Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin are charter members of the Americana-leaning indie community. Collectively known, along with longtime bass cohort Dave Gay, as Freakwater, the two songsmiths have mastered a sense of country tradition of brittle purity. We’re not talking country in any radio-friendly sense of the term, but a rarified yet flexible form that prides in itself in unassuming, harmony-rich folk foundations and occasional variations that shoot down dark electric sideroads.
Since 1989, Freakwater has been a basement dweller of sorts with alt-country contingencies. Bean, from Chicago, and Irwin, from Louisville, often play with other bands (Bean, most prominently, with Eleventh Dream Day) and as solo acts. But when the mood strikes, Freakwater performs. The mood to make records hits far more seldom these days. Hence, the February release of Scheherazade, the first new Freakwater studio album in over a decade and its debut for the heralded Chicago label Bloodshot. So what took so long for the fires of Freakwater to light up in the recording studio again?
“I don’t know,” Irwin said. “Our fleeting mortality, maybe? It just seemed like the right thing to do. I know the people in Louisville that I keep playing with, played shows and have done solo things with here are really incredible musicians. It just seems like a really great time in Louisville. I don’t know what’s going on in Lexington. But right now there’s just a ton of really talented younger musicians that are really cooperative. They want to work really hard on other people’s records even if they don’t get paid for it. I get a real community feel for it right now.”
So with members of Morgan Geer’s Drunken Prayer (which opens Freakwater’s concert tonight at Cosmic Charlie’s), Murder By Death and Louisville’s Jaye Jayle helping out, Scheherazade became a new entry in the Freakwater catalogue that varies little from the rustic country roots-sound Irwin and Bean have championed for more than 25 years.
“Growing up in Kentucky, you’re naturally exposed to a lot of bluegrass music and a lot of country music — especially Top 40 country music from the ’70s and ’80s that we either liked or hated,” Irwin said. “Growing up, my parents listened to Pete Seeger records and the Clancy Brothers and just the kind of folk music that was always going on around us. My father always used to torture the family with bagpipe records, especially by the Royal Scots Dragoons. That was one of the only common musical elements my dad and I shared. But I was really loving Woody Guthrie records and classic country music.”
Along with a love of folk of vintage folk and country came fascination with punk aesthetics. You hear it especially on Scheherazade in the ragged, Neil Young-esque Falls of Sleep. Mostly, though, Freakwater embraces the renegade sentiments within the songs of country forefathers as much as any sonic trait.
“There are obvious connections between Hank Williams and Johnny Rotten,” Irwin said. “The great thing to me about punk rock — and I think what made it so great for people in my age group — was you could just go ahead and play it and sing it. You didn’t come from a time where you had to particularly know how to play an instrument or anything. That didn’t really matter because you weren’t really inhibited. Maybe everybody is like that. Maybe they’re all like a little bit delusional about what they’re actually doing.”
One thing Irwin is certain about, though, is the timetable Freakwater has chosen to make music. If it takes a decade between albums to maintain the band’s love of harmony and songcraft, so be it. Irwin and Bean are in no hurry. They never have been.
“We don’t really have a plan,” Irwin said. “If we had a plan, we wouldn’t still be playing together. That’s one of the things Janet and I are pretty confident about. If we actually had a goal, we would have failed to achieve it and we would have stopped playing.
“When we started playing together, if we said, ‘We have to be on the Grand Ole Opry by spring of next year,’ that never would have happened. If we had a plan like that, we would have been really disappointed and bitter. So we’re just enjoying what we’re doing. We’re always playing. Even when we’re not putting out records, we’re playing live shows. That’s just a more vital element to what we do than making a record.”