Fiery Furnaces' Eleanor Friedberger

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

BY Cam LindsayPublished Jul 24, 2011

For the last 11 years, Eleanor Friedberger has been sharing a band with her big brother Matt. As the quirky, prog-leaning pop duo Fiery Furnaces, the Friedbergers have had an incredible run that saw them release eight full-lengths as well as a double live album between the years of 2003 and 2009. Matt began dabbling with a solo career five years ago and this year began a series of albums he expects to reach eight in total by the end of 2011. Since there was a lull in the band's schedule, Eleanor decided to give the solo thing a go, which resulted in Last Summer, a softer, more coherent record that demonstrates her influence as the pop songwriter in the family.

"There was no defining moment," she says of her scheduling. "I wrote all the songs with the exception of one for this album. But it was a now or never thing since I'm going to be 35 in September. I've made all of these other records with my brother and now I finally felt confident enough to do one. And I had time to myself. Matt moved away so we've had a break. It's just something I've always wanted to do. I've had so many people encouraging me to do it."

Eleanor says she has begun writing a second solo album but expects the next release will be with her brother as the Fiery Furnaces. However, she admits Matt's prediction that it would see a 2011 release was way off. "That would be ambitious!" she says laughing. "He talks a big talk. I don't think there's any way in hell there will be a new Fiery Furnaces record out this year. It's possible! But I don't think that's going to happen. It's unlikely, let's just say that."

What are you up to?
I am about to release my first solo album and then I'll be touring for the rest of the year and beyond. That's my main focus right now, but I'm looking forward to the next thing. The Fiery Furnaces aren't breaking up. I'm not sure when Matt and I will reconvene but we definitely will. Hopefully we'll do something new, like a film. That would be something I'd like to do. My brother would like to write movie music and I will like to write a film and be in a film. So that's the next thing we're talking about doing together. And I'd like to make another solo album sooner rather than later. I've already got a bunch of new songs. I've never been more excited about music than I am right now. I sound tired and not very excited, but I am.

What are your current fixations?
I'm into 3-D stuff. It's a new trend for me. I saw my first 3-D movie recently, the Werner Herzog documentary. That was pretty mind-blowing. I'm a big fan of his and now I want to see everything in 3-D. And a few weeks ago I bought a print from an art gallery for the first time ever. I'd had a few drinks, but I'd never done that before, walking in and saying, "I'll have that!" But it was a 3-D print, so maybe I'm just really into 3-D.

Why do you live where you do?
I live in a neighbourhood called Greenpoint in New York City and I think it's the best place to live in my country. It's a really pleasant place to live, although it's considered one of the more uglier and polluted neighbourhoods in Brooklyn. Near where I live has to be one of the most polluted places in the country. There's a big oil spill that happened and there was no attempt to clean it up. Aside from that it's changed in a nice way. It's so convenient. There's a new ferry a block from me that goes across to Manhattan. I can't imagine anywhere else to live in the U.S.

Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
I'm sorry I said the Herzog documentary earlier because that was definitely one. But I listened to Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom album recently while I was sitting on the couch with my friend. It really transported me. It was a nice experience.

What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
I've been lucky, actually, but I think it was the most recent Fiery Furnaces gig. We played at the Primavera Festival in Barcelona and we hadn't played together for a whole year. We practiced once for two hours before the show, so it felt very fresh. It was in front of a few thousand people, facing the Mediterranean Sea, and the sun was shining. It felt like we were the best band in the world. Not the whole set but moments of it. I think sometimes you need some space and time to appreciate all of that. Unusually we had a whole year of space and time, so that was really memorable.

What have been your career highs and lows?
It's all a high. The fact that I'm still doing this after eight years and haven't had to get another job. There isn't a low. I'm the luckiest person in the world. And it keeps getting better because I am still learning. A low, I guess, is when I'm not working. We've played to ten people, which is demoralizing, but is it really that bad? I could be doing a lot worse things. I'm gonna knock on wood. There are times where I get stressed out and nervous about things, but it's not bad. I sing and make music, it's pretty good!

What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
The meanest thing was probably said by my brother. It's more like a dirty look from my brother, he does that a lot. I don't think he's aware of it. If something sounds wrong or I make a mistake, he automatically scowls. That feels bad.

What should everyone shut up about?
I wish people would stop talking about food. It's so food-centric where I live right now. All people care about is food.

What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I'm self-deprecating, I like that. People think that I'm easygoing, which I can be, but I'm also very neurotic. I dislike that. I'm not that easygoing and I wish I was.

What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Going for a bike ride, having several alcoholic drinks, watching a movie. In New York they have movies in the park. If I could do that and have a nice picnic, and a bottle of wine, then ride my bike home, that would be a nice Sunday. I drink and ride all the time.

What advice should you have taken, but did not?
I moved into a house that I got to renovate however I wanted, and the one piece of advice someone gave me was, "Just move into the house now but don't do anything for a whole year. Just feel it, get to know the space and you'll know what to do." But instead I was so impatient that I didn't listen and went ahead and made a million plans without thinking it through. I regret that. I made a lot of mistakes. And no, that's not what my song ["My Mistakes"] is about. That song isn't about regret. What I'm talking about is making a mistake I regret. I don't always take time in making decisions.

What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
Kicking out is a harsh way to say it, but if someone's not good enough. That's the biggest reason. And you can apply that to bed for sure.

What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I think of good-natured, good-humoured people. And they love music I think maybe even more than Americans. Every time I'm in Toronto I have a really good experience. I often think, "Yeah, I could live here."

What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
It was either Paul Simon's Graceland. Or maybe a 45 of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" by the Eurythmics. I'm not sure which one came out first. That's the first record I remember having. It was when I had my Fisher Price record player.

What was your most memorable day job?
When I first moved to New York I was a temp at CitiBank for two years. I was moved out of different departments but the best was when I was a secretary for a woman who was going on vacation. It was 2000, there was kind of a boom happening and I got hired to do nothing but check her voice messages on her phone. If something sounded urgent I'd have to pass it on to somebody else. But CitiBank had a corporate membership to all of the banks in New York, so she was like, "Just come in for a few hours in the morning and afternoon and then do whatever you want." And so every day I went to a different museum. And got paid to do it.

How do you spoil yourself?
By procrastinating. Cleaning is one thing or running errands. Those are what I do to spoil myself. I'll go shopping instead of doing something I should be doing. And then the cleaning is the reward.

If I wasn't playing music I would be…
When I was in college I thought I could be a TV or film producer. I don't know why I thought that. I just feel it's something I could do in a creative field. But I think I might rather work in retail. I like talking to people and I'm good at selling things.

What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
A good voice. Someone who can talk in a nice way. One that is very seductive.

What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
Recently I was on a flight from New York to Chicago, in coach as I always fly, and John C. Reilly the actor was also in coach. I thought that was funny. And after the flight I had to check my bag at the gate and he had to check his bag at the gate too. So we were both waiting and I was totally staring at him. He probably noticed I was staring at him. And then they moved carousels and so I sprinted over to it to get my bag. On the way back we made eye contact and I smiled at him and he kind of smiled at me and I thought, "Oh, that's nice." So when I go out to the curb where my mom is picking me up I turned around and he was standing right in front of me and he says in a deep funny voice, "How are you?" And I said, "I'm fine." A few weeks before that a friend had a similar experience where he was selling ice cream from an ice cream truck and he acted with her in a similar way. So I had a notebook in my pocket and said, "Sorry to do this but would you give me an autograph for my friend?" And he said okay. So my mom pulled up and I said, "My mom's gonna think you're giving me your phone number." And he laughs. He asked where I'm from, because he's from Chicago too, so we started chatting a bit. And they I asked if he wanted a ride, to which he smiled and said, "Nah, it's okay." And he leans down to the window and says, "Hi mom." Then I got in the car and we drove away. It was a nice experience.

Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Both of my grandmothers. One I've never met and I'm named after her. I have a bunch of her stuff and I'd love to serve her dinner at her table, which I have. That would be really nice. I would make some Greek food. Some lamb, salads, spanakopita.

What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Nothing! Are you kidding me? She's living vicariously through me. She used to play guitar and sing when she was young, so she loves it. She loves following me on the internet and seeing me perform.

What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
Oh god! Ronnie Lane's "Done This One Before." He's one of my favourite singers.

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