Eleanor Friedberger (Joe DeNardo)

Eleanor Friedberger on leaving Brooklyn, approaching 40 and why she’d be happy to sell out: "I don’t think that attitude really exists anymore"

Salon talks to Friedberger about her new album, "New View," David Bowie and a woman in the White House


Marc Spitz
January 23, 2016 4:14AM (UTC)

Eleanor Friedberger began her career at the start of the century as a member, with brother Matthew, of the progressive, mischievous duo Fiery Furnaces. For the last half-decade, however, she’s solidly reinvented herself as a singer-songwriter of catchy, accessible, storytelling indie pop. 2011’s “Last Summer” has become something of a cult classic, and 2013’s “Personal Record,” a collaboration with John Wesley Harding, was even more critically lauded.

Friedberger has also — perhaps unintentionally — developed a reputation for being a muse; one with a much-copied sense of casual glamour. Years of low-key touring with various bandmates led to a series of life-changing decisions as she approaches the big 4-0. The band on her latest album, “New View” (out Friday), provides a more permanent foundation. She’s forgone Brooklyn for a place upstate and doesn’t seem to be looking back.

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Here, we discuss her legacy, the new album, the upcoming election, and what it’s like to be the public subject of a love song.

Who are you mourning, David Bowie or Glenn Frey? Rather, is there one you’re mourning more than the other this week?

I was happy to be in New York when Bowie died. And it’s a very lucky coincidence that I’m in California when Glenn Frey died. It’s like I’m traveling with them somehow. I’m definitely a bigger Bowie fan than an Eagles fan, but I’ve grown to appreciate the Eagles more recently. Bowie, though, was part of my life since before I can remember.

They’re both constants in different ways. The type of people that are almost presidential or elder statesmen. You just don’t think they’re ever going to get sick or have problems, they’re just going to go on and on.

We’re conducting this interview in a Bowie-less world.

That’s the best part and the thing that makes everything OK. It’s not a Bowie-less world.

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Your album is called “New View,” you’re on a new label. You had been associated with Merge for a while.

Just for two records, so not too long.

Well, no one ever seems to talk about the process of changing labels, like changing schools. There are always new people you have to shake hands with and get to know. Was that easy or hard for you?

It comes easily for me. I’m pretty outgoing. For me it’s just fun to meet new people who I think might help me. It’s in my best interests to be friendly. The guy who started the label is someone who I’ve known for years, so it wasn’t really like meeting a roomful of people. It’s actually a pretty small group of people I’m working with. I’ve had the same agent for almost 15 years and the same lawyer and all that kind of stuff.

Do you prefer that scale of business? Is that easier for you to cope with? Say you had a fluke Taylor Swift-size hit off this record? Would that freak you out?

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Yeah, I’d be really unprepared. I don’t have a manager. It takes a lot just to get through the emails and stuff. I would not be prepared for that, although I would totally welcome it.

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, because you do write very catchy songs.

I think it is beyond the realm of possibility, unfortunately.

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You recently moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York. How has that affected your music? Did you have one of those "Goodbye to All That" moments?

Not so much. It was kind of a slow thing. It’s still something I’m struggling with.

Struggling how?

Struggling like I still haven’t gotten over the idea that maybe I didn’t make it in New York City. I had all of my teenage and adolescent fantasies wrapped up in becoming an artist one day and living in New York, and now I wonder maybe I couldn’t quite hack it, even though I did live there for a long time. I feel like part of me is maybe still mourning that a little bit.

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The dream of coming here and becoming Truman Capote or Andy Warhol is still pretty mythical.

Yeah. I mean, I came pretty close. I’m not complaining. But I’m not gonna die in my Upper East Side apartment, which is part of that kind of fantasy I think I probably had as a kid. But I’m also very easily adaptable.

As a touring musician you kind of have to be, right?

You have to be. Especially the way that I tour, which is extremely unglamorous. I’m in a van, I’m driving, I’m sharing motel rooms with the dudes in my band. You have to be able to just kind of go with the flow, which I am. I like the quiet (upstate) and the no dirt. I love that too.

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It smells cleaner.

For sure. I’m in Los Angeles and I love looking at a cactus out the window. I love this too. It turns out I’m not a die-hard New Yorker by any means.

You put the new songs together in L.A.?

I wrote them before I left and then my bandmates and I got a practice space here and arranged all the songs here.

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In Echo Park?

Yeah.

But you recorded them closer to where you’re living now, in upstate New York?

Yeah.

Doesn’t upstate New York have its own myth for recording albums? Making art. I’m thinking Todd Rundgren, Bob Dylan and the Band.   It kind of hangs over everything, no? I think Mr. Bowie lived up there too.

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Yeah, supposedly at one time he lived in a town called Stone Ridge, which is really near to me. I’ve heard weird rumors about people seeing him in the gym and stuff like that.

I’m shocked there’s even a gym up there.

[Laughs] Supposedly there is this gym, and he was renting a house while his house was being worked on and he was at this gym. That’s the rumor.

Do you get comfort from the fact that you’re doing something that’s been executed before by musicians in the ‘60s and the ‘70s?

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Yeah, I feel like I’m following a slightly predictable path. Maybe that’s kind of boring.

But living and working in Brooklyn was a very predictable path; this is like a deviant path. For someone who has had your timeline, career-wise, this is kind of a curveball.

You think so? Do you know the beat writer Diane di Prima?

Yes.

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She lived in the town where I live. And it’s not even a town. Supposedly she went up there in the late ‘50s and she did one issue of like the town journal, and in it she said the town was over, then. It was like already too populated and being gentrified, and that was back in 1958 or 1960, something like that. And to see that it’s like, oh my god, I’m so far behind.

So, the Fiery Furnaces had more of an expansive, avant-garde sound than your first solo record, is that fair to say?

For sure, absolutely.

It’s been five years now. Do you recall what it was like making that switch? Was it a personal challenge or something that you really felt confident that you could do, write pop songs?

I’d say it’s more the former. I just thought, I have to see if I can do this. I thought of that album as just being like “this is just my little album.”

But it’s full of great melodies.

But the way that I saw it was as just an experiment for myself. And it was very private and I did the whole thing basically in my room by myself and then shared the songs with really just one other person, the guy who ended up producing the album. And that was it. I really didn’t play it for anybody. I wasn’t trying to make a big statement, by any means. I really just wanted to see if I could put together an album essentially by myself.

What tools did you need to create that album, beyond your guitar and your voice and the desire to do it? Did you turn to anything or anyone? Do you have a rhyming dictionary?

[Laughs] I use an online version of a rhyming dictionary.

I have a rhyming dictionary! I love it.

Actually there aren’t that many rhymes on that album ("Last Summer"). I actually wrote most of the songs on that album on a keyboard and was messing around with pre-made drum sounds that are in GarageBand.

Do you anthropomorphize your instruments or do you just see them as tools?

I don’t. I’m such a bad guitar player — and I’m not saying that to be overly self-deprecating — I’m just not a good guitar player.

It’s surprising to hear you say that. You can tune a guitar and play four chords, right?

Yeah, but I know people who are really good guitar players so I compare myself to who I know. I see a piano in my house or an organ in my house or a guitar sitting around and I don’t look at them as friends. It’s something that I resent a little for not being able to master.

So there are songs allegedly written about you (by both Franz Ferdinand and Spoon), and people knew that they were written about you. Was it a nuisance that that was part of your “Wikipedia legacy”?

[Laughs] I need to edit that page. That’s kind of a hard question to answer. I don’t know how to answer it diplomatically. It’s both embarrassing and thrilling. It’s weird to have people know you because of a song someone else wrote, but also that’s like an entry point into your music. It’s all those things.

When Graham Nash wrote about Joni Mitchell, and vice versa, they didn’t name each other. There was more of a sense of restraint.  

If I go down that road of criticizing one particular song I’m a monster, so I can’t do it. There are a lot of songs that have been written about me where my name isn’t mentioned. So maybe those are better, I don’t know. [Laughs]

When the shoe is on the other foot and you’re writing a song, do you feel more comfortable obfuscating and being more mysterious?

Oh for sure, but I also write songs about specific people with very specific details.

Yes, but you write songs that are not necessarily about yourself. You use “she” more than “I” upon cursory study of your lyrics.

Yeah, maybe. But “she” is sometimes me.

Can you turn your songwriter’s eye off? Or are you always scanning for material?

I can turn it off. I love sitting and spacing out more than just about anything. I can totally turn it off. But if I start an email or text correspondence with somebody, all that stuff is fair game.

Do you get approached frequently with opportunities to license your songs for commercials?

Unfortunately, no. Not frequently.

But you’re open to it?

Oh, for sure. Yeah. I don’t know any musician now who isn’t, to be honest. It’s one of those things that’s changed in the world. You used to be kind of worried about selling out, not being cool, not having credibility. I don’t think that attitude really exists anymore, unless you’re talking about McDonald's or something. I think everybody’s just like oh right, you have to make a living somehow.

I have to ask you, I saw a quote from the Guardian, where you said, “I don't wanna be a 50-year-old woman playing electric guitar on stage. There's something undignified about it.” What is that about?

I read through that and it actually really upset me because I’ve never been misquoted so many times, at least in recent years. I think I actually said the opposite. I said I couldn’t see myself that way, maybe, when I was in my twenties, and now I don’t feel that way anymore.

Now you’re in your late 30s?

I’m gonna be 40 this year.

It seems like our generation (people in their late 30s and early 40s) now has to figure out a way to reckon with all the things we couldn’t imagine. And the only way I know how to reckon with it is to just get better at what I do.

I feel exactly the same, and luckily I feel like I am getting better. I kind of reached a point, maybe making this album, where I really don’t have anything to fall back on. I can type. I can cook, but I’ve never worked in a restaurant. I don’t have much else I can do now.

Do you ever feel like using your gift to effect social or political change?

Back in 2008 the Fiery Furnaces performed at an Obama benefit that we helped organize. I think we raised like $10,000 or something like that. My parents are going to Iowa next week to do some work for Hillary. But I don’t know how organized they are or what happens when they show up or what they’re doing.

Is the election year something that’s even on your radar yet as an artist right now, releasing a new album?

It’s on my mind, but I feel like there’s not that much that I could personally do that’s going to make that big of a difference. But maybe that’s lazy of me. I’m not for Bernie. I’m not for Hillary. I don’t know. I’m a Democrat. [Laughs] I think it would be good for our country to have a woman in office, but that’s about as much as I can say.

A woman, or Hillary Clinton?

I think a woman. Unfortunately I can’t imagine there being another opportunity any time soon, but maybe that’s just shortsighted on my part.

You know, in closing, I just want to say that I really love that lyric of yours, “Today I’m frozen but tomorrow I’ll write about you.”

Oh thanks.

I feel like you should put that on a T-shirt.

[Laughs] Have you ever said that before?

No, but I’ve totally felt it. It’s something that you feel rather than it being shoved in your face.

That’s the first line on the first song on the album (“He Didn’t Mention His Mother”). That was one of the last songs I wrote, and after writing that song the album came together for me.

It’s a hell of a line. I just wanted to congratulate you on that.

Thanks. If there’s one good line then I did OK. [Laughs]


Marc Spitz

Marc Spitz is the author of "Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the '90s" (Da Capo Press). His new book on rock and roll cinema, "Loud Pictures," will be released by Dey Street Books/Harper Collins in 2017 Follow Marc Spitz at @marcspitz

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Eleanor Friedberger Fiery Furnaces Last Summer Music New View Personal Record

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