Feral Reflects on TikTok Fame, Mental Health, and New Music

Photo Credit: Annie Sampson

“Yeah, I’m the crazy ex-girlfriend still writing songs about her high school boyfriend,” says Santa Cruz’s Kelsey Ferrell, not without some exasperation. “But it’s not the only thing I am.” It’s been nearly a year since our last interview, and Ferrell—who goes by the moniker Feral when releasing music—is still trying to make this point, whether it be about her own discography, or about the microcosm we willingly enter whenever we put on an album. “All [songwriters] are writing about our past relationships and our exes and stuff,” she says. “Songs are, by nature, only a couple minutes to tell a whole story.”

That’s also the nature of TikTok, the almost ubiquitous social media app and Gen Z-favorite that has kept a significant amount of the world’s population glued to their phones in lieu of in-person entertainment. In the past year, the app has become an unexpected platform for indie artists and producers. Ferrell can now count herself among those ranks, as a recent post featuring her 2018 track “Fuck the Bourgeoisie” went viral a few days before our interview. Currently at 775k views, her sixty-second video has inspired thousands of comments that range from praise (“The fact that Spotify hasn’t recommended your song to me is honestly a crime” — from user lilveganricewrap) to scorn (“sounds like you were in it cuz he was wealthy” from user chickennnugget_) to…Marxist discourse? 

“I didn’t want to delete any of the conversations [in the comments] about power or privilege or mental health or like, Marxism,” she explains. “Even if they were not very flattering to me.” Predictably, some listeners took issue with the song’s content, a tongue-in-cheek examination of a relationship with an ex-boyfriend whose incredible wealth had a huge impact on Ferrell and how she views the world. “It was stressful,” she says. “I’m not gonna lie. I only had sixty seconds to tell this story. Obviously that’s not enough time to accurately describe an entire two year relationship and all the context behind it. I did my best, but you can’t tell everyone everything in sixty seconds.” And while some people are ready and waiting to judge someone for dredging up old memories for artistic fodder, for Ferrell, the memories aren’t so dusty. 

Recently, she received a PTSD diagnosis that completely reframed the way she had been moving through the world for the past four years, struggling with memories of her complicated relationship and the bullying she received from her peers in her final year of high school. “My strongest symptom is being trapped in a loop of memories that I don’t want to be reliving,” she says. “I was unable to maintain focus on school or maintain long conversations because I was just in my head.”

Just like songwriting can loosen some of the ties that bind us internally, this diagnosis gave Ferrell a name for her struggles — and, therefore, something solid to face. “It was validating and a relief to get the diagnosis,” she says, “because it was like, okay, that explains a lot. But it also was kind of scary…it’s not like there’s a blood test for it or a cure for it like other other kinds of health conditions… so it was kind of tough to be like, ‘Oh, I guess I just have to live with this.’”

If there is anything to take from Ferrell’s last four years, it’s that even if your brain and body are trapping you in the past, it doesn’t mean that your art has to be trapped, too. 

In 2020, Ferrell chose to focus on creating singles, a move that enabled her to take advantage of the never-ending scramble for content that comes with the territory of being a musician in the digital age. Another step forward was working with producer Jim Greer. While she loved working with producer and friend Ian Pillsbury on her first full-length LP, 2018’s Trauma Portfolio, this time, she was ready to step out of her comfort zone and work with someone she didn’t have a personal connection to. “I was scared that I didn’t have the chops to be successful in that environment,” she says. “[But] I kind of surprised myself.”

The first result of this collaboration, “Loser,” sees Ferrell at an impasse between her old and new self. “When I was in college, I got really seduced by the idea of sex positivity,” she says. “It was like, ‘you can just go out and you can sleep with whoever you want and it’s going to be so fun, and you’re going to have a great time!’ And I felt like that was kind of a deceiving narrative because it relied on the assumption that people that you sleep with have your best interests in mind.”

“Loser” is classic Feral, biting and self-deprecating in equal turns. The chorus—“no, you don’t matter that much/you’re not the only loser that I fucked”—was inspired by a former fling who found out she wrote a song about him and started telling people she was obsessed. But, of course, this isn’t the full story. “I drew from multiple experiences and multiple people that I had had encounters with,” she says. “[The song is] about pretty much everybody I’ve ever dated or hooked up with, from my first kiss when I was twelve to the last guy I saw before quarantine started.” Their caricatures figure into the video for “Loser” (directed and produced by Rob Ulitski from Pastel Wasteland), a spoof of the VHS personal ads some lonely singles may have used long before Ferrell herself was even born.

But “Loser” isn’t just a quasi-warning to potential partners. “I do kind of look at it also as sort of harsh reminder to myself—not in like a victim blame-y way—to just stop once in a while and be like, ‘Kelsey, what are you doing? What kind of choices are you making?’” she adds.

On Valentine’s Day, she released a new version of “Native Speaker,” a folk-y pop track ready to rise from the ashes of its previous iteration on her 2020 Bandcamp release, The Quarantine Demos. A whole minute shorter and about three instruments richer, “Native Speaker” feels like Feral at her best— and it’s a standout for her, too. “I think I really transformed it from its original version into something that hits harder and can hold attention better,” she explains. “I’m just really grateful that I got to go to the studio and create that one, because that felt like a life goal for me to put that song out there.”

While the song starts out sparse, not unlike the demo, Ferrell has largely done away with the doubled audio track, letting her voice shine alone against an acoustic guitar. “We’re living in a fascist state/but I still go on dinner dates,” the track begins, setting the tone somewhere between bombast and resignation. The song seems more measured and patient then the demo version, even though there is a lot more going on musically. This is especially clear in the chorus, accompanied by drums and some sparkling percussion that adds a needed touch of whimsy. “You are the one,” Ferrell sings. “And I’m missing the tongue/of my native speaker.”

While Ferrell tells me that people who get the song just really get it, there is a tenderness to the lyrics that makes it work even beyond the realm of lost first loves. Even though the cover—a collaboration between her two close friends, illustrator Ruhee Wadhwania and photographer Annie Sampson—makes the central innuendo clear, it could just as well be about missing the experience of talking to someone who once really understood you.

Next up for release (March 26th) is “Church,” the result of an unexpected period in Ferrell’s writing, where she delved into a lot of religious metaphor. While the framework for the song is about a last-hurrah trip she took with said ex, its greater themes were formed in the fires of adulthood and all the uncertainty that comes along with it. “I always was dismissive of religion as a teenager,” she explains. “When I got older and realized how hard life is, I was like, ‘I get it. I want help.’ It reflects that moment where I started to understand why people are religious and why people need a God and why people need to pray. I had reached those moments in my life where I had become so desperate for relief or so desperate for something to go right for me that I had no other options besides calling on a higher power.”

“I had faith in you but there’s no faith in me,” Ferrell sings in the song’s opening lines. Feral has always had a no-fuss sound, but “Church” feels like a different direction from both the snarl of “Loser” and the lament of “Native Speaker,” choosing instead to take a campground-chant cadence, complete with some gentle handclaps that you might need headphones to catch. Despite the fact that it shares a subject matter with “Speaker,” something about “Church” feels more final: “It’s hurts to feel/God ain’t real/You’re still my whole entire heart/and I’ll never be a believer but I’ll miss playing the part.”

If anything, that line feels like a small relief — playing the part can only work for so long, much like living with undiagnosed mental illness. Now that Ferrell has the latter at least, she’s taking it one day at a time. And, sometimes, those days aren’t too bad. There are merch designs in the works; another song going viral on TikTok; and “Fuck the Bourgeoisie” at more than 55k streams. Not too shabby for a month and change into 2021.

Even if she’s not a believer, Ferrel does know the universe works in mysterious ways. “The week before the TikTok went viral, I sat down and wrote a song about being lost and being 22 and not really knowing what I wanted out of life and wanting to be successful but not knowing how to achieve that,” she recalls. Afterward, Ferrell began writing prolifically, partly to provide content for her newfound audience, partly because she found the success inspiring, and most importantly, because it provided some much-needed validation.

“I kind of felt this feeling of, like, hey—maybe I could do this for real,” she says. “Maybe I do have the talent.”

Berkeley’s Brutally Honest Feral Approaches Personal Trauma with Unyielding Precision

Photo by Rachel Huang

Photo by Rachel Huang
Photo Credit: Rachel Huang

“Because I’m really honest, I get really honest reactions from the audience,” says Kelsey Ferrell, who makes music as the Berkeley/Santa Cruz-based Feral. Her music is, if anything, brutally honest. Feral’s most recent release, a four-song collection of demos recorded on a earbud microphone, slaps us with this unforgettable line halfway through the first song, “Native Speaker”: “I know I am a total mess/and my songs don’t pass the Bechdel test.”

For someone who was involved quite closely with social justice both personally and professionally throughout her undergrad career at UC Berkeley (she recently graduated), you would think such an admission would more likely be held hostage in some unmarked folder in GarageBand on Ferrell’s laptop as opposed to being broadcasted to the world on Bandcamp. But this, frankly, never seemed like a consideration for Feral, who appreciates above all how her openness can potentially manifest as a balm for others. “I’ve had people come up to me after I’ve performed [a song] and said, ‘wow, that really meant a lot to me,’” she explains. “And that kind of moment of having someone connect to my music — it’s worth it to me. It makes it worth the vulnerability on my side.”

And the music is better for it. It can be difficult to rehash traumatic experiences to a trusted friend, let alone an audience looking for levity (Ferrell does stand-up comedy as well) but she seems to have settled in the knowledge that the only way out is through. One such foray into the weeds for Ferrell is her reckoning with a past relationship that had a huge impact on her. “I have a few other songs that are maybe about a fling here and there, but he is the main person I write about,” she says. “There’s just so many interesting elements to our relationship that made it not a normal relationship and not a normal breakup. So it just it has a wealth of metaphors and storytelling [to pull from].”

Said ex-partner makes an appearance in three out of the four songs on “Quarantine Demos,” in ways both tragic and sweet. “Native Speaker” is at once both forlorn and determined in its assertions as Ferrell laments the loss of the person who helped her discover and define herself as a sexual partner: “Cause you and I wrote our language of love together/and you are the one/and I’m missing the tongue/of my native speaker,” she sings.

Considering that first times and first loves are often dismissed for their sloppy and adolescent bent, it’s refreshing to hear someone admit that this was not be-all-end-all of their experience, even as those feelings resurface from time to time. Furthermore, the expectation that suffering is inherent to our first forays into sex — especially for women — is an exhausting trap that feels good to shake off, even if tinged with loss. “Forlorn and determined” is also, incidentally, not a bad way to describe Ferrell’s voice, which is very strong, switching with ease from a tongue-in-cheek indie-pop delivery to some arresting ethereality.

The destructive power that one individual can hold over you is a predominant theme in Demos, as well as Ferrell’s 2018 LP debut, Trauma Portfolio, which also details the complexities of that formative relationship. “I was dating the son of a billionaire,” she explains, “and I was growing increasingly uncomfortable with that relationship and the ways it made me complicit in oppression… it just brought in this huge power dynamic to our relationship. Even though he didn’t necessarily abuse that power or want to hold power over me, he just intrinsically did.”

Despite her discomfort with dating “the 1% of the 1%,” Ferrell is eager to turn the spotlight back on herself, noting, as she puts it, her own hypocrisy. “I think that a lot of my earlier songs were casting the blame here and casting the blame there and not really looking at myself and how I might have been a part of the problem,” she says. The penultimate track of Demos, “Titanic,” is a great example of how far she’s come: “I am so broken that I call upon God,” she admits in the chorus. “I do not believe but I want to be wrong/You’re my delusion, my sad fantasy/I cannot hold you, but you’re all that I see.” It is both condemnation and consternation at once, the three-minute version of those moments where you look at yourself in the mirror and ask: How could you do this to me? But more importantly — how could I do this to me?

Trauma Portfolio is slim at nine tracks but feels much more substantial despite its focus on a central subject matter. Back on the subject of personal responsibility, Ferrell notes the yin and yang of her album, also known as tracks seven and eight. The former, “Fuck the Bourgeoisie,” is both utter fun and utter horror, as Ferrell’s self-deprecating denouncement at the end of the chorus (“I did, I did!”) lets us know on no uncertain terms the depth of the mire she was at the time of the song’s germination, if not its final cut. Rectifying your judgement of others with your own bullshit is, at the very least, a Herculean task, one which she throws herself into with resigned grace in the “Supertragic,” which follows. It’s a bit of a self-flagellation exercise, where every insult Ferrell parrots back in the chorus (“also rich, hypocrite/vendetta vixen, biased bitch”) sounds like less of a kiss-off and more of a panicked question to no one. Is it true?

The true kiss-off comes in “Soup,” a pissed-off anthem with some pretty relatable grievances – if some very unusual circumstances – that brought them about. The song details Ferrell’s experience as a high school senior after she was labeled a snitch for attempting to get the authorities involved in an underage student’s relationship with an older man. “I was bullied and shunned and all of these terrible things that entire year… I basically was thrown under the bus by these adults who were supposed to protect me,” she explains. “And something that [the other kids] did was they came to my boyfriend’s house and they, like, body slammed him with cans of soup.” Anyone who has found themselves at the crosshairs of the mob will find something to relate to here, whether it be some very justified calls outs of the cops and school administration or simply this salient line: “Fuck the apologists who think it’s okay/And love to all of my snitches and bitches who stand up for the same.”

The events chronicled in “Soup” were the beginning of the end for Ferrell’s relationship, as her rapidly-deteriorating social standing led to an increased reliance on her then-partner, making their later breakup all the more devastating. However, it did propel her into a new stage of her artistic work that served as the backbone for Trauma Portfolio’s completion. After she joined a student-run songwriting club at UC Berkeley, she made a new rule for herself: “I was only allowed to play my own music. And that really, really encouraged me to write a ton.”

Ferrell recorded Trauma Portfolio in Santa Cruz, the same place where — well, a lot of shit had gone down. Recording was a bright spot when she had to return home for the summer, and that positive first experience working on such a substantive project with producer and instrumentalist Ian Pillsbury left her itching for more, even as quarantine currently keeps her in demo-land.

But here’s the reality — demo or not, good lyrics and instincts stand out. And so does intention. Ferrell is actively branching out in subject matter — see “Cameron” on Demos for a bittersweet history lesson on her relationship with a childhood friend — and self-awareness. “I’m learning as I get older to try to tell a more complete story,” she says. “As honest as I am about what other people have done to me, I’m trying to learn how to be honest about what I have done to others as well.”