One of the first times that Sky Ferreira met Grace Jones, she witnessed the superpowers of a musical icon up close. As they careered through winding London streets in a pitch-black cab, the only light bursting in from the brief flicker of passing streetlights, the LA-born singer-songwriter watched in hushed awe as Jones calmly got ready for the night ahead, undeterred by their taxi soaring over speed-bumps and dodging the traffic.
“She’s doing her makeup in the back of the car,” Ferreira laughs, speaking to NME from her Los Angeles home, “in like, two minutes in the dark. And she suddenly looks like Grace Jones on stage. It was like watching one of those superhero transform sequences, or an ’80s cartoon or something. I feel ‘glamorous’ is almost an understatement.”
And so, years later, when Ferreira got the call-up to play the latest edition of the nine-day Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre’s festival, curated by Grace Jones – Ferreira’s set took place last night (June 16) – the answer was an immediate yes. At the time, the 29-year-old didn’t know she’d be returning with her pulsing new come-back single ‘Don’t Forget’, which was released just last month.
“If Grace Jones asks you to do something, you do it, right?” she reasons. There’s that, and the fact that Jones once stood up for Ferreira when someone around her “was just saying something stupid,” she explains, adding: “She basically told him off, and the guy never messaged me ever again. It was like: ‘Oh my gosh – my hero.”
“If Grace Jones asks you to do something, you do it, right?”
Ahead of the show, Ferreira has also been mulling over another of Grace Jones’ superhero sequences – the left-field art-pop and disco pioneer often hula-hoops her way through an extended 10-minute version of her hit ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ live on stage. Is Ferreira thinking about having a bash sometime? “I’d have to practice, you know?” she says. “Two minutes – is that a short amount of time? I feel like, for someone that’s not Grace Jones, that’s a very long time.” Ferreira laughs: “But I’ll put a hula-hoop on my rider, for sure.”
Today Ferreira is slightly frazzled from rehearsing until 3am the previous night, and is surrounded by a sea of moving boxes, her dog Lulu, and her two cats, Squirrel and Egg. Her coterie of pets are among some of the earliest listeners to preview her much-delayed second album ‘Masochism’, which is nearing the final stages of completion. “Their tails don’t go stiff,” she laughs, “so I guess that’s a good sign? My dog really loves [’80s Talking Heads side-project] Tom Tom Club, which is really funny. She goes crazy.”
In conversation, the musician and singer couldn’t be further from the mysterious, moody image that has been constructed around her over the years – she laughs a lot, and often while being lightly self-deprecating about her reputation as an artist with a checkered release history.
Since the 2013 release of her now-classic pop debut ‘Night Time, My Time’, Ferreira’s career has been marked by a series of delays and stop-starts – she first promised its follow-up ‘Masochism’ was just around the corner way back in 2015 – and ‘Don’t Forget’ seems partly about the artistic purgatory she’s been frozen within for nearly a decade. Underpinned by looming My Bloody Valentine drums, it’s an uneasy, thumping take on power-pop. “I won’t forget,” she protests on the gigantic, soaring chorus, “I don’t forgive”.
“I go in circles trying to gain respect. I feel like whack-a-mole – I’m almost out, and then it’s like, ‘BONK!’”
Ferreira has spent years documenting ‘Masochism’’s protracted delivery. At times, she has seemingly partly attributed this to her own perfectionism (“I won’t put out something that I don’t stand by,” she wrote on Instagram in 2018) but at others appeared to blame back-room machinations at her label, Capitol Records. In July 2017, announced on the same app: “I have been very quiet about what’s going on with my music for a few reasons… I was genuinely stuck at the mercy of other people before (for almost years at this point).” In a 2019 tweet (which is now unavailable as Sky’s account is no longer active), she blamed the delay on “insane obstacles with my record label”. NME reached out to Capitol Records for comment but had not received a response at the time of writing.
“It just goes in circles trying to gain respect, I guess,” Ferreira says of the drama behind-the-scenes. Experiencing career difficulties in public, she explains, feels “almost like someone peeling you apart by your skin, a little. Slowly, but it’s happening – and then it’s too late. I’m almost out of it, but I do feel a bit like whack-a-mole or something. I’m almost out of this dark hole, and then it’s like ‘BONK!’”.
A “painfully shy” kid growing in Los Angeles, Sky Ferreira refused to speak in public for years as a child – only really talking when she was at home – and instead disappeared inside the music of her early heroes Fiona Apple and Lauryn Hill. “My parents were very young, and I wasn’t exactly the most sheltered kid,” she says, “not in a bad way, but I was exposed to a lot of music. They were never like, ‘Oh, you can’t listen to that sort of thing, because you’re too young. I’d listen to anything I could get my hands on, even if I didn’t really like it.”
Her parents split up when she was still a baby, and because Ferreira would stay at both of their houses growing up, she managed to wangle double screen-time when it came to watching MTV. She devoured it, relentlessly, and credits her early exposure with wanting to become an artist.
“I learned a lot about music from TV, honestly, when I was really young. Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’ video I literally taped on VHS.” By her early teens, singing had become an outlet of expression, and Ferreira began uploading demos to Myspace, eventually going behind her family’s backs to organise an early label meeting. “I was like… so I need to go to have a meeting to meet with Rick Rubin,” she laughs, recalling a conversation with her grandmother, with whom she was living at the time. “I feel like when I say a lot of this stuff, it sounds like it’s made up. But it’s not: that’s literally how things happened.”
“I broke out when I was 21, and I lost my 20s. Why don’t I get a clean slate?”
Ferreira signed with Capitol when she was just 15; a series of scattered early singles – from her saccharine and upbeat debut single ‘One’ to the far more melancholy 2012 ‘Ghost’ – followed. ‘Masochism’ isn’t the first of her albums to experience a difficult birth: ‘Night Time, My Time’ did too. It was, she told Vulture in 2013, shelved for a time while the label worked out how to position her as an artist. Eventually, after the Dev Hynes-produced single ‘Everything Is Embarrassing’ became an indie hit, there was progress. “They were sort of out of money and out of ideas,” Ferreira’s then-manager, Mike Tierney, explained in that Vulture article, “and basically said: ‘This record has to come out. You have a limited amount of time, and you’re welcome to use your own money to finish it.”
Once Ferreira did just that, the record became a critical smash: a four-star NME review described it as “an all-enveloping record”. Today, though, she describes how, in her early 20s, she was also subject to misogyny from the press. Ferreira is frustrated, for instance, when she feels she’s not properly recognised for her production work (she is a co-producer on ‘Don’t Forget’ and her 2019 single ‘Downhill Lullaby’). In 2016, LA Weekly published a piece about Ferreira that described her apparently “killer tits”. Today she says: “I was constantly being humiliated, in a way I didn’t really deserve, and it’s been sort of brushed under the rug. And [the press] still kind of kind of [does] it to me, you know?”
In 2013, Ferreira and her then-boyfriend Zachary Cole Smith, of the band DIIV, were arrested in New York and charged with drug possession. The charges against Ferreira were dropped; Smith, who publicly addressed his addiction issues, underwent a stint in rehab. The arrest was, predictably, a much-publicised event, with Ferreira’s mugshot gleefully shared online. Today she is keen to point out: “I’ve never been a fucking drug addict. I got drug tested that day, and it showed I wasn’t on drugs – but no one brings up that part.”
All in all, it’s been a bumpy ride to get to ‘Masochism’’s release. Ferreira says of her start-stop career, the fame she experienced at a young age and the baggage she carried publicly: “I broke out when I was 21, and I lost my 20s. We act like that’s not a relevant thing, but it is… Why don’t I get a clean slate?”
Ferreira didn’t exactly disappear off the face of the Earth during the wait for ‘Masochism’. During her enforced solo hiatus, she featured in David Lynch’s revamped Twin Peaks, collaborated with Primal Scream on the shimmering synth-pop cut ‘Where The Light Gets In’ and appeared in the Oscar-nominated action film Baby Driver (which won Best Film at the NME Awards in 2018). Two years later, she featured on Charli XCX’s self-titled third record; their collaboration ‘Cross Me Out’, a warped slab of mangled pop, was an album highlight. It initially screens as a song about heartbreak, but there are hints of creative stasis in certain lines. “Melt me down,” Ferreira sings, “one piece at a time”.
The two artists are of a similar age and broke through around the same time; they also share a string of collaborators including producers Justin Raisen and Ariel Rechtshaid. “Charli was at my 20th birthday party!” Ferreira laughs. “She’s my favourite pop songwriter, for sure. She’s always been so kind, too. I was honoured that she wanted to work with me: we’d talked about doing stuff together for years and years and years.”
“Charli XCX is my favourite pop songwriter, for sure”
Did Ferreira ever find an ally in Charli XCX, who has also expressed frustration with major label life (in April last year she claimed to have “stormed out” of a meeting with her record label after they tried to make her more “real”)? Ferreira replies: “I don’t really know any other way to say it, but I really felt like a prisoner, and there was a point where I felt so beat down by it that [I thought] I just shouldn’t talk about it. It probably would’ve helped me. You do get beat down each time there’s someone dangling the carrot in front of you, so to speak, like, ‘Oh – it’s gonna happen,’ or, ‘We’re gonna finally let you do this”, and then – no.”
Three years ago, meanwhile, Ferreira briefly managed to break the stalemate when she shared the first glimpse of ‘Masochism’. The broodingly cinematic single ‘Downhill Lullaby’ gave an eerie preview into the long-awaited second album, which features production from Reichstad (who’s worked with Haim and Charli), Mexican Summer-signed Jorge Elbrecht and Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie. “It’s basically done for the most part, it’s just that some parts need to be re-recorded,” she says. “Just the finishing touches, really.”
As a result of numerous delays, she explains, “some of the songs have had literally 10,000 lives”. Bringing older music in line with where she’s at right now has, at times, proved challenging: “It’s mostly like that – more so than just me being a perfectionist or something, or a freak that can’t make up their mind. In some ways, I’m still the same person that I was eight years ago, and in some ways I’m not.”
And after a long stint in limbo, Ferreira is now certain of one thing – she knows exactly what she wants to create and show to the world. “I’m starting to realise: I’m glad that I sound like me,” she says. “I’ve never really had an identity crisis – that’s the only thing I haven’t really had to [deal with], out of everything.”
With ‘Masochism’ finally looking like it might finally be on the horizon, she’s just champing at the bit to show people what her art is really about again – caricatures and misconceptions be damned. “I’m excited to play festivals,” she says. “It’s one thing I’ve really been looking forward to, actually, out of all this. It’s gonna feel good, hopefully, to be [back] doing what I should be doing.”
Grace Jones’ Meltdown concludes at the South Bank Centre on June 19