Ferron is a trailblazing lesbian folk singer-songwriter who crafts songs in the vein of Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Janis Ian. One critic called her “the Johnny Cash of lesbian folk-singing.” Her work has a strong feminist perspective and speaks to the concerns of the women’s movement. She has influenced such contemporary musicians as the Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin, Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco.
Early Years and Career
Born of Cree, Ojibwa and French Canadian ancestry, and raised in Richmond, British Columbia, Ferron taught herself guitar and began writing songs in her teens. Following a troubled childhood, she ran away from home at 15 and worked for a time in factory and manual-labour jobs.
She made her public debut in 1975 in Vancouver at a benefit for the Women's Press Gang. She then recorded the LPs Ferron (1977) and Ferron Backed Up (1978) in her basement, and released them through her own record label, Lucy. She subsequently performed in local coffeehouses and clubs before moving on to the national folk circuit and making her US debut at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. She performed subsequently at various folk music festivals, including those in Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg.
Her third album, Testimony (1980), was released in the US by Philo and reissued in Canada by Stony Plain. The title track — originally written for the National Film Board's short documentary This Film is about Rape (1979) — became a feminist anthem in the early 1980s. Ferron capitalized on this success by touring extensively through the US, where Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega and Ani DiFranco opened concerts for her.
Shadow on a Dime (1984, issued in the US by Redwood) was widely acclaimed and received a four-star review from Rolling Stone magazine, which called the album “a thing of beauty” and referred to Ferron as a “culture hero.” After receiving a Canada Council grant in 1985, Ferron took a sabbatical from music and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, before returning to recording and touring with Phantom Center (1990), which features a young Tori Amos on background vocals. The live album Not a Still Life (1992), recorded at San Francisco’s legendary Great American Music Hall, was released on Ferron’s Cherrywood Station label and includes numerous songs from previous albums.
Also in 1992, Ferron released her only instrumental album, Resting with the Question. Her album Driver (1994) earned widespread critical acclaim and a Juno Award nomination for Best Roots and Traditional Album. It was also included in lists of top 10 albums of the year by both the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Following that success, she signed with Warner Bros. Records, which reissued Driver and a remixed version of Phantom Center before releasing her ninth album, Still Riot, in 1996. Also that year, Ferron received an Outmusic Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards.
Ferron followed her sole major label foray with Inside Out: The IMA Sessions (1998), an album of 1960s and 1970s pop song covers that she recorded as a benefit for the Institute for the Musical Arts in Massachusetts, where she has taught and served on the advisory board. In 2002 she appeared in Radical Harmonies (2002), a documentary about women’s music, and released the double album Impressionistic. This was followed by Turning into Beautiful (2005) and
Boulder (2008), which features previously released material, as well as collaborations with Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls, Samantha Parton of the Be Good Tanyas and Ani DiFranco.
The feature documentary Ferron: girl on a road (2009) was followed in 2012 by the album Girl on a Road (2012), which Ferron recorded live at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. Also in 2012, she headlined the Frostbite Music Festival in Whitehorse, Yukon. In 2013, she released the hour-long documentary Thunder and the companion album Lighten-ing as a two-disc set.
A multi-disciplinary artist, Ferron leads writing workshops for women, and has also published poetry and created handmade textile art. A collection of her music and work is held at Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. She lives in Three Rivers, Michigan, where she heads an artist retreat called The Fen Peace and Poetry Camp for Women.
Characteristic Style and Tributes
Ferron’s songs are typically hopeful, soulful, introspective and often autobiographical. One of her signature songs, “Girl on a Road,” recounts her experience of leaving home at age 15 with money she saved from working in a fish cannery. Her other best-known song, “Testimony,” has been recorded by Holly Near, Ginni Clemens, and Sweet Honey in the Rock, and was published in a 1985 issue of Sing Out!.
Other notable Ferron songs include “Misty Mountain,” “Ain't Life a Brook,” “Shadow on a Dime” and “It Won't Take Long.” Cathy Fink, Ronnie Gilbert and James Keelaghan have also recorded Ferron songs, as has Lucie Blue Tremblay, who translated “Ain't Life a Brook” into French as “Nos belles années.”
Ferron’s vocal style — which she has described as “a wave that's close to the Earth; I want it to be restful and hopeful” — has often been compared to Bob Dylan’s. Writing of Shadow on a Dime, the Globe and Mail’s Liam Lacey characterized Ferron's voice as “warm, raspy and almost masculine in timbre,” and described the album as “rich in acoustic textures and a compelling palette of moods: salty, mysterious and wry, with memorable melodies and lyrics studded with acute and unusual insights about love and freedom... If one thing distinguishes Ferron's songs, it's their expression of a tenacious need for personal freedom.”