Out of the Cage: An Interview with Ferron
Douglas Heselgrave's #5 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2008, Volume 15, #12
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed December 3, 2008, 06:30 AM CST
On the morning before her first full band performance in several years, veteran singer/songwriter Ferron dropped by my house in east Vancouver. Over the course of several hours, we discussed a variety of topics, which ranged from the vagaries of the music industry to the importance of growing oneís own food. During one of the most interesting conversations of my writing career, it dawned on me that spending time with Ferron is what therapy or going to church should be like, but rarely is. In an industry where artists often become representatives of a product and their reflections are often no more than carefully considered sound bites, it is refreshing to meet someone like Ferron who sees interviews as opportunities not only to share her truths but also to explain her artistic motivations, rather than simply as a vehicle for selling CDs and concert tickets.
A longstanding fixture on the North American folk scene, Ferron was in a reflective mood as she discussed Boulder, the 14th album that she has released since she first threw her hat into the ring in 1977. Championed by musicians like Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Joan Baez, and the Indigo Girls, her songs have remained closely guarded secrets. This, however, may now change. Since being issued in June, Boulder has garnered almost universal praise, including four-star reviews and glowing mentions in the New York Times and Time Out Magazine as well as on NPR and many other influential media outlets.
While she hardly is a household name, it wouldnít be entirely accurate to say that Ferron has spent her career flying completely under the radar of popular culture. Shadows on a Dime, her fourth full-length album, earned a four-star review in Rolling Stone when it was issued in 1984. Though her output is infrequent, her songs ó with their unflinching look at the dark places in the human soul ó certainly must be regarded as some of the strongest compositions recorded anywhere over the last 30 years. Like Nick Drake, Townes Van Zandt, and Victoria Williams, the 56-year-old Canadian folk singer is regarded as a musicianís musician. Until now, she has contented herself with the attention of a small but dedicated following.
Ferron is so unaffected and so direct that when listening to her in a conversation or on a record, it is often easy to forget that she is not an old friend or close family member. She is about the farthest from a diva that one can get in the music business. As we talked, I imagined her less as a singer and more as a tiller of the soil who approaches her art as if she were ready to turn over the dirt, plant her seeds, and see what will grow. Ferronís music is an extension of her life, and her commitment and courage express equal amounts of beauty and wit, a glimpse of which few artists ever provide to their listeners. Her life, as it is filtered through song, brings to mind the old Zen story about the boy and the ox in that it reminds people that in order to live consciously, they must first wrestle with desire and adversity before they can earn the right to ride gracefully into the sunset. Considered from this point of view, Ferronís work doesnít seem written and sung as much as it feels as if it had been wrung from the blood and toil of time and experience. In her world, her compositions have a life that extends well beyond the confines of her art.
As a musician who also has spent time working in a day care, growing food, and assisting a midwife, Ferron seems to have achieved a balance between life and work that few people ever find. Music and writing are her ways of ruminating on her experiences, rather than her sole reason for being. "I garden. I clean things. I have a home," she told me. "My girlfriendís grandchildren are in it. Her children are in it. These days itís all about living in a tangible world. It is a question about how I describe a tomato, not how I describe isolation."
"Iím more interested in what a tomato means to me, and what it can mean to the whole world," Ferron continued. "The fact that I can have a tomato that I grew myself means that I am still free. Iím in the physical world, which is a place that I wasnít [for awhile]. I knew all of my life that I had to get here in order to understand more about everything. I remember being younger and thinking, ĎIím getting a little closer.í IĎve always been very esoteric and theoretical, and I needed to be in the physical world."
When I asked Ferron how her music helps to tie her to the physical world, she looked right at me for what seemed like several minutes before answering: "My music is about the idea that we were already holy and that something comes in and splatters all over us. We have to spend the rest of our lives getting the splatter off to get back to how weíre all connected and how life is a holy dream. I know that holy is a trigger word for some people. Youíve seen a baby born in the first minute...thatís holy. A poem when itís first done or a song the first time you sing it out loud ó theyíre holy. They are what we always dreamed Ďholyí would mean, instead of the way it gets manipulated and used."
For Ferron, two of the most important goals of being an artist are to explore how each of us experiences our separateness and how we can reunite with the purity and dignity that are our birthrights. For her, each life is the story of this necessary journey. "My thought is that the reason we are on Earth is to realize that we are not separate because everything we encounter ó my car, your shirt, your child, my money, your country ó is about separation," she explained. "Iím not worldly, so I donít know what itís like for other people in other countries, but thereís certainly enough suffering and poverty for me to believe that our way of thinking has hurt a lot of people. Thatís what Iím singing about in the song Souvenir when I say ĎI donít forget weíre all little crystals shattered to the ground.í"
Ferron believes that it is the responsibility of the artist to remind people of their essential wholeness and to reflect the often forgotten ideals of a society. "In the beauty of the world, there are people who have children and somebody has to love them and take care of them," she said. "Somebody else is a scientist. If you write, you have agreed to take longer to think because other people donít have time because they are doing something else. Youíre taking on a commitment in the same way that a shaman has agreed to take on the illness of the village and ground it. So, in that sense, artists are shamans. They have agreed to reflect and take on the illness of the culture and remind us of what we may have forgotten. I have certainly taken on that responsibility in my life. But, I took it on because I was already suffering, and there was nothing else to do. I donít think you can theorize sorrow. I think you have to know it."
Sorrow is nothing new to Ferron. At the age of 15, she left Vancouver, carrying only a shopping bag that was filled with the barest of essentials, which for her included a Leonard Cohen album. The oldest of seven children, Ferron was born into family of mixed heritage that included French-Canadian, Cree, and Ojibwa backgrounds. She faced years of abuse, and she moved in and out of foster homes before making a life for herself on the road, which ó even with all of its attendant dangers ó seemed more tenable than the Hell on Earth that her familial residence represented.
When she turned 18, Ferron began composing songs, and she released a pair of self-produced outings prior to recording Testimony, which became her breakthrough endeavor when it was issued in 1980. The effort was critically heralded for both its poetic lyrics and its beautiful melodies. In fact, nearly 30 years later, it still is considered such a bold, artistic statement that if Ferron never again had made another album, Testimony would have secured her reputation as one of the finest folk artists of the 20th Century.
"You may notice in my songs that I usually write in the first-person present tense. This is to take ownership of the power of my life. In this way, Iím not the victim. Iím one of the players," Ferron explained.
"Thereís a kind of tenderness in how everyone is so lost in this nightmare," she continued. "Iíve written a lot about that. At a certain point, it wasnít going to work for me to believe that things were forced upon me. I turned my perception around and thought, ĎWhat if I shaped this for my own learning?í"
"Itís like when the poet David Whyte says, ĎThere is just one true life.í Iíve mulled that sentence over quite a lot," Ferron stated. "Is it that thereís one true life and we get to find it, or is there only one thing we could have done? When Olympic runners are going around the track, theyíve brought everything into the moment. After theyíre done, all they can say is theyíve done the best that they can do. I think about what goes on in life, and I forgive a whole bunch of things because of this concept."
Perhaps the greatest thing for which Ferron had to learn to forgive herself was her decision to sign with Warner Bros. in the late 1980s. After several years as a very successful performer, she thought she was ready to take her music to another level. From the experience, she learned the hard way that acclaim can be a two-edged sword. She confesses, "To me, it was never so much about money as credibility. I guess I wanted to engage in that fight as a woman and as a lesbian whoíd been writing for a long time. I can remember my first manager saying to me, after sheíd been at a huge Bruce Springsteen concert, ĎFerron, you donít exist.í Warner Bros. didnít know what to do with my voice, though they thought that they did. The goal, then, was that with just a little bit of tweaking, I could be somebody."
Even though she continued to receive praise for her work, Ferron was aware for the first time in her career that she was being boxed into a corner. She explained, "I was thought of only as a lesbian singer. I can remember that the New York Times listed Driver as one of the top albums of 1994. Then, the ensuing article was all about Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. I was on a plane flying home when I first read it. I was so happy, but I couldnít tell the guy in the seat next to me about it because under the photo of me was the caption Ďlesbian singer-songwriter.í Neither Dylan nor Mitchell had been identified this way. Perhaps, they felt that I would have taken it as a sign of disrespect if they had not said Ďlesbian,í but they didnít understand that this was not what I was selling. I was selling a way of thinking ó a way of getting through a knot in your life."
During her time with Warner Bros., Ferron released three albums: Phantom Center, Driver, and Still Riot. Of these, only Driver sounds like she was allowed to have any creative control over the arrangements. Despite some excellent songs as well as contributions from artists like Tori Amos and Scarlet Rivera, these outings failed to reach beyond Ferronís core audience, which stuck with her despite the unsympathetic production and lack of promotion that plagued her endeavors. Eventually, the relationship reached a breaking point, and Ferron was unceremoniously dropped from the label. As if this wasnít enough of a blow, she discovered, after the dust had settled, that she no longer even owned the rights to her music. To make matters worse, the label ceased printing her CDs, and she was left without the ability to reissue them on her own.
"Warner Bros. came along with a deal that broke me at the knees. I ended up losing the rights to my work," Ferron said. "I donít think they did anything really awful on purpose. They just do what corporations do: they eat small things. They eat minnows, and for a minute, I was a minnow. All of this taught me that you can go after power with the big boys; you can go after drinking and being lost in the spirit. In the end, though, it is the same for all of us in that weíre going to die. I realized that the one thing you can have, no matter what, is your own voice to say, ĎThis is how I feel.í"
The fallout from Ferronís experience with Warner Bros. caused her to have to lay low for several years. Living in a variety of locations along the western coast of North America ó from Saturna Island, British Columbia to Bodega, California ó she healed herself and eventually regained her footing as both an artist and a person. Boulder, her new album, was spurred by the insistence of Bitch, an influential singer-songwriter as well as a politically motivated feminist. In conversation, Ferron simply refers to her as "B." because she doesnít feel comfortable with the negative connotations of the word.
In 2005, after years on the road, Ferron was performing infrequently and enjoying her life of semi-retirement. Living with her partner in rural Michigan, she was more interested in writing poetry and growing tomatoes than she was in recording more songs. When Bitch showed up at her door with a mobile recording studio, Ferron finally gave in. "I struggled against the CD because I didnít want the life that comes with it ó back on the road, Motel 6s, and all of that driving around," she explained. "I liked the life that I was leading, and I wanted to find another way to keep and live with the holy, instead of being some weirdo out on the road, eating fried egg sandwiches."
Instead, Bitch provided Ferron with a list of songs that she wanted to produce. Ferron played them on her acoustic guitar, and Bitch then took the recordings on the road, stopping in different cities to get sympathetic musicians ó such as the Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, and Sam Parton of The Be Good Tanyas ó to contribute to Boulder. Ferron and Bitch agreed that they wouldnít talk during the production process and that Bitch would send Ferron the material to hear only after it was completed.
For a person who loves to maintain her artistic control, waiting was sometimes a harrowing experience for Ferron. "In a way, I was nervous when I was waiting to see what she did with them," said Ferron. "Iíd already delivered those songs, so I asked her, ĎWhy donít you get someone else to sing them? Why donít you do the whole thing yourself?í She refused. I thought it was very weird that I didnít have any part in it. ĎB.í really needed me to give her these songs because she wanted to interpret them and introduce them to younger people. I eventually realized that if I hold my work to me, Iíll never get it out there and thatís what she was offering me. You know youíre going to die, so does it really matter how somebody else adds music to your songs? It took me a year and a half or so to get my ego in shape, and then I did everything she asked."
When the album was finally finished, Ferron was quietly overwhelmed. "I think that it turned out fine," she said. "I hear something different inside the songs than ĎB.í recorded. I will always hear what I hear in music. I love them and love what they did, and yet, I still would never have done it that way."
"I donít feel any need to change my songs like Bob Dylan does," continued Ferron. "Part of that is conscious. Once you live that moment and it goes out there, itís no longer yours, so youíre screwing around with other peopleís prayers, if you change it. It makes the first moment not as important. Itís not mine to change anymore. It diminishes the importance of the first breath. But ĎB.í gave me a gift with this record. Iím front and center in the recording. Believe me, it hasnít always been like that."
It isnít really valid to question whether or not the updated versions of Ferronís songs improve upon her original conceptions. Anyone who spends time pondering this issue likely would miss the point of Boulder entirely. When Ferron first recorded this material, she was a youthful songwriter who was trying to express herself within the accepted norms of the music industry. Her words may have been framed by carefully conceived arrangements, but she nevertheless managed to deliver her thoughts in a manner that was bold, powerful, and passionate. By contrast, the new renditions featured on Boulder reflect Ferronís maturity as an artist, and they embrace the sort of graceful maneuvering that a younger vocalist never would have been able to achieve. In fact, contemporary folk music rarely exudes the levels of gravity and poise that Ferron uncovers with each poetic lyric that she articulates.
The deliberation in Ferronís approach finds its closest parallel, perhaps, in Bob Dylanís output from the past decade. When he sang Not Dark Yet on his 1997 outing Time Out of Mind, Dylanís voice wasnít nearly as pliable as it had been in 1965. Following a similar path, Ferronís voice, too, has been tarnished by time, but much like Dylan, she has learned how to utilize this unfortunate happenstance to her advantage. When she delivers the material on Boulder in a way that is half-spoken and half-sung, her words assume a sacredness that makes them sound as if they are drawing upon the wisdom of some distant past.
The economy of the bare-bones arrangements with which Ferron communicates on Boulder reveals a level of depth and significance that many folks likely didnít notice in her original approach to these songs. Although she always has had a profound way of delivering her material, the three decades that have passed since these tunes were written and recorded have allowed her not only to refine her approach but also to inhabit her compositions more fully. They spring from her soul and feel like eternal truths that have always existed in the universe.
One of the great gifts offered by Boulder is, of course, that it provides fans with an opportunity to reassess Ferronís work. It Wonít Take Long, a biting and powerful political anthem from Shadows on a Dime, is one of the setís better-known songs. Although it was written during the height of the Reagan era, the track now is rendered with a level of implied irony that emanates from the fact that ó as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 demonstrated ó little has changed to curb the rampant greed and willful blindness of a nation. The impoverished remain as hungry and homeless as ever, and complacency regarding these facts isnít an option. "I still feel that whatís asked for in that song is the only thing that will work. The middle class in the United States is a class of charge cards and security based on paper, and itís very threatening. I live in a place where all of these dreams are dying," she explained.
Ferron believes that the dream sold to the American people is wonderful, but its implementation largely is imperfect. "Everything is owned, even patents for seeds. This seems representative of the seeds of our creative life that are being taken away from us. Iíll say it again: ĎWhy as a culture do we not hold our artists sacred and take care of them, knowing that they are filtering the sorrow of the world?í" she continued. "People have to be willing to throw it all away for this freedom that has been taken from them. It may sound corny, but I wonder why the act of caring is not the driving goal. Itís like a baby is born, and people look at it and say ĎIím going to break you!í What is that? Itís sick!"
It could be argued that the version of The Cart that appears on Boulder might actually be representative of how Ferron envisioned the tune when she first started writing it in 1970. The sparseness of its new arrangement has given The Cart, which finally appeared on her 1990 endeavor Phantom Center, the room it needed in order to breathe. As a result, Ferronís literate lyrics are placed front-and-center as she outlines the challenges that come from trying to live a spiritual life in the modern world.
Like the other tracks on Boulder, The Cart remains important to its composer. "Well, The Cart is another song that for years I would play through and never know what it was. It just lived in me and stayed there," Ferron explained. "I wrote another verse years later, but it still wasnít finished. Finally in 1990, when we were making Phantom Center, I was staying in a motel in California when I got the last verse and put it all together. It took 20 years for me to actually name what was dark and scary about that song."
"By 1990, I knew what was threatening about it," she continued. "Itís about how if you are not following your dream, you are definitely following someone elseís. So, the idea behind The Cart is that if stuff is going on and you think you donít have to pay attention, then you canít cry out when things get really dire. I think that it has to do with morality and integrity. If you canít hold something at a certain point when it really matters, you donít have anything. When I sing Ďthe strap that holds the cart in rein has been let loose by wearing thin,í I donít necessarily know what the cart is. However, it is old and handmade; it has to do with humanity, and it works. All it, for me, was the image of a cart trying to be pushed up a hill. The hill was sand, and nothing was working like it used to. It was about some kind of denial or misunderstanding."
The new version of Misty Mountain, a particularly radio-friendly track from Testimony, is, perhaps, the song that sounds most dramatically different from its original incarnation. Its lilting, reggae-tinged cadence has been replaced by the music of First Nations peoples, and instead of singing her lyrics, Ferron recites them like a poem. The end result is strikingly deep and moving.
"That was a beautiful thing that happened," Ferron explained. "I didnít know ĎB.í had done that, but when she first listened Misty Mountain, she heard a person who was searching for identity. Well, of course it is. As a young person, I was searching when I wrote that song, but I didnít hear the Indian aspects of it. Actually, now that I have been able to claim my Indian heritage, I can hear the influence of First Nations in all of my lyrics."
"Iíd been visiting with some Indian friends in Victoria," she continued. "We were talking about Ulaliís music. The next day ĎB.í sent me the song from New York City, and it had Ulali singing on it. I donít know how that happened. Itís just another gift that she has given to me."
Boulder is an album that is full of revelations. As such, it is quite difficult (and, perhaps, beside the point) to try to pinpoint its best track. Still, if one were forced to do so, Shadows on a Dime likely would come out on top. In comparison with the rendition that appeared on the album from 1984 that also bears its name, the updated version of Shadows on a Dime sounds as if it has been battered and bruised until it is barely unrecognizable. When combined with the sad longing of Bitchís violin accompaniment, Ferronís lyrics obtain greater resonance. In fact, the manner in which she relays her tale of disillusioned workers bears a close relationship to Bob Dylanís Only a Pawn in Their Game and Woody Guthrieís Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee).
Shadows on a Dime is still very close to Ferronís heart. "My mother was a waitress, and my stepfather drove a truck," she explained. "They were poor and disappointed. Their goal in life really would have been to work in a factory. I worked in a fish factory, a coffee factory, and a meat factory. At a certain point, when I was about 15, I was making more money ó $1.07 an hour ó for the union than my father was driving a truck. So, in a sense, I was taught that the big reward in life was to get a good job like that, but when I was working there I saw a woman who would sit under the table in another room to eat lunch by herself. At one point I went in and tried to talk to her, but I was told Ďdonít even bother, sheís been like that since the war.í"
"The artist part of me took a look at it and thought, ĎThatís it? This is all this is going to be. What am I going to do with this?í" she continued. "So, I remember that feeling, and every once in a while Iíd get this urge to try and write songs. It wrecked everything every time. Iíd have a job, and suddenly, Iíd be one of those weird artists again. I remember trying to say to myself: ĎA chair is a chair. Just leave everything alone, and get a job and work.í"
Elaborating further, Ferron stated, "When Testimony came out and I got to tour for the first time, it was hard because I had a job driving a taxi. Finally, we got an invitation to go to New York, and I headed there via Santa Cruz. But, all of my luggage got lost. So, I took a train into New York City. Iíd been playing this particular pattern on a guitar, and it had been tormenting me for months. I would just keep playing it, but there were no lyrics to it. While I was sleeping on the train, I dreamed the music for Shadows on a Dime. I realized that the lyrics were locked, and I took the words and played the guitar. There was a song. When I got to New York and played, I realized that it was the whole story of the factory, and it was my commitment to lend my voice to something that was bigger than I, no matter what."
As coffee cups were emptied, refilled, and emptied again, the sun made its way across the sky, and Ferron fell silent. We had been speaking for hours, but suddenly we were aware of the passage of time. With a soundcheck looming, Ferron looked off into the distance, searching for a way to encapsulate our conversation. "Now, I think Iím doing a little better," she said. "I donít think I tend to walk, wound first. Sometimes, maybe I do, and Iím still working with it. I have had to learn how to laugh, which absolutely was a requirement for me. I didnít know how to laugh. I didnít know what was funny. I see a lot of funny things now, so I donít think I go looking for rain. It was always easier to talk about the profundity of pain and suffering than it was to talk about happiness. I didnít know how to exemplify happiness. I donít think I grew up smiling. It wasnít modeled for me."
"When I was younger," she continued, "I was ashamed about what had happened to me. You donít want to talk about being raped. Now, I believe to say something like that is going to free souls somewhere else. Silence is not golden. Now, it just rolls off. I realize that my story is not a secret, and itís not the only story."
Boulder is one of those rare efforts that, without fanfare, has joined the pantheon of classics. It is timeless and beautiful. Like Joni Mitchellís Blue, Bob Marleyís Exodus, and Bob Dylanís Blood on the Tracks, it is the kind of record that immediately grounds, soothes, and elevates a person in times of trouble or unrest. It may not appeal to everyone, and it may not reveal its perfections immediately. However, like a shy friend whose depth gradually surfaces, Boulder is an album for the ages, one that will be treasured for years to come.
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