Words Jillian Scheinfeld Images Michael Mundy
Multi-instrumentalist and famed indie-songwriter Eleanor Friedberger is the most organized and self-aware hoarder I’ve ever met. “I’m a collector,” she remarks, as we walk the four-acre plot of land she refers to as her “work-in-progress commune.” Located in a defunct knitting factory in Ulster County, NY, the place actually seems more like a contemporary museum dedicated to all things Eleanor.
When Eleanor and her former boyfriend (now platonic friend), Milton, decided to buy a place in the country three years ago, finding a home with out buildings was a top priority. A quick glance through the New York Times classifieds led her to a charming, historic compound replete with a three-bedroom home; factory-turned-rehearsal space and storage unit; tumbledown tiki bar; and potential Airbnb cottage. As a sentimentalist with retro sensibilities, Eleanor was most drawn to a massive factory on the property covered with peeling paint. Romantic and a little eerie, “It’s the perfect place to film a horror movie,” she muses.
The factory is full of memorabilia from the Fiery Furnaces, the first band Eleanor started with her brother, in which she demonstrated an original talent for cramming poetic sentences into genre-bending melodies. The space, which reeks of antiquity, mildew and love, is furnished with vintage furniture and pop art. There are stacks of CDs and cassettes, guitars, drums, a sewing machine and two old Porsches. Seashells are scattered on a wooden worktable. The faint sound of wind chimes fills the air.
Inside Eleanor’s cozy home with its mod decor, we sink into a midnight-blue corduroy couch, a 1969 wedding present to her parents. The taupe drapes and quilted pillows come from her grandmother, who was a highly influential person in Eleanor’s life, introducing her to music and the value in objects that tell a story.
“We would walk around Williamsburg fantasizing about having a big, industrial space and that wasn’t going to happen even then, so to find this place reminded me of how I felt when I was 23, wandering around a neighborhood that I felt cultivated me as an artist.”
Making the move upstate was a process for Eleanor, who refers to her life as a “series of happy accidents.” After attending the University of Texas in Austin, she meandered around London for a few years before settling down in Greenpoint, where she soon became a fixture in the Brooklyn music scene. “Since moving to Brooklyn, I haven’t made such a big change in so many years. As soon as I did, I was like, why haven’t I done this? I met Milton in 2001 and we would walk around Williamsburg fantasizing about having a big, industrial space and that wasn’t going to happen even then, so to find this place reminded me of how I felt when I was 23, wandering around a neighborhood that I felt cultivated me as an artist. To have that same feeling years later is really cool.”
Getting used to the flora and fauna upstate was a process for the Chicago native. “As it turns out, I’m such a city slicker I didn’t know what I was going to have to deal with,” she laughs. “Last year was a bad year for me with poison ivy. There’s tons of it around this property and now I know what it looks like.” Eleanor also found out that she’s allergic to bees. After getting stung for the second time, she went into anaphylactic shock. “Luckily, my mother was visiting and took me to the nearest hospital.”
Eleanor recently returned from Australia, where she was on tour for her third solo record, New View, which was recorded upstate, just a few miles from her home. It’s a bold yet mellow album, the kind you want to take on a long drive to really absorb—not so much listen to on a crowded subway. I studied the lyrics, hoping to demystify Eleanor’s experience writing and recording in the Catskills. I’m opening a tree museum, that’s my new hobby, goes a line on “Open Season.” I figured it had to do with Eleanor’s lush backyard, but she was really just poking fun at someone else. “It’s about a person who moved up here and spoke obnoxiously about all the trees he was planting,” she explains. “It was a dig at that sort of thing, which then, of course, I did, too.”
Surprisingly, creating New View in the solitude of the Catskills had very little effect on Eleanor’s writing process. “I’ve always written about my own personal experiences or those of people I know, so I don’t feel like moving here has changed that,” she muses. “But I think the next album will be a better test for that.” From a technical point of view, recording in Germantown over the course of a few days and without an isolation booth, definitely affected how the album sounds. According to Eleanor, “That’s a direct result of no longer living in New York City.” The outcome is an album of live, freewheeling rock.
“I notice I talk to myself a lot more. I’m really good at being alone. I could so happily sit here for a week and not see or talk to anybody, so I have to push myself to be social.”
What Eleanor misses most about the city is riding her bike. “Riding my bike in Brooklyn was practical—it was a way to get places. Here’s its like, ‘OK, I guess I’m doing this for exercise,’” she says. “I have my walking friends that remind me of my mother and her friends who meet for power walks—I guess people call it hiking.” Eleanor likes Minnewaska State Park and the Mohonk Preserve, and is still bewildered that these natural wonders are practically in her backyard.
“I also have a ton more time to think,” she continues. “I notice I talk to myself a lot more. I’m really good at being alone. I could so happily sit here for a week and not see or talk to anybody, so I have to push myself to be social. And, as you can tell, there’s so much puttering to do here, it’s never-ending chores.”
For a touring musician who has only lived upstate for three years, Eleanor already has a surprisingly local perspective on the area. Her possessiveness is a testament to the unspoiled nature of the landscape. “Down the street there’s this organic farm, Westwind Orchard. They’ve hosted the Phoenicia Flea a few times and make pizzas every weekend, and it’s really nice. But I have these mixed feelings about it. I ask myself, ‘Do I need that? Do I want that?’ There’s also this hops farm where you can go and drink craft beer. It’s good to have the option, but do I want more and more people to come here or do I want it to stay like it is now?” She ponders the answer. “It’s just one of those things. How much do you want the place to change and how many more amenities do you need? It’s hard to find the balance or know what that balance would even look like.”
As for her summer agenda, Eleanor is slowly beginning work on a new, yet-to-be-named album. She’s tinkering with sound and lyrics and working hard on those endless home repairs. “We just got a canoe recently, so my next move is figuring out a place to use it.”