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Sky Ferreira Will Be a Pop Star on Her Own Terms — Or Not At All

Sky Ferreira, photographed by Cass Bird.

Sky Ferreira is having problems with her voice. Literal problems, this time: Her vocal cords have hemorrhaged. So instead of spending the month on tour with V­ampire Weekend, she’s home in New York, resting and visiting doctors and, this afternoon, having her picture taken. When she meets me in a restaurant off Union Square, she’s wrapped around herself a ratty blue coat that’s either thrifted or eager to look it, plus a dose of the whole ambient Sky Ferreira mood that’s seen her adopted as an “It” girl, a style-­magazine cover subject, and a rock-and-roll muse for designer Hedi Slimane. She’s pale and chic, with choppy dyed-blonde hair and sullen glowering eyes, and just overall seems like she should be smoking a cigarette behind the gym of a high school circa 1994. It feels almost incongruous that she doesn’t actually smoke, maybe because she grew up in Los Angeles and has, as she puts it, had quinoa in her life since age 2.

A little later she’s debating whether to order a second Arnold Palmer—she doesn’t drink much caffeine, either—and telling me about her album, which will be released on October 29. It’s called Night Time, My Time, after a bit of Laura Palmer’s dialogue in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and it’s a wonderful, unlikely product: a shiny, major-label pop record bashed together by an artist audibly interested in noisy music-geek favorites from the seventies. Like, say, the grinding old synth-punk band Suicide. And psychedelic “Krautrock” bands. And Brian Eno.

The unlikely part isn’t that a pop musician would have those tastes—they’re common enough. What’s peculiar is the way Ferreira got to indulge them. She’s 21 years old. She signed a ­recording contract at 15, after building a following and networking with producers on MySpace—home to the untapped demand for bouncy teen-market pop that would soon enough drive singers like Katy Perry up the charts. (Justin Bieber was brought into the industry around the same time, on the strength of his YouTube performances.) This album is her debut. In other words, she’s spent the ­better part of a decade lost in a teenage-pop-star incubator: jetting around, ­posing for photos, and dutifully promising an album on the way “next year.” ­Capitol, her label, dispatched her to record countless songs in countless styles with just about every big-name writer-­producer in L.A. They tested the market with singles and EPs and sent Ferreira forth on buzz-building errands. They couldn’t put together an album they liked, threw up their hands, and even, she says, shelved her for a while, which is when she moved to New York, alone, and turned to modeling: “It was like, Well, she’s a dud. I’ve been told I was a failure since I was 17.” People have butted heads with Ferreira over what kind of pop product she was meant to become, and she does not seem to have enjoyed the process one bit. “I signed a million-dollar record deal,” she says, “and never saw any money. It all got spent on planes and writing. I’d have to leave school and go on a twelve-hour flight to Europe and do press, then fly back the same day. They worked me to death, but when I wanted to input anything, it was like, ‘You’re a child, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”

It’s hard to pinpoint what ended the stalemate. Maybe it was the success, last year, of a song called “Everything Is Embarrassing,” recorded with Dev Hynes, a musician whose tracks tend to sound, gloriously, like the Instagram-filtered ghosts of Janet Jackson hits from the eighties. Ferreira threw that one online when the label declined to release a single and watched it soak up love from the indie-music crowd. Or maybe it was the management changes attending Capitol’s absorption into Universal Music Group. Either way, you get the impression that at some point this year, the label finally said to her: Fine, if you’re so damn smart, you go make an album. “They were sort of out of money and out of ideas,” says her manager, Mike Tierney, “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.” So she did. It took Ferreira and her collaborators roughly half of August to stick together Night Time, My Time, which shows in fascinating ways: The LP mixes grungy eccentricity and radio hooks as casually as a Cyndi Lauper video. It has the same blend of pop decadence and grit Sofia Coppola was aiming for with the Marie Antoinette soundtrack, possibly because it’s chasing similar themes: Glamorous, depressive teenager, bought and sold by adults and beleaguered by gossip, seeks private space to assert herself, or at least experience her own joy. “She doesn’t need a room full of 50-year-old guys,” says Tierney, “to tell her what other 21-year-old women want to hear.”

Ferreira was motivated to finish the rec­ord by some other, more metaphorical problems she’s had with her voice—namely, the feeling that she doesn’t have one. “I feel like I have to shout to get my point across,” she says, “because people don’t listen to me.” You don’t have to listen long to grasp her experience of the world, which is that people are typically more interested in looking at and talking about her than they are in hearing what she has to say; they control and patronize and mock but don’t hear. She’ll cop to feeling distinctly ill treated, and it’s left her with her fair share of teenagerishly inchoate frustration: “I can’t make anyone happy, no matter what I do!” It’s been especially bad since mid-September, when she and her boyfriend, Zachary Cole Smith, of the indie-rock band DIIV, were arrested upstate and charged with drug possession: ecstasy and resisting arrest for her, “42 decks of heroin” and assorted other infractions for Smith. (She says she’s never touched heroin in her life, doesn’t know what a “deck” of it even is, and doesn’t personally do anything other 21-year-olds aren’t doing on college campuses nationwide. “People can say whatever they want, but most of them are fucking hypocrites.”) Since then, both have taken copious online gawking and abuse, a worrisome amount of which ­Ferreira knows by heart, from the blogs that have nicknamed her “Dead Eyes” to specific guys in comment boxes she’s tempted to reply to. “People want to make me sound like I’m weak or something,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh, she’s having a meltdown, she’s crazy, she’s a drug addict.’ But you can’t do what I’ve been doing for as long as I’ve been doing it and be a weak person. If I were a weak person, I would have just quit five years ago.”

Photo: Cass Bird

The histories of Ferreira’s ­literal voice and her figurative, agency-and-power voice are intertwined in such an on-the-nose symbolic way that it seems almost like something from a student novel. For instance, when she was a kid, growing up in a “disorganized” young family in L.A., she “went pretty much mute for two or three years. I was like, I have nothing else to say to anyone.” Or: when she was ­sexually abused, first at age 12—later, another man would break into her house and assault her in her sleep—she was told by police that being quiet made her easier to victimize. Her grandmother, who styled Michael Jackson’s hair—as a kid, Ferreira visited ­Neverland on birthdays—tried to help by placing her in a gospel choir, something Jackson encouraged. Sky says she liked the safety of it: “I wasn’t getting judged. It’s not about me.” In her teens, she started posting her recordings on MySpace, along with “silly” pictures of herself that, she’d noticed, attracted visitors. Her goal was to land a rec­ord deal, and after getting in touch with the Swedish producers Bloodshy & Avant, best known for their work with Britney Spears, she did exactly that. But then here’s her reason for seeking that deal: “I was trying to get out of school,” where she felt bullied and judged.

Is it too obvious to mention that there are many ludicrous and creepy aspects to signing 15-year-olds to recording contracts? The plan, obviously, is to locate a kid with talent and charisma and groom her to become a bankable performer: Catch a person at the precise pliant moment she’s trying to figure out what sort of person to become, and you might guide her into becoming a sort of person the market desires. This is a risky thing to try with a teenage girl who (a) can barely stand the level of scrutiny she gets from her peers, and (b) is willful and resourceful enough to do something like landing a record deal to avoid it. “I would just get torn apart. I’d walk into a room and they’d tell me what to change about myself,” Ferreira says. “They thought they were going to develop me and I was going to do whatever they wanted—like, Oh, she’s dumb. Once they realized I was fighting back, they didn’t like it. It was like being grounded all the time.”

Another complication: A teen’s identity is a moving target, and trying to match it to a sound is like trying to tailor a suit for a kid in the middle of a growth spurt. Worse still, Ferreira’s tastes were growing in directions not generally seen as useful in teen-­demographic dance pop. The list of influences on her MySpace page read like it came from a record-store clerk: Lene Lovich, Deerhoof, Nico, Bow Wow Wow. One popular assumption was that the label was trying to make her look hip. A more obvious assumption might have been that Ferreira was a pretty typical coastal alterna-teen with an Internet connection—a person who’ll now happily gush about her love of psychedelic folksinger Linda Perhacs, director Leos Carax, ­or the wonders of Technicolor (“Because it’s so beautiful, and the world’s not like that”). Listen to “One,” the terrific electro-pop single she released in 2010, and you’ll hear plenty of hints at both her tastes and her low level of job satisfaction. (The lyric “I’m not a robot, but I feel like one” may be the most obvious, but she also points out how elements of the production are cribbed from sources like Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” and Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting.”) At 15, she says, she was “just going along with whatever—a lot of it was just funny to me, when I would write about partying, or boys.” Over the years that followed, her career became a string of outfits tried on and discarded, from acoustic ballads to gleaming rockers to her least favorite, a single called “Obsession,” which you can guess just by listening would wind up on the soundtrack of a TV show about vampires. She transformed from a braces-faced, long-haired brunette into something more dangerous-looking.

This whole history might sound like an obvious boo-hoo feminist/Marxist parable about celebrity culture, or fashion’s use of women as accessories, or the music industry’s need to monetize human children—and sure, plenty of Ferreira’s feelings about it lean in those directions. “I’m some blog tabloid thing,” she says, “but if I was just, like, a guy, or a girl who wasn’t offensive in any way …” She talks about feeling publicly owned, about how “people feel like they have a right to tell me who I am.” She takes a risk and orders that second Arnold Palmer. “I get really angry. I’m just trying to keep my head up right now, because it’s been a long month,” she says. “There’s only so much I can take. But I have to take it. I have to keep going, to show everyone this is not what they want to make me out to be.” And that’s the quality that’s turned out fascinating: Ferreira is a lot less dead-eyed than imagined, and those feelings of being put-upon come hand in hand with a stubborn, rebellious persistence. Her response to feeling beleaguered isn’t the usual aspiration to stand coolly above it all; it looks, from the outside, more like the Platonic ideal of the weirdo teen who skulks around school looking sad and gorgeous and flipping people off and laughing to herself.

That disaffected-teenager force is strong with Night Time, My Time, writ large and made beautiful. It’s an album that could prove serious manna to any young person on the verge of deciding that the burnouts under the bleachers understand things the extroverts at the cooler lunch tables do not. To make it, Ferreira, highly motivated and highly frustrated, holed up with producer Justin Raisen—who, along with Ariel Rechtshaid, had already helped record a few singles she hoped to include on the album. She collected the gear used on her favorite Kraut­rock records (“I spent all this money on pedals, out of my own modeling money”) to fold their sounds into the mix. Maybe it’s just the three-week rush it came together in, but the LP’s different impulses cohere perfectly. The lead single, “You’re Not the One,” is both an indie-rock gem and full-voiced pop anthem; “Nobody Asked Me” splits the difference between Pink and the Jesus and Mary Chain, with a chorus that repeats “Nobody asked me if I was okay,” sounding simultaneously wounded, defiant, and giddy about it. Two songs later, you get something like “Omanko,” full of swirling noise and Bowie-style vocals.

“Nobody Asked Me” is the most stirring. ­Ferreira seems young and vulnerable in person, but her voice on that song is a powerful thing, with all the grace, fierceness, and anger she’d probably like people to acknowledge when she’s talking about her career in interviews. A lot of songs on Night Time, My Time revolve around a feeling of privacy, of disappearing with friends and lovers into secret, autonomous worlds. But “Nobody Asked Me” is pointed outward. The album is, after all, Ferreira’s first big shot at an independent, unmediated voice. “I was really pressured behind it,” she says. “Like, people will finally get me. This is my way of … not explaining myself—I don’t need to explain myself to anyone—but I was like, maybe this is the only way they’ll really get to know me, where I don’t feel like someone else. It’s something I have control over.”

Still, there’s a line in one song, “I Blame Myself,” about being “10 years old without a voice” and feeling like not much has changed. And when I ask how she feels now, some of that frustration comes bubbling right up again: “Now I feel like I have a voice. But I feel like I have to yell. People want to think whatever they want to think of me. They already have their knives out. Once they get a reason to pounce on me, they do, because they feel like they can. It hasn’t really changed since I was 10, and like, maybe I should just stop speaking.” Then she drops her shoulders and makes a face that looks a lot like her rec­ord sounds. 

*This article originally appeared in the November 4, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Hair by Holli Smith for Wella Professionals; Makeup by Yumi Mori at the Wall Group.

Photo: Cass Bird/New York Magazine