Eleanor Friedberger: Keepin' It Real

Music Features Eleanor Friedberger
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In the video teaser for her sophomore solo album Personal Record, Eleanor Friedberger jokingly makes herself look like an intense narcissist—staring longingly into mirrors while writing music, divulging her “method” for the best vocals and clearing out beaches for her personal use. Despite sharing an affinity for swimming (that’s her on the album’s aquatic artwork), Friedberger says that she has very little in common with her comedic alter-ego. Although she finds the idea amusing, she can’t imagine listening to her own released music—let alone pressing up seven-inches for her personal use as the clip wryly suggests.

“I don’t know any musicians who put on their albums,” says Friedberger, her voice curling at the edges with the thought. “It would be very strange.”

Friedberger laughs before sheepishly admitting that statement might not be entirely true. Lately there is one relic from her musical past that occasionally has been known to make an appearance at parties.

“I say this, but there’s a Fiery Furnaces record that I’ve put on a handful of times when I’ve had quite a bit to drink,” she reveals. “It’s called Bitter Tea. That record feels the most removed from me in some ways. I have put that on in my own house before. But mostly because there’s all this backwards singing on it. I bought a new record player recently that plays records forwards and backwards.”

It’s a sly, half-mumbled confession, in line with the Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter’s idiosyncratic output. Since 2000, she’s been one half of Fiery Furnaces alongside her brother Matthew. Between 2003 and 2011 the pair put out eight albums of whiplash-inducing, genre-bending art-rock, folding jittery shifts in tone, dense narratives, and revelations big and small into mini opuses.

When the band went on hiatus in early 2011, Friedberger used the time to release her first solo album, Last Summer. Full of warm rock refrains that showcase Friedberger’s velvet alto and hooks that echo the likes of 1970s folk heroes Joni Mitchell and Todd Rundgren, Last Summer was a triumph of simplicity. For Friedberger, it was a milestone—a feeling of discovery not unlike how she felt when recording the first Fiery Furnaces album, Gallowsbird’s Bark.

“There are certain moments that I can remember that felt like, what is that horrible expression that people say? The ‘ah ha!’ moments?” Self-aware, she pauses to chuckle at herself once again. “Isn’t that something that Oprah says?”

“You have these revelatory moments once and a while that make you feel like, ‘Oh this feels right, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ I think one of the first times was when my brother and I were recording our first album. We didn’t have a record label. We were just doing it. We borrowed some money from friends. We recorded this album in a handful of days. I remember after the first day, we sat in the car that we shared and listened to the rough mixes for that day. We were both so happy and so satisfied.”

Although it was satisfying, while waiting for the release of Last Summer, Friedberger found that the itch to expand her horizons was only partially scratched. Looking to stretch beyond her comfort zones even further, she lost herself in recording new demos, moving past what she refers to as the “silly, funny, weird stories of Eleanor when she first moved to New York” that dotted the album, to embrace a more universal style of storytelling.

“It was the time of my life; I just needed to change things,” says Friedberger of the motivation to change it up again. “It’s like having the same job for 10 years. It doesn’t matter what the job is. I had been living in New York for 13 years. When I was younger I made some pretty drastic changes in my life. I moved to London when I was 22, without any idea of friends or a job or anything. I threw myself into new situations much more easily. I hadn’t done anything like that in so long. I thought if I didn’t have the guts to do this now I was never going to do it. I just went full on into it. ‘Oh sure, I can play an acoustic guitar and sing in front of people, no problem’… I said this is the year to try new things and put myself in uncomfortable situations.”

Any uncomfortable situation? Although having found it in her to join the Portlandia live tour and crack a few jokes with pals Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, Friedberger quickly amends the statement.

“I’m not that daring,” she clarifies. “I haven’t done any bungee jumping or anything like that. I’m going to save that for my midlife crisis. In my mid-forties I’ll get the sports car.”

Road-tested while promoting Last Summer, the songs of Personal Record raise the bar on Friedberger’s 1970s predilection. Recorded live with minimal overdubs, the album, in all its jangling pop guitar and woodwind-glory, pulls inspiration from the likes of Hall & Oates, Television and Harry Nilsson. (“I essentially copied things that I like,” Friedberger notes.) Littered with oddly specific wordplay focusing on fractured relationships, karaoke parties and life in the busy city (co-written by novelist John Wesley Harding), the lyrical content still accomplishes a neat trick: straddling the line between specificity and universality. Not that Friedberger is particularly comfortable with that term.

“It sounds so bland, ‘Oh I wanted it to be more universal!’” she says. “Does that mean anything to anybody? I don’t know. I wanted other people to think that the songs could be about them.”

Ultimately it’s a task that Friedberger feels she accomplished. She admits that she remains proud of her work, even in the face of a string of journalists attempting to pull apart the motivations for each artistic choice. It’s a rare feat of optimism for the noted contrarian.

“I’m pretty cynical,” she says. “I wish I was a ray-of-light kind of person. Giving off positive energy. But I’m not. It’s not in my makeup … Hopefully people will come to shows I’m playing. And I hope I get to make another record. Beyond that, I don’t even know what to wish for. I hope for longevity. Whatever way I can get that, I’ll be pleased.”