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Notion 063 Feature: Cover Star Sky Ferreira

Great Blondie Ambition: The surprising sounds and amazing tales of Sky Ferreira

We think you know her from the covers of a hundred magazines, but do we really know her at all? After a remarkable buzzscendency faded to leave Sky Ferreira in a label nightmare, she tells Nick Levine about finding her sound, fighting pop prejudice and doing it her way.

WORDS: NICK LEVINE
PHOTOGRAPHY: JAMES MORIARTY
ART DIRECTION: HIDDEN AGENCY
STYLING: ALEXIS KNOX
HAIR & MAKE-UP: LIBERTY SHAW USING YSL BEAUTY & KIEHLS
STYLING ASSISTANTS: EMILY MEOLA & HATTIE BLOOM

“I’ve never had people, like, scream after a song. I was shocked and it showed on my face. I didn’t even know what to do! I was like, ‘Okaaay’.”

Sky Ferreira is talking about her song ‘Sad Dream’ – specifically, the reaction it got at XOYO in Shoreditch on the last Wednesday in February. This was only Sky’s second ever live show in the UK, the first having taken place 24 hours earlier at Madame JoJo’s in Soho. The LA native certainly looked the part, all blonde hair and bone structure, giving off the same grungy glamour we know from her CK One campaigns and shoots for Vogue and Harper’s. But as a singer, Sky was an unknown quantity, so when she sang ‘Sad Dream’ backed by a solitary acoustic guitar, her tender and emotionally resonant performance was a bit of a revelation.

Sky wrote the song, she tells Notion over the phone a week later, during a moment of daughterly guilt. “You know when your parents call and you, like, ignore it or maybe pick up and say, ‘I don’t wanna talk right now’? I’d do that a few times and then I’d have these dreams about people dying. But the next day, I still didn’t answer the phone! There’s other stuff going on in that song too, but that’s why I called it ‘Sad Dream’.”

Sky Ferreira is certainly used to being away from her parents. At the age of 20, she’s already been working in the music industry for five years, though there was never any stage mom pushing her into the limelight. “My family isn’t musical at all, but I always knew I wanted to be a singer,” Sky says. “People always ask me when I started singing, but I think I was probably singing before I spoke. According to my mom, there’s some video of me, like, humming to the radio because I didn’t know words yet.”

1 Sky Ferreira for Notion Magazine

Sky wears Jacket: Zoe Jordan, Dress: Ganni

Sky may not hail from a clan of minstrels, but a family friend knew a thing or two about putting a tune together. For over 25 years, her grandmother worked as hair stylist to Michael Jackson. “He was normal to me, I knew him my whole life,” Sky says. “He was very sweet and quiet, and yes, he was different, but he wasn’t some kind of freak in a bad way. He was very intelligent. You can’t be that successful without being very intelligent.”

Growing up, did Sky have any idea how famous he was? “I guess I knew he was famous, but I wasn’t aware of the extent of it. I guess because I was always around him. And also, at the time I was around Michael Jackson, he wasn’t like ‘Thriller’ Michael Jackson. It was a bit later on. You know, when you’re a little kid, you don’t really notice those things. You think everyone who’s an adult is famous! And you think, like, a 13 year-old is an adult.”

It was around the age of 13 that Sky began making GarageBand demos with her friends and posted them on MySpace. Swedish production duo Bloodshy & Avant picked up on them and soon Sky was the subject of a record company bidding war. “By the time I was 15, I’d met the head of every major label and every big producer wanted to work with me. I was in a great position, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” she recalls candidly. “People would look at me, this 15-year-old girl, and think, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got a Britney Spears’. Just because I was young and didn’t look like a prude or some kind of Disney girl! They saw a way of making money.”

Sky signed with EMI because they promised greater creative freedom than other labels, but in reality, “this wasn’t exactly the case”. Just six months into the deal, Sky started to realise the situation was “pretty fucked up”. Before signing, she’d been working with Paul Epworth, then an indie producer on the rise, but EMI told her to ditch him for tried and tested hitmaker Dr Luke (‘Since U Been Gone’, ‘Tik Tok.). Then they tried to mould Sky, strong-willed and quirky, into the perfect little pop robot.

“They tried to give me media training but I just laughed at the lady who was doing the media training,” Sky chuckles. “The lady was like, ‘This isn’t going to work, there’s nothing we can do with her!’ They basically told me not to have an opinion: don’t think, just stick to the formula. Maybe that kind of thing works for some people, but it didn’t work for me.”

3 Sky Ferreira for Notion Magazine

Sky wears Jacket & Shorts: Sandro, Shoes & Socks: Sky’s own

Sky’s UK debut single, ‘One’, came out in August 2010 and charted at number 64. Things went no better in the US, where Sky’s label “conned” her into a recording a song called ‘Obsession’ that she told them she hated, then released it as her launch single. Unsurprisingly, ‘Obsession’ failed to set the Billboard charts on fire, and at the age of 18, Sky Ferreira was already branded a flop.

Then the situation got even worse. “They wouldn’t let me go, so for a time I would literally just sit in this office in New York and cry because they wouldn’t let me do stuff. I don’t think I was difficult, but I wasn’t going to let them bully me into doing something I didn’t want to do, or try to change me. But obviously that turned into ‘Oh, she’s difficult because she stands up for herself’. Which is completely unfair and actually kind of sexist.”

All Sky could do was “sit it through and suffer for a while”. In March 2011, after her album got postponed, she released a stopgap EP that featured a lost classic called ‘Sex Rules’. Coincidentally, the night before our interview, Notion hears this really quite obscure pop song playing in a pub: obviously it’s a sign to ask Sky about it.

“Oh, people didn’t really understand that song,” comes her reply. “It was a wink and a nod to [raunchy Prince-assembled girlband] Vanity 6 or something. People were like, ‘Oh my God, you’re just singing about sex,’ but it was definitely a bit tongue-in-cheek.”

Over time, the record execs Sky had been locking horns with left; then EMI got sold and restructured, giving her more room for manoeuvre. But her fortunes only really turned last summer, when she received a gift from Dev ‘Blood Orange’ Hynes. “Dev sent me this demo he had, and at the time I happened to be in the studio with Ariel [Rechtshaid, producer]. So I was like, ‘Let’s try doing this song’. We took the demo, rearranged some parts, changed some of the chords and lyrics, and that was it. Someone sent it to Pitchfork without saying who was singing – or at least that’s what I heard. Then Pitchfork posted the demo and it got a really great response.”

That demo was ‘Everything Is Embarrassing’, Sky’s breakthrough song, but at the time she wasn’t really expecting anything from it. “You know, I’m so used to nothing ever happening. I’ve gotten so used to putting stuff out and nobody giving a fuck about it. So when this happened, I was like, ‘Wait, what?’”

4 Sky Ferreira for Notion Magazine

Sky wears Shirt: Karl by Karl Lagerfeld, Shorts: Todd Lynn

‘Everything Is Embarrassing’ wasn’t a hit in the conventional sense – indeed, it’s only getting released officially in the UK now, some eight months after the demo went online. But this brilliant, off-kilter pop song made Sky hot again, and gave her a platform to build the career she’s wanted all along. “I don’t know whether I’d say I’m a pop star, but I do make pop music. Maybe I could be a pop star, but what is a pop star nowadays?”

Well, Notion asks, does she want a career like Katy Perry‘s? “If I could do it on my own terms, then sure, why not? But that’s not the goal. My goal is to build a loyal fanbase and still be playing live shows, like, 20 years from now. I don’t want there to be this sonic boom, and then suddenly everything in my career just diminishes and I find myself totally washed up.”

Right now, having completed a US tour with How To Dress Well, Sky is getting ready to release her debut album. There’s no title yet but everything’s been recorded and it’s in the process of being mixed. Don’t be expecting a succession of ‘Everything Is Embarrassing’ replicas, though. Sky explains: “If I did a whole album like that, it would just be a Dev album. He has a very specific sound and in a way, Solange kind of owns that sounds now. I love ‘Everything Is Embarrassing’ and it’s a part of me, but it’s also very Dev in how it sounds. I feel like it wouldn’t be fair to him, or to myself, to try and make something he already did.”

‘Everything Is Embarrassing’ will be included on the album, Sky says, but won’t define its sound. Instead, there will be “three or four” stripped down ballads like ‘Sad Dream’, coupled with “seven or eight” uptempo cuts with a Blondie-ish vibe. “I would say that it’s guitar-driven, but with electronic elements,” Sky says of the album. “I want all my songs to translate well live. I don’t want to, like, sing to a backing track. That happened to me once before, when I released ‘One’, and even though I love that song, it made me kind of uncomfortable because I’m not a dancer. All I do is sing. That’s my only aim when I’m onstage: just to sound well.”

2 Sky Ferreira for Notion Magazine

Sky wears Jacket & Shorts: Sandro

This summer, Sky is coming back to the UK for a series of festival dates. At the moment, she’s not supposed to reveal which festivals, but let’s presume she’s probably been booked for the big one. Either before or after she pops on her wellies, she’s hoping to do a full UK tour. Now things are getting busier again, does she feel in control of her career? “At this point, yes, as much as I can be. You know, I still have to talk to my manager before I can start, like, bossing people around! But creatively, yeah, I do feel in control.”

Playing live, she hopes, will introduce more people to the real Sky Ferreira. “You know, I’ve been out since I was 15. I’m still getting judged for things that I did when I had braces. That’s kind of hard sometimes, because people have certain expectations of me, even though I’ve grown a lot as a person. People change a lot between the ages of 15 and 20, you know? It’s almost like someone’s going through my yearbook and saying, ‘Oh my God, you changed, you’re fake, someone’s making you’. But nobody ever made me anything. I’ve been working at this since I was 15.”

What’s the biggest misconception about Sky Ferreira? “That I’m some kind of, like, crazy party girl or something. I’ve never really ‘partied’. You know, I go out, but I’m not a socialite by any means. For one thing, I have a job. Some people on the internet will see a picture of me at a fashion show and say: ‘What does Sky Ferreira even do?’ But go on YouTube: there’s a lot of videos I’ve made! Just because I’m not having number ones, doesn’t mean I’m not doing it! I don’t just sit around and hang out with cool people all day, that’s not my job. I’m not a socialite. To be a socialite, you have to be be really financially comfortable, and I don’t have that. I can’t support myself by doing nothing.”

Recently, Sky has taken on some extra-curricular modelling work for Yves Saint Laurent and Forever 21. “It’s something that I enjoy because I love clothes. And I get to work with some incredible people.” The girl’s not exaggerating: she’s been photographed by everyone from Karl Lagerfeld to Hedi Slimane. “It’s also something that makes me money so I can fund my career and have some creative freedom. You know, if I didn’t take my music seriously, I wouldn’t have been working at it for five years. I could have quit three years ago when things were really shitty. Not many people my age have been working for five years. And you know, I feel like I’m just finally starting to get some momentum together.”

Like what you see?! Well of course you do. You can see the rest of the pictures from this fab shoot in the latest copy of Notion 063 available here or on your iPad/ iPad mini through our wonderful app

 

Sky-Ferreira---Notion-Magazine-for-iPad



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