COVID-19 ended live shows, diminished studio sessions and new album releases, put countless crew members on hiatus and it ruthlessly harmed one of the things so many of us love. No band nor venue was spared. But through it all, and many other life challenges over the years, Monique Powell, the radiant, charismatic, strong, and always effervescent leader of Save Ferris continues to bring one love to the world with her style of upbeat ska music.
Walking into House of Blues in Anaheim, I passed a long line of fans buzzing with excitement for the show to come. Many of them wearing their favorite Save Ferris gear, some dressed like Monique, and there were even a few Rude Boys in the mix. The energy outside was palpable. I was equally excited as a longtime fan of Save Ferris, and I was also equally nervous to meet Monique as I adored her as a performer and admired her as an amazing human. As I entered the dressing room backstage before the show and met Monique for the first time, I was struck by her immediate kindness and genuine spirit as she and her team welcomed me. Monique exuded incredible strength and a take no prisoners attitude balanced by an undeniable humble and loving nature. I told her about the huge crowd outside and their collective excitement for the night. She expressed joy and thankfulness. “Oh, that’s great! I’m really happy to hear that and I’m really excited for tonight. That really makes me happy. With COVID we haven’t been able to do much. It’s changed the industry and even still today, it’s been tough bringing live music back. So many venues closed, and it’s been a difficult time for my people. The small venues have struggled a lot.” She was thrilled to be back in Orange County and playing a hometown show again.
Monique’s ska stylings have their roots in the historic Orange County punk scene. She grew up on 80s punk and alternative music, listening to 106.7 KROQ in LA and credits her older sister for introducing her to the artists that would shape her future and eventually become her friends. “When I was a kid, she was hanging out with all her friends and they were punkers and ska kids, and new ro and goth kids. She hung out with the coolest kids and listened to the best music. She listened to KROQ and was always going to punk shows, so I would listen to her records and fell in love with the music. When my sister moved away overseas when I was eight, I got her record collection, and that’s how it all started.” While Monique’s love for punk and alternative music included bands like Devo and the Go-Go’s, she cites hardcore Orange County punk bands like Agent Orange and The Adolescents as the ones she really loved and became passionate about. Monique credits the punk community for much of her life and success. She reminisced about her late friend, the punk icon, Steve Soto. “It’s funny you bring up punk, I was just talking about Steve Soto and the Doll Hut. I used to go to the Doll Hut all the time and that’s where I met Steve. He used to work the door there, and he and I became really good friends for over 20 years. It’s a really great community that I love. I really miss Steve. Rest in peace Steve.”
Ironically, while Monique loved punk and alternative music, even from a very young age, it was not always her musical muse. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Monique’s artistic background and upbringing were very different than the hard driving ska stylings she is so well known for. “When I was very small, I had the dream of becoming a ballerina and I studied dance for a number of years. I was getting sprained ankles all the time and eventually my ballet teacher said to me ‘you can’t be on pointe anymore.’ And you know when you’re a little girl, getting on pointe was everything and when I was told I couldn’t be on pointe anymore because I was growing too fast and I was too tall, I was crushed. I was the tallest girl in my school, and I was heartbroken. Monique credits her dad, whom she was incredibly close to, with encouraging her to sing and perform. “My dad used to sing to my sister, my mom, and I, but he wouldn’t sing for anyone else because he was very shy, but he had a beautiful voice. So, I thought ‘maybe I’ll try singing’ and I auditioned for the talent show at my elementary school, and I got one line to sing! My parents walked up to my teacher at the end and asked, ‘do you think she’s got it?’ I mean I had one line! One line! One line in the entire talent show and my parents are asking ‘is she a star?’ And my teacher was very encouraging. So, then I started taking voice lessons with the only teacher we could afford and became very close with her. She became like a second mother to me. One day she said, ‘do you want to hear what I do?’ and she gave me a little cassette tape with her name on it. I put it in, and it was four arias of her singing opera, and I fell in love with it! I said, ‘I want to do that!’ So, I started singing opera at the age of 10 and 11 and then I ended up doing that for a long time.” Obviously, ska and ska punk are as far of a stretch from opera as you can get, but she credits it with helping her during her singing career, and sadly, she no longer sings opera. “It doesn’t sound the same anymore! All these years of singing and performing, and I’ve had two surgeries on my vocal cords and had my neck rebuilt, so my voice is pretty thrashed, but I like it that way so…”
Before the days of “Instafame”, becoming a successful musician was a major grind (still is). An artist had to hope and pray they would build enough of a fan base that they would get noticed by a label, get a contract, cut an album, and then pray even harder that a radio station manager would put them on air. But Save Ferris side stepped the process by creating their own label. They self-released their debut EP Introducing Save Ferris in 1996. They sold nearly 20,000 copies to their growing local underground fan base! Now, I know for all you kids out there, having 20,000 people listen to the song you wrote and recorded on your MacBook Pro and uploaded to Spotify and YouTube doesn’t sound like a big deal. Before the days of subscription streaming music, it was a massive deal. And it really helped launch the career of Save Ferris. The band eventually got a copy of the EP into the hands of the original alternative music kingmaker, Rodney Bingenheimer, of Rodney on the Roq show fame on KROQ in LA. KROQ was the station that everyone listened to back in the day for great new music. Monique recalled the first time she heard herself being played on KROQ,
“I remember I was driving to rehearsal at the star pool house, which is what we named our label after, and I was driving there in my white 1989 Camaro, and I remember I just pulled over and I cried, and I thought ‘I can’t believe I’m hearing myself and my voice on KROQ!’ It was totally like that moment in the Tom Hanks movie That Thing You Do. It was! It was totally like that for me. I was like oh my God!”
Even after 26 years as musician and performer, Monique says it is an experience that never gets old. And while it no longer makes her pull her car over to celebrate, she appreciates it in a new way. “It never gets old. Just because now, I remember where I was at when I made a specific recording or song, who I was with, and what was happening in my life at the time.” Save Ferris landed their major record deal with Epic Records (Sony) following an award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Grammy Showcase for best unsigned band.
Save Ferris released their first full length album, It Means Everything, in 1997. The timing of the release seemed perfect as it provided an alternative style of upbeat and danceable music to counter where punk and hardcore music had gone. It, along with multiple other ska and ska punk music, brought back a sound that was foundational to so many alternative bands. It brought back a sound that was the antithesis of the rage rock bands of the 90s. It brought back a fun and lighthearted sound that put a smile on your face, and it made you want to dance and sing. The breakout single from that first Save Ferris album, and arguably one of the great cover songs of the era, was their version of the classic 80s new wave hit “Come on Eileen” from Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Monique expressed it was an incredibly important song to the success of the band. The idea for the cover came about from her experiences with her sister when she was younger. “I remember my sister listening to KROQ, and I heard them (Dexy’s) on KROQ, and I saw the video on MTV. I thought it was the coolest thing that I ever I saw in my life, and I just wanted to wear overalls with a bra underneath and be free you know! And walk down the street with all my friends singing songs. And now that’s what I do every day. Ha! I can’t take credit for the arrangement, but I can take credit for saying we are doing this song! And we are not going to do it in the way it was written because it just could not be done the way it was done by Dexy’s. Nobody could do it like Dexy’s! So, we had to do it like Save Ferris would do it. And the rest is history.” This song remains Save Ferris’ most popular song to date.
Save Ferris saw further commercial success with the release of their second album, Modified, in 1999, but it came as the third wave of ska was slowly coming to an end. The album, while still great, moved away from the band’s ska roots and more towards a pop-punk sound. The original line up of Save Ferris broke up in 2002, with several of the founding members forming different bands. Monique self-financed the Save Ferris “For the Fans” tour in 2003. Soon thereafter, Save Ferris went on hiatus until 2013. Monique found herself looking for professional opportunities and made multiple career moves, all while never losing her love for music and performing. “That was a long 10 Years. I sang on a lot of records, and I sent a lot of music over to a lot of producers. I started a lot of different businesses and professions. I went into entertainment business management for a second. I started at the bottom worked my way up and realized that it was so cushy that if I stayed, I’d never sing again. It was too comfortable, and I was never going to leave. Every day I would go to work and my dad would ask me ‘when are you gonna get on stage again Monique? You’re wasting your talent’. And I was like ‘oh I’m not that talented’, and he was like ‘no you need to get back on stage’. Because you know my dad was a frustrated singer, he was so frighteningly and frustratingly shy. But he was a great singer.” Monique never lost her of love of music and knew she had to perform again.
Monique opened up about her struggles with self-confidence, being self-critical, and imposter syndrome. “It happens to me a lot and I feel almost a little too humbled by this incredible life I’ve been able to have because of music. And I feel like if I like it too much, or enjoy it too much, or if I’m too happy about it, that I’m gonna jinx it. All these years later I still think to myself ‘don’t get too comfortable Monique you’re going to jinx it’. And now I know it just takes work. I know that you have to have hope and you’ll be fine.” While having hope is something she strives for, during quarantine Monique posted a video on her social media accounts and openly discussed her experiences with depression. She gave an open, brave, and impassioned monologue about depression and mental illness and encouraged others to not give up. She even commented that she reads every single message sent by fans, (something I have rarely heard from other artists) and while she is not always able to respond, she wanted those who wrote her to know they have her love, respect, and support. She opened up about depression and losses in the music world to mental health issues. “We’ve lost a lot. And we recently lost Winona Judd. That was terrible.” She had a message for all of those going through hard times and those dealing with depression. She paused with a deep sigh and said, “it’s temporary. As much as it feels like it’s not, it’s temporary. It is. And it just takes some willingness, a little bit of help, and an ounce of work and you will get better. Do you know? You know I’ve suffered most of my life with a low-grade depression and was medication resistant, and that’s why the Wynonna Judd suicide so deeply affected me because I just thought there but for the grace of God go I. I mean she had all the money and all the resources in the world and couldn’t fix it. And so, it’s hard when you are in it. It’s hard to know there is a world out there that loves you. It’s torturous. That’s the only way I can describe it, it’s like torture. The other thing I would say is just know there’s a world out there that loves you that you haven’t even discovered yet. Don’t give up. I love you!” Monique believes that music can be a great source of support, therapy, and even healing. “I remember that was my therapy when I was a child because I didn’t feel like I had anybody I could talk to about my feelings, my problems, my sadness, or any of it. And I would use songs and music to feel my feelings. It saved my life.” While depression and mental health issues can be overwhelming, there are always people who care, even when you feel like there are not. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression and contemplating harming yourself, please call 988. Someone is always available to help.
Typically, my son and musical partner, Ian, conducts the interviews when we go to shows together. He could not join me for this one because he had band practice, something Monique and her manager were very proud of him for. Ian wanted to know about her inspirations for music and life. He asked, “music, like so many forms of art, draws inspiration from things outside of the art itself. What inspires your work and your music?” Monique pondered for a few minutes on this question and then spoke about the power music has and the importance of music to her life. She talked about not only the things that inspire her music, but how important music itself is to inspiring others. “Well, it gave me a career that I’m still able to do at 47 years old. I was like 19 when I joined Save Ferris and started. It’s given me a life. It’s giving me something to live for, that’s for sure. You know a purpose, a meaning. It’s a shame because after the band broke up in 2003, there was a long hiatus and I didn’t know who I was, what my identity was, and who was I if I was not performing. So, I had to find all these things to do when I was not performing. And I found I love making things. I love making art and I love to cook! I cook and I bake, and I love to entertain a lot and throw parties. I think I’m gonna start making art again. Through my dad getting sick and dying, I made a bunch of physical art for my wall. Everyone needs an outlet and there’s no shame in it as long as it’s not hurting anyone, we all need that outlet. I mean there’s so many other things that we could be doing that’s harmful, so having a healthy outlet is important. Those outlets help provide me with so much inspiration.”
As for the future of Monique Powell and Save Ferris, the sky is the limit. Save Ferris fans will rejoice in the knowledge that the band will continue to move forward and look towards new opportunities. “God! I have suffered over the next album, and I mean suffered literally. Because I keep writing and conceptualizing it, changing my mind, and writing songs, and then going ‘no I don’t think that’s gonna work now’. Because you know I just want it to go in a direction that’s meaningful, and I want it to sound fantastic. But then when COVID hit, I told myself I just need to survive at this point. At the time I would ask myself ‘am I gonna play music anymore? Maybe I should just get a job somewhere’, so yes, hopefully will be touring again soon. I can’t predict where the music industry is going to be at in the new year. All I know is that it’s better than it was six months ago, but bands are still canceling tours and shows because people get COVID and they don’t want to give it to everybody. But we will keep moving forward and we will be back!” There is no doubt in my mind the passion Monique has for her craft, her band, and the love she has for the Save Ferris fans. Expect great things to come! We have not seen the end of Save Ferris!