Sky Ferreira swears that the two most memorable songs on her new debut were written and recorded before her recent run-in with the law.
It’s hard to hear “Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay)” and “I Blame Myself” (“for my reputation,” she eventually admits in the chorus) without thinking they’re a commentary on the emotional upheaval the rising pop singer endured a few months ago. She and her boyfriend, Zachary Cole Smith, who fronts the band DIIV, were arrested in mid-September for drug possession. She had ecstasy on her, and he was carrying heroin.
By indie-rock standards, it was a minor scandal, compounded by Ferreira suffering a hemorrhage on her vocal cords not long afterward that forced her to cancel some tour dates opening for Vampire Weekend.
All of which suggests now is a good time to pose that question Ferreira wishes everyone had asked her: Is she OK?
“I’m pretty OK,” she says ahead of a tour that brings her to the Paradise Rock Club on Wednesday. “I was in way worse shape recently than I am right now. I feel a lot more relieved now that my album is out. All of this stuff that has happened I figured would outshine the album, but I think it kind of did the opposite.”
Like the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad press. As a singer, songwriter, actress, and model, Ferreira comes from a long line of damaged musicians, from Cat Power’s Chan Marshall (whom she recently befriended) to Fiona Apple to Amy Winehouse. Part of their allure, and why we we’re so drawn to them, is tangled up in the idea of never knowing what to expect.
Ferreira, at 21, has embodied that freewheeling spirit from the start, pushing back her album’s release date numerous times, changing its title, darting from one genre to the next. On the phone at least, she has a nervous but amiable energy that suits such a young artist but also belies the aloofness she imparts in her videos and songs.
What a relief, then, that her long-delayed debut is so solid. “Night Time, My Time” is an enjoyable if slight album that begins and ends before you realize it, but it’s also the most consistent batch of songs she has recorded. The whole thing has a neon glow, humming along to a nocturnal pulse informed by electro-pop and heavy guitar lines. (In another decade, Joan Jett surely would have had a hit with “Nobody Asked Me. . .”)
“Once I had a chance for everyone to leave me alone for a month, I was able to finish the album,” Ferreira says, mentioning that her major label, Capitol, wanted to release it prematurely and gave her a steep deadline to wrap it up – within three weeks. “Everyone thought that was impossible, but I managed to do it. When I gave it to them, they didn’t know what to do with it. Imagine that: a major label not knowing what to do with something.”
The album arrived after a series of false starts. Her first two EPs were, with due respect, an absolute mess, a hodgepodge of styles that suggested Ferreira had no idea what kind of music she wanted to make. She admits as much.
“When I made those two EPs, in my mind I was trying to figure out what album to make, but I was just recording for recording’s sake,” she says. “That’s why it was not cohesive.”
One song in particular struck a nerve, though. “Everything Is Embarrassing,” from last year’s “Ghost” EP, was co-written with and shaped by Dev Hynes, who records as Blood Orange. It was a natural fit for Ferreira’s sleek detachment, but her warm and sturdy voice gave it heart and soul. “Night Time, My Time” does not simply ape that song, and besides, Ferreira didn’t want it to.
“I kind of ended up doing the opposite of ‘Everything Is Embarrassing,’ musically,” she says. “The thing I like about that song is that it’s one really good song. But if I did an album like that, there’s nothing fun or exciting about it from my end because it’s such a specific sound. And that sound already belongs to Blood Orange. I didn’t wait five years to do something someone else already does.”
Already Ferreira conveys a wounded sensibility, as if the music industry has chewed her up and spat her out. The cover of “Night Time, My Time” plays that up. It’s a photo of Ferreira topless, seemingly in the shower, and we see her through water-streaked glass. Her hair is slicked and matted, her red lips puckered in a pout. She appears on the verge of tears. It’s an uncomfortable image that speaks to the vulnerability that underpins the music.
‘Sometimes it feels like nobody really understands what I’m going through, so I only have these songs to explain it.’
“At this point, everyone was trying to make me into something I wasn’t – the media, my label, and life. I was starting to get really angry about it,” she says. “There’s more to a person than a Calvin Klein ad. At first I thought I needed to make a record so that everyone gets who I am. But then I realized I needed to make this record because it’s what I have to say about it all.”
“Sometimes it feels like nobody really understands what I’m going through,” she adds, “so I only have these songs to explain it. I’ve never been a great person at explaining my emotions, and yet I can’t hide them either.”James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.