Sky Ferreira is anxious. Sitting next to me on a plush chair at New York’s Bowery Hotel, her agitated hands wrestle each other in her lap. Her eyes, sleepy but searching, peer out from under a Beetlejuice mane of platinum hair. Ferreira’s fidgets are understandable—maybe even a little poetic—given that, until very recently, I Will, the debut album she’ll release this summer, was titled I’m Not Alright. The stakes are high for the follow-up to her 2012 EP Ghost, thanks in large part to the success of her single “Everything is Embarrassing,” a pop delight co-produced by Dev Hynes that New York magazine dubbed their song of the year. There have been moments of deafening buzz surrounding Ferreira since she started gracing fashion magazines at 16, but now it’s time for her to prove herself as a musician. The label has high hopes. Her fans have high hopes. Twitter has high hopes. Ferreira doesn’t just have a right to be nervous; she’s smart to be.
The 20-year-old Venice Beach native, who now calls New York home, desperately wants to be taken seriously as a singer and songwriter—no small feat for a beautiful girl who is best known for starring in Forever 21, Adidas, and Calvin Klein advertisements; for pouting in photos taken by Karl Lagerfeld, Hedi Slimane, and Terry Richardson; and for running around town with fashion darlings such as former Vogue Paris editor Carine Roitfeld, Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci, and model Cara Delevingne. Skeptics are quick to dismiss artists who burst through the gates of success riding hyphenates, especially model-musicians—or worse, model-musicianactors. Ferreira, who recently had her Cannes Film Festival debut in Grant Singer’s short IRL, will star later this year in The Green Inferno, a new screamer from Hostel helmer Eli Roth.
Growing up, Ferreira split her time between the homes of her divorced parents and her grandmother, who was one of Michael Jackson’s hairdressers. She dropped out of high school after her sophomore year and started pushing her demo via Myspace, attracting interest from famed Swedish producing duo Bloodshy and Avant (who have worked with Madonna, Britney Spears, and Kylie Minogue). Since then, she’s released the 2011 and 2012 EPs, As If! and Ghost; played SXSW and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon; and collaborated with Garbage’s Shirley Manson (who wrote Ferreira’s track “Red Lips”). For an artist whose breakout has been addled with fits and stops, the opportunity is finally hers to seize—but only if she avoids seizing up.
Ferreira’s anxiety encompasses an understanding of what it means to be a celebrity in the modern era, when everyone on the street has a digital persona to manage, an online identity in constantt need of reinvention and reimagining. For someone in the spotlight, that feeling is no different, just writ large. It’s enough to give your average person an ulcer, and to give your not-so-average ingénue something to think about.
BULLETT: You look stressed. What’s up?
SKY FERREIRA: Personal stuff. Family issues. And then label stuff. I was just focusing on putting together my live show, and now I have to go to Italy, London, L.A., back here, then France. It’s just the flying that I’m kind of dreading. I’m already thinking about it. I don’t sleep and then I get the worst jet lag.
You’re going to end up with exhaustion.
Yeah, that already happened at SXSW. I got laryngitis and lost my voice for at least four weeks. I started my tour with no voice.
Here you are, trying to prove that you have a voice—that you’re not just another pop singer—and then that happens.
I think I cried at least six times during that tour. [Laughs.] I have really bad stage fright, but I get pressured to do stuff right away because you have to take the opportunity when you have it.
How has your sound evolved since Ghost?
I didn’t really plan on releasing that EP. It felt like the label’s way of delaying the album so I thought, Fuck you, I’m not releasing an EP. I kind of put out the demo for “Everything is Embarrassing” behind their backs.
How much credit do you give that song’s producer, Dev Hynes, for jumpstarting your career?
It’s very much a Blood Orange track [Hynes’ current musical alias], so I feel like it’s his song too. I’m totally grateful for it, but that’s not my sound for this record at all.
What’s your sound?
I don’t know what my sound is. I’m not trying to say I’m creating a new sound or anything.
Don’t you want to create a new sound?
I do, I do.
You’ve talked about avoiding being boxed in by stereotypes. But there’s also the trope of the pop star who breaks all the rules. In every boy band, there’s always one who doesn’t play by the rules.
Exactly, although maybe it was just A.J.’s facial hair that didn’t play by the rules.
I recognize that trope and I think that no matter what you do, someone’s always going to put you into some kind of category. It’s like, “She’s the party girl,” or, “She’s the dirty—the messy one.”
You almost said “dirty girl.”
[Laughs.] But not in that way. Actually dirty, like, doesn’t shower. Not like Christina Aguilera “dirrty.”
Your new album is titled I’m Not Alright—
It’s actually called I Will. I got set up. The label said, “What are you going to name the album?” I wanted to name it after my favorite song on the record, and at the time it was “I’m Not Alright.”
When aren’t you alright?
I’m permanently not alright, but I’m kind of at the point where it’s funny. I’m not depressed, but I wouldn’t call myself happy. I’m always anxious.
Same here. Were you nervous the first time you met Karl Lagerfeld?
He’s actually really funny. Very dry. I shot with him once and he didn’t even speak that much. It was like 4 a.m. in his library. We were schoolgirls.
He would be the best headmistress ever.
I was the naughty schoolgirl, of course, but not the sexy kind—like the skateboarder.
Can you skateboard?
I can stand on one. I can push it and sit on it. My mom dated a skateboarder for like 10 years.
How long have your parents been divorced?
They haven’t been together since I was a baby. They raised me along with my grandmother, who was very strict. But I was never really bad. I mostly just sat in the corner talking to myself, but I wasn’t really talking to myself. I was singing.
Fish. I was really into aliens and mermaids. I know how Tumblr-y that sounds, but I was 5 so it was completely different.
How did you manage to get the attention of producers Bloodshy and Avant?
I was messaging a bunch of producers, asking them to listen to my demo. They were like, “Do you want to have a production deal with us?” And I was like, Fuck yeah! But then I thought, How do I tell my mom? She knew that my Myspace page existed but she didn’t think it was actual work, like, “Oh, it’s cute.”
I’m suspicious of any parent who encourages their kid to enter the entertainment industry.
I made a deal with my mom that I would stay in school. At the time, I was getting truancy after truancy after truancy. I was already getting kicked out of schools. So I was like, I’ll behave if you let me do this.
You sang in a gospel choir growing up. Was religion a big part of your upbringing?
My family wasn’t really into religion. I believe in God in some form. I mean, he’s obviously a big, white man with long hair in the sky, right? [Laughs.] I don’t know… maybe God is energy or something? Something bigger than yourself, but I don’t think anyone makes any decisions for you.
Do you believe in fate?
To an extent, but I also believe in hard work and luck. I really believe in luck.
But if you believe in fate, how can you believe in luck? Things either happen for a reason or they don’t, right?
I believe we’re connected to certain people in some way. Some things happen that you just can’t explain.
You’ve talked publicly about enduring sexual abuse when you were younger. Do you think that this album, or your art, is a response to that?
A lot of it is. [The abuse] affected me, but I’ve moved past it. There’s always going to be something about me that will be a little off because of it—the way I view sex or something—but I’m not “Sky Ferreira, Rape Victim.” I could have let it control my life in some way, but I didn’t. I guess I find it really hard to trust people. That’s why I can’t imagine having casual sex. I find it to be a very personal thing—well it is, of course, but now I view it as a serious thing. I don’t have a problem with nudity because it’s still me owning my body, but having somebody on my body is a whole different story.
How do you reconcile being a model with wanting to be a musician?
Fashion is just a part of what I do. Musicians want to work with designers. Luckily, I got to do that first. It all happened at the same time, but the modeling just took off faster. A lot of the people I know who are in bands have to work in restaurants and bars when they’re not touring. I model instead.
The difference is that, as a waiter, no one’s constructing your image. In a Calvin Klein ad, your image is being built by a brand.
I choose brands that make sense for me. Forever 21 is not Calvin Klein or Saint Laurent Paris. People of all ages listen to my music, and half of them are teenage girls who can’t afford designer clothes. So why not do something cool for Forever 21 instead of just blowing it off?
You were in an ad for CK One Shock, where you made out with Lara Stone. What was that like?
It was hot. I think she’s pretty much the only girl I’ve ever made out with.
I’ve never actually been attracted to girls, but you can’t not be attracted to Lara Stone. I don’t know if I’d go all the way with a girl. That’s not me. Who knows? Maybe I just haven’t found the right one.
You’re shy, but you’re doing these pretty wild things. How do you thread that needle?
It’s just a matter of trusting people. I think that’s kind of why I didn’t have stage fright until about three, four years ago—pretty much until all this record label stuff happened to me. It happened to me when I was 17 and there were people making fun of me, basically bullying me.
People on the Internet, critics, and label people who were picking me apart when I was still a teenager. It really affected me.
You met Madonna at this year’s Met Ball. What was that like?
I didn’t meet Madonna. I attacked Madonna. There are moments when you’re supposed to contain yourself, but I’m not on the same level as Madonna. I’m allowed to fan out on her. I think she liked it.
Photography by Meinke Klein. Styling by Kathryn Typaldos.
As seen in The Wild Issue.