Eleanor Friedberger knows what she wants: An uncomplicated solo album, a tour alongside supergroup Wild Flag (Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony of Helium and Rebecca Cole of The Minders), and very long bangs. The female half of the sibling duo The Fiery Furnaces has garnered attention this year from the release of her debut solo album, Last Summer. Its lo-fi feel and airy vocals are a far cry from the experimental, abstract nature for which she and her brother Matt are famous.
Between her tour with The Kills and current stint with Wild Flag, Friedberger took time to discuss her transition from teammate to solo musician, the inspiration behind Last Summer and why she trims her own bangs these days.
The Fiery Furnaces produce music that’s been described as alternative power pop, whereas Last Summer is much more understated and casual. What are some of the differences in the process of writing music on your own versus working with Matt?
Well, I’m not sure who called the Fiery Furnaces pop, but what’s interesting about the band is there are all these really beautiful melodies that are just kind of “disposed of,” in the words of my brother, in an unconventional way. So really it’s just the structure that’s alternative, and then there are all these pop moments that are thrown at you in a nontraditional way. Matt is the great arranger—and, really, the musician—of the two of us. So for me, doing this new project was something I had to put on a totally different hat for.
I hadn’t been writing songs very much for years, because it’s hard to do when you’re in a band with someone who’s incredibly prolific, like my brother. It’s easy to just step back and let someone else do the work. So we were going to do this funny little folk project called “Eleanor Friedberger Sings the Songs of The Fiery Furnaces,” as if I hadn’t sung them all already, and I would just rearrange them into their most simple, bare-bones structure. So I had started trying [to write] again, and then in May the two of us did just a piano and vocals tour, so it was like we came full circle with that idea of stripping things down.
To answer your question about the processes, writing alone is just a totally different thing: It’s very solitary. The album was slowly growing, and I had the time to focus on it after the tour ended. I wrote the songs all in a short amount of time and recorded it as quickly as possible so as not to put a ton of pressure on myself. I wanted it to be a little affair, not to make it flashy or about “my big moment,” but just to see if I could do it. So I wanted the record to be short and simple and succinct, and that’s what happened, and I had a really good experience putting it together, so now I’m really excited for the next one.
That was actually my next question. Could you see yourself focusing on your solo music in the near future, or getting back to The Fiery Furnaces?
In the near future, yeah I’m going to try making another record on my own so I don’t lose momentum. I’m just finally getting the hang of doing shows by myself and also shows with the new band, and I really love having that balance. I don’t want to put all of that on hold to throw together a Fiery Furnaces record, because although I can’t imagine my brother and I not making records for many years, I do think it’s something we could do, say, 20 years from now and it would be almost the same thing. Because we’re not a regular rock band where we have to keep up an image, it might be even more interesting to wait around and put out records when we’re much older.
You’ve been touring across the country over the past few months—any good stories from the road worth sharing?
Oh, man. When we were with The Kills, one of the guys in my band introduced this really dangerous drinking game called “Call or Delete.” Basically you take someone’s cell phone and shuffle through their contacts until the owner of the phone says to stop. So the person holding it stops on a name, and then the owner has to either call that contact or delete them from the phone. And when you call, you can’t say you’re playing a game, you have to make up some reason for calling. It sounds really stupid now, but at the time it was really scary. And it’s proof that, like, no one calls anybody anymore. A lot of people were deleted from my phone, so I guess it was a good form of cleaning.
Last Summer seems to be almost entirely a collection of New York memories—you make references to Roosevelt Island, Owl’s Head Park, etc. So how did “Inn Of The Seventh Ray,” written about a California hotspot, make it onto the track list?
While I was writing the song and right before I started recording, I went to Los Angeles for a week, and it’s really just about that trip. Each verse is about a different friend who I was with while I was there. Inn of the Seventh Ray is a restaurant that two or three different people mentioned to me thinking I’d like to go there, and I never ended up going, and that was pretty much it. It was just right in the middle of the summer, and right in the middle of working on the album.
I read that the video for “My Mistakes” is a spinoff of a friend’s old college project, is this true?
Yeah, it’s actually not just a spinoff; it’s the actual footage from my friend’s class project. She’s still one of my best friends, we met at [the University of Texas] in Austin, and she had a video art class at one point and asked if I’d be in the project. I really had nothing to do with the story or anything, but we found this tape a year or so ago. It was a VHS tape, which we just thought was hysterical, and decided we had to do something with it. So I had the idea to recreate everything I was doing then, now. And it just suited the song so well, and what really sealed the deal was that I still had the dress that I had worn in it 15 years ago.
There seems to be a trend going on of fairly understated, or maybe unassuming, videos that accompany your songs, like the one set to “Roosevelt Island.” Are these short films your ideas? What’s the inspiration behind them?
Oh, yeah, that was my idea. I just wanted to keep up a similar style. I’m working on another one now with the guy who plays bass in my band, he’s also in MGMT, and we were shooting something last night to go with “I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight,” which will have a similar lo-fi look and feel. It’s really born out of having no money, but I like that style anyway. The “Roosevelt Island” one is very literal, and it was also supposed to be a joke with me writing in my diary and showing all the places I talk about in the song. That’s really what the album is about, a little love letter to New York City, and the song is a bit of a ’70s rip-off, and I’m just a sucker for the New York of the ‘70s.
Tell me more about the “I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight” video.
There’s not much to say yet, because it’s still very early, but we’ve just been shooting a lot of random scenes. The guitar player in my band is a young man named John Eatherly, he’s 21 and the star of the video. He’s interacting with three different women and one of them is me. The funny thing is that John is the same age I was in that college video. Hopefully it will be done by the October tour.
Speaking of the tour, do you have any plans yet post-October?
Well, in November I’ll do a few more solo shows around the states, maybe one in Texas and a few around there, and then I’ll go back to Europe at the end of November into December with the band.
Any new music in the works at this point? Or are you planning to spend some time writing after Europe?
Yeah, that’s actually been the best part of these past few months. The album was written last summer and was totally done by November, so I’ve been working on music since then. I’m really excited about the new songs, and we’ve been playing a few of them at the shows and will probably introduce a few more on the upcoming tour.
Now this is off-topic from the album or the tour, but I know that in addition to the music scene, you’ve also been quite influential in fashion and style. You were featured in Miu Miu’s ad campaign and you have probably the most famous bangs in the indie scene right now. So, on the flip side of that, what’s the most regrettable haircut you’ve ever had?
I’ve actually been really boring; I’ve had the same haircut for the past 10 years. On the bangs, I always say “don’t cut them too short” to whomever’s cutting my hair, but one time I went to a friend’s house to have my hair cut. She did it not in front of a mirror, so I couldn’t see what was going on, and just cut them way too short. I was completely beside myself, and it sounds so petty now but if the bangs are too short, then they’re no good. And I was just about to go on tour, so the whole time I had to constantly push them to the side.
Any last thoughts about the album as a whole, or about the upcoming tour?
I’m really excited about the shows in October, because we’re opening for Wild Flag. It’s a new band, but it’s made up of four women who have been in lots of other bands, and those shows are going to be so much fun. We’re all doing something new, and I think all of us are really excited about the track we’re on right now. It’s going to be a great tour.
Eleanor Friedberger will be performing at Maxwell’s on Oct. 16, Bowery Ballroom on Oct. 18 and Union Transfer in Philly on Oct. 19. For more information, go to eleanorfriedberger.com.