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September 20, 2011

Christopher Bollen Interviews Eleanor Friedberger

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Christopher Bollen is an author, his debut novel Lightning People has just been published.

Eleanor Friedberger is a singer-songwriter whose debut solo album is Last Summer. She also plays in the Fiery Furnaces.

On Thursday, September 22nd, both Christopher Bollen and Eleanor Friedberger will be featured at Upstairs at the Square at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in Manhattan.

Author Christopher Bollen interviews musician Eleanor Friedberger:

CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: You and I both come from the Midwest and we've both lived in New York City for more than a decade. Do you think the city has been a big propeller in terms of your career in music? Or do you think you'd be making the same kind of music you are now if you'd lived anywhere else? Have we become artists because we live in this town?

ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER: It's a hard question to answer since this is the only city where I've lived and made music, in any serious kind of way.  Maybe that says a lot.  I started to play when I was in college in Austin, but never in front of more than a few friends, and then again in London.  It's hard to know if moving to New York is what pushed me to play in front of people or if it just coincided with the time that I was personally ready to play in front of an audience and share my songs with people:  old friends, new friends, my brother.  In the past I was motivated by seeing someone on-stage and would think to myself:  "I can do that," or "I can do that better than they're doing it."  I think that might have something to do with playing sports as a kid and being quite competitive.  I certainly felt a lot of camaraderie with new friends who were making music when I first moved here.  It's something I hadn't experienced before.  I know that happens in other cities, but here, it happens in such volume, literally, figuratively.  There were so many musicians and bands, so many parties-- and I was seeking it all out.  Practically speaking, New York is one of the worst places to play music since it's so expensive; most people don't have cars, we have to rent practice spaces.  Why so many people have moved here to start bands, especially over the past ten years, I have no idea.  Is it still the silly dream, that New York is where things happen?  That's how I felt when I was a teenager, and coming from Chicago, there was only one other place to go.  I think there's always some element of reinvention required to make art, and moving to a new city is the easiest way to do it.  I think I still love New York because I travel so much.  I miss it when I'm gone; I miss walking around, I miss riding my bike, I miss the look of the place.  When I started writing songs for Last Summer, I tried to erase the last 10 years and put myself back in the mindset of how I felt when I first moved here.  Even if it just meant remembering stories and old friends, and setting up in my room to make music alone, like I used to do after temping in the city.

CB: Yes I agree—first being that the competitiveness of grade-school sports has manifested itself in new pursuits. I never played team sports (except for one year of second-grade softball that will not be examined here without the help of a psychologist). My sports were track, cross-country running, and tennis. Those were all sports where you were more or less on your own and winning or losing by your own hand. There must be a corollary to that and writing. Writing is like long-distance running. You sit at a computer and go and go for miles and miles not quite sure where exactly you are from the finish line or if you're making decent time or if you've somehow taken the wrong path where a search party will need to be called at darkness to find you. But I also agree that New York was were I was at age twenty and have been since so I can't really compare it to what I'd be like writing anywhere else. But I do think it's funny. Only New Yorkers constantly walk this city wondering how New York has affected them, demanding some explanation for why it isn't the way it used to be, gauging how the city has shaped their consciousness. I highly doubt that many people are walking around Cincinnati right now thinking, Jesus, Cincinnati has really done a number on me. Maybe that's just the exile or immigration experience that New Yorkers who come here from far away have to deal with. Or the fact that we did come here principally with the idea that we were going to make art or else. We're pretty much walking through the clutter of other people's dreams. Maybe a lot of those dreams are out of date, but as you said, there's still an audience, there is still a belief that the struggle and the dedication and the work produces some fantastic fruit. Someone asked me recently to give an example of a "crazy New York experience"—an event that could only happen in New York—and I couldn't think of an answer at the time. I should have said, "you asking me this question." But later did I remember this afternoon in the summer of 2001 when I innocently left my apartment and met some friends in Central Park and ended up on a yacht rented by Yoko Ono that sailed around the Statue of Liberty at sunset. I hadn't met Yoko Ono before and haven't since, but it was very surreal, sitting alongside Yoko at sunset enjoying lady liberty, which I guess means it was an authentic only-in-New York experience. Do you have one bizarre New York experience that comes to mind?

EF: I think I revel in those "only in New York" moments.  They seem to happen with surprising regularity.  Or maybe I'm able to still romanticize what happens here enough to make it feel that way.  A few weeks ago, I sang a song in a Ramones cover band at a block party in Brooklyn.  There were no permits; we just set up in the street and played.  It was great.  But then there have been a handful of big events that do only happen in New York.  I went to Elton John's 60th birthday party at St. John the Divine.  That was probably as close as I'll get to going to something like the Academy Awards.  I got to pick a dress from a showroom that day; I grabbed about 12, they were delivered to my apartment and I felt like a princess choosing the right one.  Tony Bennett sang a capella in the church.  Everyone danced after dinner and I managed to be the jerk to step on Elton John's foot.  He turned around and said "Are you Eleanor from the Fiery Furnaces?"  I said Yes and he gave me a kiss on the cheek.  And then the next night he performed his 60th concert at Madison Square Garden.  I took my mom and we sang along to every song.  That was amazing, but I think I prefer the days when I get to really explore the city, and still feel like a tourist in my own town.  A few months ago, I was shooting a little video for the song Roosevelt Island, and over the course of about three hours, my friend and I drove from Maspeth, to Roosevelt Island to Coney Island on a perfect, sunny day.

CB: Yes, you're right. While Yoko and Elton are sensational moments, the real magic in the city is just walking around, becoming glued and unglued to different pockets. It's been quite a thrill for me in the past month to come across my favorite book stores and find copies of Lightning People in the windows or in displays. It's the sort of situation I always dreamed of—something I made through sweat and dedication just sitting there in front of me as it's only being on a shelf. I think most of the joy of writing is in the making of it but that first time seeing my book out in the world made me pretty happy for a moment. Of course you've been in a very popular band for a long time so I'm sure you're used to this encounter with your work in the world. But now you've put out your first solo album. Is it different to get up and make music on your own instead of with your brother as Fiery Furnaces? Is it more nerve-wracking or more empowering or what?

EF: I've had a sort of security blanket in playing with my brother for so many years, but I couldn't say that it's better or worse, just different.  It's fun to play with new people; I think it's normal and natural.  The Fiery Furnaces is the only band I've ever been in, so maybe a better question is:  what took me so long!  I've been playing solo shows, and shows with a new band; it's great to have that balance.  Performing alone is simultaneously liberating and terrifying.  Musically, it's maybe not so interesting, but hopefully the audience gets to a feel a greater connection to the songs and to me.

CB: You and I have talked before about being broke and having to take temp jobs in our early twenties to pay the rent. I worked as a temp for six months down at Reuters by the South Street Seaport. All I did all day was get a number on a piece of paper, type the number into a computer, press enter, and then put the paper in a pile. Basically I was a human version of a scanner. I made good money but it was utter hell. And that was only the longest of many a terrible temp job. Actually, I eventually went into the editorial side of magazines, which I like much more. But I never was able to break from having a day job and survive on my own writing. I still don't. You, however, do survive on your music. When did you finally feel like, Okay, I've finally gotten to the point where I can do music full time?

EF: The last day job I had was at an insurance company in Elmhurst, Queens.  I quit a few months before our first record came out, in the summer of 2003. We got a small advance and then we hit the road, so I didn't really have a choice in the matter.  I could either go on tour or work in insurance.  It was an easy decision! And then we just kept touring and making records, and touring and making records.  I've been extremely lucky, scraping by for all these years.

CB: I think the world of music and the world of writing, even though they might be on top of each other in the city, are very different. This may just be my experience, but when I was writing my novel, I didn't really know anyone else writing fiction. I had a friend who did poetry and a number of friends who wrote articles or journalists, but for a first-time hopeful novelist I didn't really have any other comrades that I could share the feeling or burden with. I was basically alone at my desk in my apartment typing into the great void. I think my experience is different than other writers in the city, but the music scene in New York does feel very interconnected. Did you find when you and your brother were emerging as a band that there was a lot of support with other bands and musicians around you? Did you feel part of a scene or a world of like minded musicians?

EF: Musicians get to be on both sides of the coin:  writing the album was a solitary, quiet process—at home, making demos, no feedback.  And then recording in a studio was a collaboration with my producer, and now playing live is a whole different game, it feels like a party.  We're working together, re-arranging the songs, seeing what works.  I think when my brother and I first started, we were in our own world.  I think you have to be in order to find your voice and your sound.  But now I certainly feel like I'm part of a community.  Maybe just because I've lived in the Brooklyn for 11 years; the world has become smaller and smaller.

CB: When did you first learn to dance? Do you have any memories of dancing as a kid?

EF: I took tap and ballet when I was 5.  I only remember "shuffle, step."  And at our recital we wore hideous pink costumes and one girl peed on the stage.  My first school dance was 8th grade graduation; the dance was called "A Night to Remember" (Or did I just make that up from Mad Men?) I really think it was called that!  John Sibilano was my date.  The slow dances were:  my hands on his shoulders, his hands on my ass, and that sort of lame swaying.  You can imagine.  It felt pretty racy.

CB: My first dance was eighth grade at St. Mary's and I slow danced with a girl to "Stairway to Heaven" which I thought was so cool, so adult, and so promising for what was to come. What was to come was a lot of bad high school dancing, particularly my sophomore year of high school where Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" played every other song. I don't think I really learned to dance until I came to New York for college and went out to clubs. Unfortunately I seem to have lost all my moves in the last five years. I need to learn all over. Okay, so writers don't really get to collaborate much, but musicians do. Would you ever do a duet with anyone?

EF: I hate duets.

CB: If you saw an alien on your roof one night would you , A) call the police, B) try to kill it, C) run away and hide, D) try to talk to it and if so what would you say or do, or E) just go about your own business and let this alien deal with New York just like everyone else has to?

EF: I'd buy him a one-way ticket to Ashland, CA to hang out with the other Ren Fest folks.

CB: I might try to talk to him. You see, I need some new ideas for my next book. By the way I don't know if I believe in aliens or not. I actually don't know if I believe in ghosts or not either. But I'm up for any sort of paranormal encounter. We both happened to be on the same island in Greece at the same time last summer. What is your favorite memory of Hydra?

EF: My favorite memory is hanging out with you, of course, Chris:  A boat trip, swimming in crystal clear water and eating sea urchin and drinking wine.  Or, it's a tie between that and when a rat jumped through an open window and into my bed.  It's good luck, right?

CB: Um, yeah, great luck! I liked when we had big plans to go listen to the visiting orchestra but it was so crowded and hot in the town—was that a town hall?—that we decided to skip it and just drink beers on the rocks over the sea.

Christopher Bollen links:

the author's website

Eleanor Friedberger links and free & legal mp3s:

Eleanor Friedberger's website
Eleanor Friedberger's Wikipedia entry
Fiery Furnaces website

"My Mistakes" [mp3]

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

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