Speaking of Happiness
Hearsay #20 / 1999 / Email interview with Neil and Ewen

"I am a work in progress! Accepting that has helped enormously..."

We've been following our elusive dreams again. I know we were warned that we'd probably be disappointed, that we'd never reach our goal, but, hey, life's worth nothing if you don't have dreams. And if you can pursue them over hill and down dale, suddenly those dreams aren't so elusive any more. Readers who've been reading the random notations in this magazine for the last few years may just about remember we've been chasing a MELISSA FERRICK interview (in the most gentlemanly way) for most of this magazine's lifespan. Her 1993 debut, Massive Blur, was one of the first albums we ever triumphantly proclaimed, yet attempts to attain that elusive chat have never quite got there. Last issue we reviewed her most recent (and finest) album Everything I Need and we wondered again about that interview. Wouldn't it be nice to put some questions to this woman, to hear where her own elusive dreams lie? Yes it would be... very nice. You know, life is about making dreams come true. So we have. And she does.

HEARSAY: Everything I Need can be quite dark at times but equally it feels more philosophical and contented than your previous work. Do you agree? If so, how would you account for it? Has the move to WAR has helped? (maybe, with the title track, you've finally written your Happy Song ?!)
MELISSA FERRICK: I would agree this album is more—how would one say... complete. In other words, for me this piece of work is exactly that: a piece of cohesive work. In the past, one of my biggest problems production-wise was making an album that made sense. Everything I Need feels good to me, it makes sense from beginning to end and I can only attribute that to getting a bit older, making a few records and the amount of touring I have behind my belt. I am a work in progress! Accepting that has also helped enormously, working with WAR records is of course a factor as well… we found each other at exactly the right time. I'm capable of the responsibility that comes with being on an indie. You have to work harder but the rewards come quicker and in a sense are more tangible. You see the successes whereas with
Atlantic I felt--no pun intended—at sea.

There's a sense of trying to impose order on chaos in songs like Don't Say Goodbye, I Will Arrive and Everything I Need. Does songwriting help you deal with the randomness of everyday life? How much chaos do you think is healthy in life?
Chaos is a great word, but 'hysterical' is my new favourite word this week. Um... is chaos necessary? I think chaos exists in everyone's life at certain times but the trick for me is to acknowledge the chaos, to look at it, learn from it and then—most importantly—discard it! I get into trouble when I build my chaos into such a frenzy that it basically becomes drama and drama is boring so, yes, chaos is necessary, drama is not.

Equally, much of Everything I Need pulsates with a distinctly urban rhythm. Are you happiest in urban environments and how does your habitat affect your music?
Interesting question. I haven't actually thought about it that much. Yeah, I'm sure that my environment affects my music maybe moreso the people I'm hanging with: Rob [Laufer] as my producer, musician and friend; Vinnie as the drummer and then as my friend... there was definitely a sense of easiness at the studio, moreso than ever before. It was filled with coffee and nicotine patches. It was filled with Rob's eight-year-old old son Henry, his wife Diana, and their infant daughter Eli. I like living in
Los Angeles; it's so against what I grew up in—it pushes me and it slows me down. When I lived in NYC I felt like I was going to implode and Los Angeles is kind of a healthy downer for me... lots of driving and it takes longer to do everything there, but sometimes that's a good thing.

Tell us about the experiences of making your three studio albums... how did they differ? You've worked with three great producers (Gavin MacKillop, Julie Last, Rob Laufer) and though each record is recognisably you, different aspects seem accented on each one.
Yes, I have been very lucky with the producer thing. All of the albums are different and thank God for that. I mean, I was so looking forward to Alanis's new album and I so enjoyed hearing the Thank U song... but I must say... it's more of the same thing. I was disappointed she didn't use her obvious power to push our ears a little more. She's an artist that will be around probably for ever and she needs to start making us think a little more. That's her responsibility, to push the envelope. She can, she just didn't this time! For me, making the same record is selfish. I mean, how selfish of me to assume that my fans stand still in their progress, like, I grow---guess what? So does everyone else. It must be hard though, having such a huge album. Alanis just did what worked the first time. I've not been in that situation so I've not experienced the fear behind 'the album after the hit album'... am I still on the same question? Sorry, I kind of went off on a tangent there a little bit...

Tell us about juggling acoustic and electric music. Do they feel like two sides of your personality? Are you more at home playing solo with the acoustic guitar or does it bring out a whole new side to you going into the studio with a full band?
I love to play acoustically. I don't think I'll ever stop playing at least some of my show that way. However, this kind of goes along with what I was talking about earlier—it's also important for me to be able and allowed to grow. My fans must be able to stay open to change which means when I one day have the opportunity to tour with a band, they must be able to see the success in that for me. I'm very lucky to have the best fans in the world. They let me get away with playing bad cover songs, they let me talk incessantly about who knows what, they support my struggles, my victories and my defeats. If I could only be so giving to myself! That's what we're here for, though, to show each other the best parts of ourselves. I only hope that through my music and lyrics some people have found parts of themselves.

You've reworked a couple of songs from Made of Honor on the new record—do you enjoy rearranging your work, either live or in the studio? Do you always write on acoustic guitar and then flesh out the songs in the studio or do the arrangements sometimes suggest themselves in the writing?
Yes, I always write on the acoustic actually the same acoustic guitar, the one with the hole in it. I've written every song on that guitar. My writing process is actually not a process at all. It comes very quickly and without notice... usually 99% of the time it starts with the first line and then the rest of the lyrics come to me as a letter almost or a narrative type of poem. In my head, while the words are coming out of the pen, a melody or moreso a rhythm comes to me like the way the words set themselves up, how the lines are creating their own melody by the way the words fit next to each other; after each line there is a breath like this:

Seems my words have gone down with the bottle AAA AA
Now fear is my only defence AAA
AA Stand still behind a wall of anger AAA
Stand still ya. A
But I'm still by myself AAA

[A =breath]

It's interesting for me to see this actually 'cause I've never written it out before. To see how the first three lines are really similar with beats and then to see how the last two lines speed up is indicative of how the listener should start to feel anxious found out exposed these feelings make your heart beat faster, they make you speed up. Mmmm, interesting. I like things like this, figuring out if there is some kind of elusive thing going on inside the lyrics. It's nice for me to see there's some mathematical fact behind what I'm doing.

Your songs, whether optimistic or dark, always seemed fired up with the spirit of being alive—is life a challenge you relish? And what sort of philosophy have you formulated to cope with the odd career setback?
You know, I can truly say I am happy to be alive life is so much fun when you are present for it. I mean, I just hated my life so much from 1993-1996. I was trapped in a state of blame… blaming you-and-you-and-you when really what was going on was that I was so full of shame about me and my expectations of myself I was really just getting by. Obviously the level to which I was drinking was just feeding the fire and it became unthinkable and, more truthfully, impossible for me to function without a drink. So my life since '96 has really been about living free from unreasonable expectations and free from alcohol... I am present now more than ever before. Sometimes it's frightening but nothing could be more frightening than looking in the mirror and seeing nothing, so I'll take this fear any day. My philosophy for my life today is literally to enjoy every moment I have and to try to give to someone else something without them knowing, and more importantly to then keep it to myself 'cause running around telling anyone who'll listen about all of the wonderful things I had done completely defeats the point of giving freely of oneself without expecting anything in return.

'I'm a storyteller, the worst kind, the kind that makes you believe in love.' Can love ever live up to the expectations we are all led to place upon it? Do you see it as an aim of yours to write 'honest' love songs?
This love thing is so hard for me... it's the hardest subject because I know that I definitely want a love that is impossible to attain. I've created in my head and heart a perfect little fantasy world of love where I feel every kiss like it was the first, where we never fight, where the person I'm with can read my mind and give me everything I want. I mean, this is ridiculous and immature and still the root of a lot of my problems. That's why that line actually really hits home for me even when I sing that song and that line is coming up; sometimes I'm not sure if I'm going to start crying. You know, I think I want to know love so much, I have warped it and suffocated it you have to let it go for it to come back. I have actually experienced this first­hand with my lover now. We've been together for three years and last month while I was on the road I was like, forget it, it's over, I can't do this long distance... I only see you for seven days every two or three months, this is insane... and I got home to
Los Angeles and we fell in love again! All expectations are gone, all of the rules have changed, I am happy and at ease in this relationship, I can be myself with someone really for the first time. This is a gift and realising that I'm not in control of my love for someone has been the greatest discovery and in turn it makes it easier to love.

There are strong flashbacks to childhood in your writing with songs like Frog Named Freddy and Particular Place To Be... is that a period which holds a strong influence on you? Did you enjoy growing up in the 70s? You look pretty happy in the Spirit of '73 booklet... how old were you when you first swapped that drumkit for a guitar?!
Yeah, I loved being a kid and I was very happy with my Fat Albert drum kit!! How about that wallpaper? You know, my parents were pretty much white-collar hippies, my dad being a school teacher and my mom working at AT&T but at night I was exposed to a lot of great music from jazz to classical to rock folk stuff from the 60s and 70s: Quincy Jones to Loggins and Messina, Derek and the Dominos, Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell... It was a great time to be a kid!

How do your friends react when you write very specifically about their experiences as in, say, Fear & Time? And is it easier or harder to write about other people than to write about yourself?
I don't think my friends know which songs are about them... let's keep it that way, shall we? Ha ha... It's much harder to write about other people, that's why I was so happy after writing Fear & Time, it was like, 'yes! a song not about me...' Lately, I've been getting into writing less obviously, not rhyming as much and using more words from everyday life; less about 'me and someone else' more about 'me and me'... new album material for a record that won't even come out until 2000! But, hey, the good news is I'm writing on the road, which has never happened before. Actually, that's why there are two older songs on this album... I didn't have a ton of material... maybe that's not true... umm, there were a bunch of other songs but honestly they just weren't as good and they didn't make any sense with the rest of the record.

When we saw you live here in '94 you were talking about what an enormous impression Exile In Guyville had made on you. Is Liz Phair still a significant influence? What do you think makes her music so important?
Funny you should ask 'cause I just bought another copy of Guyville... I lost the guts of my first copy so need those credits, you know... I don't have the new album yet, I hear it's great though. I mean, Liz Phair is like
America's PJ Harvey; she's sexy and straight and sassy and smart, she is honest and brutal, almost a little Morrissey going on in her lyrics like you never know if she's fucking with you and that's just how she likes it! Liz is an important artist—she'll be around for as long as she wants to be. She seems to know who she is and she seems to make smart career decisions. I once had the pleasure of having a cookout with her when we were both on Atlantic... this was just before the Rolling Stone cover and she was a genuine person unaffected but sure of her worth. That I find admirable.

Your notorious B-side Girls With Guitars seems as topical as ever with the huge media interest in the Lilith Fair shenanigans! Do you feel the concept of the female singer-songwriter is more important than ever or is the distinction more meaningless? How far do you feel issues of gender and sexuality should be a vital part of your writing and how far are they irrelevant?
Ah, the gender bender question! Ha ha ha! I don't mind... I feel a little like a spokesperson however, so let's be careful of treading on that turf. You know, I take myself way too seriously on this matter. I mean really, who cares? Girl, boy, straight, gay, transgender, whatever... 'can't we just all get along?' Lilith, however, was a genius example of how to be inclusive while being exclusive... I felt welcomed and loved. I was treated with respect, as was everyone else. Sarah [McLachlan] gave everyone the same passes, we all drank the same coffee, there were tour buses for everyone, and they were all nice tour buses!
I don't know for me if someone is going to judge me because of who I sleep with. I don't want them buying my record anyway! I don't have time for hateful people and life is too short to live it as a lie, it would be such a shame. My mom said to me, 'I don't think God would let you fall in love with someone if it wasn't all right with him,' and you know what? What my parents think of me is more important than what a stranger thinks of me and what I think of myself is vital. I will not live in shame because of my sexuality and it's true that it's my responsibility to display respect and acceptance of not only myself but of others. This is a position I do not take lightly.

What makes you happy?
Someone once asked me 'what haven't you been asked?' and my answer was 'are you happy?' Thank you for asking the obvious question that so many people forget. Yes, I am happy right now... and what makes me happy changes but some consistent things that make me happy are:

a. The pursuit of love
b. Music, new and live
c. Laughter
d. The wealth of friends in my life
e. My new-found ability to cry
f. Crying
g. My cats
h A connection to a power greater than myself
i. The belief that I am taken care of
j. Tea and coffee
k. My god-daughter

Making lists of what makes me happy because it makes me happy to see how many things I have to be grateful for in my life. This list could just go on and on. It moves me, the simple things that make me smile now… wow, what a life I have led! I have so much to be thankful for and mostly I am happy to be free from the bondage of alcohol... that is truly a gift from God.

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