When you describe an Eleanor Friedberger record to Eleanor Friedberger, she’ll hone in on one adjective and repeat it. She’ll sound slightly bemused. She’ll let that word hang in the air for a few seconds. She’ll add something like, “I haven’t heard that one before.” And you’ll have no idea whether she thinks what you just said was deeply profound or the dumbest thing she’s ever heard. Eleanor Friedberger is cool, and you are not, and this is the sound of the cool and the uncool communicating.
Friedberger has probably always been this way. She’s certainly been this way for the past decade, for as long as she’s been in the spotlight as one of indie rock’s leading ladies, first as the singer of brother-sister duo The Fiery Furnaces, and now on her own. But whereas The Fiery Furnaces could be impenetrably cool – it’s often herky-jerky time signatures, archaic lyrics, and serpentine melodies a barrier to entry for many – the music of Eleanor Friedberger, solo artist, is inclusively cool. She may be alone, swimming laps, on the cover of her latest album, Personal Record, but there’s plenty of room in that pool for everyone. And like a dip on a hot summer day, listening to the breezy and lush Personal Record is a refreshing experience.
Friedberger has taken steps to draw a line between her music and that of the Fiery Furnaces, an act that’s officially on hiatus. She doesn’t play any songs from the band’s seven albums live, even the relatively straightforward pop songs that would slide seamlessly into her set, like “Here Comes the Summer” or “Waiting to Know You”. When she first toured under her own name in July of of 2011 behind her debut LP, Last Summer, she padded performances with new songs instead, songs that would eventually make it onto Personal Record. Friedberger performed one of those, “Stare at the Sun” , for BYT prior to a show at the Black Cat. “I remember that very well,” she recollected in a conversation with BYT a month ago. “It was extremely hot, and that song was written, like, a week before that, or a few days even. That was definitely the first time I ever played it in front of other people.”
Friedberger’s summer tour draws to close this week with shows at DC’s U Street Music Hall on Thursday and Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg on Friday. Personal Record is out now on Merge. Win tickets to the DC performance here.
Why was it important not to work Fiery Furnaces songs into your set?
It felt like I was starting over in a lot of ways. I thought that it would be unfair of me to play a bunch of material that wasn’t just mine to play. I’m not saying that I would always do that, but I wanted it to feel like a fresh start, and, to me, the most obvious and easy way to do that seemed like not playing old songs.
I had this long gap between when I finished recording Last Summer and when it came out. It was, like, eight months or something. Most of [Personal Record] was written during that time. It was really me figuring out how I was going to present myself, and how I was going to present that material. I started trying to play [Last Summer] on an acoustic guitar, which was not how I had written those songs, and I quickly realized that I needed to write songs on acoustic guitar, so that they can translate to people that simply – just me, singing and playing guitar. That was my mission.
Is that something you hadn’t done before?
I’d written songs on guitar, of course, but it had been a little while. The last album was really me learning how to use GarageBand and messing around with a MIDI keyboard. That was fun too, in a totally different way, but this was a very different process.
Did having the opportunity to play the songs live before recording them affect how they turned out?
It had a huge effect. I’d always worked in the opposite way: Songs were written, and then they were learned in the studio, and then relearned to play live. That’s how the Fiery Furnaces did everything for the most part, except for our first album. It was just so satisfying when it finally came time to record these songs, to know them so well, and to know exactly how they were supposed to sound, especially for me as a singer, knowing how every word was supposed to sound. I don’t want to overstate it, but I had never had such a clear vision of what every line was supposed to sound like, which made recording that easier, because when you got it right, it could take two seconds. Sometimes it made it harder, though. When I couldn’t get it right, it was so frustrating, because I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound.
But, it was great to play a lot of these songs live, and we had a few live recordings, and then I made even more demos after we finished touring. Some songs I had, like, five different demos for, and it was fun to sit down and choose what I thought would be the best. It made the recording process very efficient. We recorded the bulk of the record in just five days.
Is that short for you?
Yeah, compared to how I’ve done things in the past. I spent whole months in the studio for a couple of albums.
There’s a good deal of ornamentation on the record – the horns and woodwinds, in particular. When you were playing those songs live with relatively bare bones accompaniment, did you always have those parts in mind, or was there a process of deconstruction that occurred later?
That’s a good question. The songs that you’re talking about, I hadn’t played live. A song like “I Am the Past”, I had never played live. I had never played “My Own World”, except on my own with a guitar. “She’s a Mirror” was the last song that was finished in terms of writing. So, those were a little bit more mysterious. And what happened was just – I wouldn’t call them happy accidents, but it just all worked out. [Laughs].
It was very unusual how smoothly things went in the studio. Like, the guy who plays the woodwinds [Robbie Lee] was someone who I had met through a friend, and he had played saxophone at this one outdoor show with us, but he’s just a terrific improviser. I gave him two hours to play on three songs and he just delivered. I think that’s the key: Everything fell into place in terms of working with the right people.
Eric [Broucek], who recorded the album, also recorded Last Summer, so it was just kind of a continuation for us, because we knew how to talk to each other. We knew how to get this stuff done. In that situation you need to be efficient and speak the same language, and he understood what I was talking about when I would say, “Oh, can this sound a little bit more like – whatever.” [Laughs]. Whatever nonsense came out of my mouth.
Also, two of the guys – the drummer [Jim Orso] and the keyboard player [Morgan Wiley] – had played a little bit on my other record. John [Eatherly] and Matt [Asti] – the guitar and bass players – were the two guys I had been touring with for a year. We had a really good unit. It felt in some ways more like a band album than anything I’ve ever done before, because it was such a collaboration. I’m used to just collaborating with one person. It was really satisfying to have so many people. Sometimes when there are more people involved, things can go horribly wrong, but this just happened to work out really well. We were lucky in that sense. Or maybe we weren’t lucky – maybe we were just really smart. [Laughs]
Do you get your brother’s input at all when you’re making a record?
No. I gave it to him after it was done.
Did he like it?
He told me his favorite song was “Other Boys”, which I was a little surprised by.
It just doesn’t seem like the song that he would like. I thought it would be his least favorite song.
How would you describe the dynamic between you two?
My brother and I, you know, get along well. I just spent some time with him in Chicago. We were at my mother’s house. It was great to just be brother and sister, and not have all of the other stuff to deal with. It’s been a while since that was the case. We have a good relationship.
Did being a band together put a strain on that?
Oh, of course. It’s like any work situation. Because it’s music, people think it’s like a party and fun, but it’s also a job. And when it comes to dealing with money and business stuff, there’s always a strain. It always complicates things.
There’s a smoother feel to Personal Record. The songs are less jaunty in a way that stands out in your catalog.
People often accuse of me sounding retro, because I like ‘70s rock music, but I don’t think this sounds retro. I think it sounds very modern. Eric was the house engineer at DFA [Records] for a long time, and he has made mostly made dance music, so there’s a sheen on the album that I have to give him credit for. He took something that could have sounded very retro and nostalgic and made it sound modern.
I don’t know if that’s a good explanation. The songs were considered. I spent a lot of time on them. Like I said, I had several different versions of them and we played them many times. They were very streamlined. There were no words that I didn’t want to say. [Laughs] I don’t know – like I said, it was very considered, and I’m glad to hear that comes through.
Lyrically, you’re writing in slightly more universal shades here. There’s not as much of the diary or travelogue vibe that’s run through much of your music. Was that something that you consciously set out to do?
It was more of a challenge. It was a combination of things. First, like I was saying, I was trying to figure out how to play Last Summer songs and I suddenly found myself thinking, “Ok, I’m going to have to play the role of the singer-songwriter. What kind of music do singer-songwriters write?” It was a lot about playing this new role that I had never played before. I started listening to a lot of singer-songwriter records.
I wanted every song to have very clear verses and choruses and bridges. [Laughs] This stuff sounds so obvious, but the last record was very much me just jotting things down and writing songs in a kind of stream of consciousness style, and not caring if things rhymed. I just cared about the way the words sounded coming out of my mouth. This is something very different.
It’s funny – you haven’t asked about the title of the record, and although it is personal and all of that, I wanted to take some of the emphasis off of myself . The songs may or may not be all about me, but I think they’re also about everybody else. The best reaction that I’ve gotten to the record is that people telling me that they relate to the songs. I think people can insert themselves into these songs in a way that you never could with the songs on Last Summer, where you were looking through a peephole into my life. That’s kind of boring. Well, not boring, but I don’t need to do that every time. I think this is a lot more valuable. These details could all be about me, but the way that the songs are written, they could also be about your sister or your girlfriend or your brother or whoever.
This year marks a decade since Gallowsbird’s Bark. When you started making music, where did you imagine yourself ten year’s down the line?
I wish I could go back in time. I really do – for lots of reasons. Things were very different then. They had already been different, in terms of the music industry but they very quickly became more different. There was still optimism in terms of people buying records and stuff. Things changed very quickly. I imagined making more records. To be honest, I don’t know – I wish I had more foresight.
Is there a part of you that wishes you had started making music on your own earlier?
I wish I had started making music on my own, like, way earlier, when I was seventeen or eighteen. But that’s impossible to say. Obviously I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t done all of that other stuff. The timing was right when this happened. I can’t think about that stuff. [Laughs] It doesn’t really do you any good.
Do you find it’s harder to get people’s attention when you’ve been around for a while? That people are preoccupied with what’s bright and shiny and new?
I don’t know how to answer that question. I don’t understand the industry enough. You’re right, though – it feels like you have to come out with a bang and everything else is kind of less and less paid attention to, but that’s not true of every band. A handful of bands grow exponentially, but not everybody can do that. I don’t want to sound like I’m bitter or disappointed. I’m lucky to still be doing this as I’m doing it. I feel very lucky. I don’t know the secret. I should have, like, a personal marketing expert at my side. I don’t know what the right way to do it is.