Sky Ferreira: comebacks and chaos

POP SURVIVOR:  Sky Ferreira.
POP SURVIVOR: Sky Ferreira.

A few weeks back, Sky Ferreira played a show at The Basement in London, a venue so exclusive that it's members only - you need a referral to even apply. The 100 Club, where Ferreira-favourite the Sex Pistols cut their teeth, is just a few doors away.

A hip crowd in the city where punk exploded should have been the perfect opportunity for Ferreira - young, wild, impossibly cool - to deliver a performance to match her fantastic debut album, Night Time, My Time.

Footage from the night shows just how wrong it went. After less than 90 seconds the bratty anthem I Will
lurches to a halt, with Ferreira mumbling, "I'm sorry, I can't hear anything."

The pattern was repeated over and again, with The Guardian reporting: "Ferreira does more apologising than singing, and her band barely gets to finish a song. It's frustratingly shambolic."

This is nothing new for Ferreira. She's only 21, but her career could already be viewed as an endless series of false dawns. Indeed, if Lorde has become the poster child for just how spectacularly well it can work out for a young woman in the music industry, then Sky Ferreira might be her antithesis - chewed up and spat out before she turned 20, by which time she was well on her way to becoming a cautionary tale.

And yet, the last couple of years have seen her roar back to the verge of stardom, thanks to her music finally matching her troubled, darkly glamorous narrative. In Night Time, My Time, Ferreira has conjured a debut of rare quality. Fizzy, ebullient and impassioned, it's a critic's favourite while also possessing enough mainstream appeal to land her a gig opening for Miley Cyrus across the US.

For all her recent success, though, there still seems something self-sabotaging about Ferreira - a will to chaos as strong as that to create.

At the time of going to print, she'd just been rushed to hospital after falling during a performance and needing 60 stitches in her leg. Her support slot with Miley Cyrus was temporarily pulled.

Troublesome live shows aren't the only cause of chaos.

When I speak with Ferreira she's just awoken from "a heavy, intense sleep" after her European tour, and is at the doctor's, waiting for her boyfriend Zachary Cole Smith, of indie band DIIV.

The pair gained a kind of neo-Kurt and Courtney notoriety in September of last year when they were arrested at a traffic stop in upstate New York. Their pickup had stolen plates, and each was carrying drugs – his heroin, hers ecstasy.

The timing was awful. Just the day before she had announced the release of her debut album, six long years after she first signed a record deal. Even if you subscribe to the idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, this was pretty unfortunate.

Alone, it mightn't have mattered - she's hardly the only one taking drugs for fun. But soon there was more controversy.

When her album cover was released, it  showed Ferreria naked in the shower, with a breast exposed. This alienated many who might otherwise have been natural allies, by appearing to pander to tired ideas about women needing to shed clothes to sell music.

"I got a lot of s... for having a nude album cover," she says flatly, "but I never had a second thought."

Given the proportion of our interview she devotes to fretting over her public perception, that sounds more like front than reality. But some of Ferreira's most intriguing qualities are the tensions she embodies: the great recording artist who can't play live; the pop singer in love with art rock; the feminist said to have very few female friends.

Above all: the picture-perfect star with deep human flaws.

Her childhood has a touch of curdled Los Angeles mythic. She was raised by her grandmother, Michael Jackson's long time hairstylist and birthdays were spent at Neverland.

There was darkness, too: she has openly discussed sexual assaults suffered in her adolescence.

Ferreira loathed school, and saw music as her fastest route out. As was the style in the mid-00s, she hustled on MySpace, and was signed to Capitol Records at just 15.

There followed a series of good-but-not-great singles, all trying on different styles. First Kylie, then Britney, then MIA.

Her look - bottle blonde with a knowing teen sexuality - was catnip to old record industry men and fashion moguls alike, and she modelled for Calvin Klein and Adidas.

Still, the music didn't stick. Her label began to tire of her, particularly her opinions, moving on to other, more malleable, pretty young things.

"I just felt rejected," says Ferreira of that era today. "I was told that I was done at 17, you know? I was told, 'You only
get one chance.' I don't necessarily believe that's true. Now I really don't believe it."

Nor should she. Ferreira has had more than a few chances, mostly well deserved. She has the perfect look and back-story for stardom, and a voice that stops you dead in your tracks - siren-like and deeply affecting. So despite her label giving up, there were still many around the industry who weren't ready to write her off.

She found confidence through collaboration with a succession of writer-producers, namely Ariel Rechtshaid, who has also worked with Haim and Vampire Weekend. He produced and co-wrote Night Time, My Time, an album that flew high on many critics' end-of-year lists, from online giant Pitchfork to establishment epitome Rolling Stone.

The latter compared Ferreira to the likes of 90s alt-rockers PJ Harvey and Shirley Manson.

This should have been a long-awaited vindication for Ferreira. Throughout our interview she speaks of her self-doubt and social anxiety and how she had desperately hoped the album would act as a panacea to this.

"I thought that if I had a big album and became successful, and became a pop star, suddenly the world would understand me," she says sadly. "[But] it kind of did the complete opposite."

All the credit she imagined flowing to her was instead diverted somewhere else. "I tend to work with male producers and... when it comes out it's their song, as if I had no input. And then when I do something wrong, it's always my fault. So when a song's bad, it's a bad Sky Ferreira song. When a song's good, it's an Ariel Rechtshaid song, or a Dev Hynes song."

As Ferreira sees it, her teenage years were shaped by record company men telling her they knew best, then damning her when singles failed to ignite. When they finally lost interest and she took control of her own career, selecting her own producers and writing her own songs, all the credit went to those men she chose as collaborators. It was, she felt, lose-lose.

It's easy to sympathise with her on that point. Gender imbalance, though improving, remains a potent issue for the music industry.

At the same time, as with many artists, maybe the cynical reviews just stick in her head. Because while a portion focus heavily on Rechtshaid's or Hynes' input, more praise her own contributions.

And so they should. Night Time, My Time is the first music she's ever made with which she is wholly satisfied. She paid to record it, and her taste ("I listen to Miley Cyrus, I listen to Britney Spears. But I also listen to Suicide and krautrock") guided its aesthetic.

Still, for all that's going right for Ferreira, a shadow still hangs over her. The arrest, the album cover and the rolling debacle that is her live show all feeds into the murmur that she is a little out of control.

It's a perception reinforced in conversation. "I don't communicate well in words," she admits at one point.

I wouldn't disagree. While sincere and engaged, her sentences are a relentless string of choppy fragments.

She will veer abruptly from one unfinished thought to the next, and sometimes gives an answer on an entirely
different topic to the question posed. Three times I ask her about her arrest; three times she speaks of something else.

"I have a hard time communicating what I want to say, or what I think, without it seeming insane or like weird," she says.

It is, in truth, a sometimes bewildering conversation. But pop music is about skill-sets. There are very few
Katy Perrys and Lady Gagas, and only one Beyonce.

So Ferreira's not the total package - that all-singing, all-dancing chimera - so what? We don't have our pop stars over for dinner, so their conversation style hardly matters. And only a few of us ever see their live shows.

The most important connection we have is through their music. And while it's manifest that Ferreira has been the architect of many of her own problems, she's done the right thing and used them as fuel for a superb debut.

Album standout I Blame Myself ("for my reputation", the lyric continues) feels like the emotional core of the record, a Cyndi Lauper-esque juggernaut that takes ownership of her problems in a way she struggles to articulate in interviews.

"These songs finally said everything I wanted to say for the last few years the right way," she says. "When friends
heard them they said, 'Oh, I get it, I see what you were talking about."

And isn't that enough? Isn't all that other stuff just noise?

Sunday Magazine