Sky Ferreira wants you to see her flaws. The 21-year-old ascendant pop star has spent much of her four-year career rebelling against type — fighting for the right to be imperfect, to go unfiltered, to be human in a world where superhuman is standard. But that doesn’t mean she wants you to believe everything you read.
Reports that the singer/songwriter and occasional model is variously a product of major label machinations or a hard-partying, drug-addled socialite, have plagued her since her first EP “As If!” was released by Capitol Records in 2011. “It wasn’t until last year’s critically acclaimed single “Everything is Embarrassing,” and the subsequent “Ghost” EP, that Ferreira finally made real headway toward declaring herself as a self-made artist.
Long-delayed debut album “Night Time, My Time,” out Oct. 29 from Capitol and filled with smart, self-aware, unpolished pop songs, will likely enhance that reputation further. But the other line against Ferreira, that her drug-fueled social life is bordering on the self-destructive, may prove more difficult to shake.
On Sept. 13, Ferreira and boyfriend Zachary Cole Smith of the indie rock band DIIV were arrested while driving to Basilica SoundScape festival in upstate New York. Police in the small town of Saugerties stopped Smith, who was behind the wheel, after “several vehicle and traffic infractions,” according to reports. A subsequent search found him to be in possession of 42 decks of heroin and astolen license plate. Ferreira, meanwhile, was found with Ecstasy and charged with possession of a controlled substance and resisting arrest.
Excerpted here from a wide-ranging and characteristically candid phone interview for a forthcoming story in the print edition of Billboard, Ferreira spoke publicly, and at length, about the arrest for the first time. Sounding alternately remorseful and aggrieved, she admitted that she put herself in a “bad situation” but insisted that she doesn’t have a problem with drugs.
Read our conversation, in which Ferreira also talks about not wanting to rehash “Everything is Embarrassing,” walking a tight rope between indie and pop and her dreams of being a superstar, below.
This album was previously going to be called “I Will” and had a couple of other earlier permutations before that. How did you end up on the version that exists now?
I think it happened organically is the way I would say it. I wasn’t really satisfied with the other records I kept doing. It just wasn’t capturing what I wanted. I listened to the record and I was like “This is just not what I want to do.” It wasn’t really mixed right and I just wasn’t in that headspace anymore, you know? So I worked with Ariel Rechtshaid and Justin Raisen, who produced the whole album, and basically started over.
I write pop songs, that’s just what I know how to do well, I guess. And I have no problem with that. But I just didn’t want it to sound like everything else that’s out. And I wanted it to show some of the influences I have more than it was. It didn’t feel right.
You’re in an interesting space because you do write pop songs, but there’s a bit of an edge to them. It’s not bubblegum.
That’s the thing. I like big choruses, but I also like things that are a bit drone-y sometimes. So it’s kind of a matter of balancing both. When I write a pop song I don’t go into it thinking ‘Oh can I get this on the radio? Is it catchy enough?’ When I write I try to write how I would speak, so then it’s honest to what I’m actually doing. I won’t sing something unless I mean it, and it’s the same way when I’m writing. That’s kind of always been the issue with me. It’s a good thing, but it kind of can make me look crazy. Like when I’m on stage, like at Pitchfork [Music Festival] in July, I was sobbing through half of the set. I always cry when I’m on stage because I’m always thinking about what I’m singing.
This is your debut full-length, and you’re only 21, but in some ways you’ve already had a long and tortured music career. How do you feel things are going at this point? Did you make the record you wanted to make?
I’m really proud of my record, which I didn’t know could ever be possible. [Before] I thought “Maybe there’s something wrong with me.” I thought maybe the songs weren’t good, or I couldn’t write a good song. “Maybe I’m just not capable of making a good record that I’m happy with. Maybe I’ll just never be satisfied.” Because that was kind of always my issue in life, I’m just not satisfied with a lot of things. I mean, I’m not negative but I’m a bit of a perfectionist in a lot of ways. Like if I get one note wrong in the show, it can kind of fuck up the whole show for me. I don’t show it on stage, but I’ll dwell on it for a few hours. I’ve always kind of been like that since I was a little kid.
So you combine all those things and you put it inside the body of a little girl or a teenager who’s also very driven and stubborn, and then you put her in front of a bunch of label executives who in their mind just see like a blonde girl who can possibly make them money… and if you don’t agree with what they say then all hell breaks loose.
But I just wasn’t willing to give in; no matter how hard they tried. I’m willing to compromise on some things, but only if it makes sense to me. And I’ve learned from past experiences when I really didn’t want to do something and I did it anyway it did not work out well.
How did you get out of that situation? How did things change?
I think I just kind of pushed it for myself, that’s kind of just what I did. I just kept pushing and pushing. Life throws things at me that are really hard that I have to deal with, but I just keep moving forward and stand behind what I’m doing because I think that’s the only thing that I can do is keep going. There’s people that want me to do really well and there’s also people who don’t want me to do well and I’m well aware of it. I’ve worked too hard to just quit or to put out something that’s mediocre. And I never really felt like that before this record.
Did things change at the label?
In some ways, but in some ways there’s always a little bit of a fight. Like with my album artwork everybody wanted me to change it. I did it with [Argentine film director] Gaspar Noé. They wanted me to be more pretty in it or more model-y because I can do that. [They wanted] like a pretty shot of my face, but that’s not what I wanted to do and that’s not what the record’s about, either. It’s kind of about the opposite of that. Some of the songs I have are almost like subliminal, with hidden messages behind them. Some of it’s a bit tongue and cheek.
Do you think “Everything is Embarrassing” was a turning point for you in terms of your career?
That was definitely a turning point. I put that out thinking no one was going to pay attention to it and suddenly it’s on Pitchfork’s “Best New Music” and everyone is like ‘”Oh, ‘Everything is Embarrassing’!” And I was like “Really?” Because, I mean, it’s a great song, but I never really thought that would be the song that everyone would go crazy over. I was so used to nothing ever really going anywhere, so the way I was looking at it was like “I’m just gonna keep putting out stuff until something maybe catches on.” But I never really had the intention of things going the way they did.
Did it give you more creative freedom from the label?
To some extent, yeah. But then they want me to do 10,000 versions of “Everything is Embarrassing.” And then what’s the point? The magic of that song would be completely fucking gone. You know what I mean? Why try to repeat it? You can’t force something like that to happen. That’s something that I realized. Something might sound like a hit, but you can’t go and be like ‘This is gonna be a hit!’ you know?
Look at “Royals” or that Gotye song. With all this EDM, David Guetta and Dr. Luke type of music on the radio constantly, did [“Somebody That I Used to Know”] sound like it was going to be No. 1 in America?
Do you watch that stuff pretty closely as far as what’s topping the charts?
Yeah, that’s the thing. I love pop music and I appreciate it and I do pop music, so of course I’m gonna pay attention to what’s goes on. I do want to be successful, but I’m not gonna kill myself over it. I’m just gonna try to do what I like doing, the best that I can.
I still believe that someday something big will happen for me, and it is happening, but it might not be overnight. It might be three singles in or two records later, who knows? But part of me believes that it will happen. And good songs last forever. There are songs that you can listen to 40 years later and it’s like ‘Oh, that’s still a really good song.’ That’s kind of what I’d like to do. I think the quality of something matters more so than the quantity of sales. Yeah, it would be great to have a No. 1 single and be a millionaire. But am I gonna change myself for it? No.
I think it’s because you’ve taken that approach that a lot of people on the indie side and outside of the pop world have been paying attention to you.
Yeah, I walk a bit of a tight rope between those two things and it could go either way. And I’m happy with it going either way, but sometimes I get criticism from both ways, which is kind of really hard [laughs]. People really don’t know what to do when you’re both. And it sucks because the music can’t always speak for itself and the visuals can’t always speak for themselves, because for some reason, with the way I am, people also pay attention to me. They pay attention to what I do, what I wear— I’m getting judged on every aspect. I think that also made it really hard because I started so young and wasn’t like a cookie cutter type. I’m not afraid to show my flaws. I do get embarrassed, but at least I bring some humanity to pop music.
Do you ever think things would be different if you were on an indie label?
I guess if I were on more of the indie side people would accept me more and wouldn’t be so much like “Is she real, is she fake, is she trying too hard?” and that kind of thing. But at the same time, a lot of indie labels act the same way major labels do, just without as much money. That’s what I’ve learned. A lot of my friends are in indie bands or on indie labels and some of [the indies] happen to have better taste sometimes than major labels, but they still kind of have the same mentality as far as trying to make something big or successful. Right now with the Internet everyone is like “Oh we need a YouTube viral sensation.”
On the song “I Blame Myself,” you say “How could you know what it feels like to fight the hounds of hell, you think you know me so well? I blame, I blame myself… for my reputation.” Tell me about why you wrote that.
With that song it’s like, I’m not the most famous person, I don’t have the paparazzi harassing me every day or something, but I do a lot of things and people notice without me really thinking much about it. I have this reputation of being like a party girl or on drugs or whatever, and even though things aren’t really what they seem and people don’t really know anything about me… There’s this whole perception of me and it’s partially my fault. I don’t go out of my way to change it. I’m not gonna start going around getting my hair blow dried and putting on make up every day and smiling all the time. I’m not gonna try to prove people wrong in that sense. I want my work to speak for itself. It sucks that people think bad stuff about me, but it’s partially my fault and I’m well aware of that. I take full responsibility for it, even though I think a lot of it’s unfair bullshit, because no one’s putting a gun to my head to do this.
I don’t think anyone can possibly know how it is until they experience it. I don’t like being exploited and I don’t like people lying about me, but I put myself in this position and that’s part of my job. That’s part of what I have to deal with and people have to deal with worse things in the world. So it’s not like “Oh feel sorry for me,” because I don’t feel sorry for myself at all. I wish things were different, but it’s just what it is and I don’t think some people can understand how it feels to be judged and told you’re something that you’re not.
Even before [the arrest] last week, people were already saying I was on drugs when I wasn’t. A lot of it has to do with being in the wrong place at the wrong time and who I associate myself with and what not. But a lot of it is a bit hypocritical, too. I think that’s what gets on my nerves the most.
How did you handle reports of the arrest being leaked? That couldn’t have made things any easier.
It was a lot harder because people don’t really know… I legally can’t say much about what happened, but it’s not what it all seems. I kind of got fucked with. And it’s annoying because I wasn’t charged with his heroin. It says it. The public records are out there. I wasn’t charged with it. Trust me, if I was even anywhere near that, they would’ve charged me because they had no problem charging me with other shit. They were out to kind of like fuck with us. I’m scared to say more than that because I don’t want them to arrest us anymore. I’m not saying they went out of their way to fuck with us, but like what happened wasn’t… No one actually knows what happened besides Cole and I and the Saugerties police.
And I’m trying to let the music speak for itself. And I go and meet people and you can tell that I’m not on drugs. And I’m not gonna blame it on anyone else. I’m sorry for what happened. I’m sorry if I offended anyone by it. But also I feel like I was a bit exploited by my friends. I couldn’t believe some of the things they were saying and doing. In some ways it was like a blessing in disguise because I really saw who was there for me and who wasn’t. And I saw some really great things from people who I didn’t expect that to come from. I’m really sorry about it, and that’s pretty much all I can say.
It’s hard that every day now I have people calling me a heroin addict or making fun of me and saying that I’m gonna die of AIDS from needles and shit like that. The one thing I think that bothers me the most is people being self-righteous about it and not knowing what they’re talking about. Read what it says. People are being really hypocritical about it and just using it as a way to mock us. I don’t like the way people are treating me and Cole. If I thought someone had a problem, I would help them, I would want to get them help. I wouldn’t just make fun of them or attack them or use them as a way to get publicity for myself. Especially when it comes to people that know us and know the truth about it. I’m not telling people to feel sorry for us, but use it as a way to get people help instead of trying to embarrass them more.
Even when Lindsay Lohan and people like that got arrested, it’s like it doesn’t concern me, you know? That has nothing to do with me. Hopefully that person gets help— that’s the way I’ve always looked at it.
But you’re saying that you don’t need help and the people who are saying that you do don’t know what they’re talking about?
They don’t know what’s going on. This is right before I played Barclays Center [with Vampire Weekend and Solange]. It’s funny. I have to point this out, too— If I’m surrounded by handlers, which is all I’ve been hearing for the past year since “Everything is Embarrassing” came out, then I would be in fucking rehab right now [laughs]. I would have had some public statement about it.
I know for a fact I’m not a drug addict. That’s all I really have to say about it. I know I’m not a drug addict. I’m sorry if it hurt anyone and I’m not trying to promote drugs and it’s not like an image thing whatsoever. Do you think I want people thinking I’m a heroin addict? No. Do you think I want people thinking I’m a drug addict? No. But people have always said I’m a drug addict, just based on the fact that I have dark circles around my eyes— which I’ve had since I was a kid— or because I come across a certain way or dress a certain way. So that’s not something that’s new. But I would be in rehab; I would not be on this Vampire Weekend tour. And I wouldn’t be able to go on stage everyday and deal with this.
But there are people who have been really nice and supported me and I feel good about that. I’ve learned a lot from the experience and I feel stronger from it. I’m sorry if it seems like I’m trying to promote drug use or something because I’m not. But I’m a human being and people get involved in bad situations some times. That’s really all I can say.