Friday, April 5, 2013

Sky Ferreira and the dark side of the music biz

Photograph: Graeme Robertson
Michael Cragg/The Gaurdian

It's so fucked up that people say, 'Oh, she's a flop,'" laughs Sky Ferreira, her artfully dishevelled bright blonde hair framing a face tight with the tension of a person who's read too many blog comments. "Well what the fuck are you doing?" she asks, not unreasonably. "It's not even failing; at least I tried. I tried and I don't regret it because the only way to get stuff done is trying."

Signed to a record deal at the age of 15 and billed, as she puts it, as "Britney-meets-teen Lolita", in 2010 Ferreira released two great singles, 17 and One , before bringing the whole thing crashing down when she publicly slagged off the Katy Perry-esque stomp of what was supposed to be her proper launch single, Obsession. Bored of waiting for her debut album to be released – she claims she submitted it three times and completed 68 songs in total – she forced her way out of her contract, started working with producers Dev Hynes (Solange), Ariel Reichstadt (Charli XCX) and Jon Brion (Fiona Apple), and has just completed an album of brooding electro-tinged bangers and acoustic confessionals, led by recent music blog catnip Everything Is Embarrassing.

The way Ferreira talks about her first brush with being a pop star makes you wonder why she didn't just pack it all in and live on a farm. She claims she was forced into recording Obsession ("[The label] were like, 'If you do this then you can do whatever you want later,' which wasn't true"), was worked so hard that she fell asleep in interviews ("People thought I was nodding off, like on drugs") and encouraged not to stray too far from the usual pop star line vis-a-vis having a personality. "I had to be this wholesome teenager from Los Angeles, but sexy as well, but in a weird way because I was underage," she says with a shrug. "You can be sexual if it benefits them, but if it benefits you then forget it. They want their pop stars to be blank but they also want them to be godly. They want you to be the girl next door that's relatable but not offensive. There was a point where I was like, 'I don't want anything to do with being a pop star.' I didn't want anything to do with what it required. I don't want that."

Ferreira was never going to flourish under the regime of a big-money major-label contract (she's now signed to Polydor, but with a much smaller budget and lower commercial expectations). "I was always very to myself as a kid and painfully shy," she says, avoiding eye contact as if to reiterate her point. "I hate being forced to do things. I hate people telling me what to do so I'll do the complete opposite. It's a bit self-destructive sometimes. I've got a little better with it lately, but when I was younger, forget it. People translated it to me being a bitch or being snobby."

She wasn't exactly feeling school either. "I hated the structure of school. Also, if you don't become friends with the right group of people, then you're screwed. I found it really weird. Being on my first label reminded me of high school. I was like, 'I did music to get out of this and ended up back in it,' with people with worse egos and habits."

Her shyness meant that her often weekly trips to hang out with family friend Michael Jackson remained a secret (her gran was his hairdresser). "I rarely told anyone. The thing is I didn't know the extent of his fame. I knew he was a singer. I was just too used to it, I guess." There's an obvious fondness for those days spent hanging out at Neverland with her grandmother, a woman she lived with as a child and who she often refers to as her mother. "I didn't grow up in a regular upbringing. I ended up at my grandmother's house past a certain age, so I took care of things myself. I moved out of home when I was 16." She's also at pains to distance herself from the Valley girl image that was thrust upon her when she first emerged. "People think I come from a really wealthy family," she sighs. "My mum did hair and hairdressers aren't exactly loaded. My dad had two stores on Venice Beach, as in he worked in them. He sold T-shirts and incense."

It's this bundle of bold ambition, crippling shyness and fierce independence that makes Ferreira fascinating. While she's not ashamed of the music she's done in the past – "I liked recording those songs but at the moment they're just not where my head is" – the switch from 'credible Britney' to a Tumblr version of Shirley Manson (who wrote her song Red Lips) has led to accusations that she's still being controlled.

"People think it's like a marketing scam," she says of her change in musical taste. "I must be the best actress ever, you know. I feel like I didn't know who I was when I was 15. I don't feel like you're who you are for life, not even when you're 20. I would love to pull out people's yearbooks from when they were younger and be like, 'You're fake! You're not this person any more! You've dyed your hair!'" she laughs. "People are mad that I bleached my hair, like, 'She changed her hair, I liked the old Sky.' It's the same person. The same person you hated before." She lets out a big honking guffaw before adding in a perfect LA drawl, "Kidding."

Ferreira's recent videos, including the vampish, black-and-white clip for Everything Is Embarrassing, have been funded by the money she makes from modelling campaigns for Calvin Klein, Adidas and Yves Saint Laurent. In a world in which you're seemingly only allowed to be one thing at a time, and that thing for the rest of your life, this has caused its own problems, with Pitchfork, now a huge supporter, referring to her as a "classic downtown It Girl". "It implies that you're part of a moment and that you don't have any talent," she says. "I hate when people call me a socialite because you have to have money to be a socialite, which I don't have. Because I go to parties and I've been out I'm suddenly a party girl? There are people who party way harder than me. Also, it's not anyone's business, I'm 20 years old! Am I meant to be staying at home popping out children? Are we in the 1800s?"

We talk about the making of Ferreira's currently untitled debut album (Wild At Heart and I'm Not Alright have both been mooted). She's nervous about people hearing it because it's so personal and she's so involved with the songs. Perhaps this time, she will avoid the endless buzz cycle she was previously trapped in. "I know that hype comes and goes, they'll find another person," she says, calmly. "Everyone's always looking for the next thing when they've only just found the last next thing like that day. And that's when people feel like they have to put out mixtapes every week. Sometimes less is more."What does she think would have happened if one of those three early albums she turned in had been released? "I think I would have been stuck somewhere I didn't want to be stuck," she says. "Everything does really happen for a reason because I'm in a way better position than I was in before. Yeah, I might not have the million-dollar record deal , but the album is something I'm actually proud of."

Everything Is Embarrassing is out now

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