Eleanor Friedberger’s career to date can be divided into three distinct phases.
There’s the decade the New York based musician collaborated with her older brother Matthew in the melodically off-kilter The Fiery Furnaces. There are the three solo albums she released as a gently reflective 70s influenced singer-writer. And, with the release of this year’s Rebound, there’s the 80s electronica chapter. Her latest incarnation has a playful exuberance that started out as a deliberate reaction to 2016’s New View. The album is, “so calm - such easy listening - I wanted to do the opposite. I was feeling opposite, both in my own little world and in reaction to the world.” She intended to express this contrariness through a harsh and angry sounding record, believing that she’s “most suited to being in a punk band with loud guitars.”
This plan changed when she “stumbled upon a Casio keyboard” when she went into a shop, “intending to buy a new guitar pedal as a toy for some sound inspiration.” She “ended up writing a bunch of music on the Casio and it just stuck. I definitely wanted to find a new sound but 80s electronica is certainly not my bag.”
Be that as it may, it’s a sound that suits her well and has driven the most accessible album of her career.
The best of the tracks have a breezy pop sheen that’s undercut by the faint whiff of dry ice, which reflects a pivotal moment in the album’s conception. Inspired by her Greek heritage, she spent a few months living in Athens and assembled a band of local musicians. Yet it wasn’t until she visited an 80s goth disco, which was recommended by a friend, that she found the ‘sound and energy’ for her fourth album.
The release takes its name from the nightclub in question but she struggles to verbalise why it was such a defining moment. “It was dark, disorienting, dingy, smoky - but it felt exclusive, like a secret,” she ponders. “Going there started as a joke but quickly stood in for something much bigger. It’s a little hard to explain how a physical place can represent how you’re feeling. People were dancing but it wasn’t joyful. The music was familiar but I couldn’t recognize any of the songs.”
It’s a sensation of half-felt familiarity that the album succeeds in capturing, with references to The Cure, Eurythmics and Stereolab floating just out of reach. The pop culture allusions continue on the album artwork, on which Friedberger stands in front of a neon backdrop that approximates a Grecian design while self-styled as Parisian poet, painter and post-punk musician Lizzy Mercier Descloux.
Despite this brightness and the commercial, often danceable sheen there’s a tension with the narrative melancholy. This is most apparent on former single ‘In Between Stars’, on which lush synths and tinny handclaps spiral around the depersonalised admission that, “I’ve come to see the world / Exclusively through your eyes / Everything I buy and eat and do with you in mind.”
She was aware of this friction when writing the material. “I would stop for a second and think, ‘Wow, this is a really sad song’,” she reflects. “I remember actually crying as I played through one of them for the first time.”
There’s also a contradiction in the fact that an album partly influenced by a night out with friends was recorded solo, with just input from producer Clemens Knieper. This is in contrast with previous releases, which were made in collaboration with a live band. “I was mostly working in reaction to the last album and wanting to do something as different as possible, which simply - or most easily - meant just trying to do as much on my own as I could,” she explains of the decision.
Being self-reliant had obvious implications for the music she produced, with tracks mainly being built around programmed drums, a Juno synth and shimmery guitars. “I’m pretty limited in my playing, so I think it affected the sound a lot!” she jokes. “I made pretty detailed demos for all the songs, much of which stayed on the final recordings.”
She also challenged herself in how she approached lyric writing. These are normally written first “but this album was different in that mostly the melodies were written first. It was much harder this way, but a good challenge. I’m constantly writing lyrics, or at least ideas for lyrics or starting points, but it becomes a matter of sifting, organizing and making sense of it all once I know what I need for a particular song.”
Her constant lyric writing and sourcing of ideas can be heard in the narrative driven songs, a number of which borrow phrases from letters and text messages. The reggae tipped ‘Are We Good?’ is an example of this, notably when she sings, “I’ll go to ZZ Top and lose my mind.” Far from being based on personal experience, it’s what “someone texted to me. In reality they were two separate statements, from the same person.”
Having spent so much time writing and recording by herself, she’s looking forward to the camaraderie of touring with a band this autumn. “Playing solo feels like a weird act of performance art or stand-up comedy without the jokes. It can be liberating but it’s more fun to see how other musicians interpret the songs. Hopefully they’ll stand up.”
People will have the chance to find out if they do withstand full band arrangements when she plays at Headrow House on 31 October.