“I’ve been told I was a failure since I was 17.” That was Sky Ferreira, talking to New York when she was 21. Presumably, people were still telling Sky Ferreira that she was a failure. Ferreira had spent years in the major-label trenches, releasing music that disappeared into the void. Eventually, she caught a little heat when one single took off on social-media networks that were still mysterious to most of the people on the payroll of Capitol Records, her label. Ferreira finally got the green light to make an album, but it didn’t look or sound anything like what her label wanted. The album came out just a few weeks after Ferreira and her boyfriend kicked up a minor internet-tabloid storm with a drug arrest, and it did not turn her into a major pop star. People simply did not know what to do with Sky Ferreira. They didn’t even notice that she’d just made a classic.
A decade later, we’re still waiting on another album from Sky Ferreira. On Sunday, Night Time, My Time, Sky Ferreira’s full-length debut, will celebrate its 10th anniversary. It’ll be a bittersweet occasion. Sky Ferreira made her magnum opus, and then she slid right back into major-label purgatory. After so many years of waiting, Ferreira has only managed to release two singles from her long-awaited follow-up Masochism — “Downhill Lullaby” in 2019, “Don’t Forget” last year. Both songs are great. Neither generated the momentum that Sky Ferreira apparently needs. At press time, there’s a full-on fan-revolt campaign, with people trying to get Capitol Records to either release Masochism or to free Ferreira from her contract. It hasn’t gone anywhere yet. A probably-unfinished version of Masochism leaked last month, but the album itself could never measure up to the endless-delay saga.
The Sky Ferreira story is messy. It has to be. You don’t get an album like Night Time, My Time without messiness. The magic of that record lies in the oppositional forces surrounding its creation. When she made Night Time, My Time, Ferreira had already gone through the prospective child-star wringer. She’d been signed at 15 and groomed as a potential future superstar. Ferreira’s early singles went nowhere, but her modeling career took off to the point where she didn’t need pop stardom — didn’t much want it, either. In making the album, Ferreira and her collaborators went against all conventional wisdom, crafting an collection of zonked-out, bleary-eyed fuckup hymns that still worked, almost despite themselves, as pop music. Ferreira put the dark energy surrounding her entire career to work, and she made an album of powerful humanity — a minor miracle, coming out of a system that wasn’t designed to produce miracles.
The show-business meat grinder was nothing new for Sky Ferreira. In a very real sense, she’d never known anything else. Ferreira’s parents were young, and they weren’t ready to be parents yet, so they left her to be raised by her grandmother, who happened to be Michael Jackson’s personal hairstylist. Ferreira travelled with MJ and spent her childhood birthdays at Neverland. With Jackson’s encouragement, Ferreira’s grandmother signed her up to sing in gospel choirs. As a teenager, Ferreira survived two different sexual assaults — one from a family friend, another from a stranger. In high school, Ferreira was miserably uncomfortable, so she set her sights on achieving her own pop stardom. Thanks to some MySpace demos and a letter that she wrote to the Swedish production duo Bloodshy & Avant, Ferreira signed her major-label deal when she was 15.
In 2010, Sky Ferreira released her debut single “17” to general indifference. The song is pretty good, but it’s not hard to hear why it might get lost in the Max Martin/Dr. Luke hard-plastic EDM boom. On that song, Ferreira sings about being a wild kid with a fake ID who spends all her nights out with older friends. She sounds like she knows what she’s talking about. When “17” disappeared, Ferreira cranked out more singles, and they disappeared, too. The videos for those songs are still out there, and they remain baffling. Who, for example, thought it would be a good idea for Ferreira to play a diehard fan of straight-to-DVD all-star Michael Madsen in her “Obsession” clip? Did Ferreira’s handlers really think they’d turn her into Katy Perry by getting Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs to show up to the video shoot? Or, even more concerning, was a teenage Sky Ferreira friends with Michael Madsen?
In 2014, Sky Ferreira told The Guardian about how it felt to work in that pop system: “I went from being at school to getting on airplanes to see various producers and kinda being whored around, you know? I did this to escape high school and got treated way worse… And because I didn’t believe in the music I was making myself, it was hard. I felt like the worst person to ever exist.” Big names got involved with Ferreira’s 2011 debut EP As If! — Greg Kurstin, Bloodshy & Avant — but nobody noticed. A year later, Ferreira released another EP, Ghost, that felt totally cobbled together. That one had more big names — Jon Brion, Shirley Manson, Greg Kurstin again. But the song that randomly took off was Ferreira’s collaboration with two producers, Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid, whose names were just starting to bubble.
The numb, gauzy “Everything Is Embarrassing” still has more streams than any other Sky Ferreira song, and it feels like a blueprint for the insular, vibed-out bedroom-pop that would dominate Spotify playlists for the next decade. In the song’s black-and-white video, Ferreira looked glamorously hungover, an aesthetic that resonated deeply in those early Tumblr/Instagram days. While the song never became any kind of chart hit, it gave Sky Ferreira the first real momentum that she’d ever achieved. Ferreira and Hynes fell out over which of them deserved the credit for “Everything Is Embarrassing,” but she remained tight with Ariel Rechtshaid, and they went to work.
Capitol wanted an album, but Ferreira grabbed control of the project. When the budget ran out and Ferreira’s deadline loomed, she spent her own modeling money on effects pedals. She bunkered up with Ariel Rechtshaid and co-producer Justin Raisen, and they banged out Night Time, My Time in a couple of weeks. That intensity comes through loud and clear on the album. The songs on Night Time, My Time are fundamentally pop, but they’re full of blaring space-rock guitars and droning synths. The mix itself is perfectly muddy, and the songwriting feels immediate and at least a tiny bit sloppy. It’s a pop record from someone living on the edge, and we don’t get too many of those.
I could sit around all day and talk about the influences I hear at work on Night Time, My Time. It’s circa-2002 Britney Spears fronting Spacemen 3. It’s Kylie Minogue making a Velvet Underground record. It’s a young Madonna in a coked-out haze, wanding into a Suicide loft show and grabbing the microphone. But those comparisons don’t really capture what’s special about Night Time, My Time. The album gets its title from a line that doomed, ethereal siren Laura Palmer says in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and that parallel cuts a little closer. Like Laura, Ferreira is a young woman who knows that she’s a victim of vast, sinister forces outside her control and who responds by embracing oblivion. Years later, Ferreira made the connection official, acting in Lynch’s revived Twin Peaks and absolutely radiating discomfort.
But Laura Palmer is a made-up character. Sky Ferreira is a real person. She doesn’t have the luxury of becoming myth. On Night Time, My Time, her voice speaks volumes. Sometimes, she murmurs sleepily, as if she’s speaking to us through a downer haze. Sometimes, she breaks through it all with sudden clarity, and you can hear pain in her yelp. She tells us that she’s losing herself, or that she’s useless and she knows it. She sings about the weight of absurd expectation: “Pretend that I’m shy/ I laugh when you cry/ It’s what they, what they want from me.” She asks us if we know what it feels like to fight the hounds of hell. She wants to know how we could know how it feels to be outside ourselves. We think we know her so well.
Man, “I Blame Myself.” What a fucking song. “I Blame Myself” doesn’t fit any previously established pop template, and it wasn’t a hit, but it still feels like one of this century’s defining pop singles. The hooks are titanic, bulletproof, but the frantic desperation behind them stings. A song like that stands outside of space and time. Whenever I hear it, I feel like I’m drunk. There are other songs on Night Time, My Time that hit the same way: “Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay),” “Heavy Metal Heart,” “24 Hours,” the transcendently hazy “Omanko.” These tracks land with tidal force, but they’re so raw and vulnerable that listening to them almost feels intrusive. Reviewing the album at the time, I knew I was hearing something special, but I didn’t fully understand how these songs would stick with me.
Sky Ferreira did not make it easy for Capitol to sell Night Time, My Time. The fucked-up Argentine art-house director Gaspar Noé took the photo on the cover. Ferreira appears topless, but it’s not sexualized. Instead, she stares straight into the camera, wounded but defiant. She claimed that Capitol tried to reject the album cover, but she stood firm. Then, right before the album’s release, Ferreira and her boyfriend at the time, DIIV’s Zachary Cole Smith, went up to the Basilica Soundscape festival in upstate New York and got arrested for drug possession — ecstasy for her, heroin for him. Ferreira insisted that she’d never tried smack in her life, but the news of the arrest became a big, noisy deal.
Night Time, My Time got good reviews, but I don’t remember the album being treated as the monster that it was. In retrospect, though, the LP is something truly special. Sky Ferreira’s collaborators all built major reputations, partly based on what they did with that album. Ariel Rechtshaid basically became a star producer that year, working on that record, HAIM’s Days Are Gone, and Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires Of The City. Justin Raisen built some serious steam, too, and his name has shown up in the credits of artists ranging from Angel Olsen to Drake. (He’s somewhere in the mix on For All The Dogs.) Dan Nigro, the former As Tall As Lions frontman who co-wrote and played on a bunch of tracks from Night Time, My Time, is now known as Olivia Rodrigo’s main collaborator.
Olivia Rodrigo came from the same LA child-star factory as Sky Ferreira, and she probably has a bunch of the same influences, but the two are nothing alike. Rodrigo is a sharp, goal-oriented theater kid, an A student. That was never Sky Ferreira. In retrospect, it’s insane that anyone ever tried to get Ferreira to play that role. Instead, Night Time, My Time feels like an early example of the kind of cult-level pop music that’s become a serious force over the past decade. 2013 also saw the emergence of Lorde, whose Melodrama certainly owes something to Night Time, My Time, and of future Sky Ferreira collaborator Charli XCX.
Right now, Lorde and Charli XCX can play to huge audiences without worrying whether their songs will go anywhere on the radio. They’ve got company. Plenty of other artists are walking a similar line, turning complicated feelings and unconventional musical ideas into semi-pop gems. Lana Del Rey, Mitski, Melanie Martinez, Troye Sivan, MUNA, Carly Rae Jepsen, Kacey Musgraves, Sabrina Carpenter, and all three boygenius members are somewhere in that conversation, too. They don’t necessarily sound anything like one another, but they’ve all figured out how lead long, rewarding, lucrative careers on the pop-music periphery.
Sky Ferreira should be one of them. She should be part of that semi-star crew. She should be opening Eras Tour dates and headlining festivals. Instead, she’s taking supporting roles in movies that I’ll never watch and making cryptic statements about the status of Masochism. Those of us on the outside can’t know whether that’s because of record-label idiocy, Ferreira’s own self-destructive tendencies, or some combination of the two. Maybe people are still telling Sky Ferreira that she’s a failure. She’s not. Whether or not Ferreira ever takes her rightful place in the quasi-pop galaxy, she’s still the person who made Night Time, My Time. For that reason alone, even if she never does anything else, Sky Ferreira will always have a place in history.