Being Novel: Eleanor Friedberger discusses the hard work of a singular songwriter

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Eleanor Friedberger Photo by Joe DeNardo
Eleanor Friedberger | Photo by Joe DeNardo | courtesy of the artist

Eleanor Friedberger has impugned the Philadelphia Grand Jury, and roundly rejects Philly Councilman Mark Squilla’s now notorious (and already-dead) legislation proposal.

Take that, Philly. She’ll do what she wants here.

You’d have only to listen briefly to almost any of Friedberger’s work to hear something novel, enduring and for the most part accessible too — arguably a rare combination of qualities in pop music. Her three solo records are ear candy for audiophiles that never seems to wear thin, buoyant and quirky, with her trademark asynchronous lyrical delivery that manages to offer something new with each listen. And together with her brother Matthew, Friedberger’s bountiful catalog as half of the The Fiery Furnaces features eight intense studio records to date, often layered with discord and din, musical conversations of meandering meters masterfully woven with Friedberger’s bright vocal melodies, that serve to challenge and expand the listener’s sense of euphony.

In advance of her upcoming appearance at MilkBoy in Center City, our conversation with Friedberger covers everything from pop production to college keg stories, and she even offers her advice on the best way to come up with something new.

The Key: So what do you have against the Philadelphia Grand Jury?

Eleanor Friedberger: [laughs] Oh gosh, I don’t even remember. I don’t remember what I have against the Philadelphia Grand Jury. They screwed me over, I think! But I can’t remember the details. [laughs] I haven’t been back to Philly in a long time, actually, I haven’t been in Philly in quite awhile.

TK: You’ve somehow managed to become the unwitting face of recent legislation calling for the names, addresses and phone numbers of all musicians performing in Philly to be registered with local law enforcement.

EF: You know what, yeah, I meant to look up the article, ‘cause someone just sent me a picture via Instagram yesterday, but I’ve been so busy I just didn’t get a chance to investigate. But yeah it’s like me and two of my old bandmates on stage, I don’t really understand what that’s about?

TK: They wanted for some reason to make a contact information registry of all the artists playing, and to empower law enforcement officials to veto any gathering of 50 people or more.

EF: What?! And why do you think I was picked for the photo?

TK: I have no idea, it’s just so random.

EF: So random! And I believe that was from when we opened up for Wild Flag which was like four years ago. Well, I don’t know what to say. I’m not giving up my phone number. [laughs]

TK: Your music with the Furnaces is in my mind sharply different than your solo albums. The Furnaces’ music is characteristically more chaotic and dramatic, almost with an element of cacophony. Was that more your brother’s influence, or more your own deliberate, personal shift in songwriting approach?

EF: [laughs] I think it’s a combination of things. I think one way to look at it is, you know, the Fiery Furnaces were a band, even though you could say it’s just two people, but we were putting forward a lot of ideas — sometimes a lot of ideas in a single song, sometimes a lot of ideas in a single verse, you know? — and that was what we did as a band. And now I feel like I’m kind of following in the tradition of — which may be a little bit boring, I don’t know — but in the tradition of music that I love the most, which is like ‘70s singer-songwriter music. I’m just kind of sticking with that tradition, I’m being very faithful to it. So I’m not necessarily trying to put forward like seven different musical ideas in one song, I’m trying to just maybe like share a moment with somebody, or you know, immortalize one little feeling, which I think is in the tradition of that kind of music that I’m emulating. Does that makes sense? [laughs] I mean and also, my brother was very much the music director of the Fiery Furnaces, there’s no way around that. I was the singer and he was the “MD,” if you want to put it in those terms. We contributed stuff together, you know, but I wouldn’t try and argue that he wasn’t the arranger of the band.

TK: When I think about songs like “Tropical Ice-Land,” it has more of the feel of the music on your solo records, vs. songs like “Straight Street” or “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found,” so I’m trying to get a sense of whether the latter two are more his influence in a way, in other words.

EF: No, I mean, all that stuff reflects both of our tastes, I’m not gonna not stand behind that. I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to do, there’s no song on our albums that wasn’t mine too, you know. So no, I don’t think that’s fair to say, I love loud music! [laughs] I love all kinds of music. But [my solo music] just happens to be what I’m capable of doing right now and want to do right now.

TK: When you say you’re following right now in the traditions of ‘70s singer-songwriters — I find your style to be very unique, very much yours — when do you feel as though you were developing that style, especially in terms of how you deliver lyrics?

EF: Oh, good. Well thanks. Oh my gosh, I mean I don’t know. People kind of ask me about my phrasing. I’m not a trained musician at all, you know this is all just what’s coming naturally to me. I’ve noticed myself changing a little bit in terms of very specific things, like I used to kind of sing way ahead of the beat, and I’m trying to be more laid back now. I’ve always liked using lots of details in my lyrics, that kind of stuff. In terms of like the actual phrasing, I don’t know, that’s just like what comes out of me, it’s not something that’s developed.

TK: Do you remember when you first realized that you could sing?

EF: I think only recently did I feel like, oh, I kind of have a handle on what I’m able to do. Like I’m trying to do something, and then when I’m recording I can execute that thing I’m trying to do. You know, it might take a few tries, but I can do it. But the first time… you know I can remember being at a party in college and like literally standing over like a keg and standing next to a guy, and there was a Guided By Voices song playing at the party and I was singing out loud along to it and he turned to me and said, “you can really sing!” [laughs] I think that was maybe the first time anyone ever said that to me.

TK: So that was the breakthrough moment right there. Over the keg.

EF: Yeah. And then he ended up being my boyfriend for about a year. So.

TK: For awhile, I was somehow seeing you everywhere. You showed up at a Spoon show at Radio City Music Hall in New York, and at a Portlandia show in Philly. It seems in retrospect as though this was mostly in the time after the Furnaces?

EF: Yeah, I do kind of remember a time that I was kind of doing a lot more extracurricular sort of things. And I felt so good about that. Since I haven’t played with my brother, I played with more musicians in the past five years than I did in [the prior] fifteen year…that adds up to too many years. But you know what I mean. It was good to really stretch out and do things with a lot of different people. Which I just didn’t have time for, before — it wasn’t like I wasn’t “allowed” to, I just didn’t see the time. We were really kind of in our own little bubble of just churning out so many albums shows and playing so many shows, there just wasn’t time for anything else.

TK: The Furnaces really were very prolific. Back in the ‘60s, the Beatles for example were putting out one or two records a year, and these days artists tend to put out one record every two or three years. You guys were sort of an anomaly in that sense — were you working deliberately toward being that prolific or did it just kind of pour out?

EF: It was a combination of both. I mean, my brother, he would’ve liked to put out four records a year. [laughs] You know, it was a lot of like, “okay, let’s edit this down, let’s hold back a little bit.” He wanted to do as much as possible all the time, and I was happy to be along for the ride, you know? Also, I think it’s annoying, people get a lot of flak for like doing too much — not to bring up Guided By Voices again, but someone like Robert Pollard, he’s so prolific, he puts out so much stuff, and he gets kind of punished for that a little bit. It’s like what else are we supposed to do? If we can make stuff up and get it out, isn’t that what we should be doing as artists? I feel like other types of artists, they don’t get kind of penalized for having too much output.

TK: When did the Fiery Furnaces finally “split?”

EF: Well, I don’t say we “split.” But the last album came out in 2009, and the last show we did was 2011.

TK: So your solo stuff, you see it as something you’re doing in tandem, and that the Fiery Furnaces will be doing more albums at some point?

EF: Well. We don’t have a plan. [laughs] I mean, who knows. I’m really happy to be doing what I’m doing now, so, I don’t want to stop, right now.

TK: In one interview, you’d mentioned sort of having to force yourself to hunker down and concentrate to write and put together a record. Does it feel like sort of a chore at times when you’re writing?

EF: Oh, no, it’s not a chore, if I said that I just meant, I’m not the kind of person — I hear about other songwriters who believe in some kind of divine intervention or something, and these things just come to them, and for me, it’s more about like, I just have to actually sit down and get to work, it’s not something I just let come to me. I mean sometimes that happens, but it’s very rare. I don’t see it as a chore at all, it’s totally fun. And if anything, especially with this album, I’m loving the process of recording more than I ever have. I used to say that the shows and performance was the best part for me, and I think it’s slowly teetering to the other side a little bit. And I don’t know if that’s just something that’s coming with age, and the thought of being on the road for months at a time isn’t that appealing, or if it’s just because I’m getting better at recording and I feel like I have more knowledge and more of a handle on what the process is all about. It’s all those things.

TK: Your solo music is heavy on production — for example a song like “Inn Of The Seventh Ray” has a lot of effects and psychedelic imagery — do you enjoy focusing on that stuff and does it come with a sense of perfectionism?

EF: Oh yeah! I love that stuff. I mean I’m not the one turning the knobs. The way that I work is like by saying, “oh, can we sound like this?,” and it’s either a very weird description in kind of strange music language, or I just play something that I like, that’s already been recorded. And that’s always been my method. I feel like the best way to come up with something new is to copy something, and you’re definitely going to fail at copying. It’s just like an easy way to kind of try things out, is when you’re trying to kind of sound like something else, if that makes any sense.

TK: Well you really succeed in creating something new, which is hard to do.

EF: Well thank you, I mean I appreciate it. I don’t know what this thing is. Recently, it’s like I want to be able to have a voice that’s recognizable, the way that, you know, if I’m in a cafe, or wherever I am, and you hear Leonard Cohen come on and you just immediately recognize his voice. To me, that would be like the dream, where somebody hears a song, and they hear my voice and they know who it is and it’s very distinctive.

TK: Your dream has come true. I was actually in I think Banana Republic the other day, and one of your songs came on that I hadn’t heard before, but I knew immediately by your vocals that it was an Eleanor Friedberger song.
EF: [laughs] Oh god. Wow. If I can help sell corduroys, then that’s ok.

Eleanor Friedberger plays MilkBoy with Joey Sweeney on Friday, February 19th. For tickets and more information on the show, visit the XPN Concert Calendar.

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