Eleanor Friedberger Comes Into Her Own

With UK shows pending, the Fiery Furnaces frontwoman ’fesses up on flying solo, Physical Graffiti and how The Libertines made her cry.

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RETURNING TO WEST LONDON – as she will to play a Bush Hall show on September 3 – stirs mixed memories for Eleanor Friedberger. In 2003, Fiery Furnaces – the group she shares with older brother Matthew – played Rough Trade Records’ 25th birthday party at the old Neighbourhood club in Westbourne Park, but celebrations were short-lived.

“I cried that night, very embarrassingly, all over [Rough Trade label boss] Geoff Travis,” she admits. “All because the guys from the Libertines turned up to headline the show without any instruments. To me it was so uncool, thinking they were such superstars. And then the guy from the band [Carl Barât] played my guitar, without asking! You just don’t do that! I was so furious. God, I hope Geoff doesn’t remember that…”

“Carl Barât played my guitar, without asking! You just don’t do that!”

The Libertines did worse in their day (at least Friedberger got her guitar back) but the righteous, Chicago-born/Brooklyn-dwelling singer still bridles at their lack of respect. Then she giggles: “Seems so ridiculous now…”

Friedberger has often appeared, shall we say, tightly wrapped. But perhaps that’s already changing. Coming off the June release of her second solo album, Personal Record – a glorious flowering of singer-songwriter certainty after the metaphysical jerks of Fiery Furnaces – she’s found new freedom. Pondering her state before sharing some of her current and all-time musical wows, she concludes: “It’s a bit sexier than being in a band with your brother.”

As requested, you’ve sent a picture – actually, several pictures – of your immediate environment. First impression: it’s tidy!

Well it’s gotten messier since I took those photographs. I bought some guitar toys over the weekend, a fancy delay pedal and a very nice distortion pedal called Fuck Overdrive. I can’t believe I bought something with the word Fuck in it!

Describe the view out of the window.

There’s a big tree. The back of a church. Mostly, though, it’s leaves. The view on other side is this apartment building, covered with fire escapes that people hang out on, like the cover of Physical Graffiti. I live in an old Polish neighbourhood [Greenpoint, Brooklyn] that’s slowly being infiltrated.

I’m envious of your Wurlitzer electric piano. Does it sound beautiful?

I think it does, maybe not so much when I play it. You know the Neil Young song, See The Sky About To Rain? That was a sound I really wanted to emulate. And there was a song on the new album, we recorded right at the end, where we did it. Just the very last verse of the last song, Singing Time, just the Wurly and me.

You’re playing the UK August 29-September 3. Tell us about your group.

It’s a little bit confusing, because I have so many groups, and the group I’ll be playing with in the UK I have not yet met. Predominantly, it’s the guys from Field Music. I’ve never been one to recreate albums on stage – it wasn’t something the Fiery Furnaces ever tried to do – but [Field Music singer-guitarist] David [Brewis] has been asking me lots of questions about what we did on the record. It’ll be interesting to see how literal it’s going to be.

We asked you to pick your favourite current music clip on the internet, and you chose Van Morrison, doing Warm Love in 1974.

Yeah, Van Morrison’s been pretty quick to get clips taken down, but these have stayed up for a while. So I reckon Van must think they’re pretty cool, too. I chose Warm Love because I love the way he reinterprets the song – it’s even better than the recorded version – and his band is so fucking awesome! The piano player is incredible. That’s very much the sound, and the instrumentation, that I would like to have.

You co-wrote your album with Wesley Stace [aka Hastings-born singer-songwriter-novelist John Wesley Harding]. What did he bring to the table?

He’s a very charismatic fellow. He has his own variety show in New York and he’s constantly recruiting people to perform, and that’s how he got hold of me and my brother. Then he asked us to help him write some songs for a novel he was writing, but in the meantime my brother moved to Paris so Wes was kinda stuck with me. But we developed this really fast friendship, mostly via email. Here was this new figure, who was older and wanted to show me things.

An avuncular figure…

Sure! “Uncle Wes” – he’d love that. We helped each other in a way that’s hard to explain. I affected the way he started to write songs – he’s got an album coming out in September – and he made me think a lot differently about songs, too. I was setting out this new identity, like I was going to try to be this ‘singer-songwriter’ person. How do I do that? Wes is a pretty good authority on that.

“I was setting out this new identity, this ‘singer-songwriter’ person. How do I do that?”

The formality of the song structures on Personal Record is new-ish for you. Was that something Wes was hot on?

Well, that was actually much… more… me. I wanted to do songs with verses and chorus and a bridge – every song had to have a bridge! I’d never really sat down and tried to do that before. Our collaboration was more to do with words.

There’s some great little story songs on the album, like When I Knew: “I met her in my bedroom / At a party, Halloween / She was wearing a pair of overalls / So I sang Come On Eileen”.

That’s a funny thing. I don’t think Wes would have tried to do that on his own, but through me and with me it worked, even though – I think I can say this – those are all details of women he knows. But because I’m singing it makes it more ambiguous. Hmmm, I hope I didn’t just let the cat out of the bag…

There’s also this litany of lyrical references to groups: Soft Machine, Sparks, Dexy’s…

That was fun for us because that’s how we were communicating. The trading of music was what our relationship was based on. There’s a song, I Am The Past. In some way the lyric is kind of corny but it’s meant to be deep folky. Wes kind of reintroduced me to Incredible String Band and I really started to get into them, trying to sound like that. It was like us sharing music and talking about music and segueing into making that music. It was really beautiful and I hope people get that.

What’s your favourite album sleeve of all time?

It’s Physical Graffiti. I think it’s famously supposed to be on St Marks in the East Village. Led Zeppelin were my band when I was 12, 13. I’d just listen to this and stare at the sleeve. And you could pull it out with the cut-out and everything. It’s like a toy. I feel a bit sad that I won’t ever be able to do anything like that myself. Fiery Furnaces got to make one very cool record cover, for the vinyl of Bitter Tea, that folded out into this origami crane. That’s about the closest we’ll get.

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How easy will it be to go back to writing Fiery Furnaces songs having spent near enough three years now in Eleanor Friedberger zone?

I don’t know. It’s something I feel is probably inevitable, making another record with my brother. But I haven’t mapped it out. I’m sure we’ll be together at Christmas and one of us will start playing, and something will come of that.

You recently said you wished you’d started earlier at making music for a living.

I hate to sound unhappy or dissatisfied – I’m not – but I do think we were just on the cusp of a time when we could’ve sold more records. The timing of the change in technology and everything around that time was significant. And I sometimes wonder if Fiery Furnaces had put our first record out in 1999 rather than 2003 what difference that would have made. Sometimes I think maybe if I’d started playing music earlier I would just be… better.

“Fiery Furnaces shows were so physical, like a sporting event. Now I have fun on stage.”

What would a 21-year-old Fiery Furnaces have sounded like? Would you have been as confident, as different, as interesting?

Maybe not. That first album was so much about me communicating with my brother about the things that had happened to me while I’d been away, things that just wouldn’t have happened if things had been different. If they hadn’t have happened maybe I wouldn’t have had anything to say.

What has being “Eleanor Friedberger” brought you that being a Fiery Furnace hasn’t?

Well, if it doesn’t sound too corny, it’s helped me tremendously… become a more well-rounded person. Doing things with my brother, I was very quick to let him take over. It becomes more obvious to me now as time has passed. I think it’s about getting older too, but I feel so much more in control of what’s happening. I have so much fun onstage now and I don’t remember feeling that way before. Not that it was the opposite of fun, but it was something else. It was really tense… really hard. Fiery Furnaces shows were so physical, like a sporting event. Now I have fun on stage and I hope that’s apparent. It’s a very different feeling for me.

What’s the best thing about playing shows in the UK?

Well, in the States it’s very hard to eat well on tour, but in the UK, you can now stop at a gas station and you have Marks & Spencer. I love it. I look forward to the super food salad. Quinoa – you have that at a gas station! That’s amazing.

Eleanor Friedberger’s UK tour begins on August 29 in Manchester. Find full dates here.