Sky Ferreira has a fair bit of money invested in her success, I think we can safely assume. The Los Angeles based, Capitol Records-signed singer has been casting about for an identity for a few years now. (You can follow the slight variations in this recent Buzzfeed post by Matthew Perpetua.) Garbage-singer Shirley Manson and high-profile creep Terry Richardson were hired to give her an alt-rock touch-up earlier this year. Solange-affiliated song-writing team Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid were behind the soft-focus indie-R&B of her most recent, Pitchfork-beloved breakout track, "Everything Is Embarrassing". Big names involved at every stage in her continuing roll-out.
So, it follows that her set-up at last night's buzzing Glasslands show would be well beyond the means of your average start-up band building on its first flash of critical notice. The stage was outfitted with a sophisticated LED projection that, in concert with the club's usual level of overwhelming smoke-machine fog, had an amazing, almost sculptural effect. Lines and shapes created a 3-D tangibility in the smoke going outwards. Lasers shot at uncovered eyeballs, made kaleidoscope patterns on winter jackets. Starting her set with the few crunchy alt-rock songs, she was backlit with blinding white fluorescents, as translucent sheets of red light moved around her. For a snug, club show the production values were top notch, truly unusual, memorably unique.
It reminded me of a shyer, less silver, real-life version of this...
Or, maybe, a more indie-calibrated, rock-edged version of this...
This cartoonish early 80s pop-star given a lipstick smear of aloof 90s alt-rocker persona is one that appears totally viable for Ferreira going forward, an end point to an extended image search. But the extremely young-seeming singer can't bring herself to fully embody it, just quite yet. She'd occasionally get lost in the smoke and lights, seeming kind of secondary to captivating stage production or the efficiency of her all-pro band. She looked startled when someone from the audience suggested her vocals be turned up early in the set, was totally incredulous that anyone could expect that she would be in any way responsible for that sort of technical detail. Any stage banter she managed to get out was exceedingly shy, meek, nervous.
But noting a lack of casual confidence on Ferreira's part isn't saying that she was a total non-entity on stage. When the set slowed down for her acoustic ballad, "Bad Dreams", the chatty crowd was smushed into silence by Ferreira's legitimately strong voice (she was aided by a rippling circle of totally just shush shaming for the chatty crowd elements). Absent the overwhelming mic effects and suffocating smoke of the harder-rocking numbers, it was clear that she has the ability to possess a stage and snap a fairly ADD room to attention. "Everything Is Embarrassing," came later. Like the new Solange EP it logically resembles, that song seems a little too tentative to really connect as pure pop (for me, anyway). But she was at ease inside it, fully present within her swirly light pyramid. It made you feel like you were present in the visual effects of a woozy, nostalgically designed music video as it happened in real time.
The set was short, maybe a little over a half an hour, with one song saved up for an expected encore. But a deep, varied body of work wasn't what was being displayed. The show made a counterintuitive case for the old-fashioned, myth-making capabilities of a major label development team in an Internet era that swings too far towards demystification. Even if it'll take a bit of polish to erase the feeling that Ferreira is playing dress-up right now, it's unlikely that another drastic reinvention will be necessary anytime soon. As a unified presentation, she's found something that works.