Eleanor Friedberger has been one of our favorite singers for the better part of a decade. As new artists and trends rise and fall, she's become a fixture of the Brooklyn music scene through strong songwriting and a distinctive voice. Both with her brother Matthew in The Fiery Furnaces, or her most recent solo work, her singing is subtle but sweet, veering from slight amusement to non-severe melancholy. Her excellent new album, Personal Record, has been a strong summer favorite. Tonight, she finishes her U.S. tour for the album at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. The triumphant air of the hometown show will be boosted by the premier of a short film made for one of the record's standout tracks, "She's a Mirror."
We chatted with Eleanor on the road as she neared the east coast, talking about the record, all the country music she's been listening to on tour, and the satisfaction that comes from people knowing what the hell you are playing.
Finishing a tour and going right to your own bed seems really nice, right?
Eleanor Friedberger: Yeah, it’s amazing. I can’t remember the last time I ended a tour in New York. We usually start there. It’s great to have the satisfying finish line. And I live just like 5 minutes away.
Are you still in Greenpoint? Is it the same place you’ve lived for years?
No, but I’ve lived within the same six bock radius for about 13 years.
I think I remember a few years back you riding around the neighborhood on sort of an old-timey bicycle...
Old-timey? I mean I have a Schwinn that was my uncle’s.
Well, it wasn’t one of those huge front wheel bikes from the 1900’s...
I’m not a steam-punker!
I’ve been listening to the new record as it’s been getting hotter. And whether it’s the tempo or the sounds on it, it’s been really refreshing. Did you think of it as a summer record when you were making it?
I think it’s a happy accident. Originally I’d hoped it’d come out several months earlier. I’m gonna give credit to the producer, Eric [Broucek]. I don’t think he gets enough credit. He’s a terrific mixer. What could fall into a retro-sounding category doesn’t. I think it sounds very modern. He really put a great sheen over everything. It sounds fresh and shiny and contemporary in a way that mixes so well with the analog instruments that we’re using.
I read an interview where you were talking about trying to back away from being really really intricately detailed in your lyrics.
Well not place names and proper nouns that were so pervasive in Fiery Furnaces or my first solo album, at least.
Right, but it still seems more richly detailed to me than your average pop song on the radio?
Well, more descriptive, you know?
Do you think that level of detail in music, the specificity, do you ever think that it distances a listener from a song?
Not for me. I mean, I listen to the words. A friend of mine made me some great mix CDs for this tour, all country songs. So I’ve been listening to Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. They are so detailed and so funny. It’s very inspiring. You don’t hear that in rock music too much.
I don’t want to say that music is secondary, because it’s not. Although it’s literally secondary in terms of when I write a song, the lyrics come first. But to me it’s just always more about getting a story or an emotion across, than it is about creating a mood with the music. Hopefully they complement each other. But it is about the words first.
Was your last record, Last Summer, literally a more personal record than Personal Record?
I’ve always written songs that were true, whether specifically about me or about other people, or something someone has said to me. So in that way, it’s a little bit less personal. But no, it’s all personal. You know?
There are a lot of great rhymes on the record. Does that come easy to you?
Nothing comes easy. It’s sitting down and figuring it out. But I think that’s another reason the record is so special, because of the rhymes.
Is landing on a perfect rhyming couplet something that gives you a particular sense of satisfaction?
The last record I was more about stream of consciousness, and I wanted the words to sound good coming out of my mouth. But this one’s more about, I hate to say...they’re not poems, they’re lyrics, but I wanted them to stand alone on the page than the last album, which in some ways is a lot of gibberish. It just sounds good.
“When I Knew” is a really great song about friendship. Why do you think that songwriters gravitate so much more to romance than songs about friendship? They’re sort of equally universal.
I don't know if that’s true. Again, I listened to all these country songs yesterday, so that’s on my mind. In country music people sing of course about romance, but also about friendship. I think it’s just an easy thing to fall back on. There are more interesting ways to talk about relationships than just, “she broke my heart.” I don’t know the answer, it’s just part of the long tradition of rock music. Guys sing about that to get the girls.
I know that in the past with Fiery Furnaces and even the first record, there was a lot of reworking material live. Has this tour been more about trying to capture the sound of the record?
Yes. I hope that doesn’t sound dull, but I’ve never really done that before. It’s really satisfying to get to hear all those keyboard parts that I haven’t heard for a couple of years.
Is the feeling different?
Well, it doesn’t sound exactly the same. Everyone playing didn’t play on the album, so that’s different. Some tempos are different. But the arrangements are pretty true to the album arrangements. It’s just something I haven’t done before. To me it is exciting. To get some faster recognition from the audience is satisfying after playing in a band for so song long where people don’t know what the hell you are playing.