Q & A: Eleanor Friedberger on Personal Record

by Tess Duncan

You might recognize Eleanor Friedberger as one half of experimental indie-pop duo the Fiery Furnaces. After the band went on hiatus in 2011, Eleanor didn’t stop singing, and began working hard on her debut solo album, Last Summer. After the success of the NYC-inspired record, she set out to create a collection of songs that are more relatable and universal than her last. I’d say she hit the nail on the head with Personal Record (out June 4 on Merge), where you’ll find songs like “Other Boys,” about non-exclusive relationships, and “Stare at the Sun,” a catchy pop tune about a complex break-up. We called up Eleanor to chat about the ’70s folk of Personal Record, moving to a new city with just a suitcase, and being compared to Patti Smith all the time.

B: A 7″ that you recorded during a residency in Marfa was released this year. How was that experience?
EF: It was a great experience. Marfa is extremely isolated. It’s fair to say it really is in the middle of nowhere. Donald Judd, the artist and art collector, went there and founded this museum and it’s supposed to be a permanent installation. He took this old military compound and turned that into art galleries. The idea is they never change. It’s about the architecture and the space of the art as much as it is about the art. This place called the Chinati Foundation is there and there are a few other arts organizations there including this place Ballroom Marfa. It has a visual arts program but also has this great music program. They asked if I would come down there and record a couple of songs that they’d release for a 7″ and play a show. It was really a wonderful experience. I went to college in Austin, so it was great to be in Texas for a little bit longer. Some friends of mine came and [Ballroom Marfa] put us up in a house. It was just a really lovely time to record a couple songs with all these local musicians. For being such a tiny town there was an extraordinary amount of stuff going on. Larry Clark was filming a movie at the time called Marfa Girl. The movie’s only available to view from his website for like, $6. There was also a documentary film workshop going on. They were making a film about a local guy in town who had started a couple of restaurants. There was a wedding happening, too. Two poets were getting married and asked us to sing at their wedding coincidentally. It was funny. So I recorded a song that’s also on [Personal Record] called “I’ll Never Be Happy Again.” But it’s a totally different version. We recorded with a banjo player and steel pedal player so it was kind of like my country version of that song. I also did a cover of “Dallas” by Jimmie Dale Gilmore who’s from Texas. It was very limited release but you can buy it from my website. We only did 500.

B: Have you done anything like that before?
EF: That was my first time, but I would love to do more things like that. To me, that’s very exciting. It’s fun being thrown into a new situation and working with strangers and seeing what happens.

B: Did you like Austin when you lived there?
EF: I did. I hate to sound like a curmudgeon, but that was in 1994 to 1998 and it was a very different place. People were already saying that then. I saw Slacker in high school and it had changed from that even by the time I was there. Moving there from Chicago was like moving to another country. It couldn’t have been more different. It was a better thing for me to do. I was so comfortable where I grew up. I had the same friends from when I was a little kid. For me to just move somewhere where I didn’t know a single person…I look back and I can’t believe I was that brave. It couldn’t have been a better thing for me to do.

B: Was it difficult?
EF: Yeah. I should do something like that again probably. Now it’s like I’m too old to do stuff like that. I did that again after college. I moved to London with a suitcase and without knowing anybody.

B: That must have been a huge change. How long did you live there?
EF: Just for a year. The Chicago-to-Texas move was funnier, though, because we are in the same country, but it couldn’t be more different—the climate, the food, everything. It’s just so different.

B: Which place did you enjoy living the most?
EF: Probably New York. I don’t want to live anywhere else. Also, maybe I’m just old and frightened. To me it’s the nicest place to live in the country. But again, I travel a lot so I’m lucky to keep appreciating it because I can go away and come back. I used to go to work on the subway every day and that’s just the grind. It can be a hard place to live. To me it’s still exciting and, most importantly, I love walking everywhere and you just can’t do that anywhere else. Or it’s very difficult to do that anywhere else.

B: You mentioned writing this record with Wesley Stace and that ideas behind the record came from random things like poems and films. Could you elaborate on that process? Or even just talk about some of the poems or films you guys discussed?
EF: We weren’t ever in the same room together while we were writing these songs. I wish there was some more elegant way of saying it but some of it was through e-mail. It was also the process of us getting to know each other and becoming friends. For instance, there are lines from three movies in the song “I’ll Never Be Happy Again.” It’s funny because I can tell you exactly the way that came about. I was in Chicago and I saw someone I went to high school with. His name was Michael Powell and that’s also the name of Wes’ favorite film director. This is all just friendly chit-chat and then we started talking about this and that different movie. Then I ended up saying something about not having a middle name and it turns out Wes doesn’t either. That reminded him of this line from North By Northwest. It’s the line, “‘R.O.T’, What does the ‘O’ stand for/ He said ‘Nothing.'” So that’s kind of how it came about. It’s about just how you get to know somebody. And we happened to have a very good e-mail correspondence, which is unusual, I’d say.

B: What other films does “I’ll Never Be Happy Again” reference?
EF: That song mentions Nothing Sacred and Charade, too.

B: Are there any poets who inspired the record?
EF: Nobody specific. “Singing Time” is kind of a rip-off of an Algernon Charles Swinburne poem.

B: I know that a while ago you said you used to identify mostly with male singers. Do you still feel that way?
EF: I don’t even know if I would say identify with. It’s just about what I put on, you know? I think of myself as an imitator. The two singers I try to imitate the most are Van Morrison and Buddy Holly. And would anybody ever say, “Oh she sounds like Van Morrison or Buddy Holly?” I’m sure nobody would ever say that. But in my mind that’s who I’m trying to sound like. Why is that? I don’t know. It’s something deep in my psychology. It’s because I listened to Van Morrison when I was twelve years old in my room, you know? It’s because I saw The Buddy Holly Story when I was a little kid. And then I became obsessed with Buddy Holly. That’s just the way it happens.

B: I feel like a lot of people compare you to Patti Smith.
EF: They compare me to her all the time. I think the one thing we actually have in common is that I’ve seen that she’s said stuff like that. She most identified with Mick Jagger. We’re also skinny with long brown hair, but other than that I don’t think we have too much in common. I saw somebody recently in the past year or so that I thought I kind of looked like and kind of wanted to sound like. She’s this English singer named Bridget St. John. I don’t know what she looks like now. Fortunately YouTube exists and I saw her playing on The Old Grey Whistle Test. I thought, “I wanna look like that.”

B: I know that you’re into many different types of music, but I sense a lot of ’70s folk influence in this album. Are there any particular folk artists you really recommend or enjoy?
EF: Yeah, one group in particular that I hadn’t listened to before I started working on this record and thinking about the record was the Incredible String Band. In my mind you could throw away half the songs on their records but the songs I like I really, really like. A song like “I Am the Past” was totally going for the Incredible String Band sound. So I would recommend them. My favorite song of theirs is called “First Girl I Loved.” There’s a song called “The Letter” where they mention a letter from this girl who happens to be from Chicago.

Eleanor is on tour this summer throughout the U.S., so find out where she’ll be next! And pick up a copy of Personal Record over on Eleanor’s website!

Photos via Merge Records

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