Don't be concerned for Eleanor Friedberger if you see her mouthing words or even mumbling when she's out for a walk.
It's her storytime. And it's during these times that song ideas come to her. "I tell very long and elaborate stories on those walks. True stories. As if I'm telling people a story of my relationship with so-and-so or the time that something happened to me."
I spoke to Friedberger a couple of months ago as she walked the streets of Oak Park, Illinois, where she grew up on the same street as Ernest Hemingway's childhood home. Talking to me meant that she couldn't tell herself stories, but Friedberger gave me some fantastic insight into her creative process. She doesn't journal, but she writes lots of lists, which give her song ideas. She writes all her songs in her upstate New York home at her grandmother's dining room table, which she inherited in 2007. She types her lyrics; in her words, "typing is the only skill I have in my life" because she took two semesters of typing in high school. Among her other little known skills: rearranging furniture and cleaning, because she's "good at making things look good." (Friedberger is also the only established musical artist I know who has a CV on their site.) She's also a fantastic songwriter.
Friedberger's latest album, Rebound, is her excellent fourth solo album. As you'll read, it's a departure from her previous releases. Read my interview with her after the video.
How much writing do you do outside of songwriting?
Not much. Do emails count? Laughs. I take a lot of notes, but I don't do a lot of writing about the day’s events or about my feelings. I do write a lot of lists, but it wouldn't be accurate to call it journaling. I used
What are these lists?
Things that I hear, things that I see, things that I read. It could be anything.
Do you turn to those lists at some point and realize there's enough make a song?
There comes a time when I think Ok, I've got this shit down. Now I can get to work. That’s when I go through those lists. It’s kind of like going through research for a research paper: I'm basically highlighting what I think I can use. Just like I would highlight passages in the books I’d read for research project. I'll pull something out of that list to expand on it. I keep going back to those lists to see what else I need from it, although sometimes I can get the entire song from just one line.
When you look at those notes, do you look for themes or common elements, then group them in one song?
It's a little bit all over the place. There are times when I want to write a song about a certain topic, and that could be based on one line that I already had in that list. That’s what I did on the new album a few times.
I know you spent a lot of time in Greece before recording the new album. Did you do any songwriting there?
I didn't do any songwriting there. I thought I would when I got there, but I didn't. It ended up being more like an inspirational trip or a place to do research. I was like a designer going on an inspirational trip collecting fabric swatches. I see it like that. I would love to do that and more and more. It was a great way to get ideas.
As we’re talking, you're walking around the neighborhood where you grew up in Chicago. Does that inspire you to write songs?
It doesn't. Hemingway’s house is on the same street where I grew up, the one I'm walking on now, and it reminds me of when he said that you can never go back to old things. I grew up in a really nice place, a suburb on the west side of Chicago. It feels very urban, but safe at the same time. It's liberal, it's diverse, and it's close to public transportation. But I couldn't wait to get the fuck out of here growing up. I would never want to live here again. Walking around, I don't feel creative here at all. As a kid I fantasized about moving to New York City and becoming an artist. I love Chicago, but I never had that in mind for this place. I don't feel one ounce of creative energy when I'm back here.
Let's talk about that environment. Is there an ideal environment when you get your best writing done?
I can write at any time of day, but I have my grandmother's dining room table that I've used as a desk and a dining room table since she died in 2007. I've written all of my songs since then at that table. No matter where I've lived. That is where I sit down to do all of my real work. I do have to be at home and I do have to be alone to be able to write.
Is it a confidence thing to be there because you know that when you sit down the songs will come?
I'm not sure. Because it's not about being struck by inspiration lightning. It's more about putting my head down and doing the work to be a good songwriter. It's a big nice table that I can put lots of things on. I can sit at the table for 12 hours a day.
It's still so fun when I'm trying to figure something out. But it comes in stages. When I'm just making stuff up, sometimes I get kinda crazy and I have to get away from it. It's good to walk away when you're stuck on something. But once the demo making happens, I can do that for 12 hours. It's so fun recording different ideas.
There are phases to my songwriting process. In the past, I started with the lyrics. I started with basically a script that contained way more lyrics than I needed, and I set that to music. But this new album was pretty different. I wrote most of the songs on the keyboard and added lyrics afterwards. That was a lot harder for me, but the songs were different because the writing process was different. It was hard, because with some songs I liked the melody so much that I would've preferred to just make up words. It was a challenge to figure out what real words fit with the melody I created.
Why did you decide to switch up the process for this album?
The last album New View was the best “singer songwriter-1970s-recorded on tape album” I could make. But at the end of that year, I hated all of that. Laughs. So I thought What could I do think be the opposite of that? I wanted something that was much more aggressive sounding. One day I stumbled upon an old Casio keyboard. I do think it's important to find new toys to play with, to write songs with. Like for New View I bought a beautiful acoustic 12 string guitar. Anyway, I started messing with this keyboard and wrote all of the songs on it. It really was a happy accident.
Do you need anything with you when you write?
Not really. But sometimes if it's late at night and I'm struggling with guitar part, I might have several drinks. Laughs.
When you write lyrics, do you prefer a computer or pen and paper?
Depends on where I am but usually the first lyrics go down in the notes section of my phone. And from there it goes straight to my computer. The only skill I have in life is typing. Laughs. I took two semesters of typing in high school. My handwriting is terrible. The advantage with handwriting is that you can cross things out and see what you crossed out. Nothing is ever deleted unless you erase. That helps when you want to go back and see what you've written. So when I type, I rarely delete. I usually just copy and paste, copy and paste, copy and paste. That way, nothing I write ever vanishes.
When you find yourself stuck, is your first instinct to walk away and come back later?
Yeah. Sometimes I'll set things aside for a while. I think I set “Make Me a Song” off the new album aside for about two years.
What made you decide to come back to it?
I really liked that refrain, and I had a chorus without really deciding on rest of the lyrics. I knew what kind of song I wanted it to be, but I didn't have all the verses. Something happened one day when I was like Oh shit, that’s it! And I finished it.
Do you do any other kinds of art?
I dabble. I paint, though I would not claim myself to be a painter. I did paint the backdrop on my new album, though. I have held a brush!
Is there any connection between songwriting and visual art for you?
I don’t think so, but I will say I'm good at making things look good, even when it comes to activities like rearranging furniture. I'm also good at cleaning and mowing the lawn. What some might call mindless tasks, I would call meditative. Those are the tasks I prefer.
Some songwriters tell me that ideas come to them during those mindless tasks. Does that happen to you?
No, because I purposely think of those times as a break from songwriting. I need that separation. I like to go on long walks and hikes, and it's during those times—when there's really nothing else to do—that those ideas come to me. I tell stories to myself on those walks. I'm not really talking out loud, but sometimes I’m at least mouthing words. I tell very long and elaborate stories on those walks. True stories. As if I'm telling people a story of my relationship with so-and-so or the time that something happened to me. That's what I do the whole time I'm walking.
Do song ideas come from that?
Not deliberately, but if I'm telling a story and someone says a line during that story, then that line might make it into a song.
“Make Me a Song” has a good story. Like I said, I started it a couple of years ago when I was in this film that some friends were making. I play a character who is a version of myself, basically a bandleader. We shot the movie at my house in upstate New York, and I had a snippet from that song with the band in the movie, just the chorus and refrain. I was teaching it to the actors playing my band, and that's how that song started.
Fast forward to last January in Athens, when I went on a date with a guy who surprised me by telling me that he loved Jesus. He was proselytizing a little bit, but he was also a songwriter who wrote songs about Jesus. A couple of months later, he sent me a message on Facebook with a link to a sermon of his that was about writing religious music. I watched it and listened to it, and that inspired the lyrics for the song. “Make Me a Song” was never supposed to be a love song. It was supposed to be about something more important. I was put off at first by what this guy was saying, but this was right after the election and I was looking for a way to write about how we should be able to come together.
What was the hardest song to write?
With the last song on the album, “The Role of Action,” I struggled with the title. More than I ever have. The song means so much to me and it was my favorite song. I wrote the song in the aftermath of something very personal, and it’s about how a writer deals with those emotions. Those are the best lyrics on the album.
Who do you like to read?
I like Iris Murdoch a lot. I really liked the biography of Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus. I started reading the Rachel Kushner novel The Flamethrowers.
Do you read a lot of poetry?
I have a lot of poetry books, and I like to buy poetry books. But I don't find myself sitting down and reading them too much. I'm friends with Moses Berkson, whose dad was Bill Berkson. Anytime I see one of his books, I buy it.
Does anything you read ever make it into your songwriting?
I stole one of Bill's lines for one of my songs. Is that terrible to admit? Laughs.
I got to hear Werner Herzog give a talk at the New York Public Library once. His advice to filmmakers and artists in general was the same: you have to read read read all the time. Never stop reading. It's the only way to formulate new ideas. As I get older, I crave more time to read books and less time to watch Netflix.
Do you carve out time during your day to read?
I do early in the morning. I drink a lot of coffee, and that coffee experience is always spent reading. I try to do that before I look at a computer.