We were given a rare opportunity to sit with Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin on their first visit to Ireland and to share some conversation regarding their collective talents and song writing secrets. The cult status of Freakwater is something that endures, from their debut in 1989 through to the current collection of songs on the new Scheherazade release.
The girls are both very amiable, open and full of fun and dove-tail regularly throughout our conversation. Both are enthusiastic and support each other’s opinions and insights; they laugh regularly and clearly share a deep bond between them.
LH: It has taken you quite a while to get to Ireland
C I: I don’t know why we never have, maybe because our booking agent is in Germany. My father comes from Northern Ireland where I have a lot of relatives so they were always trying to get us to play a show there. There is a Bluegrass Festival in Omagh but we never did play there. But it’s been really nice to finally come over and play here.
LH: Not that you have had a lot of time on this tour
JB: We have had back to back shows for 2 months now with just one day off, in Manchester, I think and that was a travelling day between cities. It has been pretty intense.
LH: So, from not touring at all to this extreme
Both: We have been touring on and off over the years in-between but just not to this extent. It is probably the same in that we would have had days of being happy with each other or just being exhausted with each other. We have different people on tour with us so when you put us together in a small place for a long period of time you can get feral very quickly. There are probably four possible ways of being when on tour and we probably each cover all of them at certain times.
LH: The cover of the new CD is indicative of life on the road. It pictures you both in a hotel room crashed out on twin beds in different states of decompression
Both: On the bed crying and drinking bourbon ...! It took us hours of a photo session to get that shot and when we saw it we said ‘stop’, that’s the one … It seemed to capture the essence of what we wanted.
LH: Is that an important part of the process for you; the way that the packaging comes out
Both: Yes, very much, I think that both of us are very strong on personal aesthetics. Our last record on Thrill Jockey, Thinking of You, had the label almost refusing to put it out. The cover was based on a Polish greeting card and it was ironically an image that we had all agreed on. The label was unsure if people would ‘get it’. For some, it can appear as somewhat ugly but it is essentially part of the narrative of who we are and it just felt right. You would think that the label would know us enough to realise that the way to get us to NOT do something is not by telling us that it doesn’t look right – we are very contrarian - in a good way of course …!
LH: Has the process of recording songs changed over the arc of your career
Both: I would like to think that it is coming in a full circle in a way. I think it is evolving constantly and becoming more nuanced. It is hard to say in that it is up to the listener. As you grow older and your understanding of the world changes you find more things to be upset about. If you can capture it in a way that is more developed and reflects more insight, then that is a good thing.
LH: When you are writing, do you ever say that ‘this is not a Freakwater song’ but one that could go on separate projects or in different directions
JB: Catherine doesn’t do that but if I’m writing for other projects, there is usually a thread to all of them. Songs for Eleventh Dream Day, my other band, are more in a rock vein and we couldn’t do those as Freakwater songs. There are some songs that you modify and think of in a different way and some of those are on the new record. The Asp and the Albatross for example was made as a quirky little carnival waltz and then was made into a more country thing with a change to the rhythms.
LH: Some musicians say ‘I had a bunch of songs that I had that just didn’t suit my band, so I made a solo album’. Do you just write when you write, without this consideration?
CI: When I am writing songs, I can definitely think of Janet’s vocal part so I hear that while writing. Also, the songs on this part of the tour, that we are now doing without drums and bass, are different to what you imagine but also sound great without those instruments.
JB: I had a hard time getting my head around those songs at the start but I am growing to accept how they sound without the band because they were originally written with the band in my mind.
LH: Not having drummer & bass player with you – is that just the economics of the tour?
Both: They were with us in England up to very recently but, with the costs of the tour, we could not afford to keep the full band with us on the road so we had them leave for the last part due to the expense involved with the backline and everything. In a way, it has been good for us to get back to what we used to do anyway and that is to play as an acoustic combo
LH: Have the economics of touring changed much for you?
Both: No, we have never made money! I think that things have changed in general but we still like to look for the cheese tray before a show and get despondent if it is not there. We have always done it pretty economically, we don’t ask for much and we do things in a thrifty way. We don’t make a lot of money but we view it as a way of having a holiday and doing something that is important for us to do.
LH: Over the years something as basic as the price of gasoline can make a huge difference
Both: The tour we did in the winter with a large band in the states cost us a lot on gasoline and the cost of merch can be expensive also. Especially when we fly these days. It’s a challenge.
LH: A quote attributed to your career said that is was defined as ‘a lack of any normal human ambition and an inability to capitalise on the brightest moments of critical acclaim’. Is this a conscious decision to stay true to your punk ethic?
Both (laughing): No, not at all ... I think that over time we have both said pretty much the same thing. We think it is interesting that we could even perceive that and then continue doing it as a conscious choice.
LH: Your music is so enduring and yet you don’t have a momentum to the output in terms of recording and touring regularly
JB: What we do is not popular. We are outliers in every sense, we are not Americana, we are not Country, we are not Folk - in all honesty there is not another band like we are and that is a great thing because there is no-one to take our place.
CI: Our lack of popularity is not entirely based on our inability to capitalise on our brightest moments.
JB: I think that we are not easy music for some people, some find it dissonant and gloomy and some people are drawn to it. When we tour the US, and have people come up to us and say that ‘we reared our kids listening to your music’, if it means a lot to a few people then that is really powerful.
CI: Our self -destructive tendency does not go as far as to refuse anything that is offered to us.
LH: In the past you have not identified who writes the songs. It has just been songs written by Freakwater. Also, the lyrics have not been included on past releases.
CI: For this release, we do have credits for who wrote what.
JB: But I have always liked the ambiguity of not knowing who wrote what ...
LH: Talking about the cover of the new record, I like the fact that the packaging is that little bit more substantial. In this era of downloads, you have got the lyrics and the photos and a sense of what the recording experience was like and that is an important part of the process.
Both: We wanted that. The packaging on the new record is great and it shows the people what we have created. After a long association with Thrill Jockey we switched to Bloodshot records and they were really happy to have us. We told them what we wanted to do and they gave us a lot of money so we had more flexibility to make a colourful record cover with an inside sleeve and booklet. The images from the sessions evoke memories of growing up and looking at album covers forever. That is something that we like. We had a big input into the vision of the new album and having detailed information and a certain look was important.
LH: You have this strain of Appalachian murder ballads meeting with abstract sonic sound; banjo meeting with guitar feedback – this seems almost unique to the band.
Both: Rather that it being intentional in order to do something odd, it was more just a natural development and including sounds that everyone wanted to have. The banjo and Moog on the 1st track is a really good combination. When the record came out it went to number 6 in the bluegrass charts which was a surprise for us. We have always thrown different things together, whether it was lyrics or sounds; we were singing about things that were not traditional early on and not in the accepted Americana genre. We do this thing that is unique to what we do and It is not genre specific – our lyrics speak to something that is somewhat different and our instrumentation is also somewhat different. There is a density to the lyrics that people can see as being odd and people either like that or they don’t.
LH: If you look at the Handsome Family and the success that they had (title track to the True Detective first series); is this something that you think can happen also to you?
Both: I don’t think that it changed the perspective in that the Handsome Family are still doing the same thing they always did. Maybe the perspective on the Handsome Family has changed for some people? But those people will still not come to the shows and want to follow the band. People are so used to music in tv shows and getting music for free. Some monetary effect may happen but I don’t think it is as much as you imagine.
LH: How do you choose the musicians for your studio recordings. Is it a from the community of musicians in the Chicago area?
CI: Warren Ellis lived in Chicago and we had met him several times with the Dirty Three and Nick Cave. You have to love his playing… Warren asked what was going on with Freakwater and we invited him to play for the record. We send him the tapes and he played really beautifully. We have friends who come in and play from both Chicago and Louisville, some we had already been playing with but also others we didn’t know who we introduced to us. Chicago can be so much busier than in a smaller town so we recorded in Louisville as we thought that a languid, slow quality vibe could be good; dreamier and sludger. In the studio, it was the most relaxed time that we ever had as there was no pressure on us. Dave (David Gay), our bass player, paid for the studio time and he offered a very generous budget. The whole thing had a calmness to it.
LH: Where do the ideas for the songs come about?
Both: Anything really. Something in the news, something that happens to you. In the last few years a lot of political events drive the song-writing. There are moments where something comes to you and it is then a struggle to get to the rest of it. You are playing and identify something but then, digging through everything to get to the rest of it – now that’s work… What I do know is that the more you do it, then the quicker it comes to you. Sometimes the original idea you have for the song becomes almost facile by the end of the process and you are getting rid of the initial idea.
LH: Do you write any of the songs in character
Both: The songs tend to be personal, not that writing in character isn’t somewhat personal, but we don’t use character writing.Each of us write personal songs and really thinking about something is what we tend to do.
If you have not checked out the wonderfully rich catalogue of releases that these two talented artists have produced, then a real treat lies in store. Make sure that Freakwater are a regular part of your journey going forward.
Interview by Paul McGee and Stephen Rapid Photograph by Kaethe Burt O'Dea