Sky Ferreira
© Gus Stewart/WireImage

Why do musicians like Sky Ferreira go AWOL?

With US pop disruptor Sky Ferreira set to drop her long-awaited second album, we ask why so many high-riding artists, from Jai Paul to D'Angelo, purposefully go off the radar?
By April Clare Welsh
9 min readPublished on
In the years 2010 and 2012, enigmatic UK producer Jai Paul dropped two groundbreaking singles: the bittersweet BTSTU (edit), which featured production from his brother, Anup 'A.K.' Paul, and went on to be sampled by both Beyoncé and Drake, plus the warped collage-jam, Jasmine (demo). Their grainy subversion of pristine pop production tropes heralded an exciting new dawn in electronic pop, with fans and critics pinning hopes on Paul’s paradigm-shifting potential. After signing to one of the UK’s most prestigious labels, XL Recordings, in 2010, he was poised for success.
But in 2013, what was widely believed to be Paul’s (much-delayed) debut album was illegally uploaded to Bandcamp and he subsequently went very, very quiet. Paul confirmed the leak via Twitter at the time, but didn’t release a statement until years later. Because he had only given one proper press interview, to Dazed in 2011, and refrained from using social media, Jai Paul’s presence suddenly felt a little like a spectral phenomenon. Less than a year after Jasmine’s official release, he more or less vanished.
But the world wasn’t going to let Jai Paul slip away that easily. His silence unwittingly created a sprawling universe of internet myth-making. The Facebook group Where is Jai Paul? sustained the enigma, with members sharing breadcrumb trails and conspiracy theories about Paul’s whereabouts. During this time, he formed a collective with his brother, the Paul Institute, and they put out singles by a number of artists including London’s Fabiana Palladino. Then, in June this year, it finally happened: Jai Paul came back.
Two surprise new singles, Do You Love Her Now and He, justified the wait. They're built on low-key, future-facing underwater junk-funk foundations and nod to one of Paul’s heroes, D’Angelo. The 'R&B Jesus'’s 14-year vanishing act was, long before Jai Paul's own disappearance, the stuff of gossip, rumour and legend – until 2014, when he resurfaced with his acclaimed third album, Black Messiah.
I'd been denied the opportunity to finish my work and share it in its best possible form
Jai Paul
Jai Paul’s 2019 singles were christened with the launch of a new website, which offered a full download of the previously-leaked, 16-track collection for a pay-what-you-want price. And in an accompanying statement, Paul spoke frankly about what happened in 2013.
“There was a lot going through my mind, but the hardest thing to grasp was that I'd been denied the opportunity to finish my work and share it in its best possible form,” he wrote. “I believe it's important for artists as creators to have some control over the way in which their work is presented, at a time that they consider it complete and ready.”
Those sentiments could just as easily be from the mouth of many other mysterious artists who've had control wrestled away from them, including US pop disruptor Sky Ferreira. Earlier this year, six years after the arrival of her career-starting debut, Ferreira revealed that a brand-new single was on its way.
Like Jai Paul, Ferreira had the world at her feet in 2013: her Night Time, My Time LP made her one of the most sought-after and credible major-label pop stars on the planet. Then she quietly slipped away.
“It’s been a really long/difficult (some of it beautiful) 6 years & I’m...back?”, she wrote on Instagram in March this year, less than 24 hours before unveiling her smoky, strings-laden new single, Downhill Lullaby. Ferreira worked on the track with Twin Peaks music supervisor Dean Hurley, whose production infuses the song with a gloomy gothic mist reminiscent of that show’s aesthetic.
Downhill Lullaby features strings by Danish violinist Nils Gröndahl and offers the first glimpse of Ferreira’s hotly-anticipated second album, Masochism. Anyone familiar with the incandescent electro-pop of 2013’s spiky Night Time, My Time might proffer that this new song represents a solid break from the past. No one is sure what direction the album will go, but Downhill Lullaby at least reaffirms Ferreira’s status as a pop outsider and reminds us that she's in control of her own narrative.
Originally announced in the spring of 2015, Ferreira’s second album has been subjected to numerous delays over the years. She spoke out about the process in 2016, explaining how she refused to compromise herself and “put out something that isn’t honest”. She addressed the hold-up again the following year, revealing a tug-of-war with the powers that be. “I was genuinely stuck at the mercy of other people before (for almost years at this point). No matter how hard I tried, it was beyond me.”
My silence should not be confused for negligence
Sky Ferreira
But the multi-talented star has hardly been inactive since the release of Night Time, My Time six years ago. She’s dived headfirst into acting, scoring reputable roles in Twin Peaks, Baby Driver and Lords Of Chaos, while also releasing a string of covers, including a sultry version of the Commodores’ Easy and collaborating with Charli XCX on the Lotus IV and A.G. Cook-produced stomper, Cross You Out.
"I would just like to clarify for some: My silence should not be confused for negligence,” she said last year. “I deeply care and put everything I have into my music. Including all of my earnings. I won't put out something that I don't stand by or the bare minimum.”
Even as a major label artist, Ferreira has fought to do things her way, paying for her own studio sessions when Capitol refused and rarely granting interviews, unless she has new music to discuss. New York artist Brian DeGraw, whose own band Gang Gang Dance backed away from the spotlight after three universally acclaimed albums, says he’s “impressed” by Ferreira’s willingness to self-direct and give herself the time she needs.
“It’s very commendable to see someone who's a prime candidate for getting caught up in all the hyper-speed whirlwinds of the current state of the music industry to just lean back and actually consider the integrity and approach, rather than just repeating themselves or cashing in on being a target for ‘success.’”
DeGraw's experimental psychedelic troupe dropped what was widely considered to be one of the best albums of 2011 in Eye Contact, before going AWOL for seven years.
“There was no real definitive moment of making the decision to pause,” explains DeGraw. “It was more of a slow ramping down due to the effects of too much touring, too much monotonous repetition, and a feeling that there was an absence of growth which was causing a tension between some of us… You can work through it to a certain extent, but sometimes that absence is the stronger force and that’s when it becomes necessary to take a break.”
It takes a long time to dust everything off and find a good flow again
Brian DeGraw
The band returned in 2018 with a new LP, Kazuashita. Featuring recordings from the Standing Rock protest, the group had tuned into the altered socio-political landscape for fresh inspiration. But getting back in the saddle still wasn’t easy.
“It takes a long time to dust everything off and find a good flow again… Some of us were going through some very difficult personal shifts during our time apart and when we started recording, those wounds weren’t fully healed by any means,” recalls DeGraw. “I think our hope was that the record would act as a bandage to sort of disinfect and push us through the final stages of our respective healing. It did that to a certain extent, but it also did not.”
DeGraw says that the break helped the band to push their sound into new places, but that the end product wasn’t necessarily better or worse than they had envisioned. “It forced us into a place that was not our usual working process, which I found to be an exciting challenge; extremely difficult and frustrating, but exciting, nonetheless. I really dislike the idea of pigeonholing oneself by always using the same methods of working and I felt that in the past we were falling into that trap a bit, so this was a bittersweet escape from that.”
Artists sometimes need to find balance between their personal lives and careers, and slipping off the radar can help them achieve this. Jon Bills of The Bills Agency has worked in the music industry for nearly two decades and in that time has done press for many big-name artists who've taken time out to start families or find some personal equilibrium, including Lily Allen.
“When this is the case, it’s not like an office job where you take a few months off for maternity leave,” he offers. “The creative process of writing new music varies for everyone, but this can take years in itself – so if you add that time to the time spent caring for a newborn baby or whatever, it can result in a lengthy gap between albums and tours.”
It took a long time for me to build up the songs into something I was proud of
Annie Hart
Annie Hart, who was a member of David Lynch's favourite synth-pop trio Au Revoir Simone for 15 years, found herself entering a particularly creative period after the group organically disbanded: “I started my solo project when I was pregnant, and sometimes worked through editing it while nursing a baby, which, as I am sure you can imagine, slows the process down glacially. It took a long time for me to build up the songs into something I was proud of. I personally think the time off from the group resulted in better work.”
When an artist decides to slip away quietly (or go out with a bang), there are a multitude of reasons influencing that need to step away, from personal issues and life-changing milestones, to label problems and financial strife. But in a world of instant gratification, where memories are short, artists are under pressure to be more prolific and waiting six years to release an album can seem old fashioned.
But for many musicians, like platinum-selling one-of-a-kind D’Angelo, who has been plagued by his own personal struggles, working slowly to realise their vision is the only way. In fact, maybe we all need to slow down a little and reflect on what's important. After all, good things come to those who wait.
D'Angelo speaks at the Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York in Brooklyn, New York.
D'Angelo is back, back, back