Q&A: Fiery Furnaces Frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger Discusses Her Brand New Personal Record
Next month Eleanor Friedberger will release Personal Record — her second solo album and the follow up to her excellent 2011 offering, Last Summer. Co-written with Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding), Friedberger’s sophomore solo outing further showcases her ability to write warm, ebullient pop songs and infuse them with lyrics that are not only clever and wry, but also catchy as all hell. (Just listen to the record’s first single, “Stare At The Sun,” and try to stop “If that was goodbye, I must be high” from looping in your brain). I had the chance to chat with her about the making of the record, her upcoming “full band” tour, and the vague future of Fiery Furnaces. She’s the best.
STEREOGUM: What have you been up to? Lots of press stuff right now?
FRIEDBERGER: I’m just starting. I did a photo shoot a couple days ago that was the first time I did that in a long time. I’m starting to play some shows; I’ve been rehearsing with a new band and making videos and that kind of stuff.
STEREOGUM: That’s cool. What is the band setup going to be?
FRIEDBERGER: Five of us: guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards. Which is exciting for me because last time around it was just a four-piece — guitar, bass, and drums. I wrote all the songs on a keyboard and to not have that live was tough. I’m used to changing everything to play live but basically we are a stripped-down rock band and I don’t think it did the songs justice, so now I’m really excited to play with another person and to really recreate those songs.
STEREOGUM: I never saw you play in support of Last Summer but I loved that record.
FRIEDBERGER: Oh good — I think some people really liked it but I think others were really put off by the fact that I basically rearranged all the songs when I played them live. And like I said, I did that for years with my band but I tried to make a record this time around that I would be able to play live and it wouldn’t be that hard to recreate. I’ve never done that before so that was new for me.
STEREOGUM: Having had the experience of putting out that other record and playing shows on the back of it, were there a lot of things you wanted to do differently this time as a result?
FRIEDBERGER: Yeah, totally. The biggest thing was what I just said — basically to try and have some ease with performing. The Fiery Furnaces made a big point of not doing that ever and never having the same sets twice and never recreating our albums live. So, I thought, why not try and make things easier on myself for once? And I’ve been playing for over a year with these two guys — so the three of us started to feel like we were a real band. And, although they are both busy now doing their other projects, I’m really glad they got to record with me. So at least some days in the studio we at least felt like we were doing a live band recording because we had been playing so many of those songs live. I wasn’t playing any Fiery Furnaces songs on tour so half the set was these new songs.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been in a pretty popular band for a long time but it must be a pretty different thing when it’s specifically your solo project and suddenly everything is specifically about you.
FRIEDBERGER: Yeah, it’s weird when you are at a venue and you see your name on the door and you are like “Well, that’s a weird band name.”
STEREOGUM: (laughs) Well that’s the dream for some people — your name in lights! Showbiz!
FRIEDBERGER: I guess. It’s funny — I remember getting into an argument with my brother about 12 years ago about our name and if we were going to keep our real names or do something different. My brother wanted to make a fake name to use. I was like, “That’s crazy, that’s stupid, you cant do that, everyone is going to know your real name anyway.” But now I really wish I had that to hide behind a little bit, you know? And also “Friedberger” … I mean, you really can’t get a less cool rock surname. So just to have something else to spell out would have been nice.
STEREOGUM: I interviewed you guys many years ago when I was first freelance writing. I came and interviewed both of you at Bowery Ballroom and I helped you fold T-shirts for the merch table. It was a really fun interview but something about the nature of that band it seemed like there was a lot to hide behind. I remember feeling early on we could talk about the music in an abstract way but you guys were not interested in talking about yourselves AT ALL, which is totally understandable. I don’t think should ever be expected to have to do that. That separation must be a little harder to maintain when you are supporting a solo project.
FRIEDBERGER: I don’t think about it too much. Although my brother is extremely confident. He could talk all day very comfortably. There is still something different between us where — although I feel comfortable being in front of people, I don’t have the self-confidence he has. But we were a good mix because we complemented each other’s personalities in a unique way. If I felt like a nervous wreck or like, “Oh my god, everyone is looking at me,” I wouldn’t be able to do it. I don’t want to overanalyze it but I must have a certain level of comfort with being front and center that I cant really explain. It doesn’t bother me too much.
STEREOGUM: Compared to Last Summer was Personal Record difficult to make?
FRIEDBERGER: No, if anything I wish I had done it four months earlier. It should have been out in January. I was kind of lazy. I’m used to working, working, working all the time. I stopped touring the last album in May or June of last year and I had the songs done — I should have just gone right to the studio but I waited until October. But, once we started recording it went so fast — the whole thing probably took two and a half weeks. All the songs were written before the last album even came out. I worked with the same producer as the last album, Eric Broucek. I felt like making the first record I felt like it was an experiment and I was just trying to work things out … this time I felt like it couldn’t have gone more smoothly.
STEREOGUM: Oh that’s nice.
FRIEDBERGER: We recorded half of it at the DFA studio in New York where Eric used to work and everything was great.
STEREOGUM: I know you co-wrote with Wesley for this record. Was he involved with all the songs?
FRIEDBERGER: Yes, that was another big difference from the last album … but it happened so fast. He and I have this great chemistry that we would have never known or guessed that we might have had … but once we started it was so easy. That’s the beauty of it — there has to be a better word than chemistry, I don’t know — but it just kind of came out of us. He’s also a writer — a novelist — and he initially asked if my brother and I would write some songs to be a companion piece to this book he’s working on. That’s how it started and I wrote one song for it and I felt like it was the best song I had ever written. It’s not on the album, though, it was for the book. But after doing that it kind of just snowballed … we just kept going.
STEREOGUM: That’s cool. That happens so rarely in life.
FRIEDBERGER: I know, and especially for me. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on that it was a special relationship or … maybe I have this knack for working with other people? Because having only ever written songs with your brother and then at the age of 35 you start writing songs with some other guy who you barely know? I just didn’t think that was possible. It seems weird … but that’s how it happened.
STEREOGUM: How was the process for you? Did you get together?
FRIEDBERGER: No, we were never in the same room until after the songs were written. It would just go back and forth — he would send me some ideas for lyrics and I’d change them and send them back. I’d make a demo and send it to him and then he’d make a demo. He’s gonna have an album coming out in the fall with some of these same songs, and they are going to be completely different.
STEREOGUM: How does doing this project of your own relate to the future of Fiery Furnaces? Have people been asking you that a lot?
FRIEDBERGER: Well, people say “Are you going to make another record with your brother?” People ask me that. It’s hard to say … it’s almost like starting over. I mean there are some Fiery Furnaces fans but it seems like there are new people picking up on it too, which is great. I don’t know. I hope that I’m able to acquire all this experience and learn more, and then if and when me and my brother work together again it’s just gonna be that much better.
STEREOGUM: I know this time between when a record is done and when it finally comes out is usually a weird limbo period. It can be frustrating trying to fill the time between when something is done and people can actually hear it … but this must also be really exciting time for you.
FRIEDBERGER: Yeah. I hope that I don’t hate it by the time it comes out. (laughs) Especially since the songs were written so long ago … I don’t want to fall out of love with it all.
Personal Record is out 6/4 via Merge.