Taken from the autumn 2022 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here
I’m waiting for Sky Ferreira. Three days and two cancelled interviews after our first scheduled meeting, I’m hit one afternoon with a breathless flurry of WhatsApps from her PR saying that – following a brief disappearance – she is finally ready for an interview. He goes on to describe Ferreira’s last few days in heart-racingly stressful detail: a red-eye flight; a series of trundling, sleep-deprived car journeys; a sudden illness, and a drama involving lost luggage (hours before this shoot, and hours after landing in the UK, Ferreira was forced to haul herself back to Heathrow in an effort to find her missing belongings). When we do eventually meet, in an empty pub in London’s Stoke Newington, her glowing face – as ethereal in real life as her impressive modelling resume would suggest – belies a deeper weariness. “I’m getting acne,” she says, sweeping her majestic mane of bleached hair to one side and pointing to a couple of coloured, Starface Acne Patches on her chin. “I started picking at them because I never was told not to. No one told me I wasn’t supposed to!”
Despite the airport drudgery and star-covered acne, Ferreira is known for her glamorous, darkly feminine mystique. Earlier this year, to the delight of fans, she returned with her first single in three years, “Don’t Forget” – a woozy, swerving cavalcade of bellicose synths and angry, off-kilter drumming. The lyrics, like the rest of the song, are vengeful – “I won’t forget, I don't forgive, Oh no, I won’t forget” – in an obvious jab at her record label, Polydor, who the singer has been warring with for years. It is because of them, she says, that her new album Masochism has been delayed for nearly a decade. And although there have been some false starts over the last nine years (social media posts teasing possible release dates and some sporadic single releases), Ferreira has promised that 2022 will be the year the record finally sees the light of day. “I just had a lot of shitty things happen to me, like textbook shitty things,” she says, mindlessly jabbing her straw into her soda. “I literally halted my career, and it’s fucked up because there are like, rumours about me or whatever … [but the label] literally blocked me from being able to work.”
Two things immediately stand out about Ferreira when we meet. The first is her gentle, awkward politeness – over the course of our two-hour meeting she apologises constantly; for cutting off the end of my questions; for being too “woe is me”; for dwelling too much on a specific subject; for not saying cheers when we get our drinks. The second is her quiet, righteous rage. Often, our conversation will end up circling back to her treatment by manipulative label bosses, the judgemental media, and industry misogynists who refused to take her seriously. She likens the effects of this abuse, sustained over her 16 years in the business, to PTSD. “I’ve been stuck in this cage,” she explains. “I keep thinking that I’m getting closer to it, to getting back to where I was, to having control over my life. But the thing that’s frustrating about [making music with a label] is that you have to rely on people to do it for it to work properly. And when people are repeatedly projecting things on you, then you’re made to feel like you have to prove yourself. It’s like being in a bad relationship with someone.” She thinks for a while. “People are like, you should probably see that the problem is you. And it’s like ‘Oh, trust me, I thought that for a long time.’”
Ferreira’s exposure to the music industry started early. Her grandmother, who raised her, worked as Michael Jackson’s hairstylist for three decades, with the singer spending much of her LA childhood coolly mixing with high-profile industry figures. While growing up, she would record and rewatch music videos from VH1 and MTV onto old, glitchy VHS tapes. Her goal was to learn as much about the industry as possible: how to get in with producers, how to write songs like Fiona Apple, how to be a star. By the time she was a young teenager in the late 00s, she already set a plan in motion, sharing home recordings on her Myspace page and embedding herself deep into the blogosphere. At 14, she reached out to Rick Rubin and Parlophone’s A&R team for a meeting. Impressed by her brazen confidence, they signed her almost immediately. “I basically was kind of a brat and a bitch and it worked. It was cute then – until it wasn’t cute.”
Her early songs from this period – now only found on the fuzzier depths of YouTube – are almost unrecognisable. These are crisp, punchy pop bangers about fake IDs, high school secrets, and her powerful obsession with Free Willy star Michael Madsen. In the accompanying videos, a self-possessed, glossy-haired Ferreira stares down the camera with her penetrating, widescreen gaze and a sullen expression. To Parlophone, this 14-year-old was a glistening goldmine; a malleable young woman who could potentially be the next Britney. Until, suddenly, she lost her lustre. “The gears were turning in their minds,” says Ferreira, “in a more perverted way, to exploit.” After receiving a flood of money for her first two singles, the funds – she claims today – quickly dried up.
Fortunately, Ferreira found friends in other high places. Her gamine good looks and sultry, indie-sleazy magnetism attracted the attention of both Tumblr users and the fashion world, securing her modelling contracts with Adidas, Calvin Klein and Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent. And when her record label finally lost all interest, she took her music career into her own hands, moving from Parlophone to Polydor. She also met the man who would become her long-time collaborator, Ariel Pink, by chance in New York (Pink was performing “Round And Round” while being “circled by a group of miniature ponies”; Ferreira, already a long-time fan, approached him after the show). The pair eventually began working together, producing Ferreira’s self-funded, era-defining Night Time, My Time in 2013 – a soul-baring medley of thrashing 80s pop and sullen, crackling grunge. The album’s Gaspar Noé-shot front cover, which shows Ferreira recoiling topless in the shower, served as an additional mission statement: to make music on her terms, with her own carefully chosen, leftfield collaborators, for no one’s gaze but her own.
But what followed was, in Ferreira’s words, a dark period. Despite a successful foray into acting, with roles in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot and Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, her music output stagnated. “My early 20s were way better, so much easier,” she says today. “My mid to late 20s were just tortuous, they really were.” Her relationship with Polydor started to strain, with the singer accusing them of actively trying to sabotage her career. Despite the success of Night Time, My Time, money became increasingly hard to come by. “I felt less confident in my mid-20s than I ever did in my early 20s. I felt a little more defeated, more insecure. The more I kept trying to adapt to everyone else, the less it worked. But then I was also being told I wasn’t doing that the whole time.”
Ferreira skirts around exactly how Polydor enacted this sabotage, but funding seems to be the main issue. She claims to have been locked out of her Soundcloud account, given no money for press photos, production, or music videos (post-COVID, the label apparently encouraged her to self-shoot on her iPhone). “They were already cheap, like I couldn’t get a cent out of anyone before, but now I really can’t,” Ferreira says, shaking her head. Any money she did make was allegedly withheld for frustratingly long periods of time – unacceptable, she says, for a “billion-dollar” company. “They don’t give you the money, they hold it over you. They make it as difficult as possible. You’re at their mercy.”
“When people keep projecting things on you, you’re made to feel like you have to prove yourself. It’s like being in a bad relationship with someone” – Sky Ferreira
There was also the misogyny. Despite self-funding and producing all of her own work, she found herself regularly being talked down to: told to comb her hair, put on more make-up, speak less, and rethink her creative process. “I’ve been made to feel demanding for wanting to have a room to change in on shoots, rather than change in front of like 30 fucking guys.” Even now, she adds, members of the studio team will still come in and carefully explain to her how the volume dial works, as if she’s too stupid to know. “I never really knew what gaslighting was when I was younger,” Ferreira says, “it happened to me, but I was oblivious to it.” It’s not just in the studio, either – on YouTube, comments under her music videos and live performances often tear into her looks and mental state (Ferreira’s awkward manner and heavy, smudged makeup has seen her repeatedly get accused of being a drug addict, despite the singer’s fervent denial).
When Ferreira speaks out about these experiences, though, she finds that they’re often swiftly dismissed. It’s a dynamic that has been on loop in her life since the singer was a teenager – she speaks out, she gets shut down, she doubts her own reality. The worst example of this comes in the form of her own sexual abuse: Ferreira has previously said that she was abused “over and over again”, including one attempted rape by a neighbour. When she spoke out about it to police, they accused her of not being assertive enough. Much of Night Time, My Time addresses the trauma of these experiences, but even in their retelling, she found herself being criticised all over again. “I’m not even asking for sympathy, but it does require a lot of bravery,” she says. “People didn't like it, they thought I was being a brat about it, because I was being like fairly direct about [what happened]. How dare this 20-year-old be critical over these things?” She reminds me that this was before #MeToo, when it was even less acceptable for women to speak out against their abusers. That said, even now, she doesn’t think much has changed: “the women of #MeToo, you don’t see them being celebrated for [speaking out]. And they literally risked their lives to do it and had their careers ruined. They sort of made a spectacle out of them instead of helping them, you know?”
Much of the problem with Ferreira’s kind of femininity is that it’s so unknowable. In a world that likes to neatly categorise women, she refuses all palatable labels. She’s a world-famous artist, but she can barely look people in the eye. She’s beautiful, but her makeup looks like it was put on while driving, at night, down an off-road trail. She’s coquettish, but she refuses to submit (in most of her videos, she ends up in a tryst of some kind, but something’s always off – her eyes look bored of her partner, or she just ends up stabbing them in the throat). Ferreira has been called “weird” all throughout her life for this reason. “It’s never been a compliment to me,” she says. “There’s a point when everything that makes you unique, or eccentric in some way – when they can no longer fetishise you or make it cute, it starts to become the reason why they resent you… [It determines] who gets heard in these situations, and who gets fucked basically.”
Does she wish she could be more cutthroat, more of a bitch? “I don’t look at people like chess pieces. I'm just not wired that way,” she reasons. “I actually am stupid in a way. It’s not like I feel morally superior to people, but it’s more like I would feel wrong about it. It would bleed through what I made.”
Today, Ferreira seems to be in a better place – or at least more optimistic. While she doesn’t give much away about the status of Masochism, she ensures that the long-awaited album is basically done, save for some final finishing touches. Once again, she has joined forces with Ariel Pink for production, as well as Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie and Mexican Summer’s Jorge Elbrecht (the mastermind behind “Don’t Forget” and her sweeping, 2019 chamber-pop single “Downhill Lullaby”). A video for “Don’t Forget” is also “definitely” on the way, but Ferreira grows visibly frustrated when talking about it – there’s still work to do. “It's my first music video in like seven or eight years, I just can’t let it just be okay,” the singer says. “It makes things weird for me because some people are just bound to be disappointed.” The label, she adds, are also continuing to make things difficult, though she doesn’t specify how. “Don’t I deserve it to be exactly the way I want it to? And why is everything such a battle? I just feel like a 10-year-old sometimes.”
Despite this, Ferreira is happy to leave the hellscape of her twenties behind. Weeks before our conversation, she turns 30 – making her, for the astro-heads, a Cancer sun and a Scorpio moon. After a brief joke about our birth charts, we muse on the Scorpio “archetype”: a sensitive, intuitive sign known for its lust for vengeance and its propensity for life-shattering metamorphosis. Every time you strike them down, they’re supposed to come back stronger. “I feel like I’m an intuitive person, I would say that’s the only thing I’ve had going for me,” she says, with a low laugh. “That was how it always was before, but when I started doubting it is really when things really got out of control.” Now she’s 30, does she feel like she’s ready for her metamorphosis? “I’m not like 18 years old anymore, and I’m not gonna pretend I’m 18 years old,” she says, her voice trailing uncertainly. “But I would like a fair chance for once. I earned it. I earned it.”
Hair AYA KURAOKA, make-up JOEY CHOY at PREMIER using SHISEIDO, nails CHRISTIE HUSEYIN, light and digital technician WILL CORRY, styling assistant MARTHA RALPH-HARDING, production GRACIE YABSLEY at LG STUDIO, production assistant SACHIN GOGNA