Eleanor Friedberger

Eleanor Friedberger’s Not-So-Personal Record:
The Once (and Future?) Fiery Furnace Reaches Outside the Family to Collaborate on a Great Solo Album

The last time Eleanor Friedberger passed through Atlanta as a solo act she was providing musical grounding for the Portlandia tour, Fred Armisen’s and Carrie Brownstein’s night of (mostly) sketch comedy.  This wasn’t such an unusual gig for Friedberger. “It seems to be a thing with comedians in Brooklyn these days that they like to share bills with a musician playing for 25 minutes at the end,” she explains from her Brooklyn apartment.  “And I have a lot of comedian friends, so I seem to have become kind of a regular on that circuit.” I pictured the guitarist serving as a mid-evening palette cleanser, but that’s not the case. “Yeah, that’s what I’d expect too but they don’t like to break it up – I’m not sure why,” she adds with a laugh.

Regardless of the setting, Friedberger has proven herself worthy of our attention – across nine always challenging, frequently brilliant albums with her brother Matthew as the Fiery Furnaces, and more recently a pair of more deceptively straightforward solo albums, the first recorded largely in her bedroom using GarageBand. She’s playing Atlanta as a solo artist again this month, this time opening for the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy – a nice pairing of songwriters with a heavy storytelling streak running through their compositions. “I don’t know if that’s what Colin had in mind when asking me, but I’m always happy to reach a new audience – although I figure some of these folks will know me.” She still hasn’t worked out whether she’ll play acoustic or electric, standing or seated (“I have a show at the Bowery Ballroom in a couple of weeks, I’ll probably figure it out there”) but fans should not expect faithful renditions of the versions found on this year’s standout album Personal Record. Dating to her Furnaces days, Friedberger has shown wanton disregard for the sanctity of her songs’ recorded versions. She’s currently in the unusual position of maintaining two separate touring bands – one in the US and the other in the UK for European forays – and notes that her repertoire takes on different shadings with each. “I have a female bass player in the UK band, that may be part of it,” she conjectures. Her solo renditions coax yet more shadings, unsurprisingly.

Although she’s since added keyboards to the van, when Eleanor passed through town supporting her 2011 solo debut Last Summer she had a meat-and-potatoes guitar/guitar/bass/drums combo in tow. And since Last Summer had been completed well before its release date, she had already worked several new additions into the set. Two of those tracks – the Velvet Underground-style rave-ups “When I Knew” and “Stare at the Sun” – rank among Personal Record’s highlights, and among the most aggressive tracks Friedberger has recorded under any moniker. “The songs on the album would probably sound different if we hadn’t been playing them on the road for so long,” she agrees.

Friedberger has been saving the title Personal Record for some time. “I almost used it for Last Summer,” she reveals, “but that album had too specific a narrative.” It’s a multi-faceted play on words, also alluding to her jock days in Austin while attending the University of Texas. Amazingly, during her years in the Live Music Capital Friedberger never got on stage. “Other than in the living room with friends,” she claims. “But I knew when I decided to move to New York that it was with the intention of playing music.” A ballsy move, but that same quiet confidence rears its head when I ask if she feels any apprehension about playing solo after years of band support.  “Should I be nervous?” she retorts.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. A title like Personal Record creates some level of autobiographical expectation. Yet Friedberger quietly shares writing credits for the entire album with one Wes Stace, better known to ’90s music fans as John Wesley Harding, the Cambridge-educated Brit with a reputation for pithy wordplay. Following years of taking a secondary songwriting role to brother Matthew in the Fiery Furnaces – and even ceding the spotlight to grandmother Olga Sarantos’ spoken word recollections on the notorious Rehearsing My Choir – you’d think after spreading her wings on Last Summer, Eleanor’s choice of title might reflect a broader statement of independence. “We didn’t set out to write an album,” she insists, noting that she and Stace met at a 92nd Street Y symposium on Bob Dylan. “I wasn’t involved, but Matt had a speaking role on the agenda” – as did Stace, I’m guessing, given the genesis of his stage name. “We agreed to do something together and started passing songs back and forth,” between Brooklyn and Stace’s home in Philadelphia. “It kind of just happened.”

A song like “When I Knew” takes on entirely different shadings when its full backstory is understood. Sung by Eleanor (as she often did with brother Matthew’s convoluted narratives) it comes across as a playful girl-crush tale. However, sources tell me it’s actually a recounting of Stace’s dalliance with a series of women over his life, culminating with his wife in the final verse. The lyrics do offer subtle hints, including its fifteen-year-old narrator finding a Soft Machine album “cheap in an Oxford Street basement.” However Eleanor has across-the-pond connections of her own; The Chicago native’s father is British, and she has lived in London for brief stretches of her adult life.

The plot further thickened when Stace included his own versions of “When I Knew” and “Stare at the Sun” on his brand new album, the first under his given name. “You’d have to ask him why he picked those two – we never discussed it,” Friedberger demurs, sounding more perplexed than annoyed. Stace’s recordings are starkly different (and less interesting, for my money), sounding akin to Billy Bragg or traditional British folk. I’m inclined to log the entire refracted perspective/dueling version kerfuffle as another Friedberger-driven high concept, but Eleanor insists that’s not the case.

Eleanor is similarly insistent about the likelihood of renewing her collaboration with brother Matthew. When I referred to the Furnaces as being on “indefinite hiatus” she rejected the term, saying “it’s far more likely than not that we’ll work together again.” Their sibling tensions have been well documented, and in a recent interview Eleanor remarked that in hindsight she realized how weird it was to have spent an adult decade in such close proximity to her older brother. Yet the passage of a few years has her back in a mood to reminisce. “I can remember Matt standing in the corner watching us at one of my first shows (after moving to New York), and I instantly knew he was going to wind up joining us. It was kind of unspoken.”

Just don’t expect the Furnaces to get stoked in the immediate future, as Eleanor is still sowing the oats of her newfound freedom. “Please find a better word to use than ‘reborn’ because I hate the way that sounds, but I’ve felt more excited about working on music over the past two years than I have in a decade. I’ve got lots of ideas for the next album, how to move it in a different direction, and I can’t wait to set aside some time to get going on it.” But if you expect too many personal details, the joke’s on you.

Photo by Roger Kisby.