Melissa Ferrick joined the songwriting faculty at Berklee, where she dropped out as a student two decades ago. The Berklee influence may account for the increased craft in her songs, which lately rely more on melody and less on raw intensity.
By Brett Milano
Two days after Christmas and it’s invariably time for Melissa Ferrick to sell out two shows at Club Passim in Cambridge. She’s kept the date for the past six years, even during a blizzard in 2011. As she noted onstage, the Passim shows are largely responsible for her making her winter mortgage payments. But for the adoring cult she’s got, the shows are a chance to get intimate with a songwriter who has few boundaries in the first place.
Ferrick’s had an interesting career trajectory. As an angst-ridden teenager, she was prone to self-lacerating relationship songs; she appropriately got her first break opening arena shows for Morrissey. The angst was already softening on her major-label debut (Massive Blur, Atlantic, 1993), and the major-label years didn’t last long—She ran her own Right On label for a long while and now records for the New York indie MPress. But she’s kept her audience posted on her various life changes—including an early-career coming out of the closet, a recovery from alcohol addiction, and quite a few up-and-down love affairs. Last year at Passim she debuted a new album, the truth is, which chronicled the bitter end of one relationship and the hopeful beginning of another—it’s her version of Elvis Costello’s North, but with tunes you can hum.
She’s still happily coupled, so her upbeat frame of mind was evident on Friday night, where she told some cute stories about her family’s Christmas and joked more than once about people who still expect her to be miserable onstage. Looking sharp in a hairstyle that brought Bryan Ferry to mind, she revisited most of the truth is songs and debuted a new, even-more blissful love song. But another change in her life may be more significant: she’s joined the songwriting faculty at Berklee, where she dropped out as a student two decades ago. The Berklee influence may account for the increased craft in her songs, which lately rely more on melody and less on raw intensity. Her recently-acquired rhythm section—Kimon Kirk on bass, Dave Brophy on mostly-brushed drums—made it more textured instead of more rocking, adding a samba feel here and a reggae accent there. Only “Still Right Here” harked back to her spikier days, with Ferrick doing some Townshend-style, heavy acoustic strumming.
There were also signs that she’s growing away from the purely confessional mode. At least two of Wednesday’s numbers, both from the recent album, reached for larger meaning: “Love Ain’t Afraid” (inspired, she said, by the legalization of gay marriage) was an anthemic singalong, “Take In All the Plants” was heavy with foreboding, but the message of both was the same: all you need is love. While Ferrick’s technically a decade too young to have ‘60s roots, it seems that some of that decade’s fabled idealism has seeped in.
So it also makes sense that her first encore was “Welcome to My Life,” which lists the people who are especially welcome at her shows: “All the hippies, all the gypsies, all the queers and everyone who loves music.” Ferrick of course has a foot in all those camps, but the surprise glimpse of her hippie side was especially welcome.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.