Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.
You’ll often hear teachers encourage their students to write as if they are composing a letter to a friend or scribbling in their journal. We’re all supposed to be showing and not telling, writing our stories like they’re a movie, and so on and so forth. The irritating thing about these clichés is that they are so true. We all seem to be at our best creatively when we are relaxed enough to just say what we really mean. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the context of singer Sky Ferreira, who earlier this week made her debut TV appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and is working on her debut full-length, to be released later this year.
"When her debut EP 'Ghost' showed up in my email I laughed approvingly at the title: Seriously, who was Sky Ferreira besides a yet-unformed young girl haunting herself?"
Ferreira is only 20 but she’s been around for a bit, cast as a kind of dark horse in the running for Princess Of Pop, millennial generation. I wasn’t a huge fan at first. She was this doll-like vaguely gothy blonde with post-coital hair who did some modeling and acting and singing and started appearing in party round-ups and the pages of fashionable alternative culture magazines. Everything about Ferreira should appeal to someone like me -- she’s beautiful and stylish but a little off kilter -- and yet I felt awkward looking at her image or sharing social space with her at fashion week parties or rock shows. She just seemed … lost, and not in a stylized way. She was just kid with a lot of different talents and zero sense of what to do with them. Model? Actress? Singer? And if we go with singer, then what kind of singer? Mainstream? Indie pop? Coffee-house acoustic girl? Or glitzy EDM persona? No one could say for sure, least of all Ferreira, a problem she openly discussed in interviews. When her debut EP Ghost showed up in my email I laughed approvingly at the title: Seriously, who was Sky Ferreira besides a yet-unformed young girl haunting herself?
Then I heard “Everything Is Embarrassing,” and her entire identity seemed to come into focus. There’s a line in Marc Spitz’s excellent novel How Soon Is Never -- which is about a guy who attempts to reunite the Smiths to win over his crush -- where the main character hears the Smiths’ debut for the first time. “These songs made loneliness, sadness, and outrage seem so cool,” he says. “Everything I hated about myself became everything I loved inside of one hour.” That line sums up something key about pop music and about art in general, something all those writing teachers have said all along: Telling the truth can transform what’s ugly into what’s beautiful. With this one plaintive unvarnished electro piano track Ferreira took the vibe she’d been giving off -- little ingénue lost at the fabulous party -- and synthesized it into something powerful, redemptive, and pure. I listen to this song and the memories I have of stumbling around in life feeling wounded and vulnerable suddenly feel like some of my proudest and not my most humiliating.
“Lately I’ve just been writing whatever comes naturally and what I would actually listen to,” the singer told me amidst a mad few days in New York surrounding the Fallon performance. She’d been tweeting about a typically quirky array of topics -- from the release of The Hobbit (she’s obsessed) to the sex horoscope she’d like to start to photos of her taken by Terry Richardson at the Chateau Marmont. But as her debut TV appearance neared the tweets slowed as her nerves took over. “I’ve had a sinus infection for two weeks and I have intense stage fright so I was extremely nervous,” she explained. Luckily, she had some seriously professional help. “We only rehearsed the song for 15 minutes and the Roots played it like they’d known it forever,” she recalled. It’s as strong a TV debut as I’ve seen in a while. Ferreira comes off like a blend of Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks: a sexy, vulnerable vaguely witchy star in the making. And she seemed anything but nervous.“Questlove was really supportive,” she said of her clear onstage confidence. “He had me do some breathing exercises right before I came on.” There you go. It’s all about showing not telling.
Watch Sky Ferreira on Fallon, below: