It's not very often that brothers and sisters get along well enough to become a successful pop/rock band together. What stands out more about Eleanor and Matt Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces, however, is that they know how to not get along and still make great music.
“We were better friends before we started the band,” Eleanor laughed at Friday’s WAMFEST event (the Words and Music Festival hosted at Fairleigh Dickinson University) featuring The Fiery Furnaces in a performance and discussion with Artist-in-Residence John Wesley Harding. Matt agreed with Eleanor, adding that because they spend so much time together they often split up and work on the same song in separate rooms.
“Eleanor and I are comfortable being annoyed at each other,” he said in his dry, straight-faced kind of way.
“We’re quick to fight but even quicker to make up,” she added.
The two performed a handful of songs throughout the evening including "Chris Michaels," an older tune full of sudden tempo changes, various themes and a mouthful of funny, introspective and odd lyrics. Harding commented on the unusual song structures The Fiery Furnaces are famous for and asked Matt to elaborate further on his process.
“I like lyrics that don’t fit,” he said. “Lyrics with too many syllables.” He discussed how the second half of The Beatles’ White Album, packed with catchy tunes that challenge the typical pop song structure while remaining accessible to fans, heavily influences his process. Additionally, writing for Eleanor’s voice can change the course of things. “I sometimes write lines I know will challenge her or make her uncomfortable because I know something will come out of that.”
While Matt has been making music most of his life, Eleanor took the sports route during her childhood and didn’t discover her abilities until Matt gave her a guitar when she was eighteen. From there she developed the vocal beauty and prowess she so easily demonstrates today while still maintaining an endearingly modest outlook.
“My songs are simple,” she said shyly. In comparison to Matt’s unpredictable and strange compositions, Eleanor’s songs are much simpler. But simplicity can be a great thing, as seen when she and Harding performed a sweet, upbeat kids’ song, “Dear Diary,” the two co-wrote for a new collaboration. She certainly has an ear for pretty, pleasing chords and melodies while still maintaining the unique vocal delivery she and Matt developed together.
In addition to her collaboration with Harding, Eleanor has also been working on a solo album due out this summer. Whereas the words and music she writes for The Furnaces is presented to and often altered by Matt, this project allowed her to more deeply explore her own musical direction. “The process was,” she said, hesitating slightly as she considered her words, “freeing.”
Matt has also embarked on a solo project with a final goal of recording eight albums, each on a single instrument. The first album features the guitar, the second the keyboard and the third, currently in the works, the harp. The Fiery Furnaces are still very much a band, however, complete with a full live schedule taking them throughout the Northeast. Just don’t go a gig expecting to hear your favorite tune exactly as it is on the album.
“Albums are just whatever for us,” Eleanor said, partly in jest. “We love the live shows.”
“We change the songs up for our shows, write new parts for them. We think that’s more interesting,” Matt added. He then went on to demonstrate his prolific songwriting skills by reworking “Dear Diary” after hearing it for the first time when Harding and Eleanor performed the song for the audience. He mixed in different tempos, notes and melodies, transforming it into an eerie, melancholy, experimental tune. When he hit the second chorus, he said with a smile, "When you're not sure what to do, throw in a key change," then strummed out the chords in C sharp. The group, with all three on guitars and vocals, closed out the evening with a hilarious number Harding created back in his busking days combining the lyrics of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” with the music of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Overall, this night, complete with hilarious banter between the animated Harding and deadpan Matt, was certainly one of the most wonderfully weird and fun WAMFEST events to date.
Stay tuned for a review of Monday’s incredible panel, "Writing for The New Yorker,” and join us Thursday, May 5th at 2:30 pm in Hartman Lounge for a performance and reading with Josh Ritter and John Wesley Harding!