Q&A with Eleanor Friedberger

by Ben Stas (Journalism/English), published December 10th 2013


Illinois native Eleanor Friedberger is known best for her role in the sibling duo The Fiery Furnaces, alongside her brother Matthew. The band gained notoriety in the 00s for its complex songwriting and experimental take on indie-pop/rock conventions. After a decade together, and with a sprawling discography in their wake, the Friedbergers took a hiatus from the Fiery Furnaces to pursue other interests in 2011.

That same year, Eleanor branched out as a solo singer/songwriter with a lovely debut LP in Last Summer. The simpler foundations of her songs make them more immediately accessible than the Furnaces’ often proggy, intricate material, and her sharp lyrics make them well worth spending time with.

Eleanor released her second album, Personal Record, in June. Fresh off a run of solo shows opening for The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, she’ll be playing a full-band set on Thursday night at Great Scott. Prior to the show, she took a few minutes to chat with Tastemakers about the new album, influences, touring and the like.

Tastemakers Magazine (TMM): First question I have to ask, since I’m always fascinated by album names: what is the significance of “Personal Record” as a title?

Eleanor Friedberger (EF): Don’t you think it’s a great title? [laughs]

I was making a list of titles for my first solo record…that was kind of the second choice. There were two at the top of the list: Personal Record and Last Summer. I couldn’t believe that no one had used it as an album title. I just thought it was a little bit too clever and jokey sounding for Last Summer, which is a very sentimental and nostalgic record. When it came time for this next album I said, “I need to use it.”

TMM: Do the songs draw from more personal experiences this time around?

EF: It all does. I don’t relate to people who write songs that don’t come from a personal space. To me that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

TMM: Is your solo work generally of a more personal nature than your work with Fiery Furnaces?

EF: I sang a lot of words that my brother wrote, [but] it was my job to kind of own it, in the same way an actor might take on their dialogue. At some point I would treat it as if it was my own and as if it was about me. I would try to adapt them as if they meant something to me.

TMM: Were you listening to anything specific while making Personal Record that helped to shape the sound and feel?

EF: I was listening to a lot of slightly obscure English singer/songwriters…Incredible String Band, Duncan Browne, Bridget St John, more folky stuff. When it came time to record I was listening to more mainstream stuff, like Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, The Grateful Dead. I hope that provides a good balance on the album.

TMM: Did your approach to songwriting for the second album differ from the first? Any lessons learned?

EF: I started writing the songs with the intention of being able to play them in any situation by myself. I wanted them to be very traditional in their structure: verses, bridges, choruses. That was different immediately. And I wrote the words with somebody else, so that was very different.

Almost all the songs were written before Last Summer came out. I did it in kind of a bubble, not knowing how the response was going to be. It was before the album came out and I was just kind of gearing up for something new. It was a good place to be. Last Summer I wrote very privately. This was much more of a collaboration with the guys who I ended up playing on tour with. It was much more of a group effort.

TMM: What about recording?

EF: It wasn’t that different actually. I worked with the same producer [Eric Broucek], who also engineered the album. We recorded most of it in New York City at the DFA studio where he used to work, so he knew the room. I recorded with two of the guys I had been touring with and two of the guys who played on my previous album. It couldn’t have gone much better really The first album was kind of a test and this one – we just executed it. It wouldn’t have been so easy if I hadn’t been playing the songs live for the better part of a year.

TMM: Has it been difficult to go from a duo situation with Fiery Furnaces to writing solo?

EF: It was different. It’s like any job, if you do the same thing for 10 years, you’re ready for a change. It’s just been fun. It’s good to keep trying new things. All the clichés are true. Especially this last album felt more like a band album that I’d done previously, when I was in a band, because all these people were involved who I’d been playing with. Before it would very much be my brother and I. That doesn’t even feel like a band.

Difficult isn’t the word. It’s been exciting. I’ve learned so much from my brother over the years – I don’t know when but I’m sure we will make another record together, and when we do it’s going to be a very different experience knowing what I know now.

TMM: How are you touring the new album? How big is the band?

EF: There are five of us and they’re great. I’ve been so lucky. I couldn’t be happier about it. It’s just been cool to do so many different sorts of shows. Playing by myself is a different beast entirely. It’s fun, but I definitely prefer to play with a band.

TMM: Any plans for next year?

EF: We’re just trying to figure that out now. I hope to do quite a few more shows in the spring and try writing a new album in the summer.

TMM: You recently did a solo tour opening for Colin Meloy – how was that experience?

EF: It was amazing for me to get to play in front of so many people every night – for the most part a very attentive audience. When you’re playing solo it’s not a musical experience. You’re singing but it’s more about just sharing your personality with the audience. You do a lot more talking. People expect you to tell stories and share yourself. It’s not something I’m used to doing but I find myself very comfortable doing it. Even as the opener I feel like I should keep my mouth shut, but people were coming up to me saying “I wish you’d talked more!”

Eleanor Friedberger plays Great Scott Thursday night, and tickets are available.

Below, check out the video for “Stare at the Sun”:

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