The Fiery Furnaces’ member Eleanor Friedberger talks to PopMatters about her sublime third solo record.
If there is one word that could best sum up the backstory behind indie rock musician Eleanor Friedberger's luminous-sounding new album New View, it would be "change". For instance, New View is the singer’s first record for her new label Frenchkiss Records. But perhaps the biggest change for Friedberger -- who is best known for the Fiery Furnaces, the group she formed with her brother Matthew -- was her move to upstate New York after living in her Greenpoint, Brooklyn neighborhood for over a decade. The decision to relocate was influenced by her desire to want something more than a studio apartment in the Big Apple.
“I've been trying to figure out or haven't put into words how your environment kind of affects what you're making,” she tells PopMatters. “It's hard to really articulate... now I play in a giant airplane hangar-sized base with huge windows looking outside, as opposed to playing in somebody's window -- it’s like [a] closet-sized practice space. It has to affect what you're doing, although I don't know. It's almost like a scientific sort of experiment. And I'm happy with the outcome, so that's good. I hope the record feels open, which I think it does.”
There’s a warm sound on New View that’s full of melodic and brimming tunes that hearkens back to the eclectic sounds of the ‘70s. If there is a refreshing sense of familiarity evoked by this record, it was intentional. “That's what I like the most and that's what I wanted to make,” she says of the ‘70s feel. “That was what I wanted and I'm so happy that's how it sounds, because it could've gone a different way.”
The new record marks Friedberger’s debut release on the Brooklyn-based Frenchkiss Records label after recording her first two solo albums, Last Summer and Personal Record, for Merge. The move goes back to her friendship with Les Savy Fav bassist Syd Butler, who started Frenchkiss. “I became re-acquainted with him when I started sitting in on the 8G band on [Late Night with Seth Meyers],” Friedberger explains. “He plays bass, and one of the other guys from the band, [Seth Jabour], plays guitar. So I was doing that on and off. He just immediately started saying, ‘Let me put out your next record.’ He was very persistent. I had a two-record deal with Merge, and when the contract was up, I started talking to Syd more seriously about it. And that was it, really.”
As for what she wanted to do differently with New View as opposed to the previous solo records, Friedberger says she wanted to make an album that included musicians whom she was going to be touring with. That was the case with the Brooklyn band Icewater, which consists of Jonathan Rosen, Michael Rosen, Noah Hecht and Malcolm Perkins. “All the records that I made with my brother [Matthew in the Fiery Furnaces],” she says, “and the two I made on my own, it's like just making a record and figuring out how to play them live after the fact, which isn't exactly the smartest way to do things--especially nowadays, everyone’s only making money from playing shows. So it makes more sense to be able to do what you're doing live in a best and easiest kind of way. I wanted to make sure that the guys I was going to be playing with would be included in the whole process.”
Friedberger says she wrote the songs mostly in upstate New York; she and the band traveled to Los Angeles for three months where they rehearsed and then did some shows on the West Coast before returning back to New York to record New View. Also a departure for Friedberger in making the new album was the extended amount of time she spent working with her own band in the studio, as opposed to collaborating with an assembled cast of professional session players on the previous records. “We had a lot more time because we recorded at a friend's studio,” she says. “It wasn't so much about, ‘We have five days to get all the tracking all done.’ We had a lot time, so it was a just very different sort of vibe. We happened to be recording in a barn, and there was no heat. And if it rained, we had to stop because you could hear the rain on the roof. All the basic tracks were recorded live on tape and I hadn't done that since the second Fiery Furnaces record.”
Some of the material on New View has its reference points to the music from legendary artists, hence the '70s lo-fi rock feel. In one case, the influence behind the soulful track, “Your Word", could be be traced to a wonderful and gorgeous George Harrison song called “Love Comes to Everyone". Friedberger recalls: “There's a book that I found in a second-hand bookstore that I bought for a friend, kind of as a joke called The Game of Life and How to Play It. It's like a self-help book, slightly religious or maybe more than slightly religious. The woman who wrote that book, [Florence Scovel Shinn], also wrote a book called Your Word Is Your Wand. I just loved that title, so it started from that. I wanted it to kind of have vaguely, like a George Harrison song, slightly spiritual-sounding lyrics.”
The lead-off single released off the record last October was the upbeat-sounding “He Didn’t Mention His Mother", which Friedberger says was the first song she played for the guys in her band. “I always thought it should be the first song on the album and it should be the first song we put out,” she says. “To me it sets the tone for the whole album and how I was feeling in general. It's really relaxed, it sounds very confident and good. That was always gonna be the opener and it was nice that was the one we actually led off with naturally.”
Another standout track from the new record, “A Long Walk", is something that could’ve easily been on a classic Bob Dylan album. In fact, Friedberger’s inspiration for that song comes from two sources: a live recording of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” from the Before the Flood album, and the movie New York Stories, which featured three stories directed by Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. The song was based on an actual walk she had in London.
“The Scorsese one is my favorite,” she says. “It's called 'Life Lessons'. Nick Nolte plays this painter who does these huge works on these huge canvases, and he paints to that [live recording] of “Like a Rolling Stone.” And it always stuck with me. I wanted it to sound like that -- I wanted it to sound live and sloppy and noisy. The other part of the song I wanted it to sound like the Who, a little bit. That was really hard for the guys to play. That was the hardest one for them.”
Of the three solo albums she's done so far -- and that’s in addition to the eight studio records she recorded with the Fiery Furnaces -- Friedberger rates New View high for a couple of reasons. “The way that it was made, I feel like I finally figured out the best way to do it for me,” she says. “I'm having all the songs written and then sharing them with musicians who I trust and like, and working out arrangements with them. The sound has this super ‘70s vibe, which I happened to work with an engineer who is able to achieve that completely. I gave him a lot of music to listen to, and he sat down and figured how to make it sound like that. So that all worked out in my favor. For me, I think it's the best of all of the three. I know there's got to be a point where you have to reach some kind of limit, but I think this one is the best one yet.”
With its warm and organic sound, New View represents a continuing musical evolution for Friedberger since she went solo. When asked if her own music is a reaction to her past work with her brother in the Fiery Furnaces -- for example, some of the avant-garde features of the band's 2006 album Bitter Tea--she explains: “I think [New View] sounds more like a Fiery Furnaces album than the other two [solo records] for sure. I think there are sounds on it, especially some of the keyboard sounds, that sound much more like a Furnaces album -- just a few of the digressions in some of the songs. If it is a reaction, it's not a conscious one. It's just me being me. It’s not strategic. It's just an expression of myself, more than an expression of two people.”