Eleanor Friedberger: Ch-Ch-Changes

Music Features Eleanor Friedberger
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Eleanor Friedberger: Ch-Ch-Changes

Funny things happen when you’re several albums deep into a solo career. You’ve gotten a chance to play with new textures and storytelling techniques. When your name is mentioned, it no longer comes part and parcel with a mention of your other band. And, as Eleanor Friedberger discovered, it also means embracing a season of change, and moving away from New York City—the metropolis that anchored her debut, 2011 debut, Last Summer.

The editorial temptation is to equate the move, some two hours north of New York City, to the sound of Friedberger’s third release, New View. But to hear the Fiery Furnaces member tell it, that inclination might not be such a logical stretch. Although humility prevents her from comparing herself to Bob Dylan, who spent a significant amount of time in upstate New York, Friedberger’s description of her new digs sounds not unlike a missing page from the folk legend’s playbook.

“There’s this giant factory building next to the house,” she says, setting the scene. “It’s a big part of why I got the place. I have a place to work and make things. We have friends up and Thanksgiving weekend or after dinner, we go out in the space and everybody plays a little bit of music. So it’s like having a jam session. Stuff you would never be able to do in the city. There’s no way that didn’t affect me. I play music in a place that’s bigger than most people get. It’s like an airplane hanger. I hope the album feels like it has more space.”

Narrated in a melodious alto, now dialed back from the rapid-fire sing-speak that characterized previous releases, and wrapped in guitar and Wurlitzer rock riffs, New View unspools with an unhurried grace. It’s easy to imagine the album’s populace, struggling with broken hearts, magical amputations and questions of unflagging loyalty, are really different iterations of the singer herself. Snippets of email exchanges and detail-heavy lyrics (“the sky’s red/and so are your eyes,”) only heighten the sense artistic intimacy. But fact or fiction, once again, Friedberger has created an idiosyncratic work, riddled with personality that renders it both cover- and karaoke-proof.

“Is that a good thing?” she asks, recalling the time a friend called lyrics of her early solo track “Inn of the Seventh Ray” “weird and hard to sing.” (I don’t think about it that way,” she cracks. “Obviously.”)

“I think I’m trying to have a better realization of who I am and what I’m doing,” Friedberger continues. “And making that thing, not perfecting that thing, that’s not possible, but fine-tuning that. I think this album is the best version of that.”

Not like that’s been a particularly tough journey for the musician to take. Woody Allen’s work may have provided Friedberger with the inspiration to move to Brooklyn in her early 20s, but she makes it clear that she’s never identified with the filmmaker’s legion of weak-willed women.

“I never felt like I was an outsider or an outcast,” she says. “I had a really easy and nice childhood. I always had this confidence from when I was a little kid. I always attribute that to being good at sports. That’s oversimplified, maybe. But I really believe that’s why I had a great deal of confidence. From a very young age, I was as good as the boys. I also had an older brother who beat that into me a little bit. I think that really helps, having a very confident older sibling.”

Given that she didn’t pick up the guitar until being inducted into a friendly group of musicians in college, her musical confidence has seemingly never wavered. (Brother and Fiery Furnaces bandmate Matthew once told her she’d “make a great rock star.”) But there is always an issue to tackle. (Isn’t that always the case?) For Friedberger, spending a year as a guest in Seth Meyer’s Late Night band, where she’d often have to write mini-songs and perform them on the same day, was an object lesson in letting go and not obsessing over every musical detail. It’s a personality trait that might come as surprise to acolytes of her breezy pop sensibilities. Surely she’s always been the kind of woman to throw herself headfirst into creative endeavors, right?

It’s a question Friedberger answers with trademark self-effacing charm.

“I think it’s something you have to learn,” she notes. “Trust your instincts and be confident and comfortable enough to do it. Or you have to be young and dumb and have no filter or sense of self-consciousness feelings about what you’re doing…When I was younger I made these huge changes. I grew up in Chicago, I moved to Austin, Texas to go to college where I didn’t know a soul. Thinking back, I’m impressed I had the nerve to do that at the age of 17. Then I did it again four of five years later when I moved to London. Again, with no real plan, just because I thought I always wanted to live there. At 22 I was fearless. So to not make that leap for so many years is a shame, I think. At least for me I think it’s important to keep changing and keep moving. It’s a good way to get refired.”

Watch Eleanor Friedberger perform “He Didn’t Mention His Mother” at the Paste Studio in the video below, and check out the rest of her session here.