Eleanor Friedberger, solo artist and one half of sister-brother duo The Fiery Furnaces, talks to TGA about breaking away from sibling dependence and writing music for Andy Warhol ahead of UK shows
Eleanor Friedberger is probably best recognised as one half of the The Fiery Furnaces, the indie rock band she formed with her brother, Matthew, in 2000.
Not easy to define, the band split critics with their genre-defying conceptual approach – not only in their recorded music but also in the way they interpreted their songs live.
In 2011, Friedberger felt it was time to try going it alone. Flying the security of the sibling nest, the New Yorker has since released three solo albums, Last Summer, Personal Record and the most recent New View.
Following the pattern set during her time with The Fiery Furnaces, her latest offering is a reinvention of sorts, bringing fans an alternative new sound she’s enjoyed experimenting with. It’s poppier, and evocative of the rustic charm of her new environment. But it’s presented with the vocal style fans are familiar with — the unmistakable warm, inviting alto she’s known for that hugs her engaging word play.
Clearly a proponent for embracing new challenges, however far it takes her out of her comfort zone, she also relished the chance earlier this year to participate in an exciting project she was asked to contribute to.
Joining Bradford Cox (Deerhunter) and Martin Rev (Suicide) — to name two — she was invited alongside other artists to write and perform live scores for fifteen previously unseen short films by artist Andy Warhol at The Barbican. All of the artists involved were chosen for the influence the 1960s have had on their music, and she found the experience stimulating.
With three UK live dates remaining this week, Friedberger is bringing her new sound to British audiences in Manchester, Liverpool and Brighton. TGA caught up with her ahead of her visit to discuss New View and new beginnings.
For Friedberger, New View is both literal and figurative in meaning.
“The title is broad enough to mean lots of things,” she says. “It references my move [from Brooklyn] to upstate New York but also the importance of having a constant changing perspective on things. I knew the imagery for the album cover I wanted: it’s a spot where I go hiking. The photo reflected not only the title but also the sound of the album. It’s expansive.”
Another key difference is in the way the album was conceived and recorded. Where her first two albums were studio produced, New View was recorded with a live band in a converted barn, giving it a whole new feel.
“Technically speaking, I gave [the album] a lot more time,” she says. “I wrote the songs over the course of a year, very slowly. It was nice to have that much time with some of the songs.”
Friedberger hadn’t actually planned on writing a new album. Instead, the idea came organically – she found inspiration struck after working on ‘Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films’.
“They kicked me into a new way of songwriting and [taught me] not be too precious about each track,” she explains. “I had to think about music in a different way to go along with the visuals. Performing songs live and not for an album was new for me. I was in the house band and joined them for a week every month. We would get together at 10am and write the songs we were going to play that evening.”
While this must have brought a fair amount of pressure, it was also presumably extremely liberating. But whether she realized it at first or not, her own experiences of first working with her brother and then on her own prepared her for unconventional processes – and, crucially, adapting.
“A lot of bands work this way, I just hadn’t done it before,” she says. “With my brother, our records were made in the studio, and after we had made the record we would work out how to play the songs live.”
Friedberger’s first two albums were released by Merge Records on a two-album deal but for New View she wanted a fresh start with New York-based label French Kiss, which also allowed her to walk to the office.
She released He Didn’t Mention His Mother as a preview track.
‘It felt like the right song,” says Friedberger. “It was the first song that I showed my band how to play. We recorded it first and it was the first we played live. So it set the tone. It’s relaxed and confident.”
Three albums in, Eleanor Friedberger has cemented her status as a solo artist but does this mean The Fiery Furnaces are finished forever? They’ve never officially announced a split.
“I do miss playing with my brother,” she says enigmatically. “He is a unique musician. The more I play with other people I realise how complicated and talented he is. But we have no plan yet. Maybe when we get older we will.”
Matthew, like Eleanor, is also committed working on solo projects. Does she find there’s a difference in the way she’s treated as a solo artist?
She considers the question.
“I did want to prove something when I was in a band with my brother,” she offers. “He wrote more and I was the lead singer so people [automatically] thought I was the one who came up with them. To completely represent myself alone, I was apprehensive as I did rely on my brother a lot.”
This reliance translated to a lack of confidence in herself and her abilities.
“I didn’t have huge expectations for my first record,” she admits. “I just wanted to make a nice little record that people liked. It wasn’t artistically new or groundbreaking. But now I have a lot more confidence to do that.”
She feels that female singer/songwriters have a harder time than men.
“Men do better,” she acknowledges. “People are keener to see a guy playing guitar and singing, even women. It’s ingrained in us. It’s the legacy of rock n’ roll. People gravitate to it.”
It might be what we are used to being fed but it doesn’t have to stay that way. With feminist movements throughout the decades dedicated to putting women front and centre in music and beyond, and highlighting inequality, things are changing.
The current wave we’re living through, built on the shoulders of Riot Grrrl and boosted by the power of the internet, definitely has traction. One of Eleanor’s inspirations is Sonic Youth’s incomparable Kim Gordon.
“She is daring and powerful,” says Eleanor. “I didn’t think I could do this over the age of 40, and Kim is in her sixties so it’s very motivating.”
Friedberger has a distinct Chrissie Hynde vibe about her, from her appearance — messy fringe, regal nose – through to her singing voice, beautifully showcased in her latest release from the album, Your Word.
Much like Chrissie, Friedberger spent much of her early twenties living in London. Shacked up in Camden during the Britpop era, she rubbed shoulders with the indie A-list while working in a health shop, hoping to find work as a PA but getting a taste for the music industry instead.
And like both Chrissie Hynde and Kim Gordon, Eleanor Friedberger looks set to continue making albums for many years to come, inspiring the next generation – and the generation after that.
Catch Eleanor Friedberger live in the UK on the following dates:
7 September — Soup Kitchen, Manchester
8 September — Arts Loft, Liverpool
9 September — The Hope & Ruin, Brighton