Inspiration still propels Freakwater’s country dirge
KISS THEIR GRIT: Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin are the intoxicating Freakwater.
by John Sewell
The creative muse is one of those amorphous, intangible, yet essential beings that cannot be summoned by any amount of prayer or desperate Ouija board manipulation. And try as you may, the Protestant work ethic simply does not apply to artistic endeavors. The proverbial well of inspiration might be brimming over at one moment and as sere as a dustbowl the next. A fickle beast that finds sadistic delight in taunting artists, musicians and writers everywhere, the muse just drops in whenever it damn well pleases—or takes an extended sabbatical without even having the courtesy to drop a postcard in the mail to say, “Having a great time, wish you were here.” So when a lightning bolt of ideas strikes, it’s best to drop everything else and maximize the potential of the blessed event.
After an approximately six-year sabbatical, Louisville-based country-politan act Freakwater is back. While the band was, of course, younger at their inception in the late ‘80s, its outlook has always been adult and perhaps a bit world-weary. And, as adults, Freakwater’s core members Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin took time off to attend to other matters such as employment, raising children, secondary education and more. “We’d originally decided just to take a couple of years off,” says Bean. “I was working full time and Catherine made a solo record. And then I decided to make mine [ Cut Yourself a Switch ]. We really started forming the ideas for what we were going to do with this album about two years ago.”
While a dearth of ideas might not have been the impetus for their extended lull, the duo have returned to the fray invigorated and fresh, perhaps at a peak level of energy and inspiration. The group’s new album Thinking of You (Thrill Jockey) pairs Irwin and Bean with the backing of members of Califone, and the collaboration is a sure winner. Thinking of You presents a fleshed out, more nuanced Freakwater. While the sound of the new album might be a bit more lush, the band’s characteristic lyrical darkness remains intact. And by
“I’m not sure if ‘despairing’ is a good way to describe our outlook, but maybe,” says Bean, laughing. “Most of the things that we write about come from personal experience, and your outlook changes some as you get older. But there’s still plenty of despair to go around.
“I think our songwriting has matured and that we’ve gotten better,” says Bean. “I mean, in some ways things become more complicated as you get older. I think we’ve gone through a few different stages as a band, but the grit remains. It’s just a new kind of grit these days. Cheese grits, maybe?”
Something of a modern yet countrified chamber music group, Freakwater utilizes a number of instruments above and beyond the usual guitars, bass and drums. The touring ensemble includes keyboards, horns, pedal steel guitar, violin and even an accordion. Asked how the musical collaboration with Califone came about, Bean replies that the pairing was a result of geography, musical styles and personal chemistry.
“First of all, we’re all friends. And we’re both full-time Thrill Jockey bands. I was at one of [Califone’s] shows about two years ago and after hearing them, it just seemed like a good idea.”
Bean makes a valiant attempt to describe the band for the uninitiated before realizing the utter difficulty of such a task. “Well, we’re a vocally based band, and the lyrics are sort of dreary. We play songs about difficult things from a personal experience point of view. I don’t know. I have a hard time describing it. It’s kind of like trying to tell someone else whether or not your brother is cute. It’s impossible.”
Now nearing the two-decade point, Bean is unsure of just how long Freakwater’s musical journey will continue. “We never have plans for the future,” says Bean. “I would say that not having a plan is our only plan. I really have a difficult time seeing the future, though I definitely want to have one. It will be interesting to see how the band plays out; what people think of us in the future and where we fit in the grand scheme of things. I’ll be interested to see just where we are in 30 years. And it would be great if we’re still playing then.”
What: Freakwater w/ The Zincs