All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Eleanor Friedberger




ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER’S SONGS have gotten simpler and more conventional since she was in the fragmented, Beefheart-inspired duo The Fiery Furnaces. Much of her solo work, which began with 2011’s LP Last Summer, has resembled, instead, mid-’60s Dylan crossed with avant-garde poetry. Something about her songs and her persona remains elusive, however. “You’ll never know me, but it’s not from any lack of trying,” she sings on a track from her second LP, Personal Record. “And if you try to hold me again, I’ll break into bits in the palm of your hand.”

Raised in Oak Park — the Chicago suburb where Hemingway grew up — Friedberger and her brother Matthew founded The Fiery Furnaces in Brooklyn at the dawn of the century; they released their last songs together in 2009. After three very fine, very wordy solo records — Personal Record and New View followed her debut — she headed to Athens, where she mined her Greek heritage and spent time at a Goth club that gives her latest album, Rebound, its title. This album is in some ways a departure musically, with a more post-punk or dance-oriented sound to most of its numbers.

Friedberger, who tours and travels extensively and performs often in Los Angeles, spoke to me from her home in the Hudson River Valley.

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SCOTT TIMBERG: Give us a sense of how important authors and poets have been to you, going back to the beginning. Did it start to matter to you as a kid or later or never?

ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER: I grew up in a house filled with books. My father is a historian. I don’t have any memory of him ever sitting down without a book in his hand. Growing up, we just read all the time. That was just something we did. My brother is four years older than me, and he was a huge reader as a kid. Some of my earliest memories are of him reading to me.

This is the brother you were in The Fiery Furnaces with? Matthew, I think was his name?

Yeah, I just have one sibling. We probably valued that more than an average family, but I wouldn’t call myself a crazy reader … [Laughs.] Maybe I’m comparing myself to my family members. My brother, he still reads more than any person I’ve ever met. I mean, he owns enough books to have a bookstore, and that’s really extreme. All the touring we did for years — wherever we went — he was in search of books, so maybe he’d be a better interview for this. So that has affected me for sure, and I do look for books, too.

That’s kind of a perk of traveling, is maybe to pick up a fun book. One of my favorite places to find books, actually, is at the dump where I go to take my garbage. I’ve found a lot of really interesting books there, and I’m trying not to spend too much money on books anymore because, actually, I feel like I can get interesting books in other ways. When I was a kid, I probably read. I read a lot as a teenager. I went to the University of Texas and I was an American Studies major, and all I did was read for four years.

So were you an intense enough reader as a kid that you had a favorite kid’s author — a favorite poet, favorite novelist? Was there anybody that grabbed you really hard as a child?

I still think about the book sometimes. I just mentioned it the other day, it was Danny, the Champion of the World (1975) by Roald Dahl. That was my favorite.

What was it about Dahl or about that book that really connected with you?

There’s something romantic … I mean, my dad’s English, and there was some sort of fantasy about living in England. Somehow it seemed like that was where I was supposed to be, but I had this other life or something.

A lot of people feel that way, as kids especially.

I just thought they were smart and funny, and, you know, there was a dark side to them. But I was thinking about talking to you, and I thought, “I don’t remember anything I read as a teenager.” [Laughs.] I don’t remember things I read a year ago! I just know that I went through a phase, when the band with my brother was starting, where I barely read at all for about 10 years.

You were just too busy writing songs, touring, rehearsing, all that stuff?

Yeah, I have a really hard time reading while I’m on tour. I don’t really read at all. One of the greatest pleasures I have now is when I’m at home and I give myself time to read. I just value it so much now. In the morning, I try to spend an hour reading, first thing. But I can only really do that while I’m at home.

That’s interesting. A lot of musicians I know do a lot of reading on planes, and, you know, on tour, it helps to focus. Some people are a bit different obviously.

I mean, I think I did pre-iPhone, you know, more on tour. But it’s so hard and distracting if you’re on a van full of people. I mean, I can’t really concentrate.

You went to Greece for a while, must have been in Los Angeles for a while, and you went to England when you were really young, like right out of college. So you’ve done these trips, which are probably sort of personal voyages, and now you’re home in upstate New York. So what do you read these days?

I was making a little list of the last books I read, but how I got to them is all over the place. I don’t read a lot of fiction. The book I just finished a few days ago was Edna O’Brien’s memoir called Country Girl (2012).

Oh yeah, I was in Ireland a couple years ago and I have a bunch of original paperbacks.

I bought one of her books last time I was in Dublin. It was a first press thing, and I went into this bookshop that was closing. My friend’s father had done the artwork for the cover, and so I bought it. Then, soon after, I heard that her memoir was really good, and I just devoured it. It was so funny. Again, I feel like I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately. I don’t know if there is a reason for that. The book I read just before that was … it’s kind of embarrassing … you know when things are so much geared toward you and you don’t want to like it?

Right, right —

Well, the writer’s Chris Kraus, you know. I read I Love Dick (1997) a long time ago — well, not a long time ago, but when people were talking about it. [Laughs.] She also wrote this book about the artist Kathy Acker called After Kathy Acker (2017). I loved that book! It’s really dense, but I think that it’s so well written. I would love to read more — I wouldn’t call it academic — but, you know, nonfiction by her because I think she’s just a really good writer. It also just blew open so many doors like — “Who’s this person? Who’s this person” — just connecting all these people. I thought it was really fascinating.

Had you read Kathy Acker’s stories before that?

No, and I knew of them. They just didn’t appeal to me. But her as a character, and the way that Chris Kraus wrote about her, was really fascinating to me.

I’m so overdue to read both of those. I mean, I was a student in England in 1990 when the Kathy Acker madness was really alive. The Mekons made a record with her.

I read Kraus’s Kathy Acker book, I don’t know, maybe six months ago. But then I just read Torpor (2006), which is like the sequel to I Love Dick or something. [Laughs.] That was when I was a little bit embarrassed, like I probably wouldn’t have read that on the subway or something — I wouldn’t want people to see me reading it.

Right, right. You got a plain brown wrapper for that one.

Yeah, I don’t know why, it’s just one of those things about a woman who has never had a baby. It just seems too close in some way — the older boyfriend, all that stuff. I do like her writing. I was in Los Angeles about a year ago and, only because you mentioned Kim Gordon — I wouldn’t name-drop her — but we hung out one night and she introduced me to the writer Rachel Kushner. We went to a Chris Kraus art opening where they were doing screenings of her films. [Laughs.] And I had just read the Kathy Acker book, and Kim was going to be interviewing Chris Kraus. It just felt like this really funny moment. I had read I Love Dick and then, like, Sylvère [Lotringer] comes off the elevator and they’re all there together. I just felt like I was there, but I also felt like I was a fly on the wall.

Rachel’s cool. I read somewhere that you’re into Edna St. Vincent Millay. Is that so?

It’s funny, I don’t know if I’m so into her poetry. I mean, her poetry is nice. I kind of became more interested in other women who had moved from New York City to the general area where I’m living now. I live in a town called Kerhonkson, and very briefly Diane di Prima lived here, and she even had something called the Kerhonkson Journal, and had her own little press. It’s interesting, that’s all! There’s nothing more to it than that. But somewhere I came across her biography by Nancy Milford [Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, 2001], and it’s just truly fascinating. I mean, the whole book is based on correspondence, so it’s just letter after letter, and this woman just did the most incredible amount of research for this book. That was pretty fascinating.

Millay is interesting, partly because she was overlooked for a long time. The poets like Plath and Sexton who came after her got more attention.

Yeah, she was not very edgy, but as a character, it turns out, in her life, she was extraordinary, so it’s way more fun to read. The book is based on her actual letters. She’s just like a drunk nymphomaniac, basically.

Your new record, Rebound, is based, in part, on you going to Greece for a while, and your Greek heritage on your mom’s side. Did going over there get you into any Greek writers, Greek history, any Anglo or American writers living in Greece, et cetera?

Well, the big one for me and my family — and again, he’s more a kind of icon more than an actual writer, I’ve only read a few of his books — but Patrick Leigh Fermor, have you ever heard of him?

Ooh, no.

He’s British and was a war hero. He’s one of Britain’s most famous travel writers. He, like, walked all over Europe —

Almost like a Bruce Chatwin kind of guy?

Yeah, but … He ended up settling in this place called Mani, which is where my mother’s family is from. He built this house there, and it’s just a place I’ve spent a lot of time — like literally next to his house. He died in the last 10 years [2011], and a museum in Athens took over his house. It’s going to turn into a writer’s residency or something like that. But he’s written tons of books, and one of his books is called Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958), which is this region in Greece.

Yeah, there’s a whole history of British people settling in Greece, you know Lawrence Durrell, obviously Rachel Cusk, who you might have read?

Well, it’s funny because I noticed you mentioned, and then I remembered that in a review of my last album — he compared my writing to her, and I’ve never read one of her books. The quote was something about fragments of memories. But to me it’s like, “Isn’t that what all songs are like?” [Laughs.]

Well, they should be, I mean, I’d hope so —

But maybe they’re not. For me, that’s really what I try to write. You know, if I can somehow make sense of my own memories, that can be of use to someone else — that’s kind of the goal, I guess.

Let’s talk about your songwriting for a second. I mean, it sounds like you’ve been an intense reader at times, and not at other times, and you read a lot of memoirs, and a lot of stuff that’s not necessarily novels. Just wondering how much you think it goes into your songwriting. Has this stuff been important to you as someone who writes lyrics?

This has been more of a recent thing in the last couple of years, and maybe now I’m seeking them out more because I’m interested to see how people write about themselves. One of my favorite bookstores is Counterpoint.

Yeah! In Beachwood Canyon? Cool place.

Yeah, and so I always buy at least a few books when I go in there. But I bought this Diana Vreeland autobiography. Do you know who she is?

Yeah, what’s the book specifically?

It’s just called D.V. by Diana Vreeland (1984), and it’s just so goofy! [Laughs.] I mean, I think she just talked to someone and they recorded it and transcribed it. That’s what it seems like. So it’s just so much in her voice, and she has such a peculiar way of speaking, but I just ate the book, it was just so funny. And so I love reading that stuff, like maybe I’ll use a few lines in it, you know? Now, maybe I’m reading that stuff a little bit too strategically or something just because I don’t talk to as many people as I used to.

Let me mention a couple of songs of yours … Some people who are great songwriters, like Dylan was into poetry from the beginning — and you can see it in the work — while somebody like Ira Kaplan from Yo La Tengo seems really literary, but he says that the reading is one part of his life and the songwriting another. But in two songs of yours, “When I Knew” and “He Didn’t Mention His Mother,” there’s a really sophisticated level of storytelling. Were you under the spell of a writer with those, or were you just trying to make a song work?

[Laughs.] It’s funny because, when you mention those two songs, I think of two men, because both of the people those songs involve, coincidentally, writers.

[Laughs.] But these are like boyfriends effectively?

We could call them that.

But they’re men you actually knew?

Yeah, I never put that together but that’s kind of true. I’m not going to say their names, but they are actually writers. But did I have another writer who [influenced me]? No, and their songs aren’t influenced by their writing either.

The third song I think of is “I Don’t Want To Bother You.” I haven’t stared at the lyrics, but this is language at a high level. The song’s about a lesbian relationship, or something? It’s two women, right?

[Laughs.] If that’s what it seems to be, then let it be.

But this was not your Salinger phase or your Sylvia Plath phase or something? You were just writing about things in your mind, right?

How else do you write if it’s not about things in your mind?

Well, yeah, but, you know, Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian describes a certain song of his that he based on a Salinger story, for example.

No, I never do that. I think 99 percent of my songs are either about a thing or a feeling. I’m going to use examples from my most recent album, like, there’s a song called “It’s Hard,” which, I guess, is about a nightclub called Rebound, but mostly it’s about my memory of the place and how the memory feels.

So there’s that kind of song, and then there are songs that I can kind of think of as gifts. Like, there’s a song called “The Letter” that is actually based on a letter that someone sent to me. I’d say half of it is verbatim and half of it is made up or elaborated on from that letter. So the other source could be text messages, conversations, emails, whatever.

Does a song tend to start with a phrase that someone says or that you hear in your head? How does it develop into a song typically?

Another example of that on the new record is a song called “Make Me a Song.” I had the song kind of done, and I had the chorus and I had this refrain (“If I could love you more”), and it wasn’t about “I could love you more, baby,” I wanted it to be like, “I could be a better person.” As earnest as that sounds, whatever. But somebody sent me a YouTube link to an evangelical sermon that was part of a conference for making and writing religious music. This was somebody I’d met who told me I was a blue light, that he loved Jesus, and praying for Jesus. This was just a stranger. [Laughs.] Anyway, he sent me this link. I had the song I wanted and had half-written, then I watched this video, and found myself watching the entire thing, and used that to finish it.

So I can tell from your shows that you’re a very disciplined player and bandleader. I wonder if you feel like you’re as disciplined with lyric writing. I mean, do you keep working and working until you get it perfect or are you kind of like, “That’s close enough, let’s move on”?

This last album I feel like I’ve worked the hardest I’ve ever worked to make sure there’s nothing I’m embarrassed by. I don’t think I could say that about any other album. There are always at least a few lines where I’m like, “Eh.” I mean, maybe I’ll feel that way later about this one, but … sometimes I think it’s good enough and sometimes I like that I just made it up on the spot and it stuck, and I felt like I wanted to honor that moment a little bit, you know? It’s nice to feel like there’s some improvisation happening. So, yes and no. 

Yeah, I mean, some songwriters obviously really sweat over it and then there are Beatles’s songs that I consider total classics that John just like wrote on a napkin and said, “Okay, that’s close enough.’” There’s a song of his called “It’s Only Love,” which he hated and most people think is a really minor Beatles song, but I think it captures something about relationships and, you know, it’s just fucking perfect. He could’ve spent an extra month working it out, and it wouldn’t have been any better.

You know, songwriting isn’t poetry and it’s not novel writing, it’s its own thing. That’s why it’s great and terrible.

Let me ask you a couple more things and then I’ll let you go. Your dad is English, so that’s the Friedberger side, right?

Yeah, Friedberger is actually a German name from a great-grandfather.

Right, yeah. But he was from Britain, and you lived in London after school?

I did. I moved from Chicago to Austin, Texas, to go to college. Then I lived for a year in London in 1999 — that was pretty formative and great, I’ll say. Then I moved to New York the following year.

I mean, anybody who grew up with rock ’n’ rollwhether it was The Stones, or The Clash, or The Slits, or whateverI think is half-English, you know? There’s just so much imagery and everything. Did that ever shape your reading at all? You mentioned Roald Dahl earlier. Did you go through a phase or develop an interest in various British writers, or connect with their landscape?

I just had a flashback of going to Keats’s house. Um … I’m going to say no. I don’t know if I’m just blanking … but no, not that much.

It seems like you had a fascination with some British things, but English writing wasn’t one of the things that brought you there or kept you there?

No, I mean I went when I was 16 and I had a really cool older cousin who’d take me around Camden, and when I went back — however many years later — I knew I wanted to live in Camden. I don’t know what this stuff was based on, to be honest. When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with movies and I wanted to live in New York City because I thought I wanted to be like Martin Scorsese’s daughter and wife. If I could be both of those things, then I would’ve been them, but, um, I didn’t have that for London. I had family there. I mean, my favorite writer is Iris Murdoch. She was born in Dublin, but she lived in England, you know, forever. I love her writing. I mean, I didn’t before I lived in London, but if I had to read a novel, it would be one of her novels.

So tell us what you like about Iris Murdoch and which one of her books is your favorite.

The Sea, the Sea (1978) would be one of them. I wish I had a better way of saying she just writes so beautifully. I don’t think people write like that anymore. I guess there is a thing — I mean, when you asked me about the British thing — even my dad, he writes, but he’s not the quintessential flowery Englishman in his speech, you know, in the language where you’re like, “Oh, I’ll just listen to him talk all day.” I don’t feel that way about my dad. [Laughs.] But there is that side of, like … you know when someone says they’re an Anglophile, they’re attracted to that sort of thing. She has that, but I also just think she is very clever, and she wrote so much. I like the sort of mysticism that you’re kind of confusing and you don’t really know what it all means. 

It sounds like when you’re writing, you’re not thinking, “I want this song to be as good as something so-and-so would write.” You’re just trying to make the song work.

Oh my god! No, no way. I just think I have to agree with Mr. Kaplan, I mean, they’re just not the same thing. Maybe more recently, if I was going to admit to myself that I’ve been reading more memoirs to get some ammunition or something.

We talked about Kim Gordon a bit. Do musician memoirs interest you

No.

Really? So Patti Smith, Keith Richards, et cetera, those aren’t your bag?

I read the Bruce Springsteen one. That was the last big one I read. I was not into that at all. I love collecting funny, maybe self-published, weird fan books. I have several Van Morrison ones, and Dylan ones. Those aren’t biographical at all, they’re just funny fan music books.

So they’re tour records by fans who went to a million shows or something?

Half that, or scrapbooks, but they’re not real academics or writers, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of photos and stuff. I’m talking about stuff from the ’70s.

Interesting. So a much more underground and small-batch kind of thing?

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I love collecting weird stuff like that. I wanted to say, because I haven’t talked to anybody about it, the book I was enjoying so much was a catalog for an art show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Huh, what show?

It was about Wallace Berman.

Yeah, okay. I know his son Tosh a bit.

Oh, it’s funny because after that I bought his memoir and ended up saving it to read on tour.

Tosh’s book is so good. I don’t have a catalog from the show but I remember that show, Semina Culture, was so good, and kind of mysterious, and weird, and elusive. I won’t spoil it, but Tosh’s book gives you such a glimpse into every aspect of West Coast underground culture from the last 50 years. You know, you have film people, and art people, and weird photographers. He’s almost this Zelig figure who brushes up against so many people.

Oh, totally. Well, the amazing thing about this catalog is that — I mean, it’s a huge book — it’s like a coffee-table book, but I actually read the whole thing, which is something I don’t normally do. The whole middle section is basically an alphabetical list of all these characters, because the book is called Wallace Berman & His Circle (2015), so it’s at least a hundred people. It’s almost like Wikipedia entries that are done, and then images of their artwork. I was like, “Who is this person?” “Who is this person?” I would have to stop myself because I would get through, like, two pages and then I’d be looking up all this … It just led me to so many places, it was kind of amazing.

You could get a whole education in West Coast culture by just reading Tosh’s book, or going to that exhibit. All kinds of people show uplike Sammy Davis Jr. shows up — all these random appearances that kind of make sense in a funny way.

Another good book that came up recently — the author actually sent it to me — this guy Ryan Walsh. He wrote a book called Astral Weeks (2018), which is a history about Boston in the ’60s. That was another kind of connect-the-dots and, you know, look at how all these people are connected. That was really interesting, too.

I’ve been meaning to dig into that book. So, I like both chapters in your career. With Fiery Furnaces the songs are more deconstructed, they sort of close up and then open up and turn inside out. The structures are very complicated. It almost feels like an experimental film or something like that. I wonderwhether it was your brother or youwhere that aesthetic came from. Was it just that you want your songs to be unpredictable, or was the model some sort of experimental artist, or filmmaker, or novelist?

Our first album sounds …

Gallowsbird’s Bark (2003)?

Yeah, we kind of started out playing pseudo-blues music, you know, we loved Captain Beefheart. We kind of wanted to have unconventional lyrics, but the music wasn’t very complicated. Then by the second album, Blueberry Boat (2004), my brother … I don’t know if he just immediately unleashed … just given this tiny opportunity, he went as far as he could go almost. You know what I mean? Because maybe that was going to be the only opportunity. I don’t know why it went so far so fast, but in hindsight now, my brother was really trying to do something different.

He’s a very clever person, and so I think he was trying to make something that would amuse him. He always wanted to make mini-rock operas, and he thought it would be interesting for me — and we’re very different, I mean we’re very similar too — for me to be the one to put those things across on people, with really obscure lyrics, and making sense of it all. I think it turned into this kind of thing of, “Can we get away with this sort of thing?”

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Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.


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