Six years later, Sallie Ford can’t watch the Letterman clip anymore. “It just gets on my nerves,” the 29-year-old says of her 2011 audience with the lost king of late-night TV. It’s not that she’s embarrassed by that twanging, soulful performance with her old band, the Sound Outside. She’s just grown up, and her new album, Soul Sick (out February 10), is proof. With producer Mike Coykendall at the helm, Ford’s second solo effort stirs up an ambitious ode to ’50s jukebox rock—a sound that could very well land her another late-night slot in the changed world of 2017.
No biggie for Sallie Ford. She’s played with the Avett Brothers. The New Yorker compared her to Liz Phair and Buddy Holly. She toured Europe multiple times and then, in 2013, assembled a new, all-female backing band. After one album with that lineup, she’s gone solo with a rotating cast of musicians. Ford plans to keep it this way.
“It’s hard moving on, but I grow so much musically when I play with new people,” she says. “It’s just on to the next thing.”
The next thing: that’s pretty much Ford’s defining phrase. Born into a musical family—her dad used to play the bars in Asheville, North Carolina, and her mom, Sue Ford, released a world music album in 2003—she started with the piano, moved on to the violin, and picked up classical guitar, which morphed into the electric guitar, all before she turned 18. Twelve years since her first rock performance at an open mic in North Carolina and a decade since moving to Portland, she’s showcasing her most confessional work to date.
“I’m not talking about drinking / I’m not talking about doing drugs / I’m talking about the feeling when you feel like giving up,” she growls on Soul Sick’s opening track. Gone are her once-signature country motifs and vocal affectations. Gone too is the cocky persona she developed when she first started singing at house shows in Southeast Portland.
“I was this character. I was pretty much a kid when we started the Sound Outside,” she says. “I’m slowly peeling away layer after layer. Every album is more of me.” The result: a dark record teeming with anxiety, insecurity, and depression.
And yet Soul Sick is oddly uplifting. Ford’s menacing yowl glides over jangly guitar riffs in a transcendent collision of angst, whimsy, and rollicking melancholy—but you can still dance to it.
“The lyrics don’t really match the music,” she says. “I wanted it to be ’60s garage rock, surf rock, and doo wop.”
The album makes a brilliant and gutsy excursion to the fringes of rock and roll, and it’s unafraid of risk: not every song comes off, but the whole works as a field guide to survival in times absurd. When I ask what line Ford thinks encapsulates the album for her, she chooses one from Soul Sick’s fifth track, “Failure.”
“The feeling of failing is freeing,” she cites. Listen, and you’ll see what she means.
Sallie Ford plays Mississippi Studios on Saturday, Feburary 18.