Grammy-nominated musician Melissa Ferrick knows how to captivate an audience, whether she’s teaching at Berklee or performing on stage. Having left her own undergraduate studies at Berklee after two years, Ferrick found early success at 21, opening for Morrissey, touring across the U.S. and U.K. and landing a deal with Atlantic Records. More than 20 years and 17 albums later, she’s still writing and performing as well as teaching at her alma mater, but she’s also preparing to take on a new role: graduate student. On August 13, Ferrick will perform as part of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy’s summer series in one of her last shows before taking a break for her studies. We spoke with the Ipswich-born musician about her writing process, how she stays lit up in the classroom and why young artists should know the difference between isolation and solitude.
What’s something happening in your life right now that you’re exploring with your work? I’m more interested in viewing the world from the inside out, which is new for me. I would always kind of go from how I felt and explode that onto the world around me, particularly around relationships or fear and love and love and fear, those being one of the things that flip around. And now I tend to be viewing the outside world. I think it’s just because I’m older. Maybe it’s because I’m teaching.
There’s a lot going on in the outside world these days too. Yeah, and I’ve never been a political writer. I think Ani DiFranco does that perfectly well for our generation. And Bruce Springsteen. I’m not really sure what will come next. I’m very focused on going to grad school. I’m shifting right now into a second career. I’ve been teaching for five years and now as a full-time professor at Berklee, getting into this [grad school] program is a big deal … The writing songs part of it is starting to take a bit of a back seat, which is not going to make my fans happy, but that’s what this JP show is. It’s going to be one of the last shows I’m going to do for at least a year. My last one is the Saturday after Thanksgiving at the new City Winery.
Let’s talk about grad school. What are you hoping to gain from your experience? I’m going to the Arts & Education program at Harvard, and my statement of purpose was about this concept of artists of all mediums needing to be screwed up … this old notion that it’s suffering and pain and mental illness and addiction… And it is that we have a higher percentage of artists who suffer from those things.
I really believe that the health and wellness aspect of education should include addiction and recovery, of not only drugs and alcohol but of mental illness as well. I see it a lot in the population that I teach, and it’s something I definitely want to study more and get involved in some way shape or form.
How has this influenced your approach in the classroom with students? I see a lot of kids in a lot of pain … I had one semester in particular where I had six students who were hospitalized for mental illness or addiction, sometimes both. That’s a really high number … It really shook me. And I was like, “What is going on?” Of course, I helped those students as much as I could. I did all the things that I was supposed to do. But it seemed like we were missing something here. We need to have better awareness of what’s going on on our campus, especially because we are an arts college. That’s what sparked it. I struggled with my own issues of depression—not really depression but PTSD and addiction—so it hits close to my heart.
It’s like this idea when you’re 20 that you have to be alone to create good things. And it’s a notion that breeds depression and anxiety, and that can lead to substance abuse, which can lead to death. It’s really scary … Appreciating and uplifting solitude is a very different thing [from isolation], and [it’s important to be] making space for these young artists to realize the difference … I want to create space on our campus where that can be held.
What is your impression of younger musicians today? They’re incredibly smart and talented. Of course, we do kind of get the best of the best there, so I think I’m spoiled a little bit. Honestly, I feel like at its root it’s the same as it was even when I was there in 1990. You know when you come in, you just want to be famous and see how quickly can you get there. “How do I get 5 million views on YouTube?” That’s the first question [students] ask! The answer is really if I knew I would tell you and everyone would be doing it.
What I’m dealing with is there’s a big gap between our pop writers, the young writers I see that want to write pop music and write for other people, and in the country/Americana world. And then there are the students who want to be in bands. They want to be the next Imagine Dragons—who came from Berklee. They want to be the next Meghan Trainor. And they can be. They want to be writing their own songs and getting a record deal. And then there are kids, they blow me away, they can’t believe that I played a show with Jeff Buckley. The fact that they know who Jeff Buckley is makes me really happy. They love Bon Iver. So do I. They love Milk Carton Kids. So do I. They keep me alive, and my students turn me on to all the cool new bands, and it makes me feel not old. I think that they really care and respect me because of all the work that I’ve done in the past and that I’m still doing that work and furthering my education.
To remain a good teacher you have to keep learning. It’s a really hard job. If I don’t stay lit up inside, whether that’s by making records or writing new songs or taking courses, I’m no good in the classroom. I’ve learned that I have to be stimulated outside of the classroom. Otherwise I just get bored really quickly.
What are some of the best lessons you’ve learned from your career? The really big one is that I wish I had mentor. I didn’t have someone that I could call. I didn’t get that kind of truth or that hard advice. And if I did, if those people existed, I didn’t utilize that phone number … The other thing is that [laughs] I really know now that there are people who do specific jobs. There are agents who book shows, managers who are managers and lawyers who are music attorneys. And they’re really good at their jobs. When I was very young, when I was with Atlantic Records, I did my first two albums with them. I would say probably the two albums I made after that, until I was pretty much in my 30s, I got myself involved. I remember telling the head of publicity at Atlantic Records how to work my record. It was ridiculous. I was 22 and I had no idea what I was doing. She was the head of publicity at this major label. She was really good at her job. And of course that just made her not want to work with me because I was being an arrogant jerk. So I tell my students to let people do their jobs. I definitely learned that one the hard way. But I’m really glad I learned it the way I did.
What are looking forward to most at the Emerald Necklace summer series? I’m excited to play outdoors … I’m really excited about the series itself. I had never heard of the Emerald Necklace before. I know it’s a free event for people, which is so great, and I know that there’s a lot of kids coming. I have friends now that have kids. I help co-parent three little boys now for the past three years of my life. So every time I’m telling my friends, “You should come to the show in JP.” And they’re like, “Oh cool.” And I’ll say there’s this kids thing going on before called Knucklebones. And they freak out! They’re like, “Knucklebones! I love that band.” It feels a little like Knucklebones is upstaging me. Maybe they should go on after me [laughs].