Eleanor Friedberger is wandering through the muddle of chairs and worn out sofas in the Netil House Platform Bar and Cafe. Her heavy fringe is just long enough to cover her eyes as she shuffles around the venue, a converted office block in East London complete with rooftop terrace overlooking the main train lines into the centre of the city.
Looking like a young, well-groomed Patti Smith, the singer arrives on the tiny corner stage with just a guitar for support. It’s a low key introduction for the Brooklyn-based Fiery Furnaces frontwoman, who until recently has only ever written and recorded music as one half of the nonsense-pop duo.
The 35-year-old queen of quirkiness is awkward, bashfully whispering an introduction from behind her hair. But from the first word of the first song (a cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Dearest’) sees Eleanor Friedberger emerge, piercingly bright-eyed and with no hint of a vocal wobble, to deliver her latest pearls of panic pop. Recent single ‘My Mistakes’ follows, with its punchy lyrics slicing the warm silence left by the lack of backing band. It’s just Eleanor and a guitar; stripped down versions of the tracks from her debut Last Summer are an absolute treat.
There are some new songs too – ‘Terra Firma’, ‘When I Knew’ and ‘State At The Sun’ – and improvised guitar plucking, missed chords and an embarrassed giggle as she accidentally repeats a verse. It’s all part of an enchanting low-key show that feels like a private performance for her closest confidantes. Friedberger toes a set list taped to the floor but it’s clear that spontaneity takes hold as the singer warms to the encouragement of her devoted fans.
‘Terra Firma’ opens with the line “I was taking my pulse and writing a diary”, in a wonderfully self-referential nod to the stream of consciousness that runs through her music. Musing that she likes to “start every song abruptly and finish every song abruptly” Friedberger hops from one three minute monologue to the next, with barely a moment to catch a breath. She dances like an awkward teenager, hugging and sighing through ‘I’ll Never Be Happy Again’, another new tune.
Every so often there’s the sense that she’s feeling exposed, alone on the stage without the multi-instrumental back-up normally provided by her brother Matthew, the other half of the Fiery Furnaces. But thankfully – and despite calls from the crowd for ‘Asthma Attack’ – she resists the urge to rely on the band’s back catalogue, sticking almost entirely to her own solo work.
That said, ‘Lost At Sea’ makes it into the set mid way. With no funk guitar or organ accompaniment it’s transformed into poignant poem whispered in the ear of every single member of the audience. Similarly, Last Summer‘s ‘Roosevelt Island’ minus the Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet backing track is as raw and honest account as you’re likely to hear from the female Friedberger. Yet it’s still hard to tell where wild night meets wild love. The trademark Furnaces repetition is present too, knocking off-beat any chorus or melody that threatens to become too catchy.
Lyrically the Furnaces’ have always hidden behind a screen of absurdity and instrumental wizardry, cleverly masking any hearts that might be attached to their sleeves. The same is true to a certain extent with Eleanor’s solo work, but for tonight she is infinitely more accessible. There are traces of agony and ecstacy and every song feels like a diary entry that has been written either at a moment of crisis, or during some ungodly hour of the day. Or perhaps both.
The crowd titter at her humour – “I couldn’t get her out of my head/So I got her out of her’s instead/And then we ended up in…” – and gush at her honesty on ‘Early Earthquake’, ‘I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight’ and ‘Glitter Gold Year’.
Her shirt is five faded shades of her dark red jeans and her look is effortlessly cool. Pausing between songs she’s endearingly fascinated by the trains that pass by the bar’s wall-length window every five minutes. For tonight’s acoustic showcase of her talents there is no need for drums, organs or even a microphone. There’s a warm silence as the close-knit crowd hang on her word, wanting to hear how each short story will end. And when she shrugs and says, “I’m not a great guitarist”, it’s the last thought on anyone’s mind.