Last September, Eleanor Friedberger flew out to Los Angeles with two goals in mind.
First, she met with producer Eric Broucek to discuss the songs they had recently finished recording for her sophomore effort, Personal Record, a 12-song collection that showcases her work as a burgeoning indie-rock songwriter (out June 4 via Merge Records).
But the main reason the musician, known for her work in Brooklyn-based art rock outfit The Fiery Furnaces, ventured to the West Coast was to create her new album artwork. She had two requirements for the record's front: Los Angeles photographer Moses Berkson would take the picture, and it would feature her swimming.
“I had already planned out the record cover months before I finished the record,” Friedberger says. “I love the idea of equating a personal or emotional test with a physical test, like swimming or running.”
Berkson had met Friedberger years ago when he directed an underwater video for The Fiery Furnaces' “Navy Nurse.” She went back to the photographer for another aquatic shot and the two racked their brains for the right spot to stage an overhead shot of her swimming freestyle.
“[We] were trying to find a perfect location for him to take a photo of me from above,” Friedberger says. “It turned out he has a small pool in his backyard and he took it from his garage roof in the Laurel Canyon area.”
The final product was a relatively straightforward shot of her in a pristine blue pool — one that could've seemingly been shot anywhere and without the 2,800-mile plane trip. But in a way it mirrors Friedberger's career arc, as a musician who took her time to find her niche as an artist. After 11 years in the The Fiery Furnances, she's finally flourishing as a songwriter on her own.
But it wasn't an easy process. Much of her growth, she says, arose from a desire move past her comfort zone and actually think of herself as a musician — a depature from her primary contributions as a vocalist. To do that, she forced herself start from scratch to forge a new musical identity.
“I suddenly had to think of myself as this new type of performer,” she says about the past three years. “[Saying] 'now I'm a singer/songwriter,' that's very weird.” But I embraced it and I decided to make [music] in that sort of tradition.”
It's something I personally witnessed two years ago when we filmed and recorded a takeaway session at Midwest Buy & Sell in her hometown of Oak Park, Illinois. At the time, she was promoting her solo debut, Last Summer, through various in-store and on-air performances. She seemed at ease that day, but still adjusting to performing by herself. As she meandered around the used music shop, she stumbled upon a vintage late-'50s hollow-body Supro guitar that she ended up purchasing. She says she's gone on to play it occasional, at stripped down solo shows.
Fast-forward two years, and she's seemingly found her place. It started as she surrounded herself with a rotating cast of talented musicians who complemented her musical tendencies. She also toured with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein on their Portlandia tour and recruited new bandmates such as bassist Matt Asti, The Virgins guitarist John Eatherly, and others.
“I've had more new musical relationships in the base three years than in the past, like, seven years before that,” says Friedberger. “It kind of gives you this weird confidence in your songs, because you're getting so many different people to translate them. It gives them more weight for me.”
In addition, she also embraced her live performances as an instrumental part of crafting Personal Record's songs. This time around, Friedberger felt liberated by learning the tunes with her band as they tested them out in front of audiences.
“It was great to do the opposite and to kind of present these skeletal songs and see them fleshed out,” she says. “Then actually a year later going into a studio and getting to execute them properly and have a clear idea of what properly even means. Normally you think, 'Oh, I've got a million possibilities, the songs could go in all these different directions.' Then having played them for a year and then recording them, it was great to have such a clear vision.”
Like her recent trip to Los Angeles, Friedberger will return with a similar clarity as she tours this summer with a five-piece group. That string of dates includes a June 18 stop at The Echo, which will bring her back to a city that helped formed her impressive collection of new songs.