Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Interview with Eleanor Friedberger

Eleanor Friedberger
Opening for the Decemberists
Thursday, May 31
Benedum Centre, Downtown Pittsburgh
8 p.m. 412-456-6666

Doing an interview while on tour can be a challenge to any musician. The potential lack of sleep, road food and who knows else can make a musician clam up in the face of a prodding questions.

But when Eleanor Friedberger took my call on Tuesday afternoon, not only was she between dates, she was waiting to hear a prognosis of her car, which broke down the night before. When she mentioned the impending call would come from “the transmission guy,” I felt a deep sense of empathy. She, on the other hand, was taking it in stride. “I’m not in the greatest mood to talk, but we can talk a little bit. It’s fine. A lot of things could be much worse,” she says. She still managed to laugh a few times during our conversation.

Friedberger is on tour in support of her fourth solo album, Rebound, opening several shows for the Decemberists, including a stop in Pittsburgh this Thursday, May 30 at the Benedum Center. The new album is a radical turn after 2016’s New View. On it, the one-time singer of the Fiery Furnaces delivered her purest singer-songwriter. This time, she goes virtually solo, playing guitar and keyboards herself (with help from producer Clemens Knieper).

The album title comes from a club she frequented during a stay in Athens, Greece. Like all of her work both on her own and with the Fiery Furnaces (the band she founded with her brother Matthew), Rebound displays her skill at unique storytelling, Each song comes off like novella, to the extent that it was tempting to try and uncover the backstory. At first blush, the ten tracks could be scenes from her time in Athens. But when asked too much, Friedberger, understandably, didn’t want to strip away some of the mystique that drives her work. Plus there were other things to talk about, like why she loves Pittsburgh so much, and how it should be discussed in the same breath as other big cities. (And always remember to stick with the open-ended questions, not the yes-or-no ones.)

How long were you in Greece?

It’s funny, I was in this bind [with the car] last night. This couple at the show in Montreal, maybe because of the press around the album or whatever, this woman said, “We’re Greek!” I stayed with them. They drove me to my car this morning.

In some ways it’s funny because when I went to Greece I met all these musicians and started playing with these guys. It was weird to be in a band with people who look like you could be related to. It’s a strange sensation, but it’s also — what’s the word? It’s not a positive word. Where it’s like, am I racist, feeling so connected to these people who are like me? It’s a funny feeling.

Anyways. I have a deep connection to the place. It was only made more real when I spent time living there in the winter in Athens. It wasn’t just like a holiday vibe.

Did you write the album while you were there?

No, I didn’t write any of it while I was there. That was the idea. I met all these musicians and formed a new band and played a few shows. But it wasn’t until I came home that I really sat down and got to work.

Had you thought about staying since you got a band together?

Yeah, I wasn’t ready to leave. And I thought about recording the album there too. About four years ago I bought a house in upstate New York, and so that’s kind of tied me to that place. I feel like I can’t go away for months and months on end. I feel like I have some responsibilities at the house. But it’s good to have a real home base. But yeah, I could have stayed longer.

The album is a bit of a departure from the last one because it’s you and Clemens playing everything, right?

The album started with these elaborate demos. Elaborate for me because I played everything and then we tried to keep as much as we could. Some things we started over from scratch. Some things we just did the demos and replaced and added some things. But yes, it was the two of us that played everything.

I feel more insecure about this record than I have any other because my hands are all over it. The last album I made [was] with these guys that I’ve been touring with. I didn’t play a single note on the album. This is the polar opposite.

I wondered, going in, if you were looking for a departure. The last album seemed like the most straight-ahead rock thing for you.

Yeah, for sure. Which is what I was trying to do. I love it. I think {New View] sounds great. And it sounds like I was trying to be on this trajectory of a ’70s singer-songwriter-y thing that I’ve been emulating all this time. That was like the pinnacle of what I could do in that vein. It sounds like five people recording live to tape in a barn in upstate New York and that’s what we did. And that’s how it sounds.

For [Rebound] I thought, I don’t ever need to ever do that again. So that’s why I was willing to do the opposite.

Is there any kind of concept to the album from beginning to end?

No, I never go into anything… It starts out as a bunch of songs and it ends up a bunch of songs. I can make up a story after the fact. Or you can because that’s what you do. But it’s not really for me to say, I don’t think. I can say that it sounds like someone feeling alienated, maybe feeling a little disappointed. There are certain emotions attached to it, but I don’t know about overriding concepts.

I was thinking even, if there is a concept it does dart around anyway. “It’s Hard” seems like it could be a journal entry about hanging out at Rebound.

Yeah, with that song in particular, I sat down: I want to write a song about going to this bar called Rebound and that’s what the song is about. That’s what it feels like being there. What the environment [was like]… when I have the second verse it’s kind of like the nostalgia that that place created. The second verse reflects that sort of nostalgia. It’s about different dances. So that’s kind of unusual for me to sit down and write a song about something as specific as that.

The idea of “It’s Hard” – what’s the “it” in this case?

(Laughs) Well that’s left open. I mean… yeah. By mentioning [Rebound], it’s a very specific place. But because… it’s also a little bit of a joke. There’s a Who album called It’s Hard that I kind of grew up with. (Pauses). It’s all hard! So that’s my joke. It’s all.

That’s reflecting a lot of things. Maybe mostly, in terms of the other stuff that the album is about: living in Greece, living in Athens. It’s a really difficult place to be a live right now. Because of the economic situation. But obviously it’s much more broad that that too.

It’s funny. That place, the club, has this darkness about it. Literal and figurative darkness. The music and the dancing wasn’t like a party scene at all. It was like everybody dancing alone. It was a hard place.

And it’s like an afterhours place?

Yeah. It doesn’t even open until 3 a.m.

Do they close bars over there at 2 a.m.?

It depends. Most people, similar to Spain, don’t eat dinner until 10 p.m. So, it’s a very much late night culture. So it’s really typical to stay up all night on the weekends, if you’re going out.
But even if you’re not going out, dinner doesn’t usually start until 9 or 10 p.m.

For me it’s a very different culture.  It’s interesting to go in the winter because it’s so… for me, going to spend time in Greece is always a holiday-type of thing. You go to the beach and you’re there in the summer. Being there in the winter you forget, oh it actually snows in Greece and it’s cold. It gets dark early like anywhere else. I had to really adjust my whole mode, you know? I’m not a night owl. So it was funny to see me switch, and stay up until three or  four a.m. every night.

How long did it take you to adjust to that?

Maybe a couple weeks, and that’s why it was hard to leave. I was acclimated to living there and living that way. The friends I had were all artists and musicians, who didn’t have normal jobs.

Showy Early Spring” seems like you’re talking about the thaw coming.

I wrote that back when I was at home.

The part that you go into at the end is almost mysterious, almost like a cliffhanger. [“Whatcha gonna do when it’s all overand you’ve got nothing to show for it/take a look around and you’ll see that/you’ve already found what you came for/ it’s here for the taking/ it’s mine.” The song ends rather abruptly after those lines.]

Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Is that what you were going for?

Yeah. I’ve talked about this a lot recently and I’m reluctant to give away too much of the specifics, the lyrics and the meanings behind that stuff. I feel like it’s not fun for people. And I think it’s pretty obvious. It’s not so opaque. It’s easy to get some meaning from it. I don’t need to give the exact details, you know?

When you come here, it’s just you playing alone?

Yeah, the week the album came out I played some shows with my band. I’m doing these shows opening for the Decemberists alone. In the fall, I’ll be going on a much larger tour with the band again. It’s something I’ve been doing a lot in the last few years: switching off between playing by myself and playing with the band.

It’s fun and obviously, economically it’s more feasible to do a set by myself. It allows me to play more too, which is good. But it’s not my preferred way of playing, I think. But I’m enjoying it more and more. Especially getting to play these shows with the Decemberists, where we’re playing pretty big theaters. They have a very… I don’t know what the word is – generous or loyal or open kind of audience. It’s not like they’re streaming in. They’re there when I start playing, which I think is kind of incredible. Most of them don’t know who I am. So [there’s] no pressure. It’s kind of a weird exercise, playing for 30 minutes in front of, sometimes 1000, 2000  people that are listening to you. And they don’t know what to expect and they don’t have any [expectations]. It’s kind of bizarre. It’s not like playing my own show at all.

Are you up there playing guitar with backing tracks, or how does it work?

I’m mostly just playing guitar and singing. And then I do a few songs with backing tracks too.

What kind of set up do you have?

I just use an iPod with tracks on it.

I don’t know if this is something that you want to give away, but the writing at the bottom of the lyric sheet, is that Greek?

Yeah. [Laughs]

What does it say?

Oh, it just says, “Thank you and lots of love to you.” It’s [for] friends of mine in Athens. It’s nothing too mysterious.

Yeah, but there’s a level of intrigue when you can’t figure out what it is. Is there anything else you want to add before you go back to waiting to hear about your car repair?

I like Pittsburgh. I’m excited to come back to Pittsburgh. Doing the show that I did with the Warhol has made me really… I don’t know, I have an affinity…I love Pittsburgh now. I didn’t have that feeling four years ago but now I really love it.

What do you like about it?

I love the way that it looks. I think that it’s incredibly beautiful. You guys all know that. Just the way the city is laid out. I get lost there which I think is kind of unusual. I’m a thrift store junkie, a vintage clothing junkie and there’s lots of good places to buy clothes there. I’ve been to baseball games there.

I just think it’s nice, especially in the summer. It’s just pleasant. There are some great places where you can just get a beer and eat. There aren’t that many places that feel different. And Pittsburgh is one of them. I would put it with New Orleans and San Francisco. It has an identity.

That’s good to hear. Because people always put it down. Thanks for taking the time today. Considering what you’re going through with your car, I’d be gnashing my teeth if I was in the same positions.

Well I’ll start doing that as soon as we hang up. No, I’m kidding. I’m in a pleasant suburb of Montreal. The sun is out. Things could be a lot worse.

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