Sky Ferreira’s electric blonde shag and long pale arms peek out from under the gleaming white duvet of a king-sized bed in a spacious hotel room. She’s propped up on a couple of pillows, picking at a container of quinoa salad. The previous night, she attended Mobb Deep’s secret show at Max Fish in New York City and didn’t make it to bed before her morning flight to Ohio, where’s she’s set to play the Bunbury Festival at 6:30 tonight. It’s 5:15 and she’s under the covers, wearing the paper-thin Megadeth T-shirt and black bike shorts she traveled in. When she arrived at the airport earlier, there wasn’t so much as a car waiting for her. After checking in, she took a two-hour catnap, but it didn’t put a dent in her exhaustion. “I can’t believe I have to sing right now,” Ferreira croaks, clutching her throat, which is inflamed thanks to a raging chest infection. “I hope they have some tea backstage.” Her phone rings. It’s the festival transport coordinator. “I was told 5:30 but I’m on my way down right now,” she says into the receiver, then calmly goes back to her food. “Where are my handlers now?” she jokes. “They’re obviously slacking off.”
Ferreira is well aware of her reputation as a hipster socialite, an imperiously cool It Girl with a team of image counselors behind her who hangs out exclusively with other arty, beautiful people. She’s a Calvin Klein model who counts Terry Richardson as a close friend. A girl with that resume, regardless of legitimate musical talent, is always going to be the subject of gossip and speculation. Ferreira understands this, but she’s enjoying playing out this scene—the new priestess of underground chic on her knees rummaging through a beat-up canvas tote in search of a pair of dirty pantyhose to wear onstage at a minor summer festival— because it contrasts so starkly with her image as a boardroom creation, which she resents. Now dressed in a leather mini-skirt and oversized striped sweater, she heads to the elevators, where a flock of tourists in khaki shorts and athletic socks gawk as she bends down to collect the credit card and room key that have fallen out of her leather backpack. I ask if she has everything. “Everything except my dignity, but who needs that,” she deadpans, checking but not fixing her smeared red lipstick in the hall mirror and leaning in to squeeze a few blackheads on her nose. As Ferreira whips on a pair of sunglasses big enough to cover her pillow-creased cheeks, I think of something she said in passing as we took our seats on the plane a few hours earlier. “I’m trying to keep myself together, to keep myself sane through all of this, but there are moments when I am completely losing my mind.”
What you also hear on Ghost is Ferreira’s move from Los Angeles, where she grew up, to New York. At 17, around the time the hyper-color pop album they’d been pulling together was scrapped, Ferreira moved to New York and connected with a group of curious, counter-culturally inclined young artists such as Dev Hynes, who co-wrote and produced Ferreira’s biggest hit, “Everything Is Embarrassing.” The song was an apotheosis of the laconic, wounded charisma that would become Ferreira’s signature brand. The plan was to build on the momentum by releasing a full-length this fall, timed in part to her stint as the opener on Vampire Weekend’s US tour. But after a change of management, her debut will again be delayed. Out instead, is a third EP, I Will. “The bottom line is I have the opportunity to work with some people that I wasn’t able to six months ago, and I’d like to take advantage of that,” she explains. “You wind up releasing stuff that’s not as good as what you first put out because you’re trying to keep up the hype. Hype only gets you so far and that’s what I learned the first time around. I was called a failure by adults when I was 16, so the way I see it, I can do pretty much whatever I want now because I’ve already failed.”
Ferreira is introspective by nature, but her difficulty feeling comfortable around new people may also be the result of early trauma. “I got sexually abused a few times,” she says, looking down at the table and picking nervously at the plastic case of her iPhone. She declines to get into specifics about the perpetrators, but says that the abuse began in middle school. “I spoke to someone about it—not an adult—and they were like, It’s because you’re so quiet,” she remembers. “They were like, They attack you because you’re so quiet and they think you’re weak. You should put yourself out there more. At the time I thought maybe she had a point, because it wasn’t happening to her.” Initially, Ferreira didn’t tell her parents or any other adults. Instead she tried changing her personality. She acted louder and more aggressive. When that didn’t eliminate her pain, or stop the abuse, she started drinking, smoking pot and chatting up guys. That didn’t solve anything, either. “Towards the end of middle school, the first group of friends I had stopped talking to me because I made out with this kid that I had a huge crush on,” she remembers. “I just got tortured because they all liked him, too. I had started listening to Brian Eno, discovering stuff on the internet and blogs. And they were like, She’s fucking weird and she smokes pot—she’s a drug addict. They cut me off.”
Ferreira says the abuse happened “over and over again,” with “different people” over the next few years, culminating in an attack and attempted rape by her neighbor. “I went to sleep that night and he made a ladder and broke into the house through my mom’s window,” she remembers. “I thought I was imagining it. It was pitch black. I thought I was dreaming, but I felt this guy on my legs and on top of me. I woke up and he was touching me. I had keys next to me, so I scratched him across the face.” Ferreira didn’t know who’d attacked her until the next day, when she saw her neighbor walking around with a scratch across his face. For the first time since she was 13, she decided to tell adults what had happened to her, that night and over the previous years. “I went to the cops and they basically said he didn’t penetrate me so he didn’t necessarily rape me, that it was sexual harassment,” she recalls. Her hesitance to report the attack and to confront the abuse she’d suffered prior had to do with a fear of being marginalized as a victim. “I didn’t want people to think that’s who I was,” she explains. “Like, Oh, she got raped, that’s why she’s this way. It defines you, even though it doesn’t really, but there’s a fear that it will. I worried if people were going to start saying I was sad or crazy because of this.”
Ferreira’s exposure to and interest in beloved weirdos (Elliott Smith and Eno are heroes, Jon Brion is a collaborator and friend) seemingly would make her more disdainful of singers dismissed as merely the face of someone else’s song, even if she’s technically one of them. But Ferreira sees worth in both. “Even ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ is not just Max Martin, it’s Britney Spears,” Ferreira asserts. “That song was originally for TLC, and ‘Toxic’ was for Kylie Minogue. ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna was for Britney Spears, but would it have been the same thing if she’d done it?” It frustrates and mystifies Ferreira that the current perception of the singer/producer relationship casts the former as a hired hand and the latter as a visionary. It bothered her when she heard that Hynes sings “Everything Is Embarrassing” at his shows and introduces it as a song he wrote for Sky Ferreira. “My music is precious to me even though I don’t completely do it myself,” she explains. As a co-writer on most of her songs, Ferreira often rewrites lyrics to suit her and otherwise shapes the song so that it becomes her own; she’s an interpreter of the emotional undercurrent of words and sounds initially scripted by someone else. That struggle to be both a serious artist and a pop sensation is one Ferreira has discussed with Garbage’s Shirley Manson, who co-wrote “Red Lips,” off the singer’s first EP. “She’s at heart quite rebellious and provocative and thoughtful,” Manson says over the phone from Glasgow. “Whether this first record of hers is going to put her where she wants to be, who knows. I don’t think that matters. What I said to her was, you need to be patient and you need to focus on just being an artist and taking chances and not being a good girl and making music excites you. Sky is a major star and I do think there’s a career there for her in music if she wants it. She’s quite special.”
The show has its moments. “In Stereo” pops with easy bubblegum appeal, “Werewolf” is offbeat and mournful, and of course “Everything Is Embarrassing” is as poignant live as it is on record. Ferreira has a distinctive voice, low and rich with a tone that conveys a weary romanticism. But onstage, she’s still unsure of herself. She’s too rock to be well-suited to backup dancers and disco balls, but not quite rock enough to behave like a swaggering exhibitionist. For now, Ferreira stands nearly still in the middle of the stage and sings, like Daria doing Karaoke. She’s completely unpolished, and though the imperfectness embarrasses her (she routinely freaks-out after performing live) she’s also unwilling to fake being more pulled-together. That mess is part of her power.
After dinner, we wander through the steamy streets of downtown Cincinnati. It’s a warm weekend evening and everyone is out. Women in tight tube dresses and cripplingly tall heels clutch at the arms of their dates as they teeter down the street on their way to various clubs. Ferreira’s phone has died but she uses mine to take photos of a horse-drawn carriage lit up with electric blue glow sticks and dudes riding double on tricked-out motorcycles. A pair of teenage girls in jean shorts run up to the singer and gush about how much they loved her show. The look on their faces as Ferreira poses for photos reminds me of a line in one of the cards she was handed earlier from someone in the crowd: “I love how real you are in such a fake world,” a girl had written in brightly colored magic marker. Back at the hotel, we part ways outside the elevators, pretending we’re not saying goodbye, though Ferreira has an early flight to LA and it’s late. As she heads to her room, she turns on the heel of her combat boot, smiles, rolls her eyes and says, “Text me if you get bored.”