Wherever Vinnie Ferra is in Brooklyn, New York right now – the city the indie folk singer-songwriter and Los Angeles native calls home – chances are he’s working on his craft, which happens to be music. Singing, songwriting, instrumentation and arrangement are second nature. He’s versed in production as much as collaboration, and with plenty of industry know-how (with stints at MTV, BuzzMedia and tour management), the guy knows his way around the studio and the music scene.
Ferra’s vocals are both haunting and resonant, constructing a powerful narrative arranged with his tools of the trade, a guitar and a piano. To date, he’s released a studio album (2010’s Man Vs. Machine), a handful of EPs, singles and written for television (ABC’s “Betrayal and “Resurrection”as well as MTV’s “Jersey Shore” and “Real World: Las Vegas”), showcasing his musical versatility. This year Ferra is set to release his newest album Arc En Ciel (produced and engineered by Danny Johnson) in which Ferra raised over $20K through Kickstarter. The man’s in motion. Oh, and he’s already working on another new album, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
We spoke at length with Ferra about Arc En Ciel, his songwriting and production, relocating from LA to NYC to LA and back again, and more.
How do you feel that you’ve grown from Man Vs. Machine?
Oh God, I feel like, at least drawing a self-comparison, from then to now…some people would say that my songwriting has gotten more complex. Some people would view that as a compliment…some people say it as a compliment and other people say it as the opposite. Some people would be, like, ‘Oh, the songs on Man Vs. Machine are so simple and much more viable, and some people will say that the new material is far more interesting lyrically and musically. I feel my weakness on the first album was definitely my lyrics, because that was what I was newest to. I was always a musician, but as a songwriter, lyrics were a newer thing. Not a few days new, but a few years new. Whereas, I’ve been playing music my whole life. I feel like I’ve greatly improved there. But then again, I’m tooting my own horn, so we’ll see what other people think, you know? [Laughing] But so far so good on the response.
Yeah, it sounds great. My girlfriend and I were listening to it the other day—
Oh, that’s awesome! Thanks, man!
Oh, of course. In following up with that, how do you feel that your songwriting has developed?
I think, in combination with what I touched on earlier – it got more complex, and there is this studio video that I released a few days after I released the video that shows a lot. I was talking with a few of the people I was working with in the studio, and the bass player said something that was one, a huge compliment, and two, I felt was pretty accurate. He said “Some of the songs have movements, like classical music”. There are certain songs that are three parts, like in one song, the attitude completely changes. Two minutes into the song it goes in an entirely new directions. Arrangement-wise and chord-wise. I feel like I’ve improved. I feel like I’m getting a stronger message across in my songs. Something heavier. Before, it was kinda out in the ope. If you listen to songs in the first record, ‘he’s writing a song about missing someone. That’s cool [Laughs].
Do you still feel the accessibility is still there?
Yeah, there is definitely songs where I feel like, they are accessible. There is that song that’s out there called ‘Destroying Me’, that’s gonna be on this record. Destroying Me is pretty straight-down-the-middle, and even though “God Forbid” didn’t have much of a huge, blown-up single response – I still feel that song has a catchy chorus, and things like that. It’s done in different ways. Instead of catching you right off the bad with a hook or a catchy part, I like to ease you into it – like musical foreplay [Laughing].
How are you feeling about the new album right now?
I’m so excited, especially because I’ve been working on it for so long. Man Vs. Machine came out in 2010, the EP I released in 2011 was a D.I.Y. recorded at my place. Funny, two of the songs that I recorded in 2011 are going to be on the record, but re-done. I moved out to New York two-and-a-half years ago – two years ago – to record the record and I ended up recording it a few different times, a few different ways. In the end going back to Los Angeles for a few months to record it there was kind of a joke between the group.
Were there any less pressures in LA as opposed to NY – or vice versa?
The pressures were less in Los Angeles, for a few reasons. My family is there, so I had the comfort of being able to live at home when I was recording. So not worrying about rent while working on the record was nice. Then also, I grew up there, and know so many musicians from growing up in town. Great studios, camera guys, and people who were just able to come together and help – either play on it, document it, produce, engineer it. So [being in LA] made it a lot easier – still difficult – but a lot easier than it would have been here [in New York].
What about the new record are you most excited about?
A lot more instruments. One of the things about the first record was, we did a lot of layering of the same instruments. One of my goals with the new record was I didn’t want to layer an instrument on a song more than once. I wanted it to be able to be reproduce live. No three guitars on one song or four violas, or anything like that. [Laughing] That’s a huge change, which I’m really excited about, because you can hear it. Everything was recorded very clearly. There’s a few songs where we have French horn and trombone and flute – which they’re all on the same song – and you can hear the person playing the French horn breathing in between their notes. The goal was to try to make it as intimate as possible. [Another] goal was also to not use any fake instruments. Every instrument on the record was recorded with a microphone. We live-tracked most of it, bass, drums, the keys. We even had the string player and myself playing live. There’s not a single MIDI instrument on the album. It’s all real, recorded instruments.
In terms of the writing, you started out more on the classical/instrumentation side and have evolved into playing more instruments. What’s the balance on your songwriting on a piano as to writing with a guitar? Do you begin with a melody, a chorus or with the lyrics? How organic is the process?
I always try to make it [organic]. Some will ask ‘Hey, we need a song that needs to sound like this, that could work for this commercial’…Yeah, I’m not your guy. Obviously, the money’s a lot nicer, but I know myself and know that I can’t write like that. So yeah, it has to be extremely organic, and what instrument I write on is dependent on what’s around. So, when I’m at home, the most accessible instrument to me is the guitar. My piano is a keyboard, and it’s weighted, but it’s more of a thing…to pick up headphones, to plug them in, and play the keys, and record a voice memo then listen later. Working on that requires a computer, and it’s a little more of a thing. But when I’m somewhere with a piano, recording at a studio or a friend’s house, I love writing on the piano because I don’t get to do it often. I play a lot of other people’s music on the piano. For example, “Destroying Me” although was written on ukulele originally – the melody was – [sings the melody] written on piano. I messed around with playing it on the piano, and then my buddy Scott [Manke] came over, and he started playing some guitar to the piano part, that was completely on a whim. I was just messing around with the lyrics and they ended up being the final ones. That was a completely raw, organic thing. “God Forbid”, which was on guitar was done similar. I was literally sitting where I was living at the time, playing and messing around all night. There were two different songs originally, and then I brought them together per someone else’s recommendation. So, it changes a lot, but the result is really organic.
You’ve worked in the music business for several years and in band management. What have you learned in those experiences that give you an advantage as a musician?
I’ve learned so much more about how to work with musicians. Being a hired musician and working with other bands, I’ve learned how to be a better bandleader in my own project. So that’s helped. I feel strongly that a lot of artists miss out on opportunities due to lack of knowledge or experience in certain fields. A lot of artists should be more educated on what it takes to be pushing their music. If they did I feel they would have a lot more respect for those working so hard to push their music for them.
You said in an interview from a couple years ago (Quit Mumbling, 3/2012) about favoring singles to draw buzz (around the artist) with the typical listener and the albums/EPs are for the fans. How do you feel about this now?
I still feel strongly that it’s a very single-based market, but love for the record in a physical form has come back in a big way. People are buying a lot of vinyl. Even if you’re not the right genre of music, there are places like Urban Outfitters that have made this vintage thing popular. A friend’s little sister, she’s fourteen years old, asked for a record player for Christmas. I was like, ‘What?…What?’ [Laughing] I remember being 15, 16, and stealing my dad’s record player out of his office so that I could use it. I didn’t know that continued on to the next generation. I feel that’s huge.
On my album a lot of the songs segue into each other. They go from song to song to song, so that presents a lot of complications [Laughs], it being a very single-based market. You could listen to song four on my album and the start of it it’s the end of song three, and then song 4 goes into song five. The songs really connect with each other, so it made sense to do. Stringing different songs together with a similar sounding transition. I do hope people buy it, listen to it on vinyl and get that experience from it.
Do you have a favorite song on the album – one that you’re most proud of?
There is a song, that’s going to be on this album called “Rue”. It was recorded on that three-song EP, it’s the only song that I’ve released that I’ve written with someone else. My buddy Scott, who plays piano on it, and I wrote it together a few years ago. Recording-wise – actually, all the way around – it’s turning out to be my favorite song on the record. It’s so minimal – it’s the one I was talking about with the French horn and the flute. I’m falling in love with my own song [Laughing], which is super-difficult to do, because sometimes you can so easily build up hatred for your own material as you mix it.
What is it about the L.A. scene that inspires you the most?
The Los Angeles scene?
I left L.A. because I was feeling very uninspired by the city, but the scene in Los Angeles is really strong. There’s so much live music going on, all the time. You can go out on a Monday night, at almost any music venue, and see free music. Which is awesome; you can’t say that about a lot of cities. Ten years ago, you definitely could not say that about Los Angeles. But now, everyone knows about these ten different clubs with live music every Monday. It’s all curated pretty well by radio stations, indie record stores, or something like that, and the bands, nine times out of ten, are pretty damn good. That’s awesome.
Is the East part of town still solid in terms of the club lineup?
Yeah, it’s like Silverlake Lounge, the Echo, what was once called Spaceland is now called Satellite…Bardot…The Hotel Cafe’…Los Globos…Echoplex…All those venues are places to go on Monday night because it’s free.
I wish a lot of other cities would take that into consideration.
Yeah, I feel like New York is less fortunate to have it because most of their venues that are large cap rooms. Also the weather plays a huge role because nobody really keeps residencies all year round like that, because they get too many duds when it snows or rains. There’s a guy that does this thing called ‘It’s A School Night’, he does it at Bardot in Los Angeles – his name is Chris Douridas – he started doing out in New York a little over two years ago. It’s kind of taken off. He does every Sunday at the Brooklyn Bowl. During CMJ, he does it at the Bowery Hotel, just to be more accessible to the industry people that are in town at the festival. That’s great. I’m going down Sunday to see a friend’s band play. They always have really good bands. As long as you RSVP, it’s free.
That’s awesome. What other new or upcoming projects do you have in the works?
Yeah, there’s this actress named Alex Essoe, you should look her up, she’s unbelievable. She sang on “Destroying Me” – she’s the guest singer, and on some of the songs for the new record. She has a solo project called Junior, and I’m actually going back to Los Angeles to produce a five, six song EP for her. So I’m super excited. I’m gonna play a lot of the instruments and she has a beautiful voice and beautiful songs. I’m working on that, and then, since this record has been so long in the making, I already have the next record done, in terms of writing. That’s also in the works, to see what the plan is for mid-next year to record another record, just because it’s more material in the pipeline. Especially, fingers crossed, if this record does decent. I’ll need something quick because the market is so fickle and changing. They’ll always want something new. ‘This record’s outdated’ – I just released it two months ago! That happens a lot.
Beware of the ‘songwriting just for fun’. That’s how I started. The next thing you know, you’re in a musical career [Laughing].