For as beautiful and eclectic as life can be, the problem with it much of the time comes down to a single question: what are we actually supposed to do here? At any given moment, we could strap on running shoes to race a mile or instead stuff our mouths with candy. In other words—Sierra Ferrell’s to be exact—“We’re thrown into this life, then one day we must die.” Human beings have been trying to make sense of this predicament forever. But one of the prettiest renditions of this philosophical excavation is Ferrell’s newest song, “In Dreams,” which is also one of the lead singles from her latest LP, Long Time Coming, out today (August 20).
“We never ask for either,” Ferrell tells American Songwriter, speaking about both life and death. “It’s something that’s up to somebody else or something else. It’s a juggernaut, but so is that great wide river pushing us along.”
Ferrell’s new album is woozy and wonky, jubilant and joyous, curious and cautious in how much it will give, while still wanting you to know, know, know what its central character wants always to tell. The opening track, “The Sea,” is vaudevillian, “At The End Of The Rainbow” is like a New Orleans jaunt, and “In Dreams” is the music that comes from the swinging doors of a saloon as patrons race in to catch a dance. Yet, it’s about death and, somehow, the persistence of the human spirit.
“Moving out, up, on, or whatever it is,” Ferrell says. “Just moving until something clicks. I’m also saying that no matter how hard life gets, no matter what the human experience is, life itself is grand and splendid and everlasting. We’re actually full of that, whatever that is, we’re just not everlasting.”
To write the new track, Ferrell extrapolated from a then-recent heartbreak. She remembers playing a song by the Kinks, “Waterloo Sunset,” which inspired her single’s sauntering melody. Knowing that a relationship just ended, Ferrell thought about endings, in general, and how they may just lead to beginnings.
“The shy boy I thought I was in love with at the time,” she says. “He left me. That tore me up and it inspired the agony there. It inspired me to move to a different state, too. I did the right thing by leaving. There wasn’t much planning for it all. I see now that the chorus was probably me giving my little traveling self a little pat on the back and a kick down the road.”
Ferrell, who was born in the small Charleston, West Virginia, has traveled all around the U.S., from the Emerald City (Seattle) to the Crescent City (New Orleans) to where she lives now, the Music City (Nashville). She began to enjoy the draw of music-making at a very young age while in her hometown. Expression came naturally, yet it’s also something she had to follow —even chase.
“I noticed at a very young age,” Ferrell says, “I could express a delivery of an emotion and make other people feel that way. Honestly, I got addicted to it, this little power that I had. People would laugh or cry or get upset over a story. I wanted to harness that. I don’t come from much, so this became my superpower. Later on, I found out that it was called ‘entertaining.’”
She would go to a little “dead-end” bar nearby with her mom and they’d hang out and Ferrell would sing Shania Twain songs. It was her practice space, her studio. She says there wouldn’t be many people there, so she could spread her proverbial wings.
Later, she met a group of poor, traveling musicians who had a catalog of standards in their metaphorical back pockets. Ferrell was enthralled. It inspired her, teaching her there was a life of song outside her hometown. These days in Nashville, she’s now begun to work with an all-star cast, from Grammy-winning producer Gary Paczosa, and musicians like Sarah Jarosz and Billy Strings. In the end, Ferrell says the music she makes is “a hybrid of all the human beings that I love.”
Photos by Alysse Gafkjen