It all started with the kind of older sibling we all wished we had growing up.
When she was 14, Eleanor Friedberger’s brother Matthew bought her The Velvet Underground’s Loaded.
When she was 18, he gifted her her first guitar and a spiral bound notebook, in which the charts for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Sweet Jane’ were written out. The latter song has been a beacon for the path Eleanor and her music has tread.
He’s one of those characters that you identify with but they’re also so above and beyond.Eleanor Friedberger — Don't Look Back
“I was one of these kids that fantasised about living in New York City and I’m sure The Velvet Underground was a big part of that,” she says.
“They weren’t from the city, they came from the suburbs [and] they re-invented themselves in this way and I really identify with that.”
When she finally made the move to The Big Apple at 23, things happened very quickly for her band The Fiery Furnaces.
“I really did take advantage of the city,” she says. “As soon as I moved there, that’s when I started playing music in front of people.
“I don’t know if I knew it at the time, but I was waiting for that opportunity and that place to express myself. I hate sounding corny about it but it was a place for me to suddenly say ‘Ok, now I’m gonna be an artist.’”
Living in New York paid off in other exciting ways for Eleanor.
“In later years, I actually saw Lou Reed around town,” she says. “He actually came to see The Fiery Furnaces play once at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, which is kind of a smallish venue. I looked up at the balcony at some point in the set and saw him sitting there and nearly died!
“I had another funny thing, going to a dinner that this magazine hosted. My brother and I were both invited and we were sitting there waiting to see what was going to happen or who was going to be there and Lou Reed walked into the room. My brother stood up and said ‘I gotta go…’. It was just too much!
“He’s one of those characters that you identify with but they’re also so above and beyond. I’m not really into the idea of meeting my heroes too much. Now that he’s gone, I do wish that I’d met him. When he passed away, that was definitely a shift. That was like an end of an era for a lot of people.”
There are a variety of things about Lou Reed’s style as a singer and songwriter that have influenced Eleanor. Some very specific things about ‘Sweet Jane’ have informed the music of The Fiery Furnaces.
“The way the song starts, it’s a little bit of a surprise. I love that when you hear that opening and then he goes into the song. To me that’s my favourite sort of thing. We kinda did that a lot in The Fiery Furnaces, we’d just kinda shift radically. I love these surprises in music. I think that’s the most joyful thing, to be surprised.
“It feels very embarrassing and wrong to try and compare myself to Lou Reed, but I feel like I kinda do write songs in the tradition he did. Which is to say very detailed stories that feel very personal. He wrote about people he knew, almost kinda like short stories, and I feel like I’ve copied that style, either intentionally or unintentionally. I feel like I also have a bit of his style of delivery too.
“In terms of the tone when he starts singing, it sounds really dark and aggressive in some way which I like a lot too. I just like the imagery that it conjures up. ‘Standing on a corner…’ there’s just something that is so much about New York and all the reasons why I wanted to live there as a kid, without knowing the menacing reality in the lyrics maybe.
“But that idealised version of what New York was about that’s resonated with me and it still does in some way.”