Sierra Ferrell has some old-fashioned ideals – in music, in intensity, in manners – and no newfangled business like the recording industry or this Zoom call (for which she is wearing a hat with a pin depicting a pickle) is going to change that.
That’s how she was brought up in West Virginia. That’s how she is today living in but not of Nashville. That’s how she made her new album, Long Time Coming, a collection of songs that pick from a bunch of styles that pre-date fellow southerner, Elvis Presley, like string bands, swing, trad jazz, country and folky blues.
Growing up, Ferrell wasn’t hidden away in some remote holler hearing nothing but ye olde time music made by a crusty down the road who built his own banjos from old pickup parts and recycled string. Contemporary music was all around her as well as the traditional stuff, so was it discovering she had a voice that could span a century’s folk songs that found her gravitating to these older forms and their sometimes odd shapes and harmonies?
“It was just easy for me. It made sense. That sort of music just resonated with me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop listening to it, it’s something that’s just in me,” says Ferrell. “I’m very thankful for it. Even like the harmonies of things in the past, I just love that, like the Boswell sisters, it gives it a dissonant sort of feel. It’s like far away, but very close.”
Another aspect of older music that Ferrell is comfortable with is its straightforward storytelling and relative simplicity in the lyrics. A new song of hers such as West Virginia Waltz is as old as the hills and might have fit into the repertoire of a hillbilly singer.
“I definitely blame that on not reading enough books,” she says with a smile. “When you read a lot of books, I feel like you have more content and context of how to tell a story and you combine it to tell your own. I grew up a pretty simple life and I grew up pretty poor, so that I didn’t have the technologies growing up. I spent a lot of time outside playing and being in nature as much is possible, so I had this very simple mind in that sense, marinating in that. Therefore I think I do come across very forward. I guess it’s part of my raisin’.”
If the word simplicity here suggests some lack of depth or thought, that doesn’t apply in this case. Like deliberately avoiding moves for contrived “authenticity”, such as replicating the feel of a rustic recording studio or sticking to period instruments, that’s not how Ferrell works. The simplicity instead is in the choice of language and the nature of the telling, not the concepts.
“I just feel like things don’t have to be so complicated because life is already complicated enough. Like you say, plain and simple.”
Appropriately enough, Ferrell growing up in straightened circumstances is part of both her story and the traditions of the music she plays, as is a lifestyle lived on the go. While Ferrell, who is 32, hadn’t exactly been jumping on and off freight trains as a musical hobo, she did spend a large portion of her 20s moving around the USA as part of a troupe of travelling musicians. I wonder what that taught her about the country and the songs that come from that country.
“It’s so amazing how there is this whole underground world that happening, that most people aren’t very aware of, the whole travelling scene and the people involved in that. You start to run into the same people all over and it’s kind of wild how you have these connections. I don’t know if it’s some weird past life thing or serendipitous, it gets pretty wild out there,” she says.
“But I will say it helped me deepen my love for older music to because a lot of street performers are performing these old songs that have been around for hundreds of years, and that’s what makes it even more special let you know how good it is that people are still playing these songs hundreds of years on, maybe even older than that when you go back to Irish and [Scottish] folk tales. It made me appreciate a lot of the places that harbour it, like New Orleans, and Nashville in a sense.”
It’s no small thing that Ferrell is not 19 or 20 and freshly enamoured of these “discoveries” she has made. If you plan on writing “simple” songs or try to manage the balance between old styles and contemporary sounds/contemporary audiences, you need to have a bit of that knocking-around-for-a-bit side to your life. Long Time Coming is her third album, and the experience shows.
“I came to Nashville at the right time and the right people noticed me, even though I was kind of slumming it and I was living in my van and I wasn’t very satisfied with my living situation and I was getting older. I was in the right place at the right time,” says Ferrell. “I was putting myself out there, playing music constantly and the right people kinda just fell into my lap. It is definitely a gradual, slow build because you’ve gotta build a team. You need a manager, a booker, you don’t necessarily need a record company, but it helps. It’s surrounding yourself with people who are going to lift you up and realising who is toxic and who is going to bring you down, and being graceful along the way.”
Finding good people, being good yourself … in other words, being a proper grown-up?
“Yeah,” she laughs. “Adulting.”
One of the people around her who was absolutely crucial is frequent collaborator and her “kindred spirit” Nate Leath. They currently working on different projects, but she knows a return to playing together is inevitable: “nothing is going to change that”. What does he bring that fits so well with what she has?
“We have the most intense connection. There are some people you meet in life and they are just … whoa. When me and Nate first started playing music together we were just covered in goosebumps, constantly. It was like, what is happening? Are we sick? It was almost past life situation where maybe we’d encountered each other’s energy somewhere else. There are a lot of things unexplained and people can pretend like they know what’s going on, but at the end of the day we don’t know Jack stuff.”
Jack stuff? That’s how West Virginia polite Ferrell is, not wanting to say iackshit.
“Sometimes I will let loose,” she laughs again. “But I was like, ‘I’m being recorded’ and it felt wrong.”
This while she is talking to an Australian, a nation not known for its coyness with swearing. As she knows well enough, with one of the new album’s co-producers an Australian (Stu Hibberd) and her own experience having played here two years ago at an alternative country festival.
“I heard someone say, well, if an Australian isn’t giving you stuff, they don’t like ya.”
Even here Ferrell couldn’t say “giving you shit”. Man, she really needs to get back out here soon.
Long Time Coming is out now, through Rounder.