"Copying People I Like": A Conversation with Eleanor Friedberger

Thomas Britt
Photo: Michael Rubenstein

The Fiery Furnaces' Eleanor Friedberger tells PopMatters all about her breezy, gorgeous new solo effort, and also tells us why she doesn't like giving interviews, which Fiery Furnaces album she least enjoys, and how performing solo was a revealing experience for her.

Eleanor Friedberger

Last Summer

US Release: 2011-07-12
UK Release: 2011-10-10
Label: Merge

"So many people say that's their favorite album. I just can't listen to it."

With that, Eleanor Friedberger assesses Gallowsbird's Bark, the debut album from The Fiery Furnaces -- a band she's shared with her brother Matt for more than ten years and nearly as many LPs. "Most of the vocal takes are the scratch vocals. I'm out of tune in most of it. It's so hard for me to hear." This is a rare spot of criticism from her otherwise easygoing, positive demeanor, and she reserves it for herself.

We're reviewing the past while talking about her well-received 2011 solo debut Last Summer, an album that is arguably more personal (and some say, more easily digestible) than those released by the Fiery Furnaces. Over the course of a decade, the Fiery Furnaces have released a series of highly distinctive and often critically acclaimed albums that defy generic categorization. The singer's self-critique concerning Gallowsbird's Bark emerges in a discussion about how she developed her unique singing style.

"I think it just comes from practice and just doing something for years. It's hard for me to listen to the old records. I think I've become a better singer, but I don't know if the delivery has remained the same. I don't know how I've cultivated my style. It changes. A lot of times songs that Matt has written -- the whole thing, the melody, the words, everything -- he's made demos, and often times when he makes a demo, he's singing, he does a funny, fake Bob Dylan voice. And then when I've gone back to sing it, I've kind of copied him doing that.

"I feel like that's ... shaped the way that I sing in some ways, which is funny because it starts out as a joke, you know? But I think I've taken that and I've gone elsewhere. I don't know. I feel like I'm just kind of copying people I like. When I sing, I don't know if I sound like it, but I started listing to Van Morrison when I was 11 years old, and he's got such a distinctive vocal delivery and style that I feel like I'm always copying him. And I don't know if anyone else picks up on that, but in my mind I feel like I'm copying him all the time."

The humor and candor with which Eleanor Friedberger recalls her influences and tastes is evident on Last Summer, an album that (much like this conversation) revisits experiences of her younger self. One of the charms of the Fiery Furnaces has always been the contextualization of experiences and references within a narrative, one that is not often immediately discernable but all the more rewarding when it clicks. The characters and plots of Blueberry Boat and Rehearsing My Choir exist in fully realized worlds that carry the level of detail more commonly associated with literature rather than pop/rock music. This, too, seems to be an outgrowth of the singer's listening habits of yore.

"For me it's still kind of a novel thing to jump around or listen to a few tracks on an iPod. I still like listening to whole albums. It's how I grew up listening to music. You put on side A of the record then flip it over and put on side B. I sat and just looked at the record, you know, as it was playing, or held the album cover. That's how I listened to music. I didn't do anything else while that was happening.

"And then I slowly started -- something I would do, it's embarrassing maybe but I'm sure millions of other people do this too -- you know just like have a record on and I would listen to the whole record and sing along to every single song and practice singing ... a test to know every word. I would do that for hours for fun. That was what I did for fun if I was alone. I think that's all part of it. I don't know if people do that anymore but I certainly think that's what a lot of people did when I was growing up and we still had records to listen to."

Though as much as the long player approach suits her listening and writing habits, she admits that one goal for her solo album was to create something a bit less dense and more socially friendly than her work with her brother. She says, "I still like albums and I choose albums to listen to that I can listen to all in one sitting. Even just as simple as, I had a few friends over last night and I want to put something on. I want to be able to enjoy the whole thing. So that means I don't have to get up. You know I can sit down and talk to people, so I want to choose something that I can listen to for 40 minutes. And that's just how I think about music and that's how I wanted to make this record, too.

"I wanted to ... this sounds really terrible; there must be a better adjective, but I wanted something 'pleasant' all the way through that you could sit down and listen to in one sitting. The Fiery Furnaces records, I don't think so much of that because they're so long and there's so much going on. I think it's hard to sit down and listen to the whole albums sometimes."

If there is one most frequent reproach of the Fiery Furnaces discography, it is critics' dissatisfaction with the music's so-called "difficult" qualities. I observe that writers seem so ready to hurl that charge at an ambitious pop-rock act but look the other way when nearly the exact sorts of songwriting calisthenics are used in other musical genres, such as hip-hop. "I love that you compare it to a hip-hop album," she says. "They're crazy. There's so much stuff going on, and it's changing constantly and then there's a skit in the middle of the song -- and that's the most mainstream, popular thing going. I don't know. Maybe it might be some of the lyrics are complicated and they're very specific.

"Maybe because people don't know some of the references they tune out or something ... and the fact that the instrumentation is so varied and a melody only lasts for a few bars or something like that. I don't know. To me it doesn't sound that way, and it doesn't sound complicated. So I don't know. And I hate -- people have been asking me what's the difference and I've been saying well this record [Last Summer] is more simple as opposed to more complex. And I hate that I've been saying that, but I don't know how else to describe it."

There are actually many ways to describe Last Summer, which is ostensibly a breezy summer release, but one that packs a wide variety of tones and emotional layers into its taut running time. I ask if the record is any more "edited" than a Fiery Furnaces release. She admits that there's very little Fiery Furnaces material that didn't make it onto albums: "As you can tell by the length of the records and the density of them -- Matt doesn't like to edit. He likes to put everything on. So we don't throw away that much stuff. There are very few songs that we haven't included on albums that are floating around."

Our conversation next turns to the recording itself. How did the development of her solo material compare to how songs are written with her brother? "For my record, the very first song that I recorded with Eric [Broucek], who produced it, was the song that became "I Won't Fall Apart on You Tonight", and it was completely different ... it kind of almost sounded like [The Fiery Furnaces'] "Single Again".

"First of all, it didn't have the chorus -- it was an instrumental chorus. It started out as a dance-y synth-y pop song. And I thought that maybe that was the direction I wanted to take the album. And then we kind of scrapped that quickly. Then next version was with a full rock band. I added the chorus, and I thought I wanted it to sound like a Bruce Springsteen song. And that was totally scrapped. The final version is what it is now on the album.

"So in terms of experimenting and throwing things away, that was very much the case for that one song on this album. The versions are so different. That song was actually the last song we recorded on the last day, and I was like, 'I can't keep this weird rock version of the song, we have to change it.' And we just did it in one day and I think Eric had a lot of anxiety about even including it, but now it's turned out to be to be one of the favorites of a lot of people."

She notes that apart from "I Won't Fall Apart on You Tonight", most of the songs on Last Summer are very close to her home-recorded demos, and that "taking them to the studio ... was a matter of replacing the sounds [she] had with better sounds." Those "better sounds" were mostly played by the singer and producer Broucek, who then recruited friends and other musicians to fill out the album.

"A friend of his, a session drummer, came in and played drums on all the songs. Another friend of Eric's came in and played the more complicated keyboard parts. And then we had a couple guys play sax and horn. But besides that it was Eric and I. It's funny, I thought when I made a solo record it would have to be a very different process from a Fiery Furnaces record, but it really wasn't. It was us piecing it together in the same way Matt and I work, where Matt's doing overdub after overdub ... the first Fiery Furnaces record and the last Fiery Furnaces record we played as a live band, basically. But all the others were very much studio creations."

Also similar to the Fiery Furnaces' approach was her openness to a wide variety of musical influences. She says, "I always have reference point for a song. Like every song on the album -- I hate to use the word copy -- but it's something you're trying to sound like. I don't know how other people do it, but to me there's always something that's a starting point. I guess my tastes are eclectic enough that when I'm trying to copy something else, it runs the gamut of different styles and songs. In that way I think it is also similar to the way my brother and I work. It is kind of a mishmash of what we like, and we like all different kinds of things."

One of the not-so-convenient aspects of this eclecticism is making the transition from the studio to the stage. "It's not useful," she says. "It makes touring and playing live a lot more difficult." I ask her how much the live approach to the material differs from the recorded versions, especially considering the Fiery Furnaces' reputation for dramatically transforming their songs for the stage.

"I've never been interested in trying to recreate an album live on stage but I understand why other bands do it and why they're more successful, because they're a band, they record an album as a band, and then they play the album live. Everyone understands what they're giving, you know. Whereas if you make albums the way we do and the way I just did, it's much harder to reprocess that or present it for people because it's not going to sound the same, and I'm not going to have the pump organ on stage with me or whatever, every synthesizer, it's just not going to happen."

So, if you know you can't fully recreate the sound, then why not go for broke and figure out what works, even if it is radically different from what listeners are used to? "Right. That's the way I see it. And I like seeing rock bands, but I like making records and listening to records where there are other sounds going on -- it's not just guitar, bass and drums, you know ... although I like that, too.

"Saying all that, I've been trying to think about what I want my next album to sound like. As fun as it is -- the idea of like, making a dance record -- I feel like I should try and do something that is easier to present live, that's not so different from the record. I don't know if that's me just trying to play it safe, or what, but it is something I've been forced to think more about lately. Because I've relied so much on my brother being the arranger and the bandleader and now I'm put in that situation. And it's a really, really hard job. And I have so much more respect even now for him for doing that for so many years and changing it so dramatically and pulling it off. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I think I'm a good front person but I'm not necessarily a good band leader. It's just a whole other set of skills that I'm not sure if I'm cut out for, you know?"

Preparing Last Summer for her tour caused Friedberger to rely on the members of her band, who became more familiar with the songs than the singer herself. "You know I'm like practicing with these guys and we're like, 'what should we do?' It's not something that ... I love singing and I like performing, but in terms of figuring out arrangements -- the guys I'm playing with have listened to the album a million times and they're trying to play it as exactly, as close as they can to the recording, and I hadn't listened to the recording in months, so I'm just like, I don't even know what they're talking about. It's a funny thing."

Another new experience the album created for the singer was a series of shows during which she was on stage completely by herself. She describes these shows, which took place in between performances with the full band, as revelatory.

"It was terrifying at first but then I got better at it and it was fun and in the end it was really fun. It's really -- liberating might be too strong a word -- but it is a very free thing. I really didn't want to be that girl with a guitar and trying to pretend. I'm not a good guitar player. It's just like I can't pull off that folky thing very well. But at the same time there's nothing more perfect than being on stage alone, singing with a guitar. It's a very perfect, pure thing, and I never really got to do that before, so I really enjoyed it. And just to be alone on stage is really kind of thrilling in the right setting, and I think it makes a big impression sometimes. Even if you're being very quiet, sometimes it's a lot more powerful."

Considering the seemingly personal nature of Last Summer's remembrances, I observe that the album's lyrics are often very specific, but still ambiguous enough to allow listeners to imagine their own interpretations. She affirms this, saying, "Every song is true and either about me or someone I know. There's nothing -- there's no imagining on it at all, in it. It's all real, to me. As you just said, I want people to be able to make up their own stories or ideas of what it's about. I can go line by line and tell you what each one is about, but I don't think that's very interesting."

The final part of our discussion concerns her status as a professional musician and her misgivings about certain aspects of the modern independent music landscape. From the outside looking in, Friedberger and the Fiery Furnaces appear to be success stories within that world, but she's careful to spell out exactly what that success adds up to.

"It's funny. I mean it's all so relative. Matt and I, we don't feel like we're successful at all. We feel like we're failures in a lot of ways. I mean, we're just scraping by, and I feel like we've had opportunities where maybe we didn't take advantage of them. It's just funny the way you view your own work and your own career, or whatever. Saying that, we are still going and I don't have another job, so ... we haven't compromised anything. We've just being making records that we want to make, and we've been fortunate enough that a few people still come and see us play."

Of the regular faces that return to see her band on tour, she says, "We're so grateful for that. But in terms of having an audience that's grown, I don't know if we've been that successful at that. It seems like it's kind of either gotten smaller or stayed the same. We need advice about how to reach more people, if anything."

One of the areas of influence that gives Friedberger pause is the tyranny of the blogosphere. "We've just never been that savvy about that kind of stuff. We're just too old fashioned, I guess ... I try not to look too much at all this stuff. I hate the fact that one website has so much control over people -- not their opinions, but -- even though there is so much to read out there online, there are only a few sites that have a big influence on people. That's kind of a shame."

While she acknowledges the taste-making roles of web criticism and journalism, she does not embrace the way the Internet creates virtual personas. Citing a recent experience, she says, "It's bizarre. I get E-mail updates from a Twitter feed that Merge runs, and it was an interview that I did and I stupidly looked at it and I hated the way I was represented. I shouldn't have even looked at it, it's just out there. It's really hard to try and figure out how much you want to shape your online image, because you have no control really. Or else you just don't do any of it, which I wish I was in a position where I could just say 'no' and not do any interviews. That would be ideal. There are a lot of 'indie' musicians who don't give many interviews either and they can get away with it. I would love to be in that position. Not that I haven't enjoyed talking to you."

Looking at the new year ahead, Friedberger says all of her musical outlets are likely to stay active, but she's not sure which will take top priority. "It's not set in stone. I think I would rather do a solo album first, just because I feel like I'm on a little bit of a roll and I don't want to stop that momentum. And I know with Matt and I that we can pick it up at any time, really. So that's how I'm feeling now, but we'll see what happens."





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