We begin by inviting Matthew Friedberger, one-half of hometown art-rock darlings the Fiery Furnaces, to perform solo, acoustically, anytime and anywhere, on the highways, byways, or subways of New York City.
He protests. “I’ve never done that in my life. I’ve never thought about doing it.”
He begs off. “I don’t think of myself as much of a performer. Or even much of a musician. I understand a lot of musical things, and I can play a lot of instruments, but I think of myself just as a rock songwriter.”
So Matthew makes us a counteroffer, and we demur, we compromise, we acquiesce. We follow him on a songwriting tour of Queens. Not so much of landmarks (though we pass by one of his former apartments on 48th Avenue, as well as Just Things, a kind of corner flea market that he pronounces “a Western Queens classic”), but of process.
See, Matthew is a practiced and prolific songwriter. He not only plays every single note (minus drums and his younger sister Eleanor’s vocals) on the Furnaces’ upcoming Widow City, but he wrote every note as well. By his own estimate, Matthew knocks out songs at the rate of “four to eight a week”—roughly 300 a year. And that’s the leftovers. Material that didn’t make Widow City or any of the Furnaces’ previous four full-lengths. Material, in fact, that never got recorded at all.
“It’s always most fun to write songs, both music and words, without an instrument, and without even a piece of paper,” says the near-35-year-old. “It’s a rhythmic thing. That’s why I don’t recommend that people, when they’re trying to write lyrics, ride their bike around New York City looking for inspiration. I think the bicycle—the rhythm of bike riding as opposed to stepping—is antithetical to the spirit of English, prose, or of verse, rhythm.” New York, says Matthew, is “the best place in the country to walk. It’s the best city for walking, so it’s the best city to write stuff, whether it’s music or words. That sounds pat, but that is how I think of it. I want to live here because it’s the best walking.”
And so we walk. We walk above the Vernon-Jackson subway stop, past personal Friedberger landmarks, behind the iconic neon Pepsi-Cola sign (though Matthew is a Coke loyalist), which hours later will glow red on the post-sundown darkness that is the East River, on down to Gantry Plaza State Park, four lonely piers jutting toward Manhattan.
“Even with the new high-rises,” Matthew says, “I still think this park is very nice.” Yes, it is. The sun is out (and blindingly bright as it reflects off the United Nations building). A breeze is blowing. And the planes overhead (right in LaGuardia’s flight pattern, it seems) are almost deafening. Which kind of kills the whole rhythmic thing, but still.
So now, situated on our pier of choice, Matthew opens his bag, which, over time, will yield all manner of material: greeting cards translated from English into one foreign language (say, Portuguese, French, or Chinese) and then back into English. Photographs. Found objects. And a variety of books. “It’s much easier on the recycling days,” he notes, retrieving a young-adult reader on great World Series games, and also The Great Crochet Bazaar Book, brought to you by the American School of Needlework. “To me,” he says, ” ‘The American School of Needlework Presents,’ that’s very evocative. I’d like to read that book. If you wrote a novel called The American School of Needlework Presents, I’d be coming to your reading, you know what I mean?”
And then there’s the catch of the day, the Holy Grail of accidentally discovered artifacts: a discarded CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, a/k/a catechism) notebook. The writing on the cover announces its previous ownership (Elena), as well as the date of study (May, 1997).
“The kingdom, or reign, of God,” Matthew reads, “is the power of God’s life and love in the world.”
Matthew takes the three books—World Series, crochet, and catechism— and balances them, with some effort, in his lap. The lesson begins.
“What you want to do,” he says, “is copy down evocative phrases that you like.” He pulls a phrase from each. Sue Penrod went to Brooklyn three times through the Jewish people, Matthew reads. The purse designed by Mary Thomas are all sisters and brothers in 1970 facing the Cincinnati Reds.
“Those are just random, automatic things,” he says. “I didn’t do a very good job with those, but the important thing is to be distracted while you’re doing it, and to amass. Let your taste come into play when it’s useful, in the editing process and the assembling process. You censor yourself much later in the process. You have to be very disciplined to not censor yourself until it’s appropriate.”
Widow City neither censors nor restrains itself; it’s going places, both literally and figuratively. The album bursts like a movie soundtrack played at fast-forward as the music twists from thrash to prog rock to twee pop with startling speed. Lyrically, it throws out more locations than anything since Hank Snow sang “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Song titles include “The Philadelphia Grand Jury,” the back-to-back “Clear Signal From Cairo” and “Egyptian Grammar,” “Japanese Slippers,” and, of course, the fictional but particularly relevant “Widow City.” Throw in internal mentions of New Mexico, Nice, Newark, Albuquerque, the Bahamas, an Italian greyhound, a French canal boat and a Kansas City cabinet, a Florida houseboat, an Arabian-tented library guest-room, a Calcutta necklace, a Hollywood chin band, and secondhand stores located in Centereach, Hempstead Hollow, and Mount Olivet, and you end up not only jet-lagged, but owing an excess luggage charge.
Matthew’s lessons, at least, have bathed these non sequiturs in a little more light. If we haven’t attained clarity in our own songwriting, we at least understand how lines like “I burned all my clothes with eucalyptus juice/Ripped out the floors and painted all the platforms puce” and “No more revenge cobbler or whiskey pie” came into being.
“You know, I might amass material in ways we’ve been talking about,” he says. “But once it gets to writing the songs, I’m thinking of Eleanor singing them. That’s the starting point, is having either something that fits her or doesn’t fit her, and therefore will be fun for me to make her do something that she doesn’t want to.”
Or maybe Eleanor can make those decisions herself.
“On Widow City,” he adds, “she was more involved, and so she wrote with me five of the songs’ lyrics. We did a method related to these kinds of methods. Eleanor did it with old magazines—old ’70s lifestyle magazines, women’s magazines. She went to the ads in the back and copied out interesting phrases and made these scripts—maybe it was about 10 pages on a computer. And then I used it to produce some songs.”
A week later we’re back in Manhattan, specifically the Mercury Lounge. The Furnaces are onstage in front of a couple hundred friends and industry types, bathed, both before and after the performance, in the light of 100 BlackBerries. Matthew is encased behind three keyboards, looking like another studied man behind the music, another backseat-driving, overshadowed, keyboard-playing half of a brother-sister combo: Richard Carpenter. But instead of gazing up at Eleanor, his Karen, with Richard’s peculiar mix of threatening adoration, Matthew, on the rare occasions when he does raise his head, only glances at the drummer, the bass player, the band. Eleanor is on her own. She must be really bored at practice. During instrumental breaks she kneels down, as if trying not to block the audience’s view. If you’re standing in the back, she completely disappears.
As on record, songs run together like some great, rushed (though not Rush’d) art-rock experiment. The closing lines of “Automatic Husband” (“It was made by a special commission of Navajo basketball coaches and blonde ladies”) segue into the opening salvo of “Ex-Guru” (“One of those blonde ladies had a certain hold on me/I went to all her seminars by the airport in the Doubletree”). These words don’t make any more sense now, but on the other hand they do, sort of. The whole show, dominated by 10 tracks off Widow City, takes less than an hour. Or about the time it takes the nearby F train to curl back into Queens.
The Fiery Furnaces play Hiro Ballroom November 3, hiroballroom.com