A candid interview with Ferron, an unsung Canadian treasure

"My dream is to die a lesbian, First Nations, Canadian," Ferron says, "and it's happening."
Canadian singer-songwriter Ferron: "My dream is to die a lesbian, First Nations, Canadian. And it's happening." (Courtesy of the artist)

"I don't know if I won't start crying. Especially since I've been lost and found so many times in the last 10 or 12 years.... I'm afraid that I'll be very choked up."

It's an early June day in Vancouver. Singer-songwriter Ferron — a queer, feminist folk icon to some, utterly unknown to most — has just made the journey to CBC's downtown office from her part-time home on Saturna, a small island off the B.C. coast. In six weeks, she'll make her proper return to the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, July 15-17, for the first time since her debut in 1979. In her 40-plus years as a singer-songwriter, she's influenced everybody from Ani DiFranco to the Indigo Girls, and started her own record label in the late 1970s. She broke out in the States, too, a leader in the intersections of her various communities — songwriter/lesbian/working-class/women — who flirted with major-label success but was always, ultimately, a DIY indie queen.

An outspoken advocate for social justice issues, one of Ferron's first hits, 1980's "Testimony", became an unofficial anthem for the post-folk women's music movement, and women everywhere looking to see themselves in something real.

There's godlike
And warlike
And strong
Like only some show
And there's sad like
And madlike
And had
Like we know
But by my life be I spirit
And by my heart be I woman.

     — Ferron, "Testimony"

Ferron may not have the national recognition of Neil Young or Joni Mitchell or Buffy Sainte-Marie, but for plenty of music fans around the world, her name belongs alongside those legends in the Canadian singer-songwriter hall of fame. And for a little while, the music industry agreed. This is a story of a woman who is ready for a comeback, whose music has been lost and found again and again. She has been both a lighthouse and the one lost at sea. Her songs are how she's found her way home.

Ferron, who was born in Toronto and raised in Richmond, near Vancouver, left home at 15 with a Leonard Cohen album in her backpack and not much else. She built her fanbase touring small venues and festivals, singing heartfelt, crushingly honest songs about everything from class and love to injustice, equality and social change. She sang and spoke about her trauma, her troubled childhood, sexual assault and depression, and learned through her fans that she wasn't alone.

An out lesbian long before k.d. lang came on the scene and a feminist trailblazer who modelled women's liberation, Ferron gained momentum on the women's festival circuit throughout the '70s. One of her earliest songs even featured a then unknown Tori Amos on backing vocals.

By 1985, the LA Times was predicting big things for the singer, cataloging her achievements to date: a four-star review from Rolling Stone for her 1984 album, Shadows on a Dime; the New York Times calling her "one of the most respected Canadian folk performers for more than a decade" in 1994; a steady stream of comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen. Ferron was even signed, briefly, to Warner Bros., for two years in the mid-'90s. The contract was supposed to be for seven years and three records, but was terminated early by the label. Despite it being the dawning of a "new" era for women singer-songwriters (Lilith Fair's groundbreaking three-year run began in 1997), mainstream success eluded her. Or, she eluded it. Even Ferron isn't sure.

In 1996, she received the OUTmusic Lifetime Achievement Award at the Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards, and returned to DIY projects while also teaching and mentoring young women and aspiring songwriters and musicians. In 2008, Ferron released Boulder, produced by popular underground artist Bitch, featuring duets and collaborations with DiFranco, the Indigo Girls, Le Tigre and more.

But the last decade has been particularly hard on her. In a Facebook post from 2016, Ferron opened up about the painful effects of arthritis throughout her body (she can barely hold her guitar), her decision to make most of her songs from her 40-plus-year career free and, like many musicians who turn to Patreon or GoFundMe, she asked her fans for their financial support as she pursues the next phase of her career.

"I have more music and I need your support," she wrote via Facebook. "I'm boxed in and soon to be homeless once again. Please help me to lift myself up. I need to learn digital recording through a school. I need money to get a place to live in, as I do not qualify for a loan of any kind. I need a safe and quiet place to think and write."

Since that posting, things have turned around, at least a bit, Ferron says. She has a proper manager now, and she's booked to play most of next summer. It seems like she's due for a comeback. That she's been passed over and forgotten for far too long — particularly in Canada — but Ferron doesn't see it like that.

"You don't want anything that isn't real, or at least I don't," she says. "So if it hasn't happ — if, like, I'm in line somewhere for something, that's fine. When it happens it'll be real. I've had a great time and I'm so proud to still be Canadian, even though the Americans would like me to become that, no, I can't do that."

Ferron, who lives part of the year on Saturna and part of the year in the States, says that Canada has been more than a touchstone over the years — it's at the very core of how she makes decisions and how she feels.

"My dream is to die a lesbian, First Nations, Canadian," Ferron says, "and it's happening."

She talks about discovering her family's Métis heritage. She says her siblings have gotten their papers, and she plans to do the same now that she's back from the States.

"It took a long time for everybody to come clean," Ferron says. "There's been so much shame and wounding around that racism and I'm hoping that every time one of us does any healing step, it heals us all."

Healing has been a key outcome of Ferron's songwriting throughout her career.

"I haven't done everything right," she says. "I was in survival mode most my life."

She had a stammer, couldn't talk, was shy and embarrassed and terrified of making mistakes.

"I needed to hear myself say some things and then there was some kind of grace or gift that came in that allowed my words to kind of bounce on the page," Ferron says. "I put two words side by side and I could just see them vibrating, like they're not supposed to go together but they do. Then that grew into understanding sound and colour and light and vibration and harmonics and, ultimately, to get back to people."

"As you can see, I would have done anything to be understood," she continues with a rueful laugh. "To harmonize with somebody, to have a ding that happens where I'm not alone. Even at a very young age, it was just this wind blowing through a huge chasm, terrifying me. I don't have that anymore. I never forget it though."

Her songs won't let her. That survival mode, operating from a place of vulnerability and scarcity, is an almost impossible balancing act.

"It's like you're trying to save yourself as you're falling out of the car," she says. "Songwriting certainly did it for me. I'm falling and I'm saving myself at the same time."

Ferron calls "Misty Mountain", released in 1978 and one of her fan favourites, her cry in the dark. She was 22 and depressed, holed up in a room in the basement of a friend, novelist Keith Maillard. She felt safe.

"I think I was suffering PTSD but I only knew that many years later," Ferron remembers. "It just seemed like I was kind of nervous and nutty. I don't think they really saw me much for about three weeks. I just slept and didn't give a shit really. Then Keith came down and he said, 'You gotta get up, you've got to care.' The only thing I cared about right then is would he please get the f--k out of my room."

He left, but it stirred her enough that Ferron got up and took her guitar into the windowless, mirrorless cedar bathroom. She strummed in total darkness, her preference for playing guitar — "You use your ears to know where you are, you can't trust anything else" — and she wrote the song.

"I just started singing it and it was, I suppose, a prayer," Ferron says.

Two of her other most acclaimed songs are also prayers: "Testimony" and "Girl on a Road".

"Somebody could say, 'What is the formula for writing a song like 'Testimony'?'" Ferron says. "I don't know, almost die? Be very depressed and not know who you are and who your father is and where you're going and what is the purpose of life and why does everybody hate each other and why did they hurt me? If you put all that together and sit down somewhere and weep, you might write 'Testimony'. It's not a craft. Survival was the craft."

Ferron wrote "Testimony" while in Toronto searching for her biological father. She says that she's never been so achingly alone as she was there, and she channelled all of that into the song. It was written late at night, and when she woke up in the morning, she remembers thinking, "What the f--k is this?" It was so personal, she was afraid to sing it, worried that people might throw tomatoes at her onstage, Ferron says with a smile.

"The blessing of my life is when I'm that broken, just like Leonard Cohen says, the light comes in," Ferron says. "But I wouldn't have known that, I was in the process of it and it turned out to be, lucky for me, a process that was valuable to some other people. That's my job, to go right to the edge and look down the vast purposelessness of everything and make it become something."

One of Ferron's most evocative songs is 1994's "Girl on a Road". It's almost impossible to listen to without crying, no matter how many times one hears it.

"I cried pretty hard writing it," Ferron says with a small laugh.

She wrote it fast, waiting for her turn to soundcheck in Chicago. She found a junk room with an old desk that reminded her of her childhood. She remembers squeezing herself into the seat and the song poured out. Everybody she played it for later that night burst into tears. When they recorded the song, she asked everybody to pull back from any kind of flourish, to find the core beat and not embellish.

"Even now, just talking about it, my hair stands on end. I don't know what it is. It just killed us. Then we took it to the mastering guy and he cried. Nobody can say why they cried, we don't know why we're crying. Maybe we just hope that forgiveness actually can heal things."

The song has only one autobiographical line, Ferron says: "My momma was a waitress, my daddy was a truck driver/ the things that kept their power from them slowed me down a while."

"That was all I had to say about it," she says. "I couldn't believe that, but that was enough. That was the same thing I was asking from the [session] musicians: say it and don't embellish it. And so that fascinated me. The tenderness of forgiving, and identifying and forgiving. You can't forgive like a priest. No, you forgive because it is you that's forgiveness."

The years haven't diluted the song's power, Ferron says. She's still struck by its stillness.

"Maybe it's like the tracks of a train. That grief and sorrow, and I grow up and I try to love somebody and I can't. At the end you're just like, 'Ughhh, I just want to be human.' Deeply human and I have to define it myself. I have to live it myself and it runs there. Then on this track is all the dreams and all the hopes you have for yourself and what you think might save you," she finishes in a whisper. "And they just run together, naturally, and that's your life. It doesn't really touch and maybe that's what makes us cry. You're going to say, 'This hurt and this hurt and this hurt' and then you're going to say, 'I thought it would be different.' But in the face of it not being different, let it be graceful."

At 65, Ferron doesn't think much about her legacy. She's not even sure what the word really means when it comes up. "The music, once it leaves the womb, it's not mine," she says.

But she does dream of her home on Saturna becoming a trust and a place for women to go and rest and write.

"Without Saturna, without my foster parents, I don't know if I would've made it," Ferron says. "I wouldn't have found a kernel of me, to save me or to save. But I did, and I did on that island, so I've got this little home and that's what I want to do. That it just stay available to broken girls like me."

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner