Since The Fiery Furnaces debut in 2003, one half of the brother-sister duo, Eleanor Friedberger, has wooed us with her wordplay and evocative songwriting.
Nine albums down with her sibling and musical partner Mathew, Eleanor goes solo in 2011, giving us her debut offering Last Summer.
Freed from big brother’s watchful eye, Eleanor has proved her bravado voice is even more compelling on this piano-driven indie-pop dream of an album.
Her honesty and warm delivery renders a mostly autobiographical journey that she plans to take us on live as part of Sydney Festival in January.
She reflects with Music Feeds on the making of the album and going it alone as she gears up to come to Australia.
MF: Firstly I have to ask … you’ve played with your brother Mathew in The Fiery Furnaces for more than a decade; what was it like being in a band with your sibling … did you fight much?
E: The good thing is when you’re siblings you can’t get divorced or break up. It’s the best and the worst – he gets me like nobody else, but you know he is also my big brother, so sometimes it’s such a drag to be constantly hanging out with your big brother. But all in all, it’s great to be in a creative partnership with someone you’re related to. You don’t have the same kind of doubts that I think other people might have when they’re in partnerships with friends or acquaintances. It doesn’t take much for us to make it work and I think that’s because we’re related.
MF: So the question on a lot of Fiery Furnaces fans’ lips is: why the decision to go solo?
E: There are lots of simple factors at work with this. Finishing a massive and constant touring schedule, then my brother moving to another country, I finally had some time to myself. But more importantly, I had been doing Fiery Furnaces for 10 years. Most people change their careers several times and I just think it’s healthy to try something new and make changes in some way. I’d made all these changes when I was younger by moving to new cities by myself, but for the past 10 yrs I’ve been doing pretty much the same thing, which is pretty much not good for anybody. I just wanted to try something new really.
MF: Making your own stuff, it must feel good to not have to compromise with Mathew or anyone really …
E: Yeah, the greatest difference of making a record alone (apart from working with a producer at times) is at the end of the day it’s just my decision as to what goes ahead and that’s a great feeling considering I’ve never done that before. I’m 35 years old – of course I need to try it out once in my life, to try and make something from nothing and have the final say in every decision. It’s something important that everyone should do. If you’re doing something creative, you should experience that as a test to yourself if nothing else.
MF: You talk about challenging yourself and growing; what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from this first solo project?
E: There are a lot of little practical things, but the whole thing was a massive learning curve. I wanted to make a record that was simple. I wanted to make a record in a short amount of time. I literally wrote it all over 6 weeks and wanted to record it and get it out as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to make it a huge statement and make it my flashy debut. I wanted it to be short and simple and straightforward, and you know that was the biggest lesson I guess – to achieve that. It’s a big test and challenge to try to keep things simple. Making something from scratch and putting it out to the world completely on my own was big and now I’m looking forward to making another record, which is what I’ll do before doing another Fiery Furnaces record. I’ve already got most of the songs written.
MF: With the songs ready to go, what’s in store for us with the follow-up to your debut?
E: I think I’m going to approach it in a very different way in terms of the recording and try to make more of a live-sounding record instead of the studio process on this one. Rather than piecing every bit of the song together really slowly at home then going into the studio, I’m excited to make something that’s a little more live and lively with real people playing all the elements.
MF: Last Summer is very nostalgic, and right across the album it definitely feels like you’re contemplating important times gone by; was that the intention?
E: Yes, absolutely. I really wanted to sing from a naive perspective and tried to take myself back to when I first moved to New York and what I was doing. So I’m recalling actual things that happened like 10-12 yrs ago. I wanted it to be full of little New York stories and I wanted the songs to be emotionally direct and easy for people to take in.
MF: Well yeah, the album is very NY centric … it almost sounds like you’re in love with the place and you’re sending a message back to the city or something?
E: That’s a really nice way to put it. Yeah, a lot of the songs I write are mostly love letters of some kind. Not necessarily relationship love letters but just to friends or to honour a memory or a place, and I very much wanted to do that for New York. I know it sounds corny and it’s such a cliche, but I went to New York in the hopes of doing what I do now and it’s happened. It’s crazy. Totally mind-boggling sometimes. It’s still on a very small level, but at the same time it’s happened and I really wanted to make a record that captured the time when I first moved to New York as if I hadn’t been in Fiery Furnaces yet and this is the first record I’d ever made.
MF: Writing about memories or with nostalgia is all about dealing with things from the past and it’s clear that you were working through some of your own personal stuff while writing … I’m thinking of the first single My Mistakes wondering what some of those mistakes may have been for you in the real world?
E: Yeah, that’s totally right, but it’s supposed to be kinda silly too. There were a couple of songs that I improvised, which I’d never done before, and I was referring to actual things that happened at the time when I wrote them. I was also referencing things that had happened before that, like falling off a bike, but then I’m also referencing things that happened 10 summers before that – most importantly, it’s all true. I mean, every song and every line is true … whatever that means … something that happened or something that someone said. It’s all true.
MF: I’m still keen to find out what that mistake was …
E: Well, it could be anything in your mind – that’s the beauty of it. We’ll leave the actual mistake up to the imagination I think. I don’t want to give that away.
MF: The video for My Mistakes features you re-enacting parts of what looks like an old VHS exercise tape; is that what you’re doing?
E: Well, yes, it was a VHS videotape of me 14 years ago. A friend of mine made this piece for an art class project back in college. I was in it and so was my boyfriend at the time. When we were thinking about videos for the songs, we just found that old VHS tape and kinda recreated the scenes and just cut it up with a slightly different ending.
MF: The album pretty much happened within the last year. You mentioned earlier that you wrote most of the songs in 6 weeks and put it out pretty quickly. Can you tell us a little about the recording process ?
E: Well, I wrote the songs at home and made demos for all of them in Garage Band – the free software that came on my MacBook Pro. I’d been making home recordings for years, so I’ve always been messing around with my computer. Anyway, I made demos for all the songs and then worked with a producer to record the actual songs you hear on the album using those demos as templates. He and I played as much as we could and then we got a couple of other guys to play the rest of the instruments.
MF: Producer on the album Eric Broucek has been working mostly with DFA records. He’s known for his dance/house prowess with LCD Soundsystem and The Juan Maclean. He’s essentially working with artists in genres and styles you wouldn’t associate with Eleanor Friedberger or The Fiery Furnaces. Roosevelt Island has got a real Motown soul or even neo disco sound to it. Was that Eric’s influence coming through there?
E: I mean, maybe I’ll release the demos at some point – who knows. But to answer your question – in Garage Band there are a handful of drum beats that come with it and one of them was Motown drums number 3 or whatever and that was the one I liked the best. That’s why it sounds like that! I mean, obviously we got people to play it live and play those drum patterns much better. That dance soulful feeling was the idea for the song all along, but for sure Eric influenced the song a lot as well and he did an amazing job with the record. The attention to getting the drums and bass sounds right or the overall picture ‘locked in’ as he would say – that totally came from his background with DFA.
MF: So can we expect to be ‘locked in’ at your Sydney Festival show in January?
E: I’ve been playing shows with a band and also on my own, but in Sydney it’s going to be on my own. It’ll be like as stripped back as one could get – just me and my guitar. I hope that doesn’t disappoint people.
MF: You and Mathew have recorded 9 albums over the years. Are The Fiery Furnaces coming back with number 10 anytime soon?
E: Not too soon. I wish I had more specific details on what it’s going to be but I don’t. I’m going to make another record on my own first and my brother’s got his own stuff going on too, but we will make a number 10 album for sure without a doubt.