It’s almost as if no one dares take on the mighty, 26 million-selling Nevermind, the cover featuring a tot chasing a dollar bill underwater who’s grown up to be Spencer Elden – now 22 but still introduced everywhere he goes as “the Nirvana baby”.
There have been a couple of others. Black Box Recorder’s Passionoia had some mystery – if that was a dead body floating in the shallow end, did the woman sunbathing in the pink bikini even care? – but the semi-submerged Rolls-Royce on Oasis’s Be Here Now was a rock cliché to match the others inside. Eleanor Friedberger, on the other hand, has just opted for cool and sporty glamour with the shot of herself gliding through glistening aquamarine on new album Personal Record.
“That’s not my pool, of course,” says one half of the terrific but culty brother-and-sister duo Fiery Furnaces, now with her own side-project. “I borrowed a friend’s in Los Angeles and got the idea from a record by this woman Lizzy Mercier… [checks the internet] Descloux. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about her, apart from this gorgeous cover. She’s lying on her front by a pool, smoking and making notes. I just thought it was incredibly sexy and wanted to capture the same vibe.”
Now the pool-album category seems almost crowded but Friedberger, 37, may have a claim to uniqueness with what is her second release under her own name. I’ve never heard a record that namechecks so many other bands and songs. Here’s the track She’s A Mirror: “She’s got a record by Sparks that lights up in the dark.” Then on When I Knew, Friedberger hooks up with a girl over a shared love of Soft Machine. That song continues: “I met her in my bedroom, at a party Halloween/She was wearing a pair of overalls, so I sang Come On Eileen.”
Until Kevin Ayres’ death recently, Soft Machine hardly ever got mentioned anymore. Starting out psychedelic, they became jazzy and challenging. Come On Eileen, on the other hand, is a song everyone knows and many try to sing, usually drunkenly at the end of a wedding. The two references seem to sum up Friedberger’s career thus far, and how she’s swapped working with a sibling who was always trying to write an opera, for going it alone along a more conventional singer-songwriter route.
Today, Friedberger is in Brooklyn, woman and place having been celebrated in Franz Ferdinand’s Eleanor, Put Your Boots Back On, which dates from she was Alex Kapranos’s girlfriend. She’s getting ready to tour Personal Record and will play Scotland later in the summer. “Hang on,” she says, “I think I’ve left the iron on. I’m pressing shirts, would you believe.” She doesn’t know when she will next perform with brother Matt, four years her senior and with whom she made nine Fiery Furnaces albums, but it will happen. At first, playing the songs from solo debut Last Summer, she felt his absence. “It was scary. I was nervous because Matt had been very much the leader. But I found my feet and it soon became fun.”
Ah, fun. Read some of what gets written about these Friedburgers from Chicago and you’d think Eleanor was in some way forced against her will to participate in Matt’s proggy suites, until breaking free to locate her inner Carole King. She’s half-amused and half-annoyed. “It’s a good story, but he’s my big brother, I’m his little sister and he’s my biggest supporter. How people can dare to say we’re against each other – it’s ridiculous.”
As kids from her bedroom down the hall, she jokes that he “brainwashed” her. “He was totally obsessed with music. When he moved on to something new I’d get into what he left behind. For instance, he went from The Who to The Clash to reggae. But by the time he got to 16 he was only listening to classical music, Shostakovich and these guys. “It’s too black-and-white to say boys like complicated, difficult music and girls prefer things more straightforward, but I do think there’s something in that. Matt’s a very smart guy who likes complex ideas. I have no shame in admitting I like simpler pleasures.”
Band meetings could be, well, fiery. “We struggled. I don’t know how groups with four voices do it. You’re constantly having to make compromises, which is detrimental for artists. A case in point was our song Benton Harbor Blues. I saw it as a pretty, catchy pop number; Matt hid all of that in this much bigger thing lasting eight minutes. But, looking back I do think that track’s incredible. I’m glad it exists.”
Interestingly, Personal Record is a collaboration, Friedberger writing all the songs with English folk singer Wesley Stace, aka John Wesley Harding. They met at a Bob Dylan tribute night which, she says, “had the potential to be corny and awful”. She started out doing him a favour, emailing lyrics for his rock-band novel, then the balance shifted and the songs became hers. She left in Stace’s lyrics where the subject is female, liking the gender-bending aspect of an album she says is mainly about obsession.
Friedberger never once got in the same room with Stace. Their relationship is purely professional, the pair bonding while trading musical obsessions. She’s always loved Ronnie Lane’s solo work beyond the Faces and Stace was able to turn her on to Al Stewart, in particular the Glasgow-born Year Of The Cat troubadour’s early albums. “He’s got a great song called In Brooklyn. He sings fast, which I can do, so I must learn it. There’s a bit that goes: ‘Then out of her coat taking seven harmonicas/She sat down to play on a doorstep saying, come back to my place I will show you the stars and the signs.’” And then Eleanor Friedberger gets back to her ironing, in Brooklyn. «
Personal Record (Merge) is released tomorrow. Eleanor Friedberger plays Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh, on 31 August and Glasgow’s Broadcast the following night