Jan 25, 2016
View from the Top
“Do you miss it here?”
It’s a windy but relatively warm December morning, when Eleanor Friedberger and a team of photographers and stylists walk up Greenpoint’s Franklin Avenue from Transmitter Park after finishing a photo shoot by the water’s edge. The area is a hot spot for picnics and leisurely strolls during the city’s warm months, and is just one of the many things that have turned this part of north Brooklyn into such a coveted jewel for realtors and moneyed transplants alike.
Friedberger moved out of Brooklyn two years ago to the day of the shoot. Her publicist asks a pointed question.
“Do you miss it here?”
Friedberger offers a simple and unapologetic “no,” noting that the area has become progressively unfamiliar over a short period of time. It’s true, of course; the city’s state of flux is its only constant—even the most sacred of mainstays cannot be relied on for any long stretch of time. Many of the venues, bars, and shops that made north Brooklyn such a magical place to the generation of artists who first signed leases in the early aughts are gone. More and more it’s become common to feel a sense of anxiety when having a drink at a familiar dive rather than a feeling of comfort, knowing that the bar’s end could be signaled by a despondent blogpost at any time.
Friedberger has watched many turn-of-the-21st-century Brooklyn places come and go, mostly through the lens of her former band, the Fiery Furnaces, which she formed with her brother Matthew back in 2000. They were ambassadors of a certain type of oddball indie rock, their songs meticulously arranged, lyrically esoteric, and often epic—if not in length than surely in content. The band was essentially peerless, coming up in a time where most artists were taking notes from 80s post-punk, but Fiery Furnaces had way more in common with Frank Zappa than Joy Division. Since their 2010 hiatus, both siblings have pursued solo careers; Matthew went further down the experimental path, while Eleanor returned to her first love of 70s-inflected singer-songwriter rock. Debuting in 2011 with the nostalgic Last Summer, Eleanor revisited many stories of her decade living in Brooklyn with that album, and then further explored her experiences in her excellent followup Personal Record in 2013.
While much of the Brooklyn that once informed Eleanor’s songs is now transformed or even gone, what hasn’t changed is Brooklyn’s spirit, which Eleanor acknowledges warmly at a show at Union Pool in November: “I’m not going to talk much, but I just want to say thank you all for coming out these past 15 years.” It’s a sold out crowd, as was her show the previous night at Pianos on the Lower East Side. Both small venues were chosen as an avenue for die-hards to hear new material from her forthcoming album New View—her first for Frenchkiss Records, and her first since moving out of Brooklyn.
The change of scenery is definitely an audible detail of the record. “Living in the countryside, you’re even more aware of the seasons than you would be in the city,” she tells me over coffee at Le Gamin in Greenpoint. “My dad is an agricultural historian and he was also in the army, he’s obsessed with weather. That’s in me, I’m always looking at the weather.”
Indeed, the record is an earthier outing than her previous two solo efforts. While both those albums were overflowing with verbal detail, New View breathes in ways her music never did before. “As simplistic as this sounds, I wanted to have less words. I wanted it to be more repetitive and care less about rhyming and stuff like that.” Eleanor credits her new approach to her time spent sitting in with the 8G Band on Late Night with Seth Meyers. “It was really good for me, in terms of practicing songwriting, because when I first started, we were writing every day with what we were going to play that night. It was such a huge help for me to not be precious about writing, to be forced to write some stuff. Like, writing can just be two chords or four chords, or it can just be part A and part B and that’s it.” This approach is most evident on “Sweetest Girl,” a New View track that resembles late-60s pop rock, complete with Keith Moon-esque drum fills. “[That song] is a perfect example of like “Ok, here’s a song—it’s G and B minor, G and B minor, and then D and G and then that’s it! And I was just humming a melody over the top, and then made up the words afterwords which… I never do that.”
Devoid of Brooklyn nostalgia, her new material logically follows her story to the next phase. Eleanor explains: “It wasn’t like one defining event, but it was a combination of things, I was living somewhere and I had to move. Often people have these situations in New York…” She offers a world-weary giggle; when I press on the subject, she remains guarded on the concrete details. “The building exploded and I was catapulted out of it,” she jokes. “And when I started to look around, I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t want to live in a shoebox in Midwood or wherever the fuck I could live.’”
As it would turn out, a chance event would turn Eleanor’s gaze to the rural fields of upstate New York. “I went upstate to a friend’s wedding, and it was just like, ‘Oh right, this is not that far away and I don’t have to be [in Brooklyn].” And so, after trading in rent for a mortgage, Eleanor now resides in a fixer-upper estate, so to speak: There’s a cottage, a barn, and an 8,000-square foot factory building on her property. “They were practically giving the place away because it’s a pretty unusual property,” she explains. “It’s like a compound with a courtyard separating these buildings.”
Regardless of location though, the hustle of a 2010s indie rocker remains. In a 2013 interview for Pitchfork, Eleanor commented on the aftermath of her first solo record with a relatable displeasure. “I’m disappointed it didn’t do better. I wish all my shows sold out. I wish I had sold more copies. I wish that a song was picked up to be in a TV show. Whatever these little benchmarks are, you always want something more.” I asked her if she still feels that her work has underperformed and she replies, “I’ll stick behind that [quote]… I think it would be weird for anyone not to say ‘I wish it wasn’t a little better.’ About anything. I don’t want to sound hokey when I say I truly am grateful for still being able to do this. And I’ve made my life work somehow—like, barely; every day is kind of a crapshoot. I haven’t had another job since 2002. I’m just scraping by and that’s good enough.”
Scraping by or not, the sights (and sites) in Eleanor’s life have certainly changed. The industrial urban atmosphere of north Brooklyn has transformed into the picturesque rural landscapes of her new home; subsequently, her new music reflects the relaxed and positive vibes of her new home. Upon hearing an early version of the album’s would-be first single, “He Didn’t Mention His Mother,” one of Eleanor’s bandmates remarked with glee: “This is so chill. It’s like the chillest song.” Eleanor adds, “He’s from San Francisco, so he can say that.” (The players on her album are all members of the band Icewater and sometimes serve as her show opener as well.)
I don’t want to sound hokey when I say I truly am grateful for still being able to do this. And I’ve made my life work somehow—like, barely; every day is kind of a crapshoot.
And while 2013’s Personal Record commented, at times playfully, on relationship anxiety, New View is far more assured and can be at times straight-up funny and provocative. “Because I Asked You” is a funky number that sets up each verse with a set of near baffled questions: “Why would you want to take it slow?/ Or hold me til I let you go?/ Or treat me like a tennis pro? Why would you want to do that?” The answer is simply: “Because I asked you.” And later, more specifically: “Because I love you.”
“That song to me is like a joke really,” she says. “In a good way […] I mean, I’ve asked someone something and they would say ‘Well why should I do that?’ Because I fucking asked you! And I love that sentiment.”
In general, Eleanor is quick to downplay her most lyrically enticing songs; take “Cathy with the Curly Hair,” one of New View’s best and most curious cuts, which details a flirty friend dropping a cheeky hint in an otherwise innocuous conversation.
‘Do you still live with Cathy with the curly hair?,” she sings, its response lyric answering, “Yeah, but I’ve been waiting for a tall half-Greek girl to take me away from here.” She says she almost cut the song from the record, but not because of content, simply because the track differs musically from the more sun-kissed 70s folk rock. When asked if she would be worried about exposing the friend who said this in real life, she replies, “Why? Nothing happened. I mean it was a joke. It was like a cute joke. And I couldn’t not use that.”
Lyrical interpretation by fans and critics, though, is one of Eleanor’s favorite parts of the game. She laughs a lot while I voice my concern about the subjects in some of her songs, although she doesn’t always specify if it’s because I’m reading too far into it or if it’s because of what I’m speculating. On the week of the release of “He Didn’t Mention His Mother,” she thrilled at the publications praising it for reasons she says aren’t there. “I mean I hope that everything is very much open to interpretation and it stays that way, but whoever the first person was who wrote something about it, they got it so wrong. It’s so interesting to see how people react to these things and how they read into these things. That means it’s better in some ways.”
Conflict about mysteriousness over transparency has always been an interesting detail in Eleanor’s story. In a 2014 appearance on Tanlines member’s Jesse Cohen’s podcast No Effects, she recalls a fight with her brother over whether or not to use their birth names as credits on the first Fiery Furnaces record. “It was right before our first record was gonna come out. And my brother was saying about how he wanted a fake name… and I just thought, that is so phony and fucked up. And eventually he caved and just had it be our own names. And now it’s a big regret of mine.” Throughout our discussion, it remains clear that Eleanor admires mystery, but can’t help but veer toward candidness. “I mean… I’m honest to a fault, I think. I’m accused of being aloof and hard to read, and also too brutally honest. I’m a lot of contradictions.”
This duality can be heard on Personal Record, her most lyrically direct album, which was co-written by Wesley Stace (who performs under the moniker John Wesley Harding). Throughout the record, the lyrics are candid, but it’s never completely clear what she wrote or what he wrote. This is compounded by the fact that Eleanor is as convincing an actor as she is an excellent storyteller, a mixture she carried over from the Fiery Furnaces. “All the songs that my brother wrote the lyrics to that I would sing… As soon as I even was handed the page, it was like ‘this is mine.’ Because I needed it to become mine to make it work. And I feel very strongly about that.” At her Pianos show, a fan called out asking if she wrote the Fiery Furnaces track “Here Comes the Summer.” Her pause before answering a hesitant “yes” seemed to demonstrate her preference for keeping the lines blurred.
All the songs that my brother wrote the lyrics to that I would sing… As soon as I even was handed the page, it was like ‘this is mine.’ Because I needed it to become mine to make it work. And I feel very strongly about that.
She further relates this concept to the New View track “Open Season” a song in which she takes on the persona of a friend in the post-breakup phase. “It [sounds] like it’s coming from me, right?” she asks. It does—Eleanor’s conversational style of singing has made even her most outlandish musical stories sound as is they’re coming straight out of her memoir. When asked how much is really her, she says, “I’d say 70 percent.” This admission is followed with a bemused laugh; the mystery of Eleanor remains, even accompanied by this precise percentage.
And this makes sense. While Eleanor is direct about many things, she remains guarded about her love life. On “Two Versions of Tomorrow,” she sings “I won’t write you back today because I’ve got nothing to say/ Replace one piano player for another.” When I ask her about the piano player, she veers off saying, “To me the piano player thing is just… it’s my own little joke really. But I mean, in the past, until recently, until the last couple of years… I’ve never dated someone who did not play guitar. Like, I never have gone out with someone who could not play… I mean to varying degrees of success and ability [laughs]. But I never went out with someone who could not.” When I ask if this means she is dating a musician now, she laughs and declines to answer. “I have since gone out with people who don’t play anything…Those people exist in the world! Which was news to me.”
For those who remain resolutely curious about that aspect of her life, you’ve got that 70 percent chance of truth on tracks like the aforementioned “Because I Asked You,” or the album’s closer “A Long Walk.” The latter is one of the most upbeat love songs Eleanor has ever written, channeling the sprawl of “Like a Rolling Stone” while recounting a marathon hike with a date. In many ways, “A Long Walk” is the flipside to Personal Record’s similarly loaded “Other Boys,” a song that lists a non-committal lover’s Rolodex of girlfriends. On “Other Boys,” Eleanor sings “I know about her, does she know about me?” whereas on “A Long Walk, ” she revels in the glee of walking arm-in-arm with someone, without a tinge of uncertainty.
Perhaps therein lies the difference of an urban record and a rural one—the overcrowding congestion of distractions and pressure versus the open space to simply enjoy what’s available for an indeterminate amount of time. New View was recorded in Germantown, near the Hudson River and not too far from Eleanor’s new property in upstate New York; the new space and open country affords her music a corresponding aura of decompression and release.
The building exploded and I was catapulted out of it. And when I started to look around, I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t want to live in a shoebox in Midwood or wherever the fuck I could live.’
Back in New York, though, at the Pianos show, while preparing to play one of the album’s more somber tracks, “Never is a Long Time,” Eleanor told the audience that her album is a lot happier because she, in general, is now very happy. On that song, she sings “I’ll never roll with you in clover/ And never is a long time.” Essentially about the personal acceptance of lost love, the song could, in many ways, be related to Eleanor’s own Brooklyn exodus. Like on “Two Versions of Tomorrow,” where she sings, “And if it don’t work out in the end/You’ll have an open invitation/I could always be your friend.” She still loves New York, but she doesn’t miss it; or if she does, she’ll never let it—or us—know, content to keep us guessing, and keep us listening.
All photos by Michael Rubenstein
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