When Eleanor Friedberger (one half of The Fiery Furnaces) penned her solo debut, Last Summer, she didn’t show it to anyone until it was finished. Now that she has released her follow-up, Personal Record, she has learned the value of enlisting the help of others, including singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding.
But collaboration didn’t diminish Friedberger’s quirky, yet profound lyrics, infectious melodies, or arrangements that embellish the music while not overpowering her distinctive vocals and lyrical phrasing.
The Rumpus: For your first solo album, you didn’t show it to anybody until you were all done? And I wonder if you did the same thing this time.
Eleanor Friedberger: No. It was quite the opposite. I’ve been working on the songs for so much longer and over such a longer period of time, and I’ve made so many different demos for all of them, and so I felt like I was constantly sharing this one. Especially because I was playing these songs live with my touring band for about a year before recording them, so it felt much more like a collaboration. There was no mystery, you know.
Rumpus: So I’m guessing these songs were more works-in-progress than when you wrote Last Summer?
Friedberger: Yeah, I don’t know if works-in-progress is the right way to say it, but yeah, it was a process of, like I said, just working them out live, working out the arrangements that way, which is something I’ve never done before. And then also working on them by myself, so about more than half the songs I’d been playing with this band that I’d been touring with, in support of Last Summer, and after the touring finished, then I sat down again and went through the songs and made more demos and different versions and then kind of chose the best from those. I started writing the songs before Last Summer even came out, so the whole process was like a year-and-a-half basically, as opposed to Last Summer—I wrote the songs all in about two months.
Rumpus: Yeah, that’s what I’ve been getting at. So when you work out arrangements and say there’s a certain sound or quality you want, how do you describe that to your band?
Friedberger: It’s funny—it’s usually by comparison. You know, you say, “Let’s make this sound like Fleetwood Mac,” and hopefully you’re working with people who know what you mean by that. Which means the drums don’t have a lot of cymbals, there are just certain little cues—if you’re playing with the right people, you speak the same sort of language. For me it’s always been about comparing, and trying to copy other bands and other styles and other songs. And sometimes that means just playing someone that song and saying, “Hey, let’s try and make something that sounds like this.” And of course, it never turns out that way, but at least you have that starting point.
Rumpus: That makes sense. I’m always curious if you start by giving a genre, or giving a key, or, you know, music notes or whatever.
Friedberger: Sure. I mean, it starts out that way: you show someone the chords, and you’re singing the melody, and then, you know, that’s very simple. I mean, I wrote all the songs on the guitar, so at least we have that to start with. And I wanted to make sure that I could play these songs just by myself with an acoustic guitar—that was what I set out to do. That I could have a set of songs that I could just play by myself and that would come across to people as strongly—but differently—with a band, you know? And that I wouldn’t need a complicated arrangement to get the sound across, to get the message across.
Rumpus: So are you thinking that for your shows, you’ll go back and forth between solo and a band?
Friedberger: I think it just depends on the situation. I’m about to do this tour with a band, and I’ll sing a couple of songs by myself, just to kind of break up the set a little bit. And I hope to be able to do shows on my own just because that’s fun and totally different. I like presenting the songs in a way that you’re just paying attention to the words. I think it’s just nice to change things up. Overall it’s more fun playing with drums and other musicians.
Rumpus: What did you learn from making Last Summer that helped you make Personal Record?
Friedberger: Oh, gosh. I mean, everything. I’d never been in a studio without my brother before, you know, you name it. It’s fun to be the one who gets to make the final decision on everything. I worked with a producer, but he was also the engineer, so he’s worrying a lot about the technical stuff, and at the end of the day it’s me deciding on a take, or on what actually ends up on the album. I get to decide, and that’s really exciting. And sometimes really difficult. But giving yourself that—it’s more about trusting yourself, and trusting your own taste. And that’s just something that slowly you become better at—you trust yourself more, you become more confident. So it’s more about the confidence. I mean, of course there are little things that I’ve learned, but I’m still not the engineer, so…I learned stuff by making a lot of demos and recording at home, in a very primitive sort of way, and that was good, but I think the biggest thing was just gaining more confidence, in terms of knowing what I wanted and knowing what sounds good and what I like.
Rumpus: Who produced this record?
Friedberger: His name is Eric Broucek and he produced Last Summer, as well.
Rumpus: What does he contribute to a record, would you say?
Friedberger: Gosh, I mean, like I said he’s the engineer, so he really—we talk about how things are going to sound, but I mean in terms of actually making that happen, he’s doing that. I don’t know what microphones to use. I don’t know how to mix properly. So he contributes a huge amount. The big difference is on Last Summer he and I played almost everything, a lot of it. And this was much more of a live band recording. But we were really well-prepared, and because the first time around was kind of just like an experiment to see if we could work together, and this time we knew we could, and it was just like a continuation of the last record in a lot of ways. So we met up before we recorded and we were very prepared. We went through all of my demos, we chose the versions we were going to record. It was very well-planned, so the actual recording only took place over a few days, really.
Friedberger: But we recorded at the DFA Studio in the West Village, where he used to be the house engineer, and he knows that room very well, and so it was very efficient. And I owe that to him.
Rumpus: Were there any songs that were much harder to write and get accurate than the others?
Friedberger: No, I think it’s funny, the one song that, to me, I had the most trouble with—it’s funny because it was the first single, “Stare at the Sun,” which was one of the first I wrote for that album, and yet I was never sure on what the arrangement should be. And it’s such a simple song, it’s like three chords, and the first time, when I first was playing it, I was doing it in a very pretty, kind of folky style, and then I showed it to my band, and we started playing it very slow and heavy, and then it sped up and became more this kind of surfy, pop rock song. That was the hardest for me because it was one of my favorites and yet I never knew what the arrangement should really be. And the version that’s on the album, I’m still not convinced that’s the best version. That was a tough one for me. I still like the song, but I’m not convinced that’s the way it should go. And I think maybe that’s a sign that it’s a good song, because it stands up in all these different arrangements.
Rumpus: Yeah, definitely. That was the first one I was really drawn to, and then the others just started opening up more. Maybe there was just something really catchy about it. Did you write more material than you could use for the record?
Friedberger: No, I mean I would start songs, but I didn’t go far with ones I didn’t feel strongly about. So yeah, there are a few things I could sort of clean up and fix up if I had to, but these were the strongest ones, this year.
Rumpus: Now, when you’re not on the road, do you keep to a writing or practice schedule, or is it more free-form than that?
Friedberger: Yeah, I would like to say I have some kind of schedule, but no, it’s just about sitting down and working when you feel like you have to. Like I said, I had this long gap between when Last Summer was finished and when it came out, and that was a really productive time for me. Just figuring out how I was going to play songs from Last Summer and how I was going to present myself as a solo artist. I felt like I was starting over, I had to think of myself in a new way. That’s when a lot of this writing took place. And it was fun, it was exciting. But I’m not good at writing when I’m on the road, or when I’m in the middle of doing the kind of stuff I’m doing right now.
Rumpus: Is there something you go to when you feel like you need more inspiration? Do you have standard go-to albums or books or anything?
Friedberger: No. Not at all. Usually you’re inspired by something new, so you don’t go back to something to get inspired, generally speaking. Although for Last Summer I was kind of digging around for songs I’d written ten years ago, songs that I’d never really used, you know, I’d use those as starting points. But I can’t imagine doing that again. Like for this album, I was listening to—because like I said, I was kind of starting out, presenting myself in a new way, as a singer-songwriter—so I started listening to a lot of singer-songwriter-y music, especially 1970s English male singer-songwriters who I’d never listened to. But I was listening to a lot of new—new to me, not “new”—music, and that definitely influenced me.
Rumpus: Who are some of your favorite ’70s male singer-songwriters?
Rumpus: I’m not familiar with him, either.
Friedberger: Those first two albums are really beautiful.
Rumpus: What have you been reading lately?
Friedberger: Oh god. Just last night I got those reissues of two Renata Adler books. I had insomnia—I woke up at three in the morning last night and read about half of Speedboat.
Rumpus: Does reading help your insomnia?
Friedberger: Not really.
Rumpus: I have terrible insomnia, so just for a moment I was like, Wow, maybe Eleanor has all the answers!
Friedberger: No, I mean normally I just toss and turn. Normally I wake up at four-thirty or five. But last night I woke up at two-thirty, which is crazy. It was like, well I can’t—I need to do something, so hopefully I could get another five hours of sleep later. Anyway…no, I have bad insomnia. I don’t have a good answer for it. I think I should start taking sleeping pills, probably.