By Philip Runco
Eleanor Friedberger will be taking calls from bed this morning.
“It’s where I do all of my interviews,” she deadpans with a subtle twist of exaggerated glamour.
The joke hangs in the air for less than a second before Friedberger walks it back.
“That’s not true,” she confesses. “I’ve done interviews at home yesterday and today, but it’s the first time I’ve actually ever done any from my bedroom. It just happens to be where I am right now.”
Where Friedberger happens to be is upstate New York. This is where she’s lived since leaving Brooklyn and the rest of the false alphabet city behind over a year ago. This is the same neck of the woods where the singer-songwriter made New View, her first album for Frenchkiss Records and third since she and her brother took a break from the Fiery Furnaces.
Somewhat remarkably for someone who has been releasing music since 2003, New View marks the first time Friedberger has gone the “traditional route.” Namely, this entailed the increased involvement of Icewater, a band she recruited to perform 2013’s stellar Personal Record live. “I have some songs and we’re working on them together and fleshing them out, and arranging them,” she shared a year ago. “And then these guys are actually going to record the record with me, and then we’ll tour on those songs. I know that’s what most bands do, but I’ve never actually done it that way.”
Before laying those songs to tape not far from Woodstock, Friedberger compiled a collection of tunes for producer Clemens Knieper: a live version of Van Morrison’s “Warm Love”, 80s-era Bob Dylan, Neil Young, early Soft Machine, Slapp Happy, Fleetwood Mac. New View isn’t the sum of those reference, but they provide a neat window into what expect from it: a cracklingly warm, bummed out, slightly funky, exquisitely smooth drag. Arguably, it is the strongest statement of her already distinguished career.
“I feel the same the way about it,” Friedberger says with chuckle. “I like it, too.”
Last time we spoke, you said you were still growing comfortable with the the “role of singer-songwriter.” Are you more at ease with the idea now? Do you feel, in some way, as if you’re peaking in that role?
Oh my god, how does one judge if they’re at their peak, unless they’re literally walking up a mountain, which I sometimes do these days. I feel like I’m getting better and better, just in terms of what I’m able to do. By other people’s standards, am I a great guitar player? No. But am I better than I was a couple of years ago? Yes, I think so. I feel comfortable. I feel like I know what I’m doing more. I feel lucky to have a great group of musicians to play with. There are a few specific things that happened that made this process better for me.
One of those things was playing on-and-off on Seth Meyers’ NBC late night show the year before last. I would sit in as a guitar player in his band. Every morning, we would meet and write the material that we were going to play that night. That was a great lesson for me to not be precious. I was playing with a group of people that I had never played with before, and you had to throw out ideas and not be afraid that other people would tell you they sucked, and then you played what you wrote that night and maybe never again. It was great as a workshop – well, that’s not what I mean. It was like a school or something for me. I got quick at throwing out ideas. That helped me write these new songs, for sure.
The other thing that really helped was working on this project with Warhol museum. I was scoring Warhol films with a group of other musicians; we were each assigned three films. This was the opposite sort of method: I had a year and a half to prepar, which is a long time – almost too much time. I quickly came up with these ideas and would go back to them over the course of a year and really fine tune them for this project.
The third thing was playing with a group of guys that I had toured with for my last album. They were all down to keep playing with me and to record with me. It was great to be able to sit in a practice room with them, which is what I did for a couple of months in Los Angeles last January and February. I would just say, “Here’ my song, sit down and play it. I have the chords and the lyrics; let work on the arrangements and see how it takes off from there.” That was a great experience. I got to work on these songs in a way that I hadn’t before. We actually played them live. We did a bunch of shows before we recorded them. I know that’s what a lot of bands do, but I had never done that before.
Did those things change the character of the songs?
I really wanted them to have a little more breathing room. I know that’s kind of a vague thing to say. Usually, I think of my songs as being about the words, and I didn’t want it so much to be about that; I wanted to focus more on the music. Like I said, I had this kind of funny job writing little bits of music for this TV thing, and there was very rarely any singing – it was just about the music. The same goes for the Andy Warhol film scores: I was singing, but I was thinking more about the music, and how it worked with the images and everything. It made me think about writing in a different way. It was more about the performance.
I really wanted to have an album sound like it was a bunch of human beings playing together at the same time. I think it sounds like that. That was something that I did more of over the between making the two albums. [Laughs] It sounds so elemental and simple. I would joke with these guys – who I’ve gotten to know so well – when we were rehearsing, like, “OK, Michael, this is your moment.” He’s the keyboard player. Or I’d be like, “Where’s Malcolm’s moment?” We had this joke about moments: I wanted the guys to get to show off a little bit. I grew up as an athlete. I was more of a jock. I didn’t play music. I love showing off. I love guitar solos. I love crazy drum fills. To me, that’s the fun stuff. I’m not very punk rock. I like prog music. [Laughs] I like punk music, too, but I like those show-offy moments, and I wanted the guys to get to do that, even though that’s not really their styles at all. It was fun for me to play the role of bringing stuff out of people.
Recording was super fun, too, because we had a lot more time. We recorded upstate. We recorded with a friend of my bandmates [Clemens Knieper], and he had this attitude of we have all the time in the world, let’s make a great record. So, it was fun for me after doing the basic tracking to work with each of the guys on their parts when we were overdubbing and to really coax stuff out of them. I was almost like coach. I was like, “Can you make you sound like this? Or this?” That was the best part for me.
When you sent the “reference playlist” to Clemens, what was about that those songs that you were hoping to capture?
I mean, so many things. Usually, it’s about a specific sound – like, how the drums sound or how the guitar sounds. Sometimes, it’s an overall vibe. I was so lucky to work with Clemens. He’s a true engineer. He’s also German and very precise. He’s also a mechanic. He’s just one of those guys who can figure out anything, which is kind of infuriating, too. So if I played him something, he would really try hard to figure out how they made it sound it that way. He did a really good job of copying things with what limited resources we had, which is super cool.
The live Van Morrison record was something that I played for the drummer and keyboard player. It was from this German TV show that Van Morrison performed on in the ’70s and he’s doing this song called “Warm Love”. It’s a really slow, quiet ballad on his album, but he does this version on the TV show with a four-piece band – which is not how he usually performed – and it’s super funky. We just copied the sound and the arrangement of that. For me, that’s really fun. No one else would think that or hear that, but for me, it’s like, “Oh my god, I got to do this weird Van Morrison version of a song that could have gone in a lot of different directions.”
This is the first album of yours that doesn’t have anything remotely off-kilter or, for lack of a better term, herky jerky. How did you end up with such a smooth record, both musically and in your vocal performance?
I think it was a combination of things. I hope that I sound more relaxed. It also could be how my vocals were recorded. They’re a little more warm sounding. Maybe I’m singing a little more behind instead of on top, which is what I tend to do, unfortunately – like, sing ahead of the beat. I try not to do that so much anymore. Some of these songs don’t have such insane rhymes as the last album, where everything was a perfect rhyme and sometimes several rhymes at a time. The lyrics on this album are not so much like that.
I hope that the main things is that maybe I’m getting better as a singer, and think that’s true. I think I’m best singer that I have been.
Your music seems to drift further and further away from the Fiery Furnaces with each record. Has your brother heard New View? What was his reaction?
He has heard the record. You know, he thought it was great! [Laughs] That’s the answer. He told me what his favorite song was, and I could have guessed it – “Does Turquoise Work?” He told me that he’s gone back and listened to that song many times, just because he really likes it as a recording and song.
We don’t talk too much about each other’s music. If I wanted to ask him for advice or something specific, I would, but it’s kind of a relief to not have to talk to him about that stuff after having to talk to him about that stuff for so many years. It’s kind of nice to have just a brother.
You’ve said you have to be ”willing to make a lot of compromises” to be a musician in this day and age. What do those compromises look like?
Specifically, for me, there’s the unglamorous side of touring. I’ve been in a van, driving, since 2003. I do a lot of the driving myself. I’m also the tour manager and the merch seller. I have to sleep in a motel room with one or two of my bandmates. That kind of lifestyle stuff is incredibly unglamorous.
You could argue that I moved out of New York City because maybe I couldn’t afford to live there anymore, and I wasn’t willing to say, “I’m going to give up on this music stuff and try to work I don’t even know where or go back to school and do god knows what.” So, I have to make compromises in that way.
Musically, I’ve been lucky – and maybe unlucky – that I don’t have the pressures of you need to make another hit. I’ve been able to do whatever I want. That’s an upshot.
But in terms of my lifestyle, I have to make a lot of compromises, and I have to dedicate myself to the tour if you want to do it.
Press photos courtesy of Joe DeNardo.