“For me it felt like the right time for change, to try and do something new. I had been doing the same thing for so long that I feel it’s only healthy and normal to want a different challenge,” says Eleanor Friedberger – member of indie band the Fiery Furnaces for the past decade along with brother Matthew – as she sits outside a cafe on Primrose Hill with a half-pint of beer and indian summer sun shining down during mid-October. A great environment for somebody to open up about their first solo record, right? As Eleanor rightly remarks: “It doesn’t get any better.”
So how did the solo record, entitled Last Summer because it was written – yep, you guess it – last summer, initally come about? It’s a pretty big leap going from a widely successful band with a sibling to being out there in the big bad world alone and suddenly out of your comfort zone after so many year. “Well, it’s not like there was one particular traumatic or dramatic moment that spurred me on, nothing to get off my chest per se – unfortunately for the record!” Eleanor laughs. “I was just ready I guess, sometimes it’s hard to define what good timing is and the reason behind your actions but this just felt right.”
It must be quite daunting where to start on a project like this, what to use as your compass. But Eleanor went right back to where it all started. “I just wanted to celebrate the place that’s shaped and influenced me the most, and that’s New York,” she explains. “I was trying to come from a very naïve perspective and try to go back to the beginning and pretend like I hadn’t been in a band for the last ten years.”
Having been released in North America back in July, Last Summer is now finally experiencing a UK release (today, in fact). It’s a record that sees one half of the biggest duo in indie music of the past ten years standing firmly on her own two feet and ready to walk some more along the path alone.
Luke Morgan Britton talks to Eleanor Friedberger about what inspired each track of her solo debut and how the songs came to be, including an unfortunate explicit moment with a stalker and soundtracking Sesame Street.
“I think some of the songs I kind of improvised at home and this was one that was partially improvised and then taken into the studio. While I was working on the record, I had this big document that I was just typing away on with memories from when I first moved to New York. In ‘My Mistakes’ I’m talking about things that happened to me last summer when I was writing for this record. In the second line I mention falling off my bike, for example, and then started thinking about things that happened the summer before that and the one before that even. In the last verse I talk about the time I was talking on the cell phone to my mother and this guy followed me in his car and I soon found out that he was masturbating. And then the second verse is about when I was top of Vice Magazine’s “dos” from their Dos and Don’ts, and the day that photo was taken I made a big mistake regarding the person who I’m singing about – so I’m kind of referencing that picture and everything that surrounds it. All the events that I’m alluding to are all silly but nonetheless traumatic things. For me this song is more about how we remember things and the way memory works in general.”
Lyrical highlight: “And he’s ignoring me like it’s 2001 / Why keep time travelling if it doesn’t get better on me? / A second time move on”.
“The second track on the record was written when I went to Los Angeles for a week, which makes it the only song on the album that is set outside of New York – in my mind at least. And in LA, there’s this restaurant called the ‘Inn of the Seventh Ray’ which three different friends of mine told me about while I was staying. I thought it was a really interesting name and would make for a good song title. But each verse of the song itself is actually about a different friend I was staying with while I was crashing there.”
Lyrical highlight: “Watch ‘Footloose’ with the biggest bottle of vodka in the world / Tequila in the temp room for the breaking reunion of the old mine”.
“This one is probably the one with the least words. It’s about my friend Lee who I’ve known since I was 18 and has oddly now become my manager. That was one of the few songs where I actually had the music before the lyrics, which is pretty unusual for me. I just wanted something extremely upbeat and in my mind it sounds like a song that I would have grew up listening to on ‘Sesame Street’ or something. It has that quintessential walking down the New York streets in summertime feel to it. The piano solo bit is probably my favourite part of the whole record.”
Lyrical highlight: “I mention your name / Only in Hell it’s the same”.
“Bensonhurst is a neighbourhood in south Brooklyn, and it was a reference to a friend of mine who has these home movies from his father’s family who grew up there. We used to project them up on the wall last summer. So ‘Scenes from Bensonhurt’ the song is all about him and his father – it’s a very sad song.”
Lyrical highlight: “Who do people tell you you look like? / Somebody from my past / Some actor I don’t like”.
“The demo to this actually sounds so different to how the finished version turned out. It’s about the time I took drugs with my best friend when I first moved to New York. We were just running around on the subway and taking to tram line to Roosevelt Island, which is in the middle of the East River. I think it sounds very much like this, a funky song with lyrics about everything around me.”
Lyrical highlight: “And then you step outside you step outside / and the sun is shining / and can’t believe you would ever go underground”.
“I wrote all of the tracks last summer except from this one, which I wrote a few days before New Years Eve 2009 – going into 2010. This is supposed to be my big John Lennon song. 2009 wasn’t a great year for me, so I wrote this about the next one either the best year yet or even worse than the one before.”
Lyrical highlight: “You said it wouldn’t be so bad but it’s worse /I want to erase her”.
“This was one that just fell out of me one afternoon. I made a demo right there and then. It actually sounds misleadingly sexy, as it’s about my friend who is a fashion designer and she made this black dress which she wore every day for a month to encourage other people to not buy so much and to promote sustainable fashion. She called it her ‘wear-athon’.”
Lyrical highlight: “The One-Month Marathon is ending / And for my last ensemble / I’ll be wearing nothing at all”.
“I obviously stole the title from the Bob Dylan song, ‘Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight’. This song actually went through three different coronations, with each sounding worlds apart from the others. The first version was kind of a dance track which didn’t have a chorus. Then we added a chorus and it became what I imagine to be a really upbeat Bruce Springsteen song, with a saxophone going through the whole thing – but that didn’t really work at all, it just sounded stupid. So then we changed it last minute. This was actually the last sound we recorded on the last day in the studio. We completely redid the song and I’m so glad we did as it’s a favourite of a lot of people’s from the record.”
Lyrical highlight: “And when you see my face / And you see it’s changed / And you can’t replace / All the years we can’t rearrange”.
“This is about a park in south Brooklyn where my other band usually practise near, in our drummer’s basement. I used to ride my bike home, which was over an hour’s cycle back to my house. I got lost a fair few times and so the track is generally about being lost and the strange feeling especially of being lost in your own town. It feels good and dreamy and kind of scary all mixed up at once.”
Lyrical highlight: “It only rains in Owl’s Head Park / But the wind feels the same”.
“That’s the last song I wrote. It’s a classic break-up song, I guess. But I was wanted something that sounded very upbeat but has a darkness underneath. I was trying to copy some Latin music I’d been listening to at the time and I just thought it gave a strange contrast to the lyrics. ”
Lyrical highlight: “I want to rewind / It’s not the same as regret / I want to do it again”.
Despite the strength and sheer beauty of Last Summer, as our interview draws to a close Eleanor – despite picking through her record with a fine toothcomb – seems to be looking solely forward. “I’m actually more excited about how the next album is going to be, to be honest,” she says. “I feel like I’ve learnt so much from recording this one that I have the confidence to do something, er, maybe more dramatic on the next album.”
But another solo record would surely leave no time for more Fiery Furnaces material? “Well,” Eleanor pauses. “There’s no definite plans for the next Fiery Furnaces album – whatever that may be and whenever that may be. It’s something that I know will eventually happen, I just don’t know when or where. That’s the beauty of being in a band with your sibling is that you don’t ever actually break-up. We could do something next year or wait ten years and I know it’ll be the same.” She jokes: “It’s not like I’m exactly hiding all these songs from my brother!”
At the very end of our talk, the final words in fact, Eleanor says something that, coinciding the huge gender debate surrounding one Lana Del Rey at the time, seemed really poignant and quite touching about her status as a female singer.
“You know, working with my brother is something I can do for the rest of my life but me performing on my own, I feel I will get too old to do it at some point. I do feel under that kind of pressure sometimes – about age and being a woman. I feel like I had to do it now or I’d never do it. Or maybe just nobody would even want me to do it.”
Last Summer is out now on Merge Records. You can read our review of her recent London show here.