There’s a strong sense of déjà-vu as I interview Sky Ferreira on the subject of her imminent debut album. I did the same thing almost four years ago. That album is finally about to appear and is very different from the chart-friendly froth she first promised — this potential pop princess has turned to the dark side. And sounds fantastic at last.
“I’m not going to give up now if I didn’t give up three years ago. I’ve remembered why I love making music again. This album is too good to be wasted,” she tells me. She’s right.
The LA starlet was 17 when we first met and a bit of a brat, looking icily bored as only a teenage girl can while my questions about being groomed to be the next Britney Spears thudded to the floor. Today at 21 she’s based in New York and is more like a little old lady with a croak in her voice, a thick coat tucked over her knees, sipping herbal tea with a spoon. But at least she’s friendlier, even claiming to remember me from the first time, which is surprising, considering the extent to which she’s been ground down in the intervening years by false starts, scrapped songs, fights with her record company and even a drug arrest.
“I think mentally I was in a weird place then. I was so frustrated with the whole thing,” she says. “They treated me like an adult when they wanted to and a child when they wanted to. They’d work me to death like an adult — like crazy hours. I’d go to school and then have to get on a plane to London, be there for like 14 hours and fly back to LA. But I wasn’t allowed to make any decisions. I was ‘too dumb’ to do that.”
She was one of the last singers to be signed on the basis of her MySpace page, like Lily Allen and Kate Nash, using the self-penned demos she uploaded to secure an early partnership with Swedish producers Bloodshy and Avant. They made Britney’s smash Toxic but didn’t end up crafting a hit for Ferreira. “When did I last go on MySpace? Jesus — like four years ago. I was in a MySpace commercial, though, so let’s pretend it was yesterday.” She had a cool back story too, as an LA party girl, popular with the fashion bloggers, who was raised by her grandmother — a woman who happened to be Michael Jackson’s hairdresser. “He was just Michael to me. I used to go to Neverland. He was always nice, never creepy.”
After she was signed by EMI endless big-name collaborators were thrown at her (Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Dallas Austin, to name a few) but there was a sense that nobody knew what sound to settle with, least of all the out-of-her-depth teenager. Early songs include the chi-chi lounge pop of Lolita, a pop-punk number called 17, and the robotic electropop of her minor 2010 single, One.
“I think I recorded, like, 400 songs total over the past few years,” she estimates. “There were three different sets I was told were gonna be albums and they never were, and another that was mixed that didn’t come out. I got really insecure about my songwriting.”
Her frustrations echo those of New York rapper Azealia Banks, who had a hit single with 212 two years ago and still hasn’t released a debut album. Banks recently took to Twitter to beg other record labels to take her away from Universal, writing: “I’m tired of having to consult old white guys about my black girl craft. They don’t even know what they’re listening for or to.”
Ferreira sympathises. “I feel her pain. But it seems like she knows what she wants. I didn’t know what I wanted. I was so young. They probably want 800 212s. That’s what record labels are like, they don’t want to let artists be artists.” She also agrees record companies especially don’t know what to do with young women. “No, they really don’t. Don’t sit and tell me what a 16-year-old girl wants! At least I’ve actually been a 16-year-old girl.” She found more love from the fashion world than music while she con-tinued to record, being photographed by Karl Lagerfeld, Terry Richardson and Hedi Slimane, and appearing in adverts for Calvin Klein and Adidas. The day after we meet she’ll spend a day being interviewed about her hair and beauty tips on behalf of haircare brand Redken — “Like I have any!”
But the lows still came more frequently than the highs. Last September, just after appearing on the catwalk with Cara Delevingne and Georgia May Jagger for Marc Jacobs at New York Fashion Week, she and her boyfriend were arrested for driving erratically. Police found heroin on the boyfriend — Zachary Cole Smith, a Saint Laurent Paris model and singer with obscure indie rock band DIIV — and ecstasy on Ferreira.
That seems to have blown over. “It’s fine,” she says, but she’s still angry about the way it was handled in the media. “They were all trying to say I was glamorising drugs — you guys are the ones glamorising it by constantly going on about it, and also making it sound so much more extreme and crazy than it actually was,” she says. Did it become another stick to beat you with? “Uh-huh. Like I needed another. But whatever. I know I’m not a drug addict. Wrong place wrong time, that’s all I can say about the matter. If I had a problem, my managers and family would have put me straight in rehab after that. But I didn’t have a reason to be in rehab because I’m not a drug addict.”
That’s OK then. Now, at last, things are looking up. There’s a new hotshot manager, Troy Carter, who has taken up her cause after splitting with Lady Gaga, and there’s a brilliant debut album.
Night Time, My Time is not what anybody who heard her four years ago would have expected. Finally co-written with lesser-known producers Ariel Rechtshaid and Justin Raisen, there are hummable pop tunes, sure, but they’re crusted over with a grungy guitar coating. It’s an edgy experience — one song, Omanko, is named after the Japanese equivalent of the C-word and is a blur of guitar feedback. Another, Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay), is an angry howl that gives a good feel for her experiences of the music business to date.
The cover, too, is a shocker. She’s topless in the shower, photographed by notorious film director Gaspar Noé, but it’s far from an arousing. She looks vulnerable and upset. “I don’t find nudity to be that big a deal,” she says. “It’s how I felt. I wouldn’t say I was about to lose it but I’d had enough at that point.”
The album came out in the US in October, where it was high on many best-of-2013 lists. You can hear all the songs on YouTube before it gets a proper release here next month. Its success earned her a slot supporting fellow teen star turned controversy magnet Miley Cyrus on her arena tour. “I feel like we’re kind of going through a similar thing.”
It’ll be a good opportunity to improve her live show, disastrous when I saw her in a London hotel basement at the end of January — a nervous set abandoned after five-and-a-half songs. There’s a sense that although she’s no longer seen as a failure who can’t get an album made, she might yet throw this away.
“I want to do something different and it’s so easy for people to say I’m crazy, or difficult. I’m not difficult — it’s the only thing I can do.” One thing she makes clear is that there’s no back-up plan. She’s come this far. Don’t bet against her becoming the massive star she was first supposed to be.
Night Time, My Time is out now on import and released in the UK on Polydor on March 17. Sky Ferreira plays Field Day festival, Victoria Park, E9 (08700 600 100, fielddayfestivals.com) on June 7. skyferreira.tumblr.com