At SXSW 2016 this past March, Eleanor Friedberger was making the usual showcase rounds and doing what she could not to get lost in the flood. She had her band with her, and a suite of new songs — as personal and emotionally resonant as any she's written. When she took the stage for a final evening gig she let the songs and her band (which goes by the name Icewater) do the talking.
Confidence isn't an easy thing. Nor is comfort with a musical path, especially when you've made a name as part of a beloved and influential indie-rock band like the Fiery Furnaces. For the first decade of her musical career, she worked side-by-side with her brother Matthew Friedberger making eccentric, rhythmically and melodically abstract pop and rock that challenged and provoked any listener. Now as a solo artist for some five years, she's searching for a new sound, one that is as timeless as a Neil Young or Van Morrison album, but with her own distinctively smart pop sensibility, a sound that needs real confidence to take flight.
On stage and on her latest record, New View, she's found it. Though the songs are deeply personal, even private at times, they glide on sure melodies, buoyed by the tight, spare playing of a live band that knows its role, and, of course, Friedberger's gently incandescent voice.
"I've been playing with these guys for a couple of years, and I completely trust them," she explains over the phone, on the eve of a tour that will bring her back to St. Louis for her first show in five years. "I'm in a lucky situation. I don't have to think about whether they're going to get it right. I try not to be a den mother."
"It's tricky," she continues. "I'm in this middle situation, being at a certain level, but we're still touring in a van, playing relatively small venues. Finding guys in their forties who are willing to do that — most are not willing to do the kind of stuff that I'm into doing. Playing with a younger group that hasn't toured as much — they're totally enthusiastic. I may have been to St. Louis five times, but they haven't played there before."
Recorded in New York after Friedberger left Brooklyn for more pastoral (and more affordable) settings, New View begins with glistening acoustic guitars and a steady, lightly skipping rhythm. "I feel just as crazy as I did last night," she sings. "I feel I'll get up and go." Song after song, she does just that, carrying all of her experiences with her, but knowing that, with songs so well-shaped and a band that knows where she's coming from, she doesn't have to impress anyone but herself.
"I'm just trying to make a record I want to listen to," she says. "You can just put it on and let it play. You don't have to skip to different tracks to keep the mood going. I wanted it to be a consistent mood more than anything else. I've made a lot of records, but I haven't made one like this. I'm playing with this group of four guys, and they have their sound and I just tweak it in different directions. I wanted it to sound like a real band playing. I've never done that before. The records I made with my brother were overdub upon overdub. I wanted it to be the way we can play live."
Some of the songs on New View took years to come together; some emerged in a burst of inspiration. "Sometimes a song will come quickly, but other times I'll have just one verse and I'll slowly work on it," she says. "Unless you can do that you'll be waiting around for a song for a long time. I almost always start with lyrics, though I might not know quite how they're going to be placed."
The stories Friedberger tells are suffused with a peculiar kind of longing. On a ballad like "Never Is a Long Time," with its echoes of Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time," she cuts the melody with a shape-shifting, improvised rhythm and lyrics that surge out of the personal and into bigger, richer, even thornier visions. "I've had a glimpse of the infernal, I've witnessed the sublime," she whispers low as she can. "But nighttime is eternal, and that's a long, long time."
"I feel like all the songs on the album are my way of immortalizing one little moment you have with somebody," she confides. "A lot of the songs are about a specific person and a time and place. They're very personal for me, and to that other person, to different people, but hopefully it's not so personal or exclusive so that someone else can't relate to it and put themselves into the story."
With the Fiery Furnaces now five years in the rear-view mirror, Friedberger has found her own footing, her own way of connecting with listeners. She really is a natural: a songwriter who channels her influences into fresh and indelible images, a band leader who puts her trust in a young, gifted band — but she knows just how to call the signals.
"I was always the catcher on the softball team when I was a kid, so leading a group comes pretty naturally to me," she reflects. "I kind of attribute all that to playing team sports as a kid. I was a pretty good hitter. I was No. 3 at bat. My varsity coach came to our show in Chicago. He said I still hold the record for most consecutive hits. I was a pretty steady, consistent player. I feel like I'm just kind of consistent in my output. I hope that remains."