Let’s get this out of the way first off: prog-pop sibling duo The Fiery Furnaces are still a band and Eleanor Friedberger‘s debut solo album, Last Summer, is simply an outlet for the singer-songwriter’s passion for ’70s-influenced rock, pop, and fashion. Hey, if her brother can do it multiple times in one year, she’s afforded the right, too.
Despite her on–and–on again relationship with the fashion world, being in a well-regarded band for more than ten years, and dating Franz Ferdinand‘s Alex Kapranos for a spell, Ms. Friedberger isn’t quite a household name. No matter. Her retro-pop gems shine just as much under a bushel of obscurity. They’re deceptively simple, but worm into your brain with just enough force. (See: “My Mistakes“)
Last Summer finds the indie-pop queen looking back on her adventures and romantic mishaps in Brooklyn with a charming naïveté that’s sorely lacking in many of 2011’s other nostalgia-centric releases. Prefix talked with Friedberger about how the Furnaces’ last proper album, I’m Going Away, led to her inaugural suite of solo recordings, musical love letters to New York, and her appreciation for Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 surrealist comedy-drama fantasy, O Lucky Man!.
What have you been up to as of late?
I’ve been practicing with some different people and trying to figure out how I’m going to play this new stuff. I just did a Fiery Furnaces tour in May. I feel like I just got home in some ways. I’ve also been making videos and all the stuff that comes with trying to have a career in the music business these days. I’m also setting up a website and signing up for Twitter. Signing up for all this shit I wish I didn’t have to do, and yet I love doing it. [Laughs]
So, you just dove into the world of Twitter?
Yeah, I just started it a few days ago. I haven’t figured it out and get people to follow me. I’m not going to use it other than to announce when shows are happening. Maybe I will get really into and start posting really weird things when I’m drunk. The whole thing is really daunting to me.
You mentioned making some videos and I wanted to ask about the one for the single, “My Mistakes.” Was that your idea or your friend Sara Magenheimer’s?
It was my idea, but it came from my friend Beth’s old VHS tape. It was something she shot while we were in college about 14 years ago. We found the tape recently. We were laughing our asses off while watching it. I approached Sara and said, “this is what I want to do.” She did a great job shooting it and edited it. I still have the same dress and a couple of the same posters in the kitchen. We were trying to figure out if I should make out with a different guy or have Britt Daniel [ex-boyfriend/lead singer of Spoon] to come back and do it again. I liked the ending that Sara decided on.
Why did you shoot the original video?
My friend Beth’s just did that for an art class at the University of Texas. It was an assignment and I was the “actor.”
Are the other videos you’re making for other tracks off the album or something else?
Yeah, some are a few promo-y things. I’m going to do another proper music video at the end of July in Los Angeles. That will be with Scott Jacobson, who directed The Fiery Furnaces’ video, “Even in the Rain.” That’s the one where we’re acting out Easy Rider.
How do you keep all of those ancillary things, such as promotional music videos, fresh and interesting when most these days are an afterthought?
Well, I try to work with friends. That keeps it fun. My friend Angie is helping me with my website and my friend Sara directed the video. It’s a funny thing doing this record on my own since I’m so used to compromising. Compromises can be both the best and worst thing of any collaboration. Now that I don’t really have to compromise on the music side of things, it’s nice to still collaborate with other people for the non-musical stuff.
The new album is not as frenetic as some of The Fiery Furnaces material. It has some slower grooves to it.
Yeah, it shows a different side of me that I didn’t know was there. I worked with Eric Broucek and he’s a young guy that used to be the house engineer at DFA Records. So, he comes from a very different background than me. He’s got a dance and mixing background. You said something about the groove, and Eric is all about the bass and drums regardless of whether it’s an uptempo or downtempo song. That was a new thing for me. He really locks it in. I think that has a lot to do with the sound of the album.
I’ve read a few interviews in the past where you mentioned that The Fiery Furnaces’ songwriting dynamic slowly morphed from Matt helping you to you helping him. Did any offer any advice on this record at all?
I haven’t even given my brother a copy of the album. I didn’t play it for anybody. I made all these demos at home on Garage Band and I gave the demos to Eric, who is the boyfriend of a good friend of mine. It was just around the corner of my house. Every move was very quiet and natural and I wrote it pretty fast. I didn’t go out and announced to people that I wanted them to work on my “solo record.” It was perfect timing after our Fiery Furnaces tour last June. I had some songs already and then I really put my head down and wrote some more in July and August. Then Eric and I finished up the record in October and November. I wanted to write, record, and release all of the songs within a year. I’m pretty happy with the results.
Who is going to be in the band for the July dates?
I’m doing more of a solo promotional tour more than anything else. I will be flying around and going out to the West Coast. For that, I am going to be on my own. I don’t want to give the false impression that I’m doing this “solo-acoustic” thing now. That’s not what the album sounds like at all. I will be playing some shows like that, but not a lot. I will be playing a few New York shows with a guy from Ted Leo and MGMT. Another guy used to play in Be Your Own PET and another is from Smith Westerns. It’s basically just a bunch of people from my neighborhood. I should say that my “band” will be a rotating lineup based on where it is and who is available at the time. Luckily, I have a lot of friends who are musicians.
You’ve worked as a musician for a long time. Is it surreal looking back or strange?
It’s not surreal, but sometimes I wonder, “where did all the time go?” Yesterday feels like last week or last month feels like five years ago. I feel extremely lucky to be doing this for eight years. I’ve been all over the world. Last month we had a great, great experience. [The Fiery Furnaces] flew to Barcelona to play the Primavera Sound Festival. We stayed there for four days. I can’t believe that was work. There were so many great bands and we even made a little money. It’s not always like that, but when that happens you just can’t believe you luck. I wouldn’t say it’s surreal. A lot of it’s a lot of hard work. Playing in front of people is one of the greatest things, but all the traveling is really tiring.
A lot of your songs on this album have film references. Specifically, you mention The Girl Who Played With Fire on “Scenes from Bensonhurst.” What movies have you watched recently that kind of struck you?
A 1973 movie called O Lucky Man!. It’s an epic, three-hour English movie by Lindsay Anderson about this guy’s life and all these changes he goes through. The really cool thing about the movie is that The Animals’ piano player Alan Price wrote all the music. There are all these musical interludes where the characters are in the middle of some action and then a Greek chorus comes in. The film cuts to an empty sound stage with Price and his band playing the soundtrack. It’s a really cool dynamic.
Do you ever soundtrack movies in your head? Or, have any of your previous songs been directly influenced in that way?
Not so much. I think about it in the opposite way. The song you mentioned, “Scenes From Bensonhurst,” is about a guy who was showing me old home movies against the wall. It can’t get any more cinematic than that. He had gone to see The Girl Who Played with Fire that day. I think about the visual side of songs, but there’s nothing made up within them. Call it a lack of imagination, but it’s all taken from real life. It’s not like I’m dreaming up some fantasy imagery. I can see it in my head because it happened. I still want it to be open to interpretation.
That’s what I noticed about Last Summer’s tracks. They seemed very autobiographical.
Yeah, that’s just my style of writing, you know? I wrote almost all the lyrics on the last Fiery Furnaces record [ 2009’s I’m Going Away]. It doesn’t seem that different from that, but I always keep in mind that these types of songs wouldn’t be appropriate for work with Matt. I was in the mindset of creating a record that was very naïve and harkened back to the first few years I of living in New York. It is very girly and smacks of something I would record on a four-track while I was working as a temp and coming home to a bottle of wine. That was something I did every day when I first moved here. I wanted to put myself back in that position.
“Scenes from Bensonhurst,” “Roosevelt Island,” and “Owl’s Head Park” all mention actual locales in New York. Do you consider this record a love letter to the city?
Yeah, a little bit. “Roosevelt Island,” “Owl’s Head Park,” and “My Mistakes” were songs I pretty much improvised at home. I have never done that while working with my brother. I basically just went for it after only jotting down a few lyrics. I ended up keeping them, which was very cool. And yes, those are very New York-centric. They are kind of going back in time.
Do you consider this album to be influenced by ‘70s pop and rock?
Oh definitely! That’s just my style. My music, my clothes, and my furniture are all very stuck in that era. It’s what I like. I was born in 1976.
I wanted to ask about the “Inn of the Seventh Ray” It seems like a very new age-y type place from what I read about it online.
Yeah, I’ve never been there. I went to Los Angeles for a week, while I was in the middle of writing these songs. That’s my L.A. song. Everything in that song came out of that trip. Three different people said I should go to that place. They said I would love it. I thought it was a great song title and represented something funny.
I’ve talked to artists before that can’t draw any inspiration from being on the road. Do you get song ideas by traveling?
I never write on the road either. I am so focused on getting to the next place. I don’t believe in being struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration. It’s like sitting down and writing an article. You just have to sit down and do it. Hopefully, you have a good enough memory. I have a few different places where I keep notes.
I was trying to think about why I enjoy your vocal style and I think it’s because your diction and phrasing reminds me a little bit of rap. Do you get that at all?
Somebody just asked me that. I don’t know. It’s just something I ever think about putting on. I was going for kind of a hip-hop vibe on those three songs I mentioned (“Roosevelt Island,” “Owl’s Head Park,” and “My Mistakes”). A lot of the lyrics don’t rhyme, so it’s not really true hip-hop. I played Matt [Friedberger] some of the songs and he said he liked the way the words sound as they come out of my mouth. It wasn’t so much the meaning of the lyrics for him. I’ve already sung these songs many times. By the time I got to the studio I felt really comfortable singing these words. I knew exactly how it was supposed to sound. That was something I’ve never experienced while recording a Fiery Furnaces song. Most of the time, Matt already knows how I should sing any given song.
Do you think you will continue and write another album on your own?
I hope so! I’ve been writing a bunch of songs, which is great. I haven’t been extensively touring since I finished the record. When I play out I’ll be playing a bunch of songs that aren’t even on the album. I’ve been working on an album with another friend. I am writing the lyrics and they’re writing the music. I’ve never done that. That’s really exciting for me. It’s always been the other way around for The Fiery Furnaces.
Would I know your friend?
He’s not in the indie-rock world. He’s a poet/artist that goes by the name John Wesley Harding. He’s a novelist.
For some of these last questions, I wanted to just say the title of a Last Summer song and you tell me the first memory about creating it that comes to your mind. I thought it would be appropriate since this album is about memories.
That song is one of my favorite songs. I think of Sesame Street when I hear the piano bit in the middle. I just wanted it to sound so happy and ‘70s. I feel like that song could be on an episode of Sesame Street.
“Scenes from Bensonhurst”:
I love the bassline in that. That’s one of the better grooves on the album. Eric and I joked during the recording of the instrumental part. He thought it sounded like my great aunt was singing. If you listen back it sounds like a woman’s voice at the break, but it’s really just a Chamberlain. We called her my great aunt.
“Glitter Gold Year”:
That is the oldest song that I wrote right before New Year’s Eve. I wrote that in 2009 when The Fiery Furnaces played a holiday gig in Chicago. I wanted to have a New Year’s Eve song.
I think the songs on this album aren’t just about 2010, but about your thoughts on the past and future as you lived them within that time span.
Yeah, I think that’s a really nice way to put it. A lot of this album is about reminiscing and memory and how you remember things. I tried to put myself in the frame of mind of ten or eleven years ago. The lyrics have me going back and forth through time.
The lyrics on “One-Month Marathon” are kind of sexy:
The lyrics are sexy and yet so not sexy. “Can I play in your closet with a text message from a girlfriend of mine?” That was about a friend that came over to borrow stuff. I just kind of went with it to make itseem like it was a sexy thing. I have a strange number of female friends who are fashion designers. That was kind of my song to them. I mentioned 38th street. It’s very innocent and girly and went from there.
“I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight” is very much a break-up song.
[Laughs] That song did start off as a total break-up dance song, but I went back and made a chorus and completely changed the chorus. I was looking at Bob Dylan song titles and he has one called “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight.” I just totally stole that.
“Owl’s Head Park”:
That is one of my goofiest songs I have done or will ever do. I almost didn’t want to put that one on the album since it’s so weird. It’s like a dream and reminiscing. I don’t want to say I have a “9/11 song,” but there’s a bunch of memories from 911 in that one. When you see the album artwork it will make more sense. There’s a picture of me standing on the street by my house posing next to a white Lamborghini. My friend took it.
There’s a bit at the very end that I added way after I mastered the record. It was recorded on an Optigan, which is this toy that Mattel made in the ‘70s. It looks like an organ, but comes with these clear discs that have backing tracks on them. It’s read by a light that spins around. The disc I used is called “Polynesian Village.” It worked for the song and was very nostalgic and surprising.