Sallie Ford pulls no punches on her new album Soul Sick. The Portland singer-songwriter has written and recorded a set of songs about struggling with insecurity, anxiety and depression. About feeling like an outsider and the urge to quit. About learning and overcoming and healing.
And Ford doesn't hide behind metaphors or mumbled lyrics. Song titles on Soul Sick include "Screw Up," "Loneliness is Power," "Failure," "Never Gonna Please" and "Unraveling." Within the first 30 seconds of the album's opening track, "Record on Repeat," Ford summarizes the aesthetic of her second solo effort following the breakup of her old band, the Sound Outside.
"Woke up feeling sour," she sings against a walk-in-the-park bass line and breezy electric guitar, "on the sweetest summer day."
The juxtaposition of dark lyrical themes and bright pop music is an age-old musical construct, but few have done it quite as consistently as Ford does on Soul Sick. She calls it a "happy accident," but more accurately, it seems to be a collision of Ford's natural musical proclivities — surf-tinged roots-pop-rock soaked in a midcentury vibe — with her newfound desire to write songs around a single theme.
"It's hard to feel inspired when ... you start to feel like you're a cliché if you just keep writing love songs, or songs about being annoyed by something," Ford says by phone. "I just wanted to explore being inspired again, [and] I guess it was kind of an intense thing that I went through that made me want to write the record anyway."
The obvious question here: What did Ford go through? The answer: Not any one particular thing.
"I haven't really figured it out myself," she says. "After I broke up with the band, I sort of realized I wanted to figure things out and dig deeper, and go through therapy and stuff like that. [But Soul Sick] is also about everything I deal with still — being a creative person who also gets depressed sometimes, or feels insecure about myself. I think those are relatable things."
Let's rewind for a minute: Ford moved from her hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, to Portland on an arts-driven whim just over a decade ago. Within a few years, she was writing songs and performing live with the Sound Outside, her retro-rock quartet that won the title of Portland's Best New Band in a 2011 survey of local scenesters by the alt-weekly paper Willamette Week.
The Sound Outside opened for the Avett Brothers, played the Late Show with David Letterman and made two well-received records before splitting up in late 2013. Ford formed a new band and released her first solo album, Slap Back, in 2014. Then she decided to slow down a bit and take her time on a follow-up, working with Portland producer (and M. Ward associate) Mike Coykendall.
The two bonded over their love of seminal American garage-rock band the Monks and decided to try to evoke a heavy '60s vibe — Farfisa organ sounds, jangling guitars, soulful "oohs" and "ahhs," etc. — on Soul Sick. Ford didn't shy away from the idea, despite the throwback nature of her previous work.
"I want to be inspired by the past, and that's all the kind of music I listen to. I think anything I do is going to sound like the past anyway," she says. "It's not like I'm making electronic music or whatever."
With a sonic idea in mind and in search of a theme, Ford found inspiration in Sufjan Stevens' devastatingly sad 2015 album Carrie & Lowell, a set of songs plainly about Stevens' childhood and his relationship with his deceased mother. Ford, 29, who had turned heads in the past with frank lyrics about sexuality, wanted to try the same direct style regarding a more difficult topic.
"It's pretty amazing to hear someone opening up that way and talking about their personal life in their music," she says. "It sort of opened this door for me, and it made me not even have to think about what I was writing. It just came right out."
The result is Ford's most mature record yet. "Get Out" is a grungy rocker that showcases her massive voice, which has drawn comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. The amazing "Romanticized Catastrophe" is built around a wordless vocal straight out of the doo-wop tradition. "Rapid Eyes" employs a gloriously warm horn section. And the groovy, ultra-percussive "Middle Child" sounds like a junkyard jam exclusively for kids who never quite felt like they fit in.
Ford counts herself among that group, for sure. But Soul Sick is not only excellent, it's evidence that she's closer than ever to finding her place in the world.
"I've had a lot of time to go through my life and think about what has made me into who I am now," she says. "It's weird feeling like a grown-up." ♦
Sallie Ford with Jenn Champion • Wed, Feb. 15 at 8 pm • $10/$12 day of • All-ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • thebartlettspokane.com • 747-2174