Musical Vagabond Sierra Ferrell Explains Charming”Past Life” Sound (INTERVIEW)

It’s so tough to pin down what Sierra Ferrell musically sounds like as her songbook is as nomadic as her true story. After years of living in her van and busking on the streets of New Orleans and Seattle, Ferrell moved to Nashville and started landing gigs around town. Soon enough, her magnetic live show drew the attention of Rounder Records, who signed Ferrell in 2019. To date, she’s enchanted audiences at major festivals like The Avett Brothers at the Beach, AmericanaFest, and Out on The Weekend, and also shared the stage with the likes of Trampled by Turtles, Parker Millsap, Charley Crockett, and The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band.

Yet her mystical musical energy is transfixing on her creative breakthrough Long Time Coming, in which the angelic twanged voiced songstress co-wrote all eleven tracks that cross and defy genres: in this Rounder Records debut, With producer, Grammy winner Gary Paczosa (Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Sarah Jarosz) on board,  the twelve tracks leap from country-western, tango rhythms, jazz, and cinematic Ennio Morricone orchestral furnishings. This release draws contributions from esteemed contemporaries including Billy Strings, Sarah Jarosz, Dennis Crouch, Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Chris Scruggs, Justin Moses, and Rory Hoffman. With 2021 looking to be where Sierra Ferrell gets her due, Glide caught up with her the upon release date

A lot of artists have reflected a bygone era in their music – it’s a very vast array of sounds you incorporate from mariachi to tin pan alley.  Did you have to edit your own influences and inspirations to keep Long Time Coming as fully realized as it is?  

No. I channeled as many influences as I could. I’ve made enough records to know when to take the back seat. People like Gary and Stu are talented and experienced enough to incorporate country, jazz, folk, gypsy, ragtime, some pop -and whatever else my wandering mind was shouting about on tracking day into one cohesive artistic statement.  

When people ask what type of music you make – how do most reliably describe your sound?

“Past life”

Lyrically where do you draw your words and inspirations from and have you always been music first then lyrics or the other way around?

It’s all off the dome. For better or worse I can sit down with a guitar and channel the spirit, the moment, whatever you want to call it and write songs on the spot. Even if a bunch of people are around. I’m not bragging. This is just the way it usually goes down. I’ll do this with a song a bunch of times until I’ve freestyle my way to something that makes sense to me. So neither one goes first. They’re always at the same time.  

As a multi-instrumentalist, what are the strongest instruments you feel execute your musical ideas? Do you consider yourself a guitarist first?

I can consider myself a vocalist first. Everything else comes after.

You landed a deal with Rounder Records on the strength of your live shows, can you share what those live shows were like pre-covid and how you feel about performing live again?

Pre-Covid the shows were starting to get bigger. I couldn’t believe how many people were coming to my shows. That was exciting, uplifting, and encouraging. It was a contagious fever. It made for a whirlwind of fun and partying and this lasting feeling of ‘my day has finally arrived.” I’ve been rambling all over the country for decades busking, hopping trains and playing music. Mind you, I ain’t no trust fund baby. Covid hit and ended all that. I was stuck in a small house, in a tiny room, living with two other people. It wasn’t good for my mental health. Mental health is something that I’m not afraid to talk about. In fact, I want to say now that I’m a big proponent of being open about it and facilitating those discussions. My touring was derailed, my purpose was derailed, and this dream I had worked so hard for, for so long, ended before it really began. Now that we’re back it’s a little bittersweet because of the dangers of being close to other humans, the confusion, the division, and uncertainty. I will say it’s good to play for people and not just the walls of my living room. I think people want music now more than ever. That’s the silver lining. The pandemic made people appreciate music in a way I’ve never seen. We go to some venues and their whooping and hollering and holding their beers up after every vocal run, every solo. I’m holding my beer up to you.     

What other record labels approached you and why did you go with Rounder?

A lot of other labels were after me. I don’t need to mention names. Rounder approached me. I looked at their roster and I knew right away I wanted to be with that crew. Some of my heroes play for Rounder.  

Thoughts about being in Nashville which is a crowded scene these days and how it’s worked to your advantage and how it has not? What venues have you most enjoyed playing and which ones do you most hope to play soon?

A crowded scene is a good thing. It means there’s industry, infrastructure, potential, and really good players. If you can make a little stink in Nashville, it’s better than making a big stink in the middle of nowhere. People that matter to the music industry live here and they’re the ones catching wind to whoever’s new or drawing a crowd. I don’t mind the “saturated” thing. The cream rises to the top. The only downside to that is people wanting to ride coattails or be groupies or sabotage you because they want what you have. With that said, most of the people around here get it. They are genuine and my radar for manipulative people has become crystal clear. I’m free now. I know who I want around me and I don’t let just anyone get close. But that’s not how I got here,  I will tell you that. 

You collaborated with Billy Strings on “Bells of Every Chapel” –  how long have you known him and what did he bring to that song in particular?

I met Billy about five years ago and I’ve seen more and more of him now that we live in the same town and are on the same label. He did what he does best: rearing guitar solos. He’s the cutting edge of bluegrass right now. So yea, it gave me a smile to have a little piece of that pie on my record.  

What other musicians do you consider your most reliable collaborators?

Nate Leath. He’s like a brother to me. We connect and communicate telepathically, straight up. I got to co-write with Marcus King recently and that was one of my favorite co-writes in a while. I’m on the road with my new band Josh Rilko, Austin Janey, and Josie Tony ALL the time. There are lots of jams, guitar pools, and input from them, explicitly and implicitly, and, inevitably. They affect my music and my writing daily. I am not private with my music. It’s a constant and ever-evolving collaboration. I can’t answer this question without mentioning my dear friend Lindsey Lou. When we hang out we end up singing songs and harmonizing the whole time and I’m not exaggerating. It’s like our love language together: song. And it flows so naturally and organically you’d think we were sisters. I would absolutely love to do a record with her in the near future.      

You said you listen to everything from techno to goth metal – what bands or artists would we be most surprised to hear you dig?

Radiohead, Briston Maroney, Born, Lana Del Rey, Elton John, Charlie Treat, Muse, Coldplay, The White Stripes, The Black Keys, Emmure, Hannah Montana, Blink 182, DMX, 50 Cent, Bone Thugs ’n Harmony.  

What are your more obvious inspirations and influences that helped form your musical DNA?

The Dillards, Dillard and Clark, Dolly Parton, Tim O’Brien, John Hartford, Hank Sr, Flatt and Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Del McCoury, Jimmy Martin, The Boswell Sisters, The Andrew Sisters, The Carter Family, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Patsy Cline, Patsy Montana, Jamie Wyatt, Ric Robertson, Andrew Bird, The Beatles, The Byrds, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, King Soloman, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding.     

After the album release- what’s on tap for Sierra Ferrell?

My Wild Mountain Peach beer! I collaborated with my favorite brewery in the United to create a beer for my record signing party.. The beer is made by Crazy Gnome Brewery located in East Nashville. I swear they put something extra in it. It’s magic. Other than that: writing news songs, master baking, and my first-ever U.S. headlining tour this fall. 

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4 Responses

  1. Hello to one of my very favorite singer/guitarists that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing…. but only on
    UTUBE. LOL!!
    Hopefully I’ll get to actually see you when you come to Dallas in October.
    I really love your guitar playing, and of course your singing.

  2. Huge fan, I LOVE everything you do. I’m thrilled to see you finally headline tours and love watching America notice your talents. I’m a 70 yr old who grew up in Bakersfield, my dad was the son of a sharecropper, the oldest of 12 kids. I wish he were alive to hear your music. You’re the most authentic I’ve ever seen.

    1. Saw you and talked to you at Merlefest in Wilkesboro, NC. Thanks for the autograph, my son was thrilled. Stay true to what you are doing. Grow and make your own path! Love your beautiful gift of a voice. So proud
      of you!

  3. Discovered you on YouTube. Hope you will be at the John Hartford Memorial Festival in Beanblossom. Your list of obvious influences is eclectic. How did you learn about Dillard and Clark? My brother introduced me to them decades ago, and I’ve found few people who have even heard of the Fantastic Expedition. Your love of the music shines with your talent. Thanks for keeping the music alive.

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