It is 10pm on the South Bank and Sky Ferreira is gazing up at Big Ben, glowing in the late evening. She lifts the hem of her floor-length, shimmering navy dress and fearlessly clambers up on to a high wall, posing for a photograph with the dark River Thames below, the same colour as her dress. A friend offers the pop star a hand getting up but she doesn’t need it. Ferreira, 30, looks poised, a woman finally in control of her own image.
‘I’ve never had the opportunity to enjoy my job because of the way the system works and the pressure on you,’ she tells me when we meet the following week in a café in east London. ‘Music has always been an ordeal. But I want to make my 30s better than my 20s.’ The last time the singer from Los Angeles was in London for work it was 2014 and she played at Field Day festival, where fans sung along to ‘Everything is Embarrassing’ — her first big hit, written with the singer Dev Hynes. Back then, Ferreira was on the rise. She signed to a record label when she was 15 and her emotionally frank pop was the antidote to years of glossy girl bands. She played with Miley Cyrus, collaborated with Primal Scream and branched into acting, with roles in Twin Peaks and the film Baby Driver.
Then stories started to emerge that suggested all was not well. Ferreira spoke about being sexually abused as a child, by a neighbour and a stranger. She fell out with her record label, Capitol (she has claimed it didn’t give her enough support, financially or otherwise; Capitol has said it is an ‘artist-first’ company which encourages open conversations). And there have been concerns about her health and mental well-being, not least after the police caught her and her ex-boyfriend, Zachary Cole Smith from the band DIIV, with ecstasy and heroin. The police dropped the charges against her but her music was banned by US radio. She announced that her second album, Masochism, was on its way back in 2014; eight years later it is finally nearly ready. So where has she been and will it be different this time?
The culture has certainly changed, with more openness around burnout. Arlo Parks, Wet Leg and Sam Fender have all recently cancelled shows because of their mental health and pop stars are speaking about how gruelling playing night after night can be. Ferreira is trying hard to take it easy. She says this has been her least eventful trip to London yet; the highlight has been a swim in the ponds at Hampstead Heath. When she arrived here, she says a punishing summer touring schedule left her exhausted, with no time for sleep in between shows and getting flights.
Ferreira nearly didn’t make the photo shoot. Earlier in the day, she was in hospital, feeling drained and having lost her voice. Doctors gave her vitamin B12 and steroid injections to reduce inflammation in her throat and boost her energy (those in the music industry refer to this cocktail of drugs as ‘rock doc’, something to keep you going while on a demanding touring schedule). ‘I was desperate, miserable,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want another one of those stories where I had to cancel. I got down on my knees.’
I’ve worked with David Lynch and The Jesus and Mary Chain — to me, that’s success
Her sore throat is lingering and she arrives nearly two hours late for our interview. When she eventually turns up, she immediately swallows two Nurofens without any water, saying she has period pain shooting down her legs (she had an operation for uterine fibroids in 2020), and forgets to take off her handbag, sitting down with it still on her arm. She looks fragile, in a 1920s pink silk negligee ‘from a thrift store’, with a black fishnet top and white fishnet tights, her arms dotted with tattoos (‘I have tiny tattoos I did myself when I was a teenager and this,’ she gestures at a flame on her arm, ‘I told the artist to do what they want but to this day I don’t know what it means,’ she laughs).
Once the painkillers kick in she relaxes, speaking about what she has endured. She is also funny, quoting at length from And Just Like That, the Sex and the City reboot, and fondly mocking it. She is proud of what she has achieved so far and becomes angry talking about Smith, 37. After they were stopped by police, he said that he ‘f***ed up her life’.
‘For someone to say something like that… the audacity. And he never even apologised to me,’ she says. ‘He is not capable of f***ing up with my life, I was only 20. Come on man, that’s ridiculous. I’ve worked with David Lynch, I’ve worked with The Jesus and Mary Chain — to me, that’s success. I’ve been dealing with a lot and he definitely contributed to it but it’s quotes like that which contribute to dragging it out.
‘It felt like he was using me, he didn’t even tell me how old he was when we were dating. But I survived, I am still here.’ Ferreira grew up in Los Angeles. Her father lives in a Native American reservation and her mother, who has had lots of jobs including working as a cleaner, had her young. She was brought up by her grandmother, a hairdresser. Ferreira would play in the salon, singing — and her talent was spotted by one of her grandmother’s clients, Michael Jackson, who suggested she join a gospel choir and take opera classes. ‘He was a big influence in my life,’ she says. ‘I know it is sensitive given what we now know about him and it will make someone unhappy whatever I say but I only know my personal experience. He treated me like an equal even though I was a kid. He was never patronising.’
Michael Jackson treated me like an equal even though I was a kid. He was never patronising
Seeing the impact he had on people made her cautious about fame. ‘We were out with him once and people were clinging to the rafters trying to get to him. I’ve been around a lot of people who are famous since but still never seen anything like this. It was crazy. People were acting like it was biblical. It made me feel weird and I didn’t understand why because I was a kid. It gave me some perspective; I have always wanted to be successful but I’ve never wanted that fame.’ Ferreira rose through MySpace and Tumblr, where she posted songs and pictures. She thinks the internet has changed; now it is seen by labels as a free marketing tool (she rebels with a secret TikTok where she posts videos of her cats). Her grandmother is proud, ‘although she and her clients at the salon keep asking why I can’t make a song where I sound like Adele’, Ferreira says, laughing.
After her first US tour in 2013, she got stage fright and thinks it comes from her being a shy person. She says transcendental meditation saved her. ‘It centres you and gives you perspective. It takes away the doom.’ Meanwhile her health was deteriorating. She was chronically tired and occasionally lost the ability to speak. ‘I thought I was having a stroke.’ After four years of going from doctor to doctor, ‘being bled dry financially and feeling drained from being drained and not knowing why’, she realised she had Lyme disease after getting bitten by a tick on a shoot aged 18. It was the singer Kathleen Hanna who inadvertently ended up saving her life. Ferreira watched The Punk Singer, a documentary about her, and Hanna talking about her Lyme disease all felt familiar.
‘Everything she said sounded like what I had. She slurred like she was having a stroke. That happened to me at a bar with my friend but I was a 25-year-old girl so people thought I was being hysterical, they said it was mental health or hormones.
She sent Hanna a message and the singer gave Ferreira her doctor’s details. ‘She didn’t sugarcoat it. She said I was in for a long one and it’s f***ing hard.’ The Lyme disease is under control and Ferreira takes adaptogens to help with it. Being on the road touring again after all of that is hard for her. ‘I last did it in my 20s and you can take more. Now it is like when you experience your first hangover after 25 and it’s not just a headache, it’s like three days, your heart racing.’
Has the music industry become any kinder since she started out? ‘What’s better is more young people who are getting into it know about how you can be exploited. But that isn’t going away any time soon.’ It is hard to draw her on detail but she does say she has ‘signed a lot of stupid contracts’. ‘They weren’t beneficial to me and had a lot of loopholes and loaded language. You are called difficult if you don’t want to sign certain things. I started wising up in my early 20s but I hate always having to think what is the worst thing that could happen. That stamps you as being difficult.’
People including Taylor Swift have spoken out about how difficult it is for artists to make money from streaming platforms such as Spotify, when the royalties they give to artists are so small. Ferreira has another take. ‘Why does it always have to take the biggest person on Earth to call for a change and why is it a change that only benefits them? Spotify was important for me when the radio wouldn’t play me and it is useful for people who are not conventional. Obviously I wish I got more money from it but at least I stood a chance on it.’
The new album is ‘pretty much written’. ‘It’s more sophisticated,’ she says. ‘Lyrically there is a different perspective. But I like singing old songs, too, I felt in my element at the Southbank. You don’t want to be like those bands who refuse to play certain things and play a song for 10 people who know it.’
She is inspired by the 1970s — the night before the Southbank gig when she did the cover shoot for this interview and said it ‘felt like Helmut Newton photographs for Yves Saint Laurent’ in that sparkling midnight blue gown with the famous landmarks in the background.
As well as the album, she would like to do more acting, working again with David Lynch. ‘He’s exactly as you would want him to be; not to sound corny but he is a great thinker. You don’t get the script in advance for Twin Peaks and you look at the lines and at first they don’t make sense — you’re like, where is the penguin? But then you feel like you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. Not being pretentious but there’s something you understand and the more you get it the more you see common threads.’
We talk a bit about her future: she doesn’t want to have children yet, ‘it’s not the place I’m in, mentally, and quite frankly there’s no one I want to have kids with, no one I trust’. She wants to focus on her work instead. ‘I want to get to the point where I can make what I want and not have to always sacrifice something. But I don’t want to be negative. I’ve managed to do this, it has just taken me longer.’