UC Berkeley student Kelsey Ferrell speaks on new album, social justice

Kavya Narendra Babu/Staff

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Name: Kelsey Ferrell. Her stage name, fittingly, is Feral.

Age: 20

Hometown: Santa Cruz

Current Residence: Berkeley

Who she’s listening to: Recently, a lot of Camp Cope, an Australian rock band. Also Mitski, Girlpool, SWMRS and Destroy Boys.

Who she is: A UC Berkeley junior juggling her passions for music and social justice, sometimes even intertwining the two. This past summer, she recorded her first album, Trauma Portfolio, which she released in October.

Her voice: “I used to joke that my genre was TMI because it is very personal music,” Ferrell tells me after I ask how she would categorize her music — frankly, I am not sure an existing genre could properly describe it. Ferrell speaks to me with an unabashed passion, fiddling with her tangled earbuds; not even her pink, heart-shaped sunglasses can hide the glint in her eyes as she tells me about her music.

In the span of her nine-song album, Ferrell demonstrates an impressive range, going from punk-rock songs to more chill, laid-back tracks. She admires artists who have no fears of being held to the standards of a certain genre.

“I’m hugely influenced by Mitski. I like that she can create an album where each song sounds so different,” Ferrell says. “I think a lot of artists end up being boxed into a genre, and that’s how they lose fans.”

Taking influence from the punk and riot grrrl genres, Ferrell’s songs are edgier than the average radio songs, and she says she is in no rush to play them for her parents at their next family gathering.

“I had a friend who said my music was like post-Disney; it has that Aly & AJ vibe, talking about things they probably wouldn’t have talked about on the Disney station,” Ferrell says.

Making this album was a long time coming for Ferrell: “I can’t really remember a time where I wasn’t singing all of the time. In preschool, instead of playing with the other kids, I would just sing songs to myself,” she says. And despite having always written songs, she says she was hesitant to call herself a songwriter.

“You better be really good at it before you call yourself that — there’s this weird idea that you have to be extremely talented in order to earn that title,” Ferrell says.

When she joined the campus group Songwriting at Berkeley, she found a community that was working toward similar goals and pushed her to write more songs until eventually, she had enough to make an album.

“I had my high school relationship end, so it was the perfect fuel for all of that creativity,” Ferrell says. She channelled everything — her rage, heartbreak, frustrations and fears — into these songs and felt ready to make a recording: “From June to August, I would just go to the studio once a week and record. It was really fun seeing it all come together.”

Her album is “100 percent inspired by true events,” she says. “I just have a commitment to being really honest.”

From a breakup with the son of a billionaire to overall disgust with the patriarchy, her album oozes truth, candidly capturing her feelings and at times being relentlessly honest, which she has no qualms about.

“I started writing ‘Fuck the Bourgeoisie’ in high school when I was dating this guy,” Ferrell says. “He heard it and thought it was hilarious, which is why I don’t feel too guilty about it.”

Her songs are not superficial; they do not just sound good and have nothing to say — the songs provide commentary on wealth, power, inequality and Ferrell’s experience as a woman. Ferrell says, “Everyone’s situation is unique, but themes are universal,” which is why she says her songs seem to resonate with people. Knowing that these issues are not easy for everyone to hear, she sometimes gets nervous performing, hoping that “a bunch of miniature Ben Shapiros don’t try to fight me.”

As time is running out for our interview, I am still curious as to what her future holds, so I ask about it. Silence follows for a brief moment, and then she says, “I am still trying to figure that one out.”

As a development studies major, social justice is extremely significant to Ferrell: “I have a lot of dreams, and I’m hoping that at least one of them will come true.”

Ferrell tells me that in making this album, she learned she is capable of reaching her goals, which was a powerful realization for her. She discovered that her music was not just background noise, but something that left a mark on people — enough of a mark for them to even recite her lyrics at shows.  

Still, for Ferrell, music is just the first step: “Commentary is important, but I want to follow up with actual action,” she says about her interest in social justice. “I have never really met anybody that has done both, but maybe I can be the first.”

Contact Julia Mears at [email protected].