Sierra Ferrell is Breathing Fresh Life Into Time-Honored Music
The name of Sierra Ferrell’s label debut Long Time Coming is full of meaning. The singer-songwriter-musician’s grand entrance onto a mainstream stage is truly a long time coming after years of traveling the United States writing, making, and playing music. And even her very sound is a long time coming, a sound with roots that stretch back decades but that couldn’t have existed until now, coming from an artist like Ferrell who seems to transcend trends and generations. She harnesses the old school story-telling and heartfelt melodies of 1950s and ‘60s Grand Ole Opry performers, but spins her own new tales wrapped in nods to jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk, and more. Perhaps that’s thanks in part to the experience Ferrell gained as a nomad, hopping trains to explore America. Whatever it is, we wanted to hear from this artist about her distinctive sound and style, especially on the heels of her album release. We caught up with Ferrell on a rare off-day—she’s still always on the road, but these days, it’s touring to play shows to excited fans.
You started singing as a kid, right? What kind of music did you grow up with and what were you first singing?
Sierra: I grew up with just jingles and TV shows, just the things I was watching when I was a kid. I grew up in West Virginia, and I didn’t really know what was what—you know, everyone has different taste in music and they all think it’s good. I listened to whatever was on the radio; I didn’t know any better [laughs]. I didn't find the music you hear me presenting now until I was in my early twenties. It was just a matter of traveling and being in right place at the right time. I was hearing a lot of buskers playing these old songs, and I was like, ‘What is this old stuff? Why aren’t people playing this? Why isn’t this more mainstream?’ And I guess that’s what makes it even more special. Seeing people on the street playing old music changed my life, and I carry that on in a sense, even though I’m not a traditionalist in the least.
The nomadic lifestyle you lived then, once you left West Virginia, is one that I think so many people romanticize and dream about...can you talk a little about those years? Highs, lows, surprises, lessons learned?
Sierra: I would definitely say there are those extreme highs and extreme lows living that sort of lifestyle. You never know what’s going to happen. You’re traveling a lot and for a while, you could have terrible things happening and nothing going your way, but all of a sudden there will be this switch and you climb this ladder and something amazing happens. It’s just phenomenal. It helps you appreciate all the things that happen to you in life.
Whenever I was doing a lot of traveling like that, I really saw a side of America people don’t always see. People travel and usually see the same sort of metropolis, like McDonald’s and Walmart...especially when you’re riding trains, you can see stuff only the conductors and engineers see, and it’s so beautiful. You really soak that in.
What impact did all of that have on your music and who you are as an artist?
Sierra: I definitely feel like it made me extra aware of emotions, and how to handle it all and how to put it in a song.
On your website, you say you listen to everything from bluegrass to techno to goth metal, so I’m curious about two things. One, as a sort of voyeuristic peek into your record collection, who are you both currently listening to and always returning to?
Sierra: Sam Cooke. I am constantly going back to Sam Cooke. He’s just a classic that never lets you down.
And the second thing: how do you weave all your influences together to make your own unique sound?
Sierra: It’s pretty easy because I’m pretty open-minded. I love combining lots of things to create a hybrid situation. It comes natural and easy for me and I enjoy doing it, it’s fun for me. I like hearing the reactions of people whenever I get done with the music I’m working on—good or bad, you gotta’ take the pros and the cons.
A sort of thread throughout the hybrid sound you’ve created and made your own is this sort of connection to the old school greats like early Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. Where is that rooted for you?
Sierra: I’m really drawn toward music that sounds honest and genuine. It’s just about finding that something that you have a connection to, it can be the melody or the beat or the lyrics. There are so many different aspects that can make a great song...the lyrics, the rhythm, a solo, or maybe it’s a short song you feel like you have to keep repeating to get your fix. I really thrive off of genuineness and raw emotion.
Your song “The Sea” has generated a lot of buzz—it’s jazzy and catchy yet haunting. I read on Rolling Stone you said this song was written when you were living by the beach and also a had a couple of romantic interests who were both water signs. Can you elaborate a little on the writing process for “The Sea” or even your writing process, in general?
Sierra: It’s always changing, to be honest. Nowadays, I’ll need to write a song and I’ll sit down and start it, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to finish it. It just gets the gears moving in the right direction. There are lots of songs I start and they never reach completion and I forget about them. The ones that matter stick with me. “The Sea,” I feel like I wrote it in a week or so. I really never even took into consideration that it would be recorded and complete. At that point in my life, I was still really transient. I didn’t have a homefront. I was roaming around and every once in a while I’d come back to Nashville and maybe record some music at my friend’s studio. So, where I am today...it’s pretty wild, you know how life is just so many chapters, you look back and think, ‘Wow, that happened.’
How do you feel Long Time Coming really captures who you are now as an artist?
Sierra: I wanted to make a record to show people I can do this, and I can do that, and I can also do this...I wanted to show all that I can do and maybe even find my next musical partners to work with. There’s a lot there that people can hear and think, ‘She can do this style of music, that’s our specialty,’ or ‘She can do this style of music…’ I never thought I’d be this way but as I”m getting older, I’m always trying to connect with more people to work with more musicians and producers.
I heard you’re releasing a beer! How did that collaboration come about?
Sierra: Yes! It’s with Crazy Gnome Brewery right here on Main Street [in Nashville]. They just let me play along; I went in and dumped the peach puree into the giant...I don’t know the terms [laughs]. I approached them, I’m personally obsessed with their beer. I’m actually looking at a Crazy Gnome cup right now, even though it does have water in it right now. There’s just something about their beer that makes you feel so good—obviously it’s all these good ingredients, and it just makes something so special. So, we made the Wild Mountain Peach [Berliner Weisse] and it’s still at a couple of places you can drink it if you’re in town, or you can find it on tap at the brewery.
Author: Courtney Iseman