Sky Ferreira has been painfully shy all her life. So much so that her first-grade classmates had never heard her utter a word until she busted out an eerily mature rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at her Los Angeles elementary school talent show at age six.
“No one even knew I could talk, much less sing,” says Ferreira, who’s now 17. “But when I went onstage, it was a whole different story. I’m still like that. I’ve always been quiet, but I come out of my shell when I’m singing and performing.”
Confidence and charisma shine through the songs Ferreira has been writing and recording for her upcoming Capitol Records debut album, which is shaping up to be a sparkling collection of electronic pop tunes that combine lustrous melodies with spare, digitized production by a host of hit-makers such as Bloodshy & Avant (Britney Spears, Madonna), Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen), Linda Perry (Christina Aguilera, Pink), Dallas Austin (Gwen Stefani, TLC), and Paul Epworth (Bloc Party, The Rapture, Friendly Fires). A voracious music fan, Ferreira cites an eclectic array of influences on her sound, including image-conscious chameleons Madonna, David Bowie, and Britney Spears, French pop sophisticates Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, as well as raucous all-female groups like the Spice Girls and the Runaways.
Lyrically, Ferreira follows the age-old storytellers’ adage: Write what you know. “I’m interested in telling stories about youth and desire,” she says. “Not love though, because I haven’t experienced that yet.” Songs like “17” (about sneaking out and hanging out with older people) and “Shiny Toy” (about obsession) are ripe, cleverly crafted coming-of-age tales about growing up fast in the City of Angels.
Though she liked learning, Ferreira didn’t care much for school. “I was weird and couldn’t relate to people my own age, so I got picked on constantly,” she says. “I’ve always felt like I was on the outside looking in, so I write a lot about those experiences.” Those troubled times have informed Ferreira’s songwriting, which she took up at age 12, and propelled her to seek out a life as an artist, where her uniqueness would be seen as a creative asset.
On her 15th birthday, Ferreira sent a message via MySpace to Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg, better known as the Swedish songwriting and production team Bloodshy & Avant who, at the time, were attracting attention for their work with Britney Spears. “I loved ‘Toxic’ and ‘Piece of Me,’” Ferreira says. “I loved the lyrics and the production and thought their stuff sounded unlike anything else on the pop charts.” Ferreira’s MySpace message to them basically went like this: “I write my own songs and sing. I can do everything, and I can do it better than Britney Spears, so you should work with me. There’s only problem: I don’t have any money, so I can’t pay you, but I swear to God, I’m going to be a huge pop star.”
Ferreira was astonished when they wrote her back two days letter expressing interest in hearing her demos. “They said, ‘You’re really different, send us some music.’ So, for once, being a bit of a freak worked to my advantage,” she says with a laugh. “They were the first ones to embrace my weirdness and wanted me to embrace it.”
For two years, Ferreira and Karlsson and Winnberg sent emails back and forth, sharing thoughts about their favorite music, as well as MP3’s of songs in progress. During this time, Ferreira became fascinated with artists like Daft Punk and Justice and began sneaking out to soak up L.A.’s club culture. “I wasn’t going out to party, I was trying to promote my music,” she says. A striking young girl with braces and an edgy look, Ferreira attracted the attention of local nightclub photographers and bloggers who would take her picture and write about her. Ferreira also became known for the electro-pop tracks — like the self-parodying “Lolita,” the Greg Kurstin-produced “Femme Fatale, and an acoustic cover of Miike Snow’s “Animal” — she had recorded and posted on her MySpace page. Her burgeoning Internet notoriety led to an invitation to appear in French synth-pop artist Uffie’s video for “Pop the Glock,” as well as a principal role playing a wayward teen in Matt Porterfield’s upcoming film Metal Gods.
In 2009, Ferreira traveled to Sweden to finally work with Bloodshy & Avant in person. The results include the futuristic-sounding “One,” which tells the tale of a heartbroken robot who only hears numbers, but longs to hear words and experience love. “It’s actually a sad song with a happy melody,” she says. “I love those kinds of contrasts in music.”
Contrasts abound throughout Ferreira’s music. She says that dancefloor stomper “Untouchable,” in which she extols her own attractiveness (“I’m the hot chick / Just look into my eyes / Because when you do then you begin to fantasize”) isn’t an exercise in egomania, but rather a send-up of it. “I tried to come up with every single thing you could imagine someone telling themselves to pump themselves up,” she says. Then there’s “Ditch That Bitch,” a song whose title, lyrics, and cheeky vocal come off as aggressive on the surface, but mask a vulnerability underneath. “I wanted to capture how people act when they’re hurt,” Ferreira says. “People don’t always show their true feelings, they act angry and tough. That song isn’t necessarily about a guy. Anyone dealing with someone who treats them badly in their life will relate to it.”
Ferreira is hoping that her music will cheer anyone who is going through a rough time. “For all the weirdos like me who didn’t have friends? I want the songs to be their friends, like other people’s songs were my friends,” she says. “Music and films are what kept me company growing up and I want to give that to other people because it’s gotten me pretty far.”