Words With Ferras
by Pamela Price
Every morning on “Today,” TV audiences are introduced to new artists. These days the norm is a young girl in hipster get-up, singing an EDM pop tune at the mic. Rarely do we see musicians who play, write, sing and produce. But one morning they featured Ferras, a true artist. I watched as he passionately played the piano with his eyes closed, singing “Speak in Tongues” from his self-titled EP. The lyrics were poetic, the melody captivating and his style memorable. His friend and producing collaborator, Katy Perry, saw the same talent in 2007 when they both signed to Capitol Records. Now he is the inaugural artist on Perry’s newly announced joint venture record label with Capitol Music Group, Metamorphosis Music.
Born in Jordan, Ferras grew up in Illinois before moving to Santa Barbara, and then Los Angeles to make his music career. He released a critically-acclaimed debut album, 2008’s Aliens & Rainbows. After a whirlwind of going from EMI and back to Capitol, as well as writing for artists such as Ricky Martin and Adam Lambert, Ferras finally released his self-titled EP, which includes “Legends Never Die” featuring Perry.
We caught up with the artist towards the end of his first North American tour with Katy Perry. Eager to get back into the studio, Ferras told us his story.
When did music first speak to you?
When I was five years old, I was in a restaurant and I heard somebody playing classical music on a piano. I went home, got on a piano, and started playing the song. My parents were like, ‘What is going on right now?’ Because I’d never taken lessons before and I just picked it up.
And then I got a part in our school play. They dressed me up like Rudolph and I had this big red nose. I sang a New Kids on the Block song called, “I Still Believe in Santa Claus.” I went out on the gym floor for the performance and I remember just seeing all of these people and it was amazing. I soaked it up. I was petrified hearing my voice in this microphone as a little kid, but it was so much fun.
You knew then that you wanted to be a performer.
Yeah. I went back to school the next day, and I cut a star out of yellow construction paper, and I wrote my name on the star, and I put it on my desk so all the kids could see it.
How long have you been a songwriter?
I started really writing when I was 13 or 14, and professionally since I was 20.
Who are some artists that influenced you early on?
Elton John was probably my favorite artist growing up for a long time because he played piano, and he sang. He had such an amazing quality about him that I really just wanted to be him. Prince. David Bowie. Madonna. I was a really big 80s fan. And then later on in the 90s, I got into Tori Amos and Nirvana. I feel like I’m sort of a combination of all of those people.
You said that you “think of every song as having its own world,” so how would you categorize your music? I listen to one song and I really want to dance, and then I listen to another one, like, Speak in Tongues, and it’s emotional; it touches you. It’s eclectic.
I feel like what you just said is exactly what I wanted to achieve with the EP. I felt like I wanted to give sort of a taste of everything that I am. As a songwriter and as somebody who is very inspired by events around me and things that happen to me. It just is what it is, and I don’t really have any goal necessarily. But I guess I would categorize it as sort of dark-hued soulful pop, because it’s not really the happiest music in the world, but it’s also not slit-your-wrists depressing. It’s somewhere in the middle.
Tell me a little bit about your past. Were there people in your family who played music?
No, I’ve not had anybody in my family who did anything musically, which was kind of strange, because I know a lot of people feel like it comes from your family. I am still trying to figure out who it is in my family that played something or even sang.
What do they think about you doing this?
They love it. I grew up in a really small town where there are probably 3,500 people in it, so I think everybody kind of knew that I was going to be doing this.
When you were in Santa Barbara, you said you frequented a certain type of eclectic crowd of people, like hippies. How did that part of your life influence your music, your songwriting — if it did?
I was like this really small town kid who just got transported to Santa Barbara because my family decided to move. Santa Barbara’s really cool because it has a lot of different types of people there. There are artists, poets, super hippies, musicians, yoga people, and a lot of transient, gypsy people, I guess, in a way. And as a teen, I kind of just threw myself on the streets. Now looking back, at my age, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, Santa Barbara’s actually a really small community.’
And then you decided to go to Berklee College of Music.
Yeah. I was in L.A. trying to really make it, just like everybody else here. And I wasn’t making it. I was getting doors slammed in my face, every day, and nobody really understood what I was about, or got me. And so I got really depressed, and I was really disheartened.
I said I need to do something with my life, so maybe the answer was to go study film scoring or composition. I lied on my application to Berklee, because I don’t read music, and I got in. I got there and I was just totally failing everything because I had no concept, really, of reading music; it looked like dots on a page.
I did get some additional assistance with some tutors there and I was just sliding by, but it’s a really great school; it’s really, really awesome. I’m really bad at math, and I feel like there’s that math-music connection.
There definitely is.
I thought, ‘Ehh, this isn’t for me.’ And I actually ended up getting my record deal while I was there so it was like Superman swooped in and saved the day.
And then you wrote for other artists like Ricky Martin. How did that come about and were you able to work with them one-on-one?
All of my songs that I’ve had with other artists have come about differently. I was, and still am, really good friends with Desmond Child, who is an amazing songwriter and producer, and he took me under his wing a bit. He was working with Ricky on his last record, and I think he played some of my music to Ricky. I got a Skype one day from Desmond, and there was Ricky Martin. I was like, ‘Okay, this is cool. Sure, we’ll come to Florida and write.’ And so that was really awesome, and I ended up writing like four songs on the Más record.
And with Adam Lambert, we’ve been friends for a long time. We wrote a song for his first record. With the rest of my songs, it’s just kind of been sending them out and hoping for the best. When I’m being a songwriter, I try to write with the artists as much as possible since I think that’s the best way to actually get something authentic and real for them, because then you can kind of zone in and get into their headspace.
Of course. And now you and your EP.
And now me.
You met Katy Perry, and you guys became friends. Tell me a little bit about that and creating your EP.
Katy gave me a ton of freedom to do what I wanted. Because she’s an artist, she really has that care for the other artists that she’s working with. It wasn’t like, ‘You’ve got to do this, or you’ve got to sing these songs.’ A lot of people would think she was going to put me with her people, but it wasn’t really like that. She really wanted me to be able to tell the story that I have to tell, and just sort of facilitate that. She’s very involved; she was executive producer.
I’m very proud of the EP. I really want it to speak for itself and exist in its own sort of platform. And “Legends Never Die,” which is a collaboration with her, was kind of written in mind with the friendship I have with her, and the group of friends we have. I’ve known Katy for years. Growing up, we were trying to get into clubs together in Hollywood, and trying to be important and sneak past publicists. We were like, ‘Yeah, we’re like stars!’
So we had a lot of crazy experiences like that. Especially when you’re young, and you have that youthful, reckless abandon, you think, ‘Yeah, we’re going to get into a car and we’re just going to drive and we’re going to go to this party.’
In that moment you think you’re going to live forever, and you and your friends are the unstoppable, unbeatable superheroes of the world. Even now that we’re older, we still have that very tight-knit group of friends, and I feel like that song was kind of inspired by that.
You and Katy toured this summer. How was the experience, performing in front of thousands of people and being able to see different cities?
I’m very much a traveler. I have a traveling sort of spirit. I really enjoy going to different places and observing the culture, and meeting new people and seeing how other people live, and so being on tour really is great for that kind of person. I’ve had a lot of really amazing experiences going out in different cities and exploring. In terms of just me as an artist and getting that kind of platform to have my music heard, it’s really the dream.
I can remember being very young, probably just like every other artist, just wishing that one day I could be in front of thousands of people. And I’m doing that thanks to Katy, and it’s an unbeatable feeling. It’s really quite magical. I used to go see shows at Staples Center. I remember going to see Madonna, and I think I saw Elton there. And maybe Britney back in the day, with ‘NSYNC.
The days when O-Town opened for Britney.
Yeah, exactly. And I remember being there and just looking up on the stage and thinking, ‘I really want to grab that microphone right now, and I just want to take it and I want to sing.’ And so now I don’t really have to do that; I get my own microphone.’
What’s next for you? Do you have ideas for where you want to go as far as the next record? Were you writing on the road?
Yeah, I’ve been doing some writing on the road. When I was in New York I stopped for like a week; the tour took a break. I decided I wanted to go into the studio, because I’m a workaholic and I don’t like any time to lapse without me doing something. I kind of stayed there and I went into the studio and I got to work with a really, really talented songwriter and producer, Dev Hynes, whose artist name is Blood Orange. I’ve been a major fan of his for a long time, and so I had that opportunity. It was really cool. And when the tour wraps in October, I’m going to go back into the studio and work on the full length record. That’s really exciting. I hope to go to London and try to maybe get out of L.A. for a minute, and get some different vibes.
Anyone you would like to collaborate on the album with?
Well, I just mentioned Dev Hynes whom I’m a huge fan of. But I don’t like to put it out there, because sometimes it’s a little weird like that, but I have some ideas and hopefully a couple of surprises up my sleeve.
Follow Ferras: https://twitter.com/ferras