Freakwater’s Album of the Decade
After 10 years without releasing a studio album, the Louisville/Chicago group Freakwater finally breaks the dry spell with Scheherazade. Its Bloodshot debut, the disc features more of the somber alt-country tunes for which the band is known. The band’s frontwomen, Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin, first put their harmonies to tape in Bean’s parent’s basement. That was way back in 1985. Both Irwin and Bean have been involved with other projects over the years — Bean, notably, plays with alt-rockers Eleventh Dream Day. But they’ve never let Freakwater sit for too long on the back burner. We spoke with the duo in a recent conference call.
Talk about how the band first came together in 1989.
Janet: It seems like we were small children at the time. We were like 16 or 17 years old. I met Catherine when she was the door person at a bar.
Catherine: It’s weird because I carded Janet but I wasn’t supposed to be there either. I don’t know what my problem was.
Janet: She was wearing a tiny little field hockey skirt and I thought she was looking pretty good. We all ended up at same house afterward and she asked me my name and I told her and she wound up on the floor laughing.
Catherine: That can’t be true.
Janet: It’s my memory, Catherine. And then later, Catherine had an apartment. We used to go over there and we sat around singing. It was something alien to me, the whole process of sitting around and singing. We did an open mic night at a strip club/punk rock club. I don’t know how it started. It just started and then it just kept going. Later, we became close friends was because I was kicked out of my house at 16 and I moved into another house and I had no money. I got caught eating someone’s oatmeal dry, out of the cardboard silo that it comes from. I got caught by one of the roommates and Cathy came in and said, “We’re getting out of here, Janet.” So she saved me.
Catherine: Eating oatmeal like that can make you sick.
What did find that you two had in common musically?
Janet: We found out that we both had parents that listened to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
Catherine: Yes, we found that both of our fathers liked to torture their families by playing bagpipe music really loudly on the record player.
But what made you want to form the band?
Janet: It was fun and a way to get into bars for free.
Catherine: It was a way to get into bars for free and when you were 16 and 17, you didn’t have to wait until you were 21. That and everybody we knew was in a band.
Janet: That’s true. In Louisville, everyone we knew was in a band. Catherine was in bands prior to this and I was in a band. We were ragtag people making music.
Prior to this new release, you recorded for Thrill Jockey Records. What was that experience like?
Janet: I had a long relationship with [owner] Bettina Richards because she signed my other band, Eleventh Dream Day, to Atlantic Records. When she started her own label, Freakwater went with her. We’ve been with her for the better part of the 30 years that we’ve been making music together. It was great. She has a beautiful idiosyncratic label that puts out records that she feels strongly about. We respect her and her label. We just wanted to try something new. We’ve been doing things the same way for 30 years and wanted to try something new.
Catherine: Bettina has been great. She would always just let us make another record. For anyone to let us make a record is incredibly great and we were incredibly lucky. But we just wanted a change. We wanted something different. The marriage had gotten stale.
And what prompted you to sign with Bloodshot?
Janet: The benefit of being on a label like Bloodshot is that it’s within the framework of the music we like. It makes more sense in terms of trying to get your records into the right hands. Some people might just buy everything on Bloodshot. That helps us out.
Catherine: If we had to go and talk to strangers, it might take us another ten years. We can’t imagine what it would be like if we had to send out tapes to strangers. The amount of crushing defeat would be immense. Luckily, we knew the Bloodshot people.
Talk about when the songs first started to come together for this new album.
Janet: Once we decided to make it ourselves and then figure out what to do with it, we got the studio time. That helped us. We do well with pressure and deadlines.
Catherine: It took the summer. One thing we wanted to do differently was to not go in with just enough songs to make a record but to go in with a whole lot of songs. We went in with something like 19 songs. That was a lot for us. I think it paid off. The ones that didn’t make it were a hard call. We felt strongly about the body of songs we made. We’re really happy with them.
How is it your first studio album in ten years?
Janet: It’s not like we had a bunch of songs from ten years ago that we were collecting.
Catherine: I put out a solo record and Janet put out other songs. We’ve been writing songs for different purposes. I can’t keep track of that many songs. Ten is about the maximum. There have probably been several sets of ten songs that I’ve had over the years. They probably got used for something else or I forgot how they went. That’s kind of our way of editing. If I can’t remember how it goes then maybe I should just forget about it. Having actual deadlines made me finish things. A song isn’t so much finished until we’ve recorded it and then finalized it.
So, what was the recording experience like?
Janet: We usually record in Chicago, primarily because Dave was living here and I was living here. Also, there are more studios here. It’s easier up here. Then, [bassist] Dave [Gay] moved elsewhere and Louisville has a great music scene happening. There’s a studio called La La Land run by Kevin Ratterman. He works with My Morning Jacket and has been close to them for a long time. He built this beautiful studio from what I imagine are some of proceeds of that. It’s a beautiful big room and it has a super chill vibe. You can imagine you’re in Laurel Canyon or something. It’s a beautiful set up. We got people Catherine knew in Louisville and she introduced me to a few different players. We had Morgan Geer from Drunken Prayer playing.
Catherine: Going into something and knowing that you don’t have to get your vocal takes down from 9 p.m. to midnight and that’s your time because you only have enough money to be in there for a few days. It allowed us to do more. That was really pleasant.
Janet: We had two or three days more than we ever had before.
Catherine: It makes a big difference. And not knowing what we were going to do with the record when we recorded it was interesting as well. It was a much more relaxed atmosphere.
Janet: We paid for it ourselves so it’s not like the record label was, “Okay, we need that record.” We could just go back in and redo things whenever we wanted. No one was waiting for us. It was all on our own time.
It sounds like there’s quite an ensemble backing you two. Was that the case?
Janet: For sure. Sarah Balliet from Murder by Death is from Louisville and she came in and played cello on some things.
Catherine: We also have Evan Patterson from Young Widows and Jonathan Hood from Oh Baby. We had Warren Ellis from the Dirty Three and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. We had Jim Elkington who plays in everybody’s band now. We brought an organ player down from Louisville. I think that’s about it.
Janet: Warren Ellis did some fiddle playing and alto flute parts. He’s incredible.
Were you trying to do something different musically?
Catherine: It’s a full band so that creates a different sound automatically, although there are some songs that are stripped down. Having more of a guitar player on it gave it a dirtier feel that I really love. It made it swampier. It moved it in that direction. These players were so great. I had this crazy idea that I wanted wah-wah and this Isley Brothers part on this song “Down Will Come Baby.” I got Evan to play wah-wah so we could have a psychedelic jam. Part of it was the songs lent themselves to some different things. I think we went into the studio thinking that we would try a bunch of stuff and be open.
Janet: One thing that’s great about recording in Louisville is that the people here have more time if you’re not paying anything and can just give them free drinks and maybe a sandwich. People will do more here for that. In Chicago, the cost of living is so much higher. The community of people who play music here right now is very generous and willing to work hard to make other people’s records sound good in a way that’s not competitive. That’s the good and bad. They don’t have killer instinct. They’re really willing to give it up for people they barely know. We really benefited from that. People here have a lot of free time. That gave it a different feeling. We didn’t have to schedule things so tightly. We had more freedom with that.
What inspired “The Asp and the Albatross”?
Catherine: It’s a song about my problem with waking up at 3 a.m. and then being wide awake. I had the Coleridge poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” on my phone and I would read it a lot at three in the morning.
Janet: That was part of your insomnia ritual?
Catherine: Yeah, I love the cadence of that poem. It’s the thing that will put me back to sleep. It’s a song about this Welsh word that’s the term for the things that when you wake up before the dawn and all the misery you think of. It’s a list of the stupid shit you go through in your mind. It’s a little story about that.
Do you think it’ll be another ten years until your next album?
Catherine: We don’t have any clue. We’ll see how this one goes and how traumatized everyone is. I like the people we’re playing with. It’s been fun playing with this band for sure. I guess we have to be nice to them. I don’t know. Like Janet says, we’ll be stuck in a van with them in the dead of winter. We’ll see what happens.
Janet: There hasn’t been a whole lot of planning beyond this point. We miraculously got to this point.
Catherine: I’m just trying to figure out how to get the next cup of coffee.
Janet: Realistically, taking into account the average lifespan of a human, it would be good if we did one in the next ten years. I think we have the highest mortality rate for our demographic. I fall squarely in the demographic that’s most likely to commit suicide or have an untreated kind of disease. Taking all that into account, it would be good to get our next record together but I can’t think about that yet.
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