Eleanor Friedberger can not say she misses Brooklyn much.
“I just went out now for something to eat, and it’s so oppressive,” she shares on an insufferably humid early September afternoon. “It’s 90 degrees and construction is happening everywhere. It just feels like an oppressive place.”
The singer-songwriter is back in Brooklyn – her home for the majority of this century – to play a gig at a recently opened Dr. Martens “outpost.” To do so, she has traveled south from upstate New York, where she has quite happily resided since late 2014.
“I’m spoiled by trees and quiet,” the 42-year-old admits.
Upstate New York is where she wrote and recorded her last album, 2016’s New View. It was a record that sounded like it was written and recorded in upstate New York, too: warm, intimate, slightly out of time, unfurling at leisurely pace. Its 45 minutes felt like they stretched twice as long.
Her latest record – and fourth solo effort since the Fiery Furnaces effectively went on an indefinite hiatus – is something entirely different. Performed mostly by Friedberger herself (with some assistance from producer Clemens Knieper), Rebound finds her drawing inspiration from the textures of the ‘80s – a departure she attributes partly to a Greek sojourn in late 2016 and partly to the impulsive purchase of a Casio keyboard.
Not coincidentally, Rebound is the name of an old Athens nightclub, and the setting for early morning dancing and nostalgia on “It’s Hard”.
“Down the stairs, laugh, no smoking sign,” Friedberger sings. “Coat’s covered in ash and my heart’s still full of wine.”
It’s an evocative, thoughtfully etched, dryly humorous picture – one of the many that have distinguished Friedberger as one of the century’s preeminent songwriters.
“I feel like I’m getting better and better, just in terms of what I’m able to do,” she told me two-and-a-half years ago. “I feel comfortable. I feel like I know what I’m doing more.”
With Rebound, Frieberger has left the comfort zone she burrowed into over previous records, with results no less dazzling. It’s tempting to wonder where she’ll head next, but for now just get lost in the flickering lights and hovering cigarette fumes of her current milieu.
New View felt like a full exploration of a sound you had teased on Personal Record – sort of a loose, warm, ‘70s singer-songwriter aesthetic. At the time, I thought, “I could see her making records like this for years to come.” Obviously, you didn’t. Following that album, was there a sense of “I want to do something very different – even if I don’t know what it is?”
With New View, I was trying to make a record that sounded like the ones that I have always loved the most – those ‘70s singer-songwritery albums that sound like you described. It’s warm. I recorded it with my band live-to-tape. I’m not saying that I made the best album, but that was the best version that I could do of that.
Once in a while, I’ll go back and listen to it, and I really do think it sounds great, and I think the songs are great. So, there’s no point in me trying to do something like that again. Maybe I’m wrong and I will. It is my favorite kind of music – maybe I have to do that again. But I just thought, “This is best version of that thing that I can make, so what’s something very different that I can do?”
I always go back to this idea that I’m going to make a really loud, kind of aggressive rock record with feedback and guitars. Or maybe more of a punk record where I’m shouting or something. [Laughs] I always think that I’m going to do that. I thought that was the kind of thing I wanted to do for this record, but I’m just not capable of it.
I knew I wanted to do as much of this record myself as I could, as opposed to working with a band.
It was just a little series of events that brought this particular sound together. It really happened on its own. It wasn’t as calculated as it could have been. I bought a Casio keyboard… I mean, this all sounds so embarrassing because it’s something that people do all the time, but I went to a music store to buy a new guitar pedal, and this keyboard was sitting there, and I just started to playing it. I was like, “I’ve just got to get this instead.” And I walked out with it thinking, “Maybe I’ll write one or two songs with it.” But I just had so much fun with that I ended up writing maybe 20 songs with it and recording a lot of it, and then I used the best of them to start the album. That’s kind of how it happened.
You’ve said that ‘80s music – broadly defined, but inclusive of synths and certain drum sounds – wasn’t something you had previously spent a lot of time listening to. So when you set out to make a record like this, where do you start?
It’s funny, when I finally got to working with Clemens [Knieper] – who produced the album with me – he likes to hear lots of references, so I was scrambling through my iTunes trying to find records. [Laughs] I just didn’t have that many.
But I started with, “OK, maybe I want to make a Suicide record. What would that sound like?” That was a good starting point.
I had had a really great experience doing this series of shows with the Warhol Museum, where five musicians would live score these Warhol films, and [Suicide’s] Martin Rev was one of the artists. So, I got to spend some time with him. There was this one night where we were doing karaoke – like, after the show at a hotel bar – and he sang “Kansas City”. Something about that moment – seeing him perform, and then seeing him sing that song karaoke – was big for me. [Laughs] I don’t know how to articulate how that shaped the sound of this record – it doesn’t sound like that – but in my mind, it did.
I mean, on the list of references I gave to Clemens, Roy Orbison was one. I know the album doesn’t sound like that at all. It’s funny the kind of things you channel. I wanted the guitars to sound like they could be on a ‘50s record – a lot more reverb than I normally use.
The drumbeats were the most challenging. We really made it up as we went along. With “It’s Hard”, I made a beat with an app on my phone. I combined two different drum machine beats. That was kind of a crapshoot, but it worked out.
I think it helped that we were naïve about all of that stuff and didn’t have a million synthesizers to choose from. I’m not a synth gearhead or whatever. The palette was limited, which I think is good. I think it’s much better to work within limitations than have a billion options.
Athens is a big part of the story of this record. It’s in the lyrics, it’s in the album art, there’s literally Greek in your liner notes. You have Greek heritage, but you said recently that you’ve been feeling “a larger mythic connection to Greece.” Explain that to me.
I mean, I’m really lucky that I feel a deep connection to a place where I happen to have my familial roots. I think you can have a solid connection to a place where that’s not the case, but I’ve spent a lot of time in this one part of Greece where my great grandmother’s family is from, and it happens to be a really beautiful place, and I really like being there. [Laughs] I don’t how much of it is because she was born there and I happened to know my great grandmother until I was 13. It’s hard to say how important that is, but it definitely this place where from the very first time I went, I just felt… like I wanted to be there.
It sounds hokey, but there was just something about the light and the air and the smells and the food. It was just all so right. It’s really an intangible feeling. It’s a visceral reaction. But I’m also really good at fitting into places. I’m really good at feeling out of sight, out of mind. I don’t ever miss home when I’m away. I can find good things about places – I think that’s why I’m still able to do what I do.
With Athens in particular, I had only really ever been there for a night or two at a time over the past twenty years. Every time I went, I just thought, “I need to spend more time in his place.” It’s hard to explain why. There’s just a certain energy there. It feels rough around the edges, but it also feels very glamorous in a way. When you’re in the city center and you look up and see the Acropolis from many different perspectives – there’s just something really special about it. And it doesn’t hurt that I understand the language a little bit.
I love the feeling of comfort and discomfort. It’s a similar feeling to how I even feel on stage. It’s this balancing act. I like feeling that way in regular life, too. I thrive on that feeling. Being in a place like Athens – it’s the familiar and the unfamiliar combined, which is a creative fuel for the fire.
The album is named in part after an Athens club – a place you describe in “It’s Hard” as essentially frozen in time and kind of grimy. You also namecheck Galaxy Bar on “My Jesus Phase”, which looks like a much swankier operation.
Well, it’s funny because there are two Galaxy Bars in Athens. There’s one location that’s kind of in a hotel – I’ve never been to that one. The original one is this small bar that was probably open in the ‘60s that’s very different.
How else would you describe those older clubs?
They’re all different. I mentioned this bar called Au Revoir, too [on “It’s Hard”]. There aren’t that many old bars in Athens, actually. But the Galaxy Bar and Au Revoir are bars from the ‘60s that are still going.
Otherwise, most places operate outdoors. It’s very much a café culture there. So, there aren’t many of what you would call a dive bar like you have in other cities.
Most people go to a taverna, where you sit down at 10:00 p.m. and eat and drink for four hours. That’s the most common experience. Just going to a bar is a little more unusual.
Did you have to adjust to a more normal way of life when you returned?
No, it was more just about the hours, because I’m usually more a wake-up-at-eight-a.m. kind of person. In Athens, I would stay up until 4:00 a.m. That was different for me, but it wasn’t as if I was, like, raging. [Laughs] It was just a shift in time. It added to the disorienting sort of thing. It wasn’t like I was doing drugs. It’s just that every starts much later.
There’s often so much detail in your lyrics. Is that something you look for in other music? Do you role your eyes at some generic expression of love?
I don’t seek that out at all. In fact, when I hear really wordy songs, I’m kind of turned off. When I hear someone else’s lyrics and I like them, that’s like an added bonus. It’s not necessarily something I’m looking for.
I’m trying to think of the last new thing I really liked. [Laughs] The last Destroyer record. I like [Dan Bejar’s] lyrics a lot. I don’t know what they’re about, but I generally think they’re really good.
I don’t think anyone knows.
And that’s fine. But they’re deliberate. When it sounds like someone is just fitting something in for the melody, it doesn’t do anything for me.
With Rebound, you wrote the melodies first, and then the lyrics, which is the opposite of your usual order. Do you think it changed the character of these songs in any way?
I haven’t thought about that. I don’t have a good answer. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.
It’s just interesting the way it works: [The lyrics] sound a little more abstract or disjointed, but after the fact, they reveal all this new meaning to me.
So, yeah, it did make the lyrics have a different quality, but they were no less meaningful. To be honest, I think I like it better.
But like I said, I get to assign the meaning after the fact. The lyrics just work as good lines, and then I’m like, “Oh wait, what is this about?” and then I figure it out. [Laughs] In some cases.
Like, “My Jesus Phase”: That song started out as a bunch of lines that I really liked, but now it’s this other thing to me completely that makes perfect sense.
You’ve acknowledged that “Nice to be Nowhere”, as a phrase, was cribbed from someone; it was something you heard and wrote down and stowed away. Is that something you do often? Do you always have an open ear in that sense?
I try. I should do it more.
But it’s like being at a concert and having your phone on the whole time, trying to get a picture or video and not actually experiencing it. I’m trying not to do that too much. I don’t want to be writing down notes continuously of what people said.
But I try to do it.