With Eleanor Friedberger all set to play Liverpool’s Art Club, Getintothis’ Paul Higham discusses the perils of financial uncertainty, possible new artistic directions and moving to the country.
Having been a member of critically lauded experimental indie-rock duo Fiery Furnaces and then following up with three confident and distinguished solo albums you’d be forgiven for assuming that Eleanor Friedberger had made it. A member of Indie-rock royalty having served her time and now ready to dine at high table and reap the rewards of years of hard graft in one of the most unforgiving of industries.
Yet the reality appears somewhat different.
Despite New View appearing to find Eleanor Friedberger in confident and sprightly mood, relaxed and more sure of herself than ever, it does not take much to scrape away the veneer to reveal a fragility of existence wracked with both self-doubt and economic uncertainty.
Speaking about the difficulties of following up an album, there is a clear necessity to strike a balance between earning a living and being creative and producing work of artistic merit. Indeed, the need to produce art to live seems to place a burden on Eleanor Friedberger’s shoulders, “when you have something that’s been out for a while and you’re trying to figure out what you’re gonna do next and you know technically I’m still working on this album, touring this album but I’m very much in the, you know, what’s next kind of phase which is always a really scary time.”
Coupled with this is the dilemma about what the next move would be. While Friedberger confessed that it was “never good to make creative decisions based on financial constraints”, clearly there remains a need to consider the financial imperatives around not just making a new record but, crucially, making the right type of record. “I’d be foolish not to think about it a little bit, I still have to make a living, mostly just playing shows so I need to be smart about that.”
While Friedberger speculated about what the future direction might hold, contemplating both forays into the world of electronica (“but then I think why not make just an electronic record and see if that would be fun”) and the possibilities of producing a spoken word record in a similar vein to the Fiery Furnaces’ Rehearsing My Choir (“Part of me would love to do almost like a spoken word album and almost go back to something like the album my brother and I made with our grandmother and really just tell stories, have it not be about the music at all and just go the extreme opposite just for fun you know”) it is clear that a heavy dose of pragmatism governs her artistic decisions.
Speaking to Friedberger offered an insight into the time and effort that goes into to promoting new records and the corresponding lengthy amount of time spent on the road incessantly touring new material, “It’s like after something’s been out for eight months and I did a hell of a lot of touring I was on the road for like five months and now I’ve had this little break for the last five weeks and now to go out again and kind of lose sight of…suddenly I’m like doubting everything.”
It’s a hard slog from which there is seemingly little break before reality bites and yet more artistic statements have to be summoned from the creative wells to keep the wheel rolling. The need to perform live acts as another restraint for an artist caught between uncertainty around “whether to try something new or do I want to try something new or do I want to just fine-tune what I’m already good at”.
Always at the back of her mind is the live performance and its importance as a source of revenue. And while Friedberger does not subscribe to the view “that a record has to sound anything like the show”, clearly the need to perform weighs heavily when determining what sort of record to make and there is a strong sense of artistic compromise borne out of financial necessity.
Yet despite all of this, it is clear that Friedberger enjoys playing live and is looking forward to her return to the UK with a strong sense enthusiasm, not least revisiting Liverpool where she will play the Arts Club next week after having had fond memories of a previous visit to play Sound City in 2012.
It is apparent that playing live still presents something of a challenge to her, although she has certainly moved on from some slightly gauche and nervous solo performances in advance of her debut solo record Last Summer in 2011. Indeed she has demonstrated her versatility by performing solo as well as part of both a five-piece and a three-piece band. “I’ve been touring in a lot of different formations too, like I said I was playing some shows by myself and then I did about eight weeks of touring in the US with like a full five piece band with the guys who played on the album and then was doing some shows just as a three piece band which I’ll be doing in the UK.
“So its all been pretty varied, but now its like I want to play some new songs and try something else yet again. I don’t know we’ll see how it goes.“
In looking to write songs that focus on what she perceives to be her biggest weakness, her guitar playing, Friedberger is showing the confidence to confront her challenges head on, “I’m trying to write new stuff where it is focusing on my guitar playing which is something I’ve always struggled with so I’m trying to figure out now my strengths and how I can make that work for a live setting”, while ensuring that her songs are capable of translating into the stage.
Indeed her new material looks set to build on the self-assured confidence of New View with Friedberger having laid down a challenge to herself to write new songs “that are undeniably catchy you know, I want to give myself that little challenge, so I’m trying to make them even more simple, a song like Sweetest Girl relying less on 100 words.”
New View’s atmosphere owed much to the relocation of Friedberger from her long-time home in Brooklyn to upstate New York, lending it a more relaxed home-spun vibe, aided by the recording techniques adopted. “The recording style of the album, you know, was a big part of that too and sounds very much, you know, I hate all these clichéd adjectives of organic and earthiness and all that but there is something to be said that most of the album was made with five people in a room playing together and hopefully it sounds that way.”
It would be easy to assert that this move was made for purely artistic reasons. After all upstate New York is a location rich in musical lore, a place where that earthily organic sound had been first honed by Bob Dylan and The Band in the basement of the Big Pink. With the result being an album as accomplished as New View, the temptation is surely there to suggest this was the intention all along.
Yet Friedberger has admitted that financial considerations were the prime concern, highlighting the obstacles facing professional musicians in the face of the relentless urban gentrification of her home borough of Brooklyn. The message is clear that as “never having been a commercial artist”, the choice facing Friedberger was stark: either leave New York City or get another job.
As painful as leaving New York City must have been, the decision was as clear cut as her actions were decisive. “The bottom line is if I wanted to live in New York City and have any kind of decent lifestyle I would have had to get a job, another job, and I don’t want to do that, basically [laughs]. I could kind of scrape by doing this and I will do that for as long as I can and you know if that means leaving New York City then fine, I’d rather leave New York City than get another job, you know. So it really was a financial sort of decision.”
Born to a British father and possessing a British passport, Eleanor Friedberger has a stronger interest than no doubt most US-based artists in the political situation in the UK following June’s EU referendum. Dismayed at the result of the referendum she is nonetheless “curious to come back now in the climate of everything that has been going on in the world. Since January it has got really interesting.
“I have a particular interest as my dad’s British and I have a British passport. You know I can’t believe what’s happened.”
Having left the city for the countryside, Friedberger is able to offer anecdotal evidence to suggest that the rift between the metropolitan cities and the provincial and rural is not a peculiarly British concern, “I live in the countryside a couple of hours outside of New York City and there’s Trump signs all over the place near where I live and I don’t know, it’s feeling a strange time, very different from when the album came out. Actually it feels like a less optimistic time.”
Notwithstanding the referendum result she remains a committed Anglophile, feeling just as home in London as in New York City (“playing in London for me is almost like playing in New York”) and speaks positively of the importance of Britain to alternative artists in America, “Britain has always been pretty generous to me in terms of press and like the album immediately got like in Mojo as the lead review and Uncut also, it was just like a crazy way to start the album”.
Yet despite the political concerns that Friedberger genuinely holds it is fair to say that we shouldn’t necessarily expect any overtly political new material, although perhaps the optimistic sentiment of New View might be toned down somewhat, “I don’t know if I’m going to start venturing into like political songs but I feel like I want to be even more direct than I have been”. With a suggestion that this current tour might yet reveal some new material, we’ll have to wait and see what it brings.
It was only when the subject shifted to the issue of gender equality in music did Friedberger hint at the controversial. For many sexism and discrimination remains rife in the music industry. It remains a male dominated industry and women appear to have to fight that much harder to be treated as equal or to rise through the ranks, very often having to contend with patronisingly dismissive platitudes and to be judged unfairly against an altogether different set of criteria than their male counterparts would be.
Indeed Friedberger seemed willing to initially dismiss this and even go as far as to suggest that it is so ingrained within the history of rock and roll that we should accept it as an inevitability. That far from it being an anachronism from a time when society’s values were different from today’s, it was an innate characteristic of rock and roll and should be celebrated as such.
“I do feel like it’s, you know, a boys game but that’s the way rock ‘n’ roll was designed and I don’t think there’s necessarily something terrible about honouring that tradition, like how rock ‘n’ roll started you know. You think of screaming teenage girls and all that kind of stuff and that’s what it was for, it was disposable and it was shallow, I mean obviously it’s much more than that but…so I kind of see all sides of it.”
It does appear that Friedberger has been lucky as she herself confesses and perhaps her personally having only experienced “a handful of minor incidents” has helped shape her outlook. Yet she does go on to offer a more nuanced view than first appeared, suggesting that any discussion on this most sensitive of issues to be “a balancing act” and she doesn’t wish to sound either “blissfully ignorant” or like “an angry woman”. Indeed she does acknowledge that while “there are more female singers in more genres of music than ever before”, she also feels that “a man doing like what I do, singer-songwriter stuff would have a little bit of a better chance of being successful but you know I don’t know what I’m basing that on exactly but that’s just my hunch”.
When pushed on the subject there is further acknowledgement that she has been treated differently than she feels might have been the case had she been male, “I feel I get written about, my relationships get written about more than a male counterparts would but maybe it’s because I’ve gone out with musicians and I don’t know if that’s my own fault or whatever.
“I feel like the focus if a guy was writing similar sort of lyrics to what I write maybe they wouldn’t be talked about so much maybe they’d be talking about the music more than the words.”
One can’t help drawing the conclusion that, while there is an acknowledgement that women do get treated differently, as there is little that can be done about it, it is best not to waste energy railing against it. Perhaps with her 40th birthday falling on the day of her End of the Road festival set the anger of youth has burned itself out.
Where she does take aim is at music journalism, both in respect of its inherent sexism and diminishing quality. Referring specifically to reviews there is the nagging sense that they are less about the music and more akin to “something that would be in a fashion magazine/lifestyle sort of piece, instead of about music.
“But then I think people are becoming worse and worse at writing about music and I don’t know why, maybe because so many people are able to write and put things out there in the world that people would be getting better at it but they seem to be getting worse.”
If as to point out where we have been going wrong some tips were offered, “I don’t know what they’re writing about but its generally not about music.
“I would prefer to read someone’s honest, personal and emotional response to music and that could be a lot of different things. I think if someone is good at writing about their personal and emotional response then someone else can either say ‘Oh I’d like to feel that way’ or ‘I wonder why that person felt that way’ or ‘I wonder how I will feel when I listen to the music’. That would be more helpful I think.”
We’ll be sure to bear this sage advice in mind when Eleanor Friedberger‘s busy touring schedule stops off at Liverpool‘s Arts Club on Thursday September 8.