changing set list based in part on the album she’s touring behind, with a helping of the songs she’s working on for the next one. She also frequently dips into her sizeable catalog—13 CDs; ten studio recordings and live)—and lately has been performing well-received cover of Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl.” She’s also never shy about commenting from the stage on the happenings of the day.

The openly gay Ferrick has an audience of mostly women, but makes it a point to welcome whomever comes to her shows. She estimates that the audience is about 80 percent women, but she’s noticed more men in the house in the last few years. She also famously took a stand for inclusiveness by withdrawing from the Michigan Women’s Music Festival two years ago over their “women only” policy for artists and attendees that effectively excludes transgender participants.

“I get new fans every day,” Ferrick said. “The Ani rollover [fans of indie icon Ani DiFranco] is starting to happen. The hippies are starting to come out. They seek out music. I start to see, one by one, little groups of people dancing and floating around in the back. “And, I have to tell you, I never get heckled by the men. Sometimes when I’m playing, and I hear ‘Take your shirt off’ it’s always a woman. What I hear from the guys is: ‘You’re an amazing guitar player. I’m so glad I came––I had such a great time. I felt so welcome here.’”

Ferrick decided to perform solo again because she was worried that the theatricality of fronting a band was taking away from the intimacy of the words and the voice. A Ferrick audience can range from festive to rowdy, with the frisson of sexual tension in the crowd sometimes taking away from the tension between artist and audience. Happy, vivacious grrrls crowd the shows, looking for Ms. Right or Ms. Right Now, to the point where they sometimes talk over and through the songs, which distresses the person they’re ostensibly there to see.

“I never anticipated that, and I’ve noticed that the people who love my music are more annoyed than I am when it turns into a sort of girl bar. After all, this is not a DJ playing where you can talk all you want,” Ferrick said. “So that’s one of the reasons I went back to playing solo. And it’s made a big difference already, that and playing venues where people sit down. I found I was losing my sense of intimacy in rocking out with Brian, that I wasn’t communicating with the audience as much.

“It started to feel like it was the same show over and over again, just louder. And I almost felt as though I was abandoning my older fans, the people who had been seeing me for years didn’t want to come out and be in the middle of a crazy girl-bar scene. So I’ve reeled it in for the last 8 weeks, went out solo. And right now, I’m having such a good time playing, getting the audiences to listen. In the last few weeks, I’ve felt a lot more emotion from the audiences.”

Ferrick said she will continue to gig on occasion with Winton, who played and provided technical expertise on her last few albums. “There’s nobody else I’d rather play with, as a person and as a musician than Brian,” she said.

But in the short run, Ferrick has found that attendance at her shows has gone up, as fans who discovered her as a front woman in the last couple years buy tickets to see her solo.

Audiences at upcoming gigs will get to hear songs Ferrick has spent the last few months writing and honing for her next album. She’ll be going into the studio in December in Massachusetts to record the CD, which has a working title “The Other Side,” and is slated to come out next spring.

“I’ve been playing four or five of the new songs live,” she said. “You have to play it live for awhile, get used to it, see the audience’s reaction. The tempos change, and of course there’s my comfort level with singing it. I pretty much remember all the words after I write it, then it’s about the phrasing of it. It gets clearer and cleaner. It sits in my mouth the right way.”

Ferrick says she’s looking forward to getting back in the studio in a few weeks. A graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, she has played many instruments on her previous recordings and wants to make the record that’s as close as possible to what she hears in her head.

“I’ve never made a record without somebody else being there,” Ferrick said. “And with every record I’ve made, I’ve given up on stuff that I felt strongly about, or wanted a certain way. I have a hard time with confrontation, and I have a hard time saying no. When you’re making something with a bunch of people it’s important for everybody to have their moment, their say. But still, it’s my name on the cover.

“So I just want to do it myself. Some of this, I think comes from the fact that because I’m a woman, a lot of people think of girls as singers, not as players. But I’m a player, first and foremost. When I met Ani [DiFranco] I said to her: ‘I swear to God, Ani, I will not make another record that I listen to in six months and can’t hear my guitar. I am not going to ask myself why the fuck didn’t I turn my guitar up?’”

Forming Right on Records has given Ferrick greater freedom and she has added three other artists to its roster, all New York City based singer/ songwriters: Edie Carey, Anne Heaton, and Teddy Goldstein.

“The idea is to have Right On Records be a co-op for artists,” Ferrick explained. “All of these musicians are extraordinarily talented.” The four artists pool their resources, from mailing lists to fan bases, merchandise, and websites and have opened a full-time office with a manager.

Ferrick said the office will have four big maps of the U.S. on its walls, each keeping track of where the Right On artists are. Ferrick will rarely be in the office herself, instead, she can always be found, according to her song “Welcome to My Life,” in Boise, in Boston, Chicago or New Orleans, in Phoenix, Miami, Atlanta or Des Moines, in Cleveland, in Charleston, Chapel Hill or Detroit, in Austin, in Portland or Arlington or Brooklyn, in Hartford or Philly or… New York City.” At least on December 5 and December 27 and 28 of this particular month and year.

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