Sky Ferreira started making her own music at the age of 15 and signed to a major label at 17. Yet for years she labored in label purgatory, hesitant to follow a career path sketched out by industry executives who envisioned her as a Britney Spears-esque teen Lolita, and unsure how to make her own mark on the industry.
With her debut full-length, “Night Time, My Time,” the singer, now 21, firmly strikes out on her own, brushing aside the past on “Heavy Metal Heart” when she sings, “The way I was before / I'm not her anymore.”
The shift has served Ferreira's music career well. She recently opened a string of dates for Vampire Weekend, and she's slated to tour arenas with Miley Cyrus next year. Offstage, however, the rising pop star has courted her fair share of controversy, posing topless for her album cover, canceling shows with a vocal cord illness and dealing with the fallout from a September arrest for possession of ecstasy.
Amid this turmoil, music has remained Ferreira's refuge, keeping the singer, in her own words, from her more “self-destructive tendencies.” “I think it's healthy for me to let it out [in my music] so I don't end up exploding,” she said by phone from Los Angeles in late October, “which totally happens.”
Ferreira went on to discuss the '80s inspiration behind “Night Time,” her tear-streaked performance at the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival and how the music industry has helped her develop thicker skin.
You recently performed at an Elliott Smith tribute show. I take it you're a fan?
I’ve been a huge Elliott Smith fan since I was in high school. When I listen to music I pay attention to the lyrics — that’s the first thing for me — and he’s one of the best lyricists ever. I always had a real personal connection to [his music] even though I was only like 13 when I first heard him.
He was never afraid to show vulnerability onstage — a trait you appear to share. When you performed at Pitchfork, you broke into tears at several points.
I don’t dance around, and I don’t have any pyrotechnics going on, so I feel like showing that vulnerability is how I get my point across. I always try to mean what I sing because there’s no other reason to do this. I have to say … when it gets to that point I really don’t have any control over it. It’s really not the most flattering thing because if you’re crying on stage people tend to think you’re crazy.
The melody on the chorus of “You’re Not the One” reminded me of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
I didn’t have that in mind, but I can totally hear it. Maybe I did that subconsciously? The record is ’80s-inspired, for sure, because I do listen to a lot of music from the ’80s, and melodically that’s where I go sometimes. I grew up with Madonna and Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson.
Even so, it's an emotionally heavy album, and a lot of the songs deal with things like regret or making amends. Were you working through anything in particular?
I was very self-reflective about things I’ve had to live through over the last three years. I’ve learned a lot, but some of it makes me very upset. I’m definitely not the person that started out [making music] five years ago. I felt like I needed to make more of a personal record than some kind of big, artistic statement, if you know what I mean.
Do you worry people will be too quick to assign meaning to a song like “I Blame Myself,” relating it to some of the news headlines, like the arrest, that have swirled around you more recently?
I’m sure. I guess in some ways it is about that now. I have a show at the El Rey [Theatre] tomorrow and I’m sure I’ll be thinking about that a little when I’m singing it because it is so recent. The idea behind that song came from the past two years in general and being a new artist and a young artist and a girl and having to maneuver my way through the industry in order to get what I want out. I definitely have thicker skin because of it.
Are there any songs you grew up listening to where you thought the lyrics meant one thing and you later learned the musician was saying something wildly different?
In some ways that’s what happened with Elliott Smith. When I first listened to him I thought it was all about love, but ... as I got older it was like, “Oh, wait, that’s what he's talking about?” That’s why I’m so interested in lyrics because the meaning always changes for me, and I connect most strongly to music when it makes me feel something.
At one point on the album you sing, “Nobody asked me if I was ok.” Are you?
[Laughs] You know, I think I am. I think I’m ok.