Photography by Philip Cosores
It’s November in Los Angeles, which means that it’s still nice enough to sit outside and talk with Eleanor Friedberger in the Abbot Kinney neighborhood of Venice, California. Neither of us are all too familiar with the area, but the block is populated with cafes and nooks for people to have a conversation. She explains that much of her third solo album, New View, was rehearsed on the other side of town in Echo Park, at a space called Bedrock. Friedberger jokes that in LA, musicians wear their sound; a person’s project is visible by the way they look, something she never noticed during her 14 years living in Brooklyn.
That thought peppers our conversation. As we discuss her new band, her new home in Upstate New York, and her new music, Friedberger is eager to observe how things change, how locations differ, how new becomes old and old becomes new again.
“I called the album New View because I thought it looked good and sounded good,” she says, shades pulled down over her eyes but her mouth and hands fully animated. “For me, it’s about changing my perspective. I don’t want to say I’d been in a rut, but I’ve felt so much like my whole identity was about this place that I lived in for years. This one neighborhood in New York. That’s where I learned to become an artist. And it took me a long time to be able to leave that, to realize it was a good thing to move on from that space. And I did, and I couldn’t be happier now.
“It’s important to keep changing your perspective in your work and in your friendships and in your relationship,” she continues. “I’m just trying to hammer that home for myself.”
Friedberger’s career to date has been marked by change. For more than a decade, she recorded music with her brother Matthew as The Fiery Furnaces, releasing eight studio albums full of songs that could never be pinned down easily. In hindsight, it’s remarkable that the Furnaces’ idiosyncratic tunes were able to find an audience at all, speaking as much to the way music was experienced in the aughts as to anything about the band in particular.
“The guys who play in my band are all 10 years younger than me,” she says, “and they have their own band, too. When I give advice to them, I always feel like this jaded person. They are so optimistic, and if I were them, I’d be like, ‘Why am I even bothering with this?’ It’s just so hard. The competition has increased exponentially, and it just seems so daunting to me. I look at Consequence of Sound or Pitchfork or whatever, and I don’t even know any of these bands. To me, it’s getting weirder and weirder.”
Sure, some of the adventurousness that characterized musical discovery in the aughts has faded, with metrics like album sales and artist popularity taking more of a front seat even in critical discussions, but Friedberger doesn’t want to come across, in her words, as a “luddite.”
“It seems like everyone’s attention span must be decreasing every year with the way that we’re exposed to music and the way we’re consuming things,” she says. “When we started, people were still buying records, so it’s been interesting to see that change. To me it’s very sad. But I think people were able to pay more attention because there were less things going on. People were actually listening to whole albums and not just 30-second clips on YouTube or Spotify.
“At the same time, these guys I play with listen to most of their music on Spotify, and they are listening to so much music. Maybe they’re not listening to whole albums, but they seem to be able to rattle off all these things. That’s just not how I do things. I’m still so old-fashioned. People tell me about something, and then I listen to it, and then I listen to it 150 more times, and then I go on to the next thing. And I still buy records. I even buy things on iTunes. My label is trying to convince me that I need to join Spotify and I need to make playlists, but I just think that’s cheating. Still, I’m going to do it to see what it’s all about.”
Friedberger maintains her curiosity in life — it’s one of the driving forces that brought her to this point. Her first experiments with music happened courtesy of her brother buying her a guitar and a drum kit and encouraging her to play. Her first recording was influenced by a college boyfriend that would record his own music on a four-track. It wasn’t until she was 23 that she first earnestly performed in front of people, soon forming the band with her brother that would change her life.
“The one thing I have noticed about the younger people that I play with is how different it is than the people I came up with,” she remembers. “It was much more of a punk rock ethos back then, even though my brother is a very accomplished musician. It wasn’t about how well you could play. But with these guys and the bands I go and see in New York, it is totally different. They are so good. Two of the guys I play with went to music conservatory. They are just really talented musicians who take their craft very seriously and are very disciplined. That’s not what I came from at all.”
When The Fiery Furnaces disbanded, it wasn’t an abrupt event either. Her brother had released a solo album and moved to France, and recording her own first solo LP was the logical next step. “The thought was, ‘If I don’t do this now, I’m never going to do it,’” she says, while referring to her debut release under her own name, Last Summer, as a “little record” and “good but not great.”
“My expectations were really low for that album, although I like that album a lot more now,” she says. “At the time, I just wanted to see if I could do it.”
While she tries not to be overly humble about her first solo record, her second, 2013’s Personal Record, is one she holds in higher regard. “I think the songs are better,” she says, owing part of the album’s creative success to repeating some of the processes she tried on Last Summer. “I knew how to put together an album. Even though I had made 10 albums before that, it’s a lot different when you’re the boss. And the new album is that multiplied.”
In a way, New View might be the most confident record of Friedberger’s career. Though it’s billed as a solo album, she considers it more of a band record than anything she has ever been involved with — the result of taking her time with working out each individual song, rehearsing long hours, and taking the music on the road before recording the final product. It’s also the first time that Friedberger has given herself a producer credit on an album. “I felt like I knew what I was doing and could tell everyone what to do.”
It’s true: New View contains some of the best collaborative moments of her career, including the jamming conclusion of “Two Versions of Tomorrow” and the soaring, McCartney-esque finish of “All Known Things”. But there are parts of the record that are definitely Friedberger, where her voice and her narratives are in complete control, displaying a mastery of tools that she’s been honing for more than a decade. It’s for this reason that even the suggestion of a Fiery Furnaces reunion gets a response like, “I’m really enjoying what I’m doing. I feel like I’m on a roll and don’t want to lose that momentum.”
Still, Friedberger and her brother are close, and she is not opposed to an eventual return of the band. She even notes that the upcoming 30th anniversary of Chicago venue the Empty Bottle would make sense for a brief reunion, if only because the band played there so many times over the years. But so much about what The Fiery Furnaces were, an experimental indie rock band in a particularly crowded period of indie rock, is opposed to where Friedberger is at now. Lately, watching her perform is more like seeing Mick Jagger on stage than a stiff indie songwriter, and that’s no accident. When I bring it up, she gets a little embarrassed, as if she’s worried about betraying her roots.
“I remember the first time my brother saw the band I’m playing with now,” she says. “We were in Brooklyn for this BAM event that The National curated. The first thing he said to me was that the band is so not-indie. That was his first comment. And I think that’s true. We don’t want to be that, whatever his idea of indie is. I want to sound like Fleetwood Mac. I want to sound like a real rock band, not an indie rock band. I want to be Roger Daltrey.”
Her embarrassment quickly fades, and the confidence that can be heard in her music, that pushes her to change, returns. “Classic rock is still what I love most and want to emulate. I don’t want to be an indie rocker anymore.”