Interview: Sky Ferreira Talks "Red Lips," Terry Richardson and Being Seen As A Socialite

The model/singer discusses her new music video and her role in the Hollywood scene.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

Since Sky Ferreira started putting out demos, partying in nightclubs and posing for fashion editorials before she was even old enough to avoid curfew tickets in her hometown of L.A., she's been pegged as somewhat of a Lolita, a persona that's kept her from being seen the way she wants to be seen: as herself. 

After dropping a Terry Richardson-directed video for her single "Red Lips," it looks like Sky is finally confident in the image she's putting out there for her fans and, inadvertently, for the firing squad that is Internet users. 

Complex got on the phone with the Sky, who's in L.A. putting the finishing touches on her long-delayed debut album, I'm Not Alright, due in the fall, to talk about the reaction to her collaboration with Terry Richardson and to clarify the wild child rumors that have plagued her music career.

Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)

When I first watched the “Red Lips” video, it seemed like a departure from the videos you’ve done in the past. It’s a little more in your face. It’s a little edgier and darker.
Yeah. I don’t want to say the songs clash, but the song is a lot more in your face. And the video, I think, connects with the song, even though people don’t think there’s a concept and it’s just like a never-ending Terry Richardson photo shoot. [Laughs.]

We were planning on doing a music video but then we couldn’t get the right concept for it, so he was like “I have a tarantula at my studio, Just try and do something with it.” And I was like “Yeah sure I’ll try.”

Did you have any apprehension using this tarantula?
The thing was so last minute that I wasn’t even prepared for it. I used to be scared of ants when I was a little kid. [Laughs.] So the thought of tarantulas was insane. I remember lying on the ground waiting for this thing to crawl all over me. I just blanked out while it was on me. 

So you just kinda went for it?
Yeah. I thought maybe it’d help me get over my fear of spiders, which did not happen, by the way. I see a small spider in the recording studio and I’m like, “Kill it!” [Laughs.]

In your mind, how did the video connect with the themes of the song?
The song is basically about a very specific person or a type. I wouldn’t say girl, but a very specific type of person. I’m trying to find a nicer way to describe it. [Laughs.] I mean, the song says it all. It was kind of like the tarantula represented this grossness. This person always made me feel uncomfortable all the time and I kind of just saw their downfall and them finally lose their shit and go crazy. That’s kind of what the Wild At Heart red lipstick scene was.

And the reason I wore the bra and underwear wasn’t to look sexy or anything. It was kind of to make everything a lot more dramatic because the video was so simple. It was just this thing about this crazy virgin, like she’s in white and she’s so pure and great, who then ends up being the crazy one. There was kind of this weird message behind it.

I know that you worked with Shirley Manson on writing this song. How did you guys start working together?
Shirley was actually a fan of mine when I had MySpace. I didn’t do electronic music at first. I mean I had one demo called—I’m not even gonna say because I don’t want people to look it up. It’s truly embarrassing. [Laughs.] Then I had this one called “Femme Fatale,” which was with Greg Kurstin. I wouldn’t say it’s like The Runaways, but I was very inspired by The Runaways at that age, like I wanted to be like Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. I remember I used to stalk Kim Fowley everywhere and put him on the phone about doing stuff before. That was weird, but that was what I wanted to be. 

Shirley used to talk about me to Greg Kurstin and she saw what happened to me with the whole record label experience, like getting shelved and how I was kind of promoted to be something I wasn’t ever supposed to be promoted as. People thought I was gonna be like Britney Spears. 

After that, she reached out to me and was like, “I think I have this great song idea for you.” I changed the lyrics a little bit because I’m not from the UK so I can’t say “taking a piss” or something. [Laughs.] It would sound ridiculous if I said something like that.

Would you say it was on hold because you were struggling to promote yourself the way you wanted to?
Yeah, I definitely had that problem. There was something that wasn’t connecting and sometimes I still feel like I’m constantly trying to prove to people that I have integrity and I am an artist and I am not like a puppet. The thing is, people actually want me to be one. I don’t want to put that message out into the world. I feel like there’s enough of that out there and that was kind of a big issue.

People thought I was gonna be like Britney Spears.

I remember people kept telling me I was difficult, like not the people I worked with, but record label people. They thought I was crazy and difficult when I wasn’t. I just didn’t want to completely sell-out. I wasn’t willing to do everything they wanted me to do because that wasn’t me and I didn’t want to lie and fake something for the rest of my life. Once you do that, there’s no turning back. 

I’m always willing to try stuff, so I tried doing “Obsession." I love Ryan Tedder as a person and he’s great for what he does, but that was not me at all. I guess I just don’t wanna do something that everyone else is doing.

I’m not saying that I’m the most original, creative person on the planet. Everyone is saying ["Red Lips"] sounds like a Garbage song and I did it with Garbage, so of course it’s gonna sound like a Garbage song. [Laughs.] And that’s what turned me off a bit with the electronic music. I mean, on my album, there’s still electronic songs. I didn’t change direction 'cause I was kinda always into that music to begin with. My music was always more organic from when it started. That’s what I wrote best.

RELATED: Top 100 Shoots by Terry Richardson


So the past music you put out, did you have control over those?
I had control with “One.” Even though it didn’t sell a lot of copies or become platinum or gold or whatever, I think it did a good job. People still talk about it. I still love “One,” it’s just that I’ve moved on from doing “One.” Visually, that video was supposed to be very clean and stuff, but that doesn’t mean that I look like that all the time.“Red Lips” is what I’ve looked like my whole life. I was always a bit messy. [Laughs.] I feel like I’m a lot more tamed and less grungy than I was before, when I was younger.

You came out at such a young age.

I can make the best song in the world and I still feel like I won’t get credit for it. [Critics] will still be like, 'It’s good, but it’s good for her.'

That’s the thing. People are like, “She looks different.” Well, I’m almost twenty years old, and I came out when I was fifteen. Things don’t happen overnight and I’m aware of that. This video was kind of to start getting back out there with music. It wasn’t for YouTube hype or to become a “thing.” If it did become one, then fine. I don’t know what will become of it, but it was kind of just to get started again. I’m a young adult being compared to a tween.

When you came out, you already had this kind of provocative image. We see that people always get riled up over, say, a transformation like Miley Cyrus made.
There’s never really this good girl gone bad type of situation. I was actually a lot more sexual when I was younger than I am now.

How do you deal with people who criticize you for being so young and doing that?
I mean, that’s what people my age are doing. I’m not saying all of them are, but if you don’t have sex, you’re called a “prude” and if you do have sex, you’re called a “slut.” That’s how people act, to be honest, with young teenage girls, at least that’s what I’ve noticed. Like in high school, that’s how it was.

I remember being the last girl who did anything with a guy, like I didn’t kiss a guy until I was in the end of eighth grade or something. I was about to be fourteen and everyone else had kissed guys before me so I was constantly made fun of for it. Then I came out with, “Sex Rules.” I guess that’s not the best example. [Laughs.]

People who don’t realize that you’re putting out music know you as this young Hollywood model/socialite kind of person. Do you feel like you’re being pigeonholed?
Yeah. I feel like I’m not taken seriously for that reason. I had to model for money because I wasn’t making money in music. I had the opportunity to do it, so I took it. I got to work with amazing people while doing it and I got a music video out of it from Terry Richardson, you know? [Laughs.] That’s kind of what’s weird about that because I can make the best song in the world and I still feel like I won’t get credit for it. [Critics] will still be like “It’s good, but it’s good for her,” with a very passive-aggressive undertone to it. It always comes down to what I look like. They say, “Oh she’s like a singing model” or something, when I was actually a singer first.

Since you did start off as a singer, how did the modeling thing even come about? You’ve worked with Calvin Klein and really big designers.
I don’t really know. Like my whole life I’ve always been told that I’m ugly, so I grew up my whole entire life ugly and I still kind of think I’m ugly. So, the modeling thing is kind of weird.

Also, because I’m not tall. I mean, I about like 5’8 now; I grew like four inches in a year. [Laughs.] But I was like 5’2 when I started. My first real editorial was with Rankin. That’s how I met him. It was for Dazed and Confused and it was a ten-page spread or something. So I started to get work from that and then I did the Tommy Hilfiger campaign, but it was only in Europe. I think the Calvin Klein thing really took it to another level with Steven Meisel. I did three campaigns for CK One and that kind of put me on the map with fashion stuff. And then I started shooting with Hedi Slimane and Terry Richardson, but Terry was more like a mutual friend.

Speaking of Terry Richardson, you’ve mentioned that you’re getting a lot of negative comments and criticism regarding the video.
Yeah. I can deal with the criticism because everyone on the Internet is entitled to their own opinion and be critics even if they’re not. But I do mind that they say Terry Richardson raped me or that we slept together because that’s not cool. It’s not funny, it’s not witty, there’s nothing funny about it. Also he’s my friend and he’s never acted weird towards me at all or hit on me. I don’t know what’s happened with other people but he’s a professional. He works with people constantly. Is Lady Gaga being told she was raped by Terry Richardson? Probably not.

It’s just funny that it’s always like a double standard for some people and they just assume that I had sex with Terry Richardson for the video because I’m in my underwear, like it was creepy or something. But it wasn’t creepy, and also my boyfriend was sitting there. [Laughs.] Terry is a big supporter and he’s a really nice guy. I wouldn’t let anyone say that about my friend or any friend of mine, you know? It’s a really sensitive subject because I don’t know the whole thing with him and what happened. But I’ve never had that experience, so it’s not fair for people to tell me I have.

Do you think Lady Gaga doesn’t get this stuff because she’s primarily known as a singer and she doesn’t have the peg of being a young model like yourself?
Yeah, I guess so. At the end of the day, I’ve been a huge fan of his work, so that’s why I did the video with him. I guess because I’m younger, too, people will just go off of that and because I give off the whole “hipster” thing. Also, I guess I look really young, even though I’m almost 20. I mean, 20 is still really young but it’s not like I’m 16 and doing this.


People know so much about your modeling career. But the way you talk about it, music has always been a part of your life. I read that you grew up with Michael Jackson.
It never really fazed me when I was younger ‘cause he was just always Michael to me. I knew he was a big singer and all this stuff, but I never knew the extent of it. He kind of was the person who really supported my singing and writing at a young age. Not that I was a child prodigy who used to write great songs—I used to just write songs about fish or something. [Laughs.] I guess he always saw something in me, and he told my mom what to do with me. He told her, “You should put her in a gospel choir,” so she did. I loved singing. I’m not super into religion, but I loved the feeling of singing gospel music, and I still do. Then he told her that I should get classically trained when I was around 12, so I learned how to sing opera also.

Gospel music helped me learn how to sing with meaning, you know? I can’t sing a song if I don’t know what I’m singing about. If I don’t feel anything for it, then I can’t sing it. That was kind of the main issue with me doing dance music live. I felt a bit trapped.

How did you know him? Was it through your parents?
My mom worked for him for like thirty years and they became really close friends. She was his hairdresser. They hit it off and he was just kind of like my mentor in a way.

That’s very cool to say.
Yeah, “Michael Jackson was my mentor.” Yeah, that’s insane. I was around him my whole life. It was really weird because he actually died two days after I signed my record deal, and it was just a very strange thing. It still hasn’t hit me sometimes, it doesn’t faze me that he’s not alive.

So what can we expect from your upcoming album?
Well I’m working with Jon Brion. He did all of the Fiona Apple records and the Aimee Mann records. I’m also working with Ariel Rechtshaid. He just did “Climax” with Usher. That stuff is a little more dreamier. Old fans will be a lot more excited about the next single because it will be a lot more electronic than “Red Lips” in kind of a new wave type of way. Oh, and Blake Mills. But that’s pretty much who I’m sticking with. I didn’t want to work with too many producers because everyone has their own opinion of what you should do and then you start doubting yourself.

Yeah it seems like you’re going to have a very eclectic album because you have “Red Lips,” which sounds very 90s grunge, and then you have more electronic music that you mentioned.
Yeah. It was originally gonna be called Wild At Heart but I changed it to I’m Not Alright because it’s my favorite song off the record. It kind of sums up everything I like in music with my own personal taste. More so than an album, I’d like to call it a collection.

This album, compared to a bunch of people just doing songs with me, is more like a collaboration with each person. It really makes it special. A lot of it is very personal, which a lot of my music hasn’t been before. It was always like a statement or something and now it’s actually about myself. It makes me a bit vulnerable, but it’s fine. It’s a good thing.

You mentioned the fact that your music before was always just a “statement.” Was that your choice or was it the record label’s choice?

It was my choice. It always makes a lot more sense in my head, my lyrics, than it does to everyone else. [Laughs.] It’s kind of like the music video. It totally made sense to me and I thought everyone would get it. I had to explain what it was about. Even with “One,” I had to explain it.

But some of it is so straightforward, too. It’s also a bit tongue-in-cheek. There’s always a bit of sarcasm to what I write. When I write by myself, when I write my own lyrics, it gets a bit dreary, so it’s kind of nice having someone else come in to make it a little less depressing. Less self-loathing. [Laughs.]

Why do you find yourself writing about those really deep and personal things?
Well, before I was scared to.  With this album, I knew I had to. I just want people to kind of understand me on the level of who I truly am and get to know me because I feel like no one really knows me, at least on the Internet.

It’s so funny reading these things like, 'Sky Ferreira’s gone edgy rocker from clean-cut pop star!' The first thing that ever came out about me was a picture of me with a vodka bottle between my legs!

There’s a lot of misconception about me and that makes me really upset and that’s why I kind of started my Tumblr—so I could speak directly. I feel like Twitter is a bit weird to do that because everyone is literally looking at it. On Tumblr, it’s more of my fans. I mean, there’s a few lurkers but it’s not as bad as Twitter. I kind of feel like there’s a lot of people my age with the same feelings, trying to figure out who they are.

I’m just in a weird position because even though I haven’t hit it big, people still know who I am. So, it’s not like I’m “new” either. I’m not trying to hide anything that I did in the past either. First my intention with this album was like, “OK, this is just going to explain who I am.” But it’s kind of impossible. So the album is a never-ending thing of thoughts and experiences that I’ve had in the past few years.

What’s one of the huge misconception about you that you really want to clear up?
The socialite thing is always funny or weird because I’m not really a social person. [Laughs.] I don’t really hang out with a lot of people. I have about four real friends and I’ve always kind of been like that

I just want people to know that I’m a real person. Not everyone has to be a gimmick. Everyone thinks in pop music that you have to be a gimmick. I’m not an object. That’s why, if I ever became huge, I wouldn’t want to name my fans because I want people to think for themselves and I want people to know that I think for myself. That’s what I want to put out there.

How did you get into the club scene as a teenager? What’s changed since that?
I was working on my hustle, I guess. I figured that's how Madonna started; I should do it, too. I met some cool people and it was fun. I'm not really interested in going out at the moment. I guess since I started early, I kind of lost interest early.

A couple of years ago, there was that picture of you at 17-years-old holding a vodka bottle at a club that Katy Perry tweeted.
Yeah, with the plastic vodka bottle. That’s why it’s so funny reading these things like, “Sky Ferreira’s gone edgy rocker from clean-cut pop star!" The first thing that ever came out about me was a picture of me with a vodka bottle between my legs! [Laughs.].

If anything, I’ve calmed down a lot more. Well, actually, you know what else I’d like to clarify? I’m not a fucking drug addict. It drives me crazy because I don’t do drugs. I’ve smoked pot before, but I can’t do that because my throat hurts. I don’t even smoke cigarettes or anything. I don’t even really drink. Of course when I do drink, there’s always a party photographer there or someone with a camera phone will take a picture, which is totally fine because I should be doing that. Not saying that I should be, but people that are my age are in college now doing that everyday. I’m not saying I’m not trying to be a role model because I do wanna be a role model, in some sense, but I’m not trying to be a saint either because I’m not one. But I’m also not crazy or a party girl or something. And for some reason, since I was a little kid, my eyes have always been really dark. I’ve always had really dark circles and they always look kind of sleepy. So people just assume that I’m high all the time and I’m not at all. [Laughs.]

How did you make those connections with celebrities like Katy Perry?
I met Katy through mutual friends and we're label mates. I don't really know any celebrities besides the ones I've worked with. Usually, if you're at an event or something, people will ask you to take a photo together and it doesn't go much farther than that.

So hopefully this will clear everything up.
Yeah, well hopefully everyone will stop saying I do drugs or crack or whatever. [Laughs.] I mean, I think its kind of funny that people think that.

Latest in Music