There is no limit for rising US pop singer Sky Ferreira

Singer Sky Ferreira got her first big break recently with the online success of her single Everything is Embarrassing, but the 20-year-old American remains a work in progress, writes Nick Levine.

Sky Ferreira at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. Dustin Finkelstein / Getty Images for SXSW
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Sky Ferreira is a hot property right now. The native of Los Angeles is about to release one of the year's best pop singles, Everything is Embarrassing, a song that got the blogs buzzing when it appeared online last August. It sounds like an unpolished Madonna offcut from the early 1980s, incredibly catchy but lo-fi and echoey, and the lyrics capture all the frustration of a once promising relationship that won't work out. "Could have been my anything, now everything's embarrassing," 20-year-old Sky sighs on the chorus.

Meanwhile, having just performed at the prestigious South By Southwest music festival in Texas, Sky is now touring the US on a double bill with indie R&B artist How to Dress Well. She's also the hip, pouting face of a new "festival collection" by international fashion chain Forever 21. Sky Ferreira has all the right credentials to be your new favourite pop star, but what makes her really interesting is the knock-backs she's overcome to get to this stage.

Sky first emerged back in 2010, when her record label EMI tried to market her as the new Britney Spears. However, Sky's debut single One stalled at number 64 on the UK singles chart and a song called Obsession that was supposed to make her a star in the US failed to take off. At the age of 18, Sky already looked like a flop.

Things went wrong, Sky tells me before a recent show in London, long before those singles even came out. "You know, I was a teenager and I didn't really know what I was doing," she admits candidly. "I had a record deal at 16 and obviously that was awesome, but it didn't make sense, it didn't fit, and I realised this early on."

Sky had received offers from several labels after posting a batch of homemade demos on MySpace and becoming the protégé of Bloodshy & Avant, a successful Swedish songwriting duo. She chose EMI because they promised her greater creative freedom, but once the deal was done, the label's philosophy seemed to change.

"They wanted to mould me into something else behind my back. I would send them these demos I was making, and they would be like 'no, no, no'. Everything I wanted to do, everyone I wanted to work with, they'd just say no to," Sky recalls.

Sky wanted to make her debut album with Paul Epworth, a producer she'd been working with before she got signed, but EMI had other ideas.

"Every person who was either big at the time or had hype around them, they wanted to shove me in the studio with them. There was nothing cohesive about it and I had no personal attachment to anything. I'd go into this room with strangers for two days and we'd have to leave with a song or else they'd get angry because they were paying for the studio time."

EMI also tried to give Sky so-called "media training". It's a hoop most wannabe pop stars signed to a major label will jump through, but the process brought out Sky's rebellious streak.

"They tried to tell me how to behave but they couldn't. I just wanted to do, like, the complete opposite of whatever they said. They'd put me in an interview and I'd be a complete brat," Sky recalls. Her bloody-mindedness reached its peak during the promo campaign for Obsession, when Sky took an unusual approach to plugging her single: she told journalists that she didn't like the song very much.

"I got manipulated into recording Obsession because I didn't know any better," Sky says today. "You know, I can see it's a great pop song but it really wasn't for me. To be honest though, I don't regret it. It's annoying that I still have to deal with it now, but so what if I have a past? I learned from it and I'm glad I made my mistakes when I was young."

Given her lack of success and increasingly strained relations with EMI, it was no surprise when Sky's debut album got shelved. For a while, she found herself in a catch-22 situation: the record execs wouldn't let her do what she wanted, but she refused to do anything they asked of her. In March 2011, Sky managed to put out As If!, a five-track EP, but promotion was minimal and it failed to sell.

Sky stuck it out, though, and her patience paid off. When EMI was sold, the team around her changed and suddenly she wasn't restricted by people who didn't seem to understand her. However, the real turning point came last summer when she was sent a demo by Dev Hynes, the songwriter-producer who's recently helped to revive the career of Beyoncé's sister Solange.

Sky was already in the studio with her producer Ariel Reichstadt, so after changing a few chords and lyrics, she laid down a vocal and passed on the demo to her publicist for feedback.

Without revealing who was singing on it, Sky's publicist sent the demo to influential music website Pitchfork and it became an instant blog hit. That demo was Everything is Embarrassing and even now, Sky seems surprised by its popularity. "You know, I'm so used to nothing ever happening. I've gotten so used to putting something out and nobody even caring about it. So when this happened, I was like, 'Wait, what?'. This song has really turned things around for me. I was not planning on that when I made it."

Sky capitalised on her unexpected comeback by releasing a US-only EP at the end of October. It's a musical grab-bag reflecting the fact she's still experimenting with different genres: alongside Everything Is Embarrassing, there's the fizzy synth-pop of Lost in My Bedroom and a grungier number called Red Lips, which was co-written by Garbage's Shirley Manson. Most surprising, though, are a couple of folky ballads, Ghost and Sad Dream. During Sky's recent live shows in London, these stripped-down tunes drew the biggest cheers.

However, Sky is still a relatively inexperienced live performer and nearly slipped up at one of those London shows. "I've never had an encore in my life, so when the crowd cheered for one at the end, I didn't really have a song prepared. Luckily [my guitarist] Miles knew this one old song of mine, or else … I dunno! I would have had to sneak off," she laughs.

Sky's plan now is to play live as much as possible and finally release her debut album - as she notes wryly, it's been nearly five years in the making. The album has no official title yet, but she's finished recording all the songs and they're in the process of being mixed. Everything Is Embarrassing, Sad Dream and Ghost will definitely feature, but many of the other songs have a different sound. They're a poppy combination of rock guitars and electronic sounds, with Blondie an obvious touchstone.

At this stage, Sky Ferreira is clearly still a work in progress, but she has some strong tunes, a great look and plenty of pluck. Long-term pop careers have been built on a lot less.

Nick Levine is a regular contributor to The Review.