Eleanor Friedberger

Photo © Michael Rubenstein

Eleanor Friedberger has been getting amazing reviews for her solo debut, Last Summer. She started The Fiery Furnaces with her brother Matthew, and they’ve released nine albums since 2000. The band’s early recordings drew comparisons with The White Stripes and they’re known for their experimental, epic, indie rock. Eleanor’s been exploring new sounds and songwriting styles in her current album, dubbed “essential”, “indispensible”, “a miracle”, and “gorgeous guitar-pop” by music journalists.

Oak Park, Illinois

Solo songwriting

We spoke to her about her album on a sunny day in East London, and she told us how she wrote the songs, and showed us round her latest guitar.

I was trying to do something much more simple and clean sounding, and have it be much more emotionally direct maybe, than Fiery Furnaces records.

I wasn’t going for one sound - I think that’s the one similarity between the record and Fiery Furnaces records, that I was much more eclectic I think, than maybe a typical band album. I really had a reference point for every song because I was trying to copy another song, which is something that my brother and I tend to do. It might not sound like a copy to anybody else, but for me it’s like a very specific reference point.

In terms of an overall sound, people keep saying it sounds like a 70s record. I like music from the 70s so maybe that’s why it sounds that way, but with the first song on the album, My Mistakes, I was trying to copy some Brian Eno and John Cale record from 1990. In the last song on the record, I was trying to copy a 70s Brazilian singer songwriter, Jorge Ben. Every song had a specific style in my mind.

It’s not just musical styles that are specific, many of the lyrics and stories are based on real events.

The album’s very personal. I’m not very imaginative when it comes to songwriting, lyrically speaking. I tend to just write about friends and people I know, and things that have happened to me. Especially with this album, I really made a point of putting myself back into a mindset of maybe 10 or 11 years ago when I first moved to New York. I wanted it to sound very naïve and come from a place that I was in before I was in the band for ten years, and go back to having fun experimenting with music. I used to come home from work and sit in my room and make four track recordings. I wanted to try and do that again, as if that time with the band hadn’t happened. That sounds silly obviously, because I wouldn’t have been able to do this if that hadn’t happened. I wouldn’t have had the experience and confidence to do it. But I tried to go back to that place, and tell stories about the times when I first lived in New York, so in that sense it was very personal.

Eleanor loves playing guitar, but plays much more than that on Last Summer.

On the album I played a little bit of guitar, tiny bit of bass, little bit of keyboards, harmonica, little bit of percussion, but the process for me was I made demos at home for all the songs, where I played everything, mostly on the keyboard actually.

Then in the studio I went back and got people who play much better than I do to play the hardest stuff. I dabbled in a little bit of everything I guess.

At home I use one of my brother’s keyboards I think it’s a Korg, (we know he loves Korgs – ed), I use it like a Midi keyboard but wrong. So for the sax solo in My Mistakes I played that on the keyboard - a bad sax sound that is in GarageBand which is what I used to make demos - and then it was just replaced by a live human being named Dylan, who came in and played saxophone.

She borrowed some gorgeous gear for recording, and worked with producer Eric Broucek who counts Simian Mobile Disco, Massive Attack, Kele, and LCD Soundsystem among his clients.

I played a beautiful old 50s Gibson acoustic guitar that doesn’t belong to me. My brother has a great Fender Telecaster Deluxe from the 70s, I played that on one song. My producer Eric has a bunch of cool stuff. He has a beautiful analog Moog synthesizer that we use on a bunch of the songs, a really cool 70s Yamaha synth, and he has a Wurlitzer. He doesn’t have that much gear - a lot of studios have much more - but every piece that he has is perfect.

She’s got plenty of guitars to choose from for her live shows, and talked us through her old and new discoveries.

I have a handful of guitars that I’ve been switching around. Lately I have been playing this green Univox hollow body guitar my brother bought in the early 90s for $200 in Southern Illinois, and it’s very pretty. It’s a Japanese model that kind of copies classic Gibson hollow body. It’s very light and mostly made of plastic so I don’t feel bad about smashing it around a little bit. Recently I found its sister or brother version as a 12 string. It’s the exact same guitar, same headstock, but it’s bright red. So for my Christmas album I can have the green and the red guitar side by side.

But I’m going to switch back to my Fender Stratocaster I think. It’s a bit more tough.

Eleanor brought her latest find for us to have a look at, and told us why she loves it and how she found it.

For these shows I’ve been playing on my own, I just got this guitar in the summer in Chicago at my favorite guitar shop. It’s called Midwest Buy and Sell and I have become quite friendly with the guy who owns it so he tends to give me a good deal. Last night was the second time I’d played it. It’s a Supro - I just love it. It’s made of plywood so it’s extremely light.

US company Supro made guitars from the 1930s, moving into amps and then electric guitars. Jimmy Hendrix’s first electric guitar was a 1957 Supro Ozark, and Jimmy Page also played a Supro. The range has recently been revived by Zinky Electronics. The original models are collectors’ items and Eleanor’s guitar is a real vintage find.

I was doing something similar to this, a video interview, and I was supposed to play a few songs and I got to choose the location. So I went to my favorite guitar shop, and I got to pick any guitar to play for the session. I chose this one and I ended up liking it so much, that I bought it.

It has a really beautiful pickup, it’s got a very very clean tone, and it also has this funny jack that’s a screw on, which I had never seen before. You screw the cable right in, one it actually came with. I don’t know if it’s the original cable. It’s quite old, it’s white that matches perfectly the pick guard. This white curly cable really sealed the deal for me.

The guitar is either from 1952 or 1953, and I just think it’s very beautiful. It is a very girly pretty guitar - I call it my blonde, my blonde beauty, even though I’m not crazy about blondes in real life. And it has a really nice low action.

We asked Eleanor about her vocals in her solo work - her style over the years has been really varied and she’s been compared to Patti Smith in the past and described as having a ‘preacher/exorcist’ style. She sounds different on many of her latest songs.

I prefer to be very dry. I like everything very simple and plain, I’m not one for burying my vocals in reverb or drowning them out. I like it to be high up in the mix and I like it to be very dry. It may be kind of dull, but I think the vocal’s all I’ve got going for me sometimes, so I like them to be very clear and clean.

She reveals she is not much of a pedal fan either.

Again I keep it very clean and simple. At home I use a Fender Deluxe. I turn the gain way down and just keep it very clean and have a tiny bit of reverb. For a while I was trying to use a delay pedal, but it’s not for me. I just have my tuner on stage and that’s it.

Maybe I’m just being lazy, and I’m afraid of technology and gadgets and stuff like that generally, but I’m happy to keep it clean and let the other guys make funny sounds.

For someone who likes such an authentic sound, it’s a shock when she confesses she used to fake it as a kid!

I took piano lessons when I was very young and dropped out or flunked out of that, and then I played the flute. I can’t even say that I played it, it was such a joke. My big thing as a kid was always to pretend to play guitar and sing along, so the flute even for the recital I think I faked my way through it, and just held it and didn’t make a sound.

Then I started playing guitar for real, not make-believe, when I was 18 so I was a very late bloomer with music. But I grew up with it all around me and my brother always played from when he was a small kid. And my mother played classical guitar and played the piano so we always had instruments in the house.

So what was the special first guitar that changed everything?

It was a Memphis, it is like a no-name guitar. My brother bought it for me for Christmas. It looks like a copy of a Gibson SG, has the same body, the same headstock. It’s very heavy, I still have it at my mom’s house.

Then the first guitar that I bought for myself was a Gibson 1963 Melody Maker that I bought on ebay. I still have that too but I stupidly changed the pickup to have a deeper sound. I put these Humbucker pick ups on it and it doesn’t sound very good. I should replace them again.

Her musical inspiration includes her family and plenty of classic rock and rollers.

My brother was always making music, my grandmother was the choir director of a church for 40 years, there was music always around. In terms of other people who make records, I just liked so many different people. I would always say that Van Morrison is one of my favorite singers, Otis Redding, Buddy Holly, Ronnie Lane. My new favorite guitar player is a guy called Duncan Brown - he’s dead but is new to me. I like Led Zeppelin and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, what everybody likes you know. John Cale I love.

We asked her for her advice to musicians starting out, especially women, and she said a lot is about confidence and going for what you want.

I’ve always hung out, always been a tomboy, and hung out with a lot of boys. I just think if you hang out with guys who are making music and they don’t ask you to join in, you should immediately move on and find some other friends. I’ve had that experience too, but what else can I say, it’s hard to find the confidence. It took me a really long time to be able to stand, to feel comfortable, in front of people. I’m 35 years old, only just now am I playing standing up by myself and singing songs and playing guitar, which is the most basic thing in the world to do as a musician

It took me a long time to get to that place, so don’t give up, and even if it takes years and years it can still happen. I think a 21-year-old girl getting up on stage singing is very rare thing, you have to have no fear.

It’s good to have a little bit of fear, but just don’t give up, you can be an old lady and still be on stage. I feel age is becoming less important. The British music industry seems so much about what’s new, what’s young, but it seems like maybe it’s getting a little bit better.

Eleanor’s gigging around the world from the US to Australia and Europe, as people discover the sounds of Last Summer.