Like any good grandmother, Olga Sarantos likes to brag about her grandkids. A few weeks ago she went to her church, Assumption Greek Orthodox in Austin, with a clipping from the New York Times about her two eldest, Matt and Eleanor Friedberger, who play music as the Fiery Furnaces. “I was showing it around and I was surprised because a lot of the people weren’t aware of the Fiery Furnaces,” she says. “But they will be now.”
It’s not that Sarantos, 83, expects the congregation to suddenly get hip to indie rock, but they may well be interested in the new Fiery Furnaces release, Rehearsing My Choir, which came out Tuesday (Rough Trade). Not only is the record a loose song cycle about Sarantos’s life, but she even appears on it, narrating and singing alongside her granddaughter in an Ethel Merman-y croon.
The Fiery Furnaces–natives of Oak Park who now live in Brooklyn–are known for writing fanciful epics that skip around in time, place, and style. On past albums their narrators have tripped through Spanish island resorts with the mummy of conquistador Francisco Pizarro and sold cell phone service in the Middle East and the Baltics. The songs about their grandmother are no less fantastical. “If you examine anyone’s life closely you can magnify lots of things that will look interesting,” says Matt.
The album is a collection of stories and details that made vivid impressions on the Friedbergers long ago. Its 11 songs ping-pong from the present to the past, simulating the nonlinear reminiscing of an older person. And as often as the stories are basically true–the title track recounts how the bishop of Sarantos’s church, where she was choir director from 1960 until just recently, tried to have her excommunicated for a year after she refused to have her choir appear on television on Christmas Day–the details are freely embellished. Sarantos’s close friend Dr. Peter Pane, for example, did indeed own a doughnut factory with his brother, but in “Guns Under the Counter” his pastry ingredients double as remedies: “They used confectioners’ sugar so sweet it was caustic / And chocolate so bitter that it could kill typhus / And glazing so shiny it could set back glaucoma.”
Matt, who writes most of the band’s music and lyrics, says he’d been thinking about making a record with his grandmother for years. As an aspiring songwriter he was harshly critical of indie rock singers–including himself–even if they’d written strong material. “You need some presence on a record to carry it off, so you don’t sound like yet another idiot with a guitar,” he says. “I thought my grandmother, a 50s and 60s Chicagoan, maybe she could be presented as the inverse image of Howlin’ Wolf. She’s an older person so she has this big deep voice and I thought it would be interesting to make up things for her to say or sing over rudimentary strumming guitar or piano.”
It wasn’t until the Fiery Furnaces landed a record deal that the idea seemed plausible; Matt didn’t want to waste his grandmother’s time if it wasn’t going to be full-fledged. Then in the summer of 2004, Sarantos spent two months in the hospital with pneumonia. Matt began writing in the early fall and by November was ready to start recording. He did almost all the backing tracks himself in six days at Key Club studios in Benton Harbor, Michigan–a dense amalgam of acoustic and electric guitars, piano, organ, harpsichord, and drums. The songs leap from elegant melody to jarring chaos, and while they’re rooted in rock, much of the piano playing is decidedly prewar.
Matt wrote most of the lyrics afterward, which allowed him to tweak the narrative to the music. “It was fun for me to do it,” he says. “When the piano was played quietly the tacks would buzz, the hammers wouldn’t release back. So I was able to have stupid lines, like, ‘They made me play on a broken no-good piano, listen to these low notes,’ and you hear the buzzing.”
Though Sarantos has always been close with Matt, 32, and Eleanor, 28, Matt says she wasn’t so forthcoming about her life when they were younger. “It wasn’t until my grandfather died [in 1995] that she adopted that kind of elegiac tone about herself and the people she spent her life with,” he says. “The stories that are true on the record, like her getting drunk at a tiki bar or getting into a fight with her bishop, we knew, but we didn’t know them from her mouth until much later.”
Sarantos was born to Greek immigrants in Davenport, Iowa, in 1921. The oldest of four children, she moved with her family to Chicago in 1937. Six years later, on Valentine’s Day, she married Dr. James Sarantos, another Greek-American. “It was the coldest day of the year and I remember because I had to wear pink snuggies under my wedding gown,” she says. The couple had two kids and in 1965 bought a house in River Forest, where Olga still lives today.
Sarantos was deeply committed to her church choir, but music was also a huge part of her social life. “Every time we’d go to someone’s house and my husband knew that they had a piano, he made me take a stack of sheet music so we could play together,” she says. “All of our friends enjoyed singing–there wasn’t anything else to do.”
Her love of music had a profound effect on Matt. “The thing that always got me was that she never listened to records, ever,” he says. “She played sheet music; she would play the songs instead of listening to them. It was good to have that in front of me, how people used to relate to popular music–they would play it, they wouldn’t just do the dishes and play it in the background. She would also play anything you put in front of her. She didn’t care what it was.
“She was very catholic in her tastes. When she was older I taped her playing ‘Hallelujah I’m a Bum’ from sheet music. She was singing it with her brother, and he stopped, saying, ‘I’m not going to sing this song,’ but she kept going, and said ‘It’s in your book, keep singing.’ . . . That kind of casual music making had something to do with my confused notion of what punk rock was about–it was this casual thing that everybody did.”
Eleanor had a different reaction. “Matt would join her and pull out his stolen school district upright bass and play along with her,” she says. “I’d run upstairs and stay in my room. I can’t remember what I was actually thinking when I was 14, but I guess I felt like I couldn’t sing.”
A few weeks after the backing tracks were cut, Sarantos joined Matt and Eleanor at Soma Studios in Ukrainian Village. It was the first time she’d actually heard the music and seen the lyrics. On the first day she handled the narration, and then tackled singing parts with Eleanor over the next two. Considering how dense and long-winded Matt’s lyrics can be, it’s a wonder it didn’t take longer.
“The delivery was very difficult sometimes,” Sarantos says. “With all my years of choir directing and singing, that helps. I’m very articulate when I sing. In my choir I would always insist on projecting your consonants into the vowels so your sound comes out better.” In private, Eleanor says, she’s a bit cockier about the accomplishment: “I remember overhearing on the phone after the first day and she was talking to someone and said, ‘Oh, no one could have done it but me.'”
The recordings went smoothly, and even with all the liberties Matt had taken lyrically, Sarantos requested only a few changes. “I had called someone a thief and she made me change that because he was a real person,” Matt says. What shocked her wasn’t what she was asked to sing–it was hearing herself sing it. “I was a soprano,” Sarantos says, “but as the years go by your voice gets lower. That’s why on the CD I sound like a man. At first I said, ‘Who is that?’ and Matthew said, ‘That’s you.’ I couldn’t believe it.
“It’s very rock ‘n’ roll, I think,” she says. But she’s not sure how the album will be received. “This record, I can’t understand why anyone would be interested in it, because there’s so much narration. I know my community will be interested, especially when they hear some of the names that are mentioned. I’m sure it will sell for curiosity alone. I don’t know if they’re going to like it.”
Though the Fiery Furnaces have been playing songs from the record live, there are no plans for their grandmother to join them onstage. “If it was ten years ago she’d be on tour with us playing the piano,” says Eleanor. “It would’ve been great, but she’s not well enough now.” But Sarantos was in the audience when the band played at Logan Square Auditorium in early October. Eleanor dedicated the show to her, and before the words had even left the singer’s mouth Sarantos was on her feet, waving to the crowd from the balcony. “I kind of thought they would introduce me,” she says. “But all 800 people turned around and looked at me so I had to stand up. I had a sweater with a lot of beading on it so it kind of stood out.”
Soon she may not have to stand up to be recognized. “I got an e-mail this morning from someone from Rough Trade and there was an attachment with six photographs of spots around New York where they put up posters for the record,” Eleanor says. They feature the album cover, a photo of Sarantos taken in the late 50s. “It’s hilarious. They’re huge posters with the cover and they’re pasted between Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, and Fiona Apple around the city, so that is quite an achievement. I think my grandmother would be thrilled.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Megan Holmes, Jim Newberry.