Before leaving on Freakwater’s last, ill-fated tour, singer Janet Beveridge Bean went to a new age healer, who promised Bean she would cleanse her aura. “She told me she would open my third eye,” Bean remembers. “I’ll tell you, from that day on, everything has just been a disaster.” The ensuing mini-tour became a nightmare of fraying tempers and canceled shows. “Maybe it was someone’s way of telling me to get out of this business,” Bean says. “I think I either have to go back and get that eye closed, or face life with it open.”
The past year has been particularly trying for Freakwater, with the band delaying their just-released fifth record, Springtime, as well as waging a very public war with Steve Earle and his record label, E-Squared. But Bean has been threatening to quit the record business, by her own recollection, since the day she started 15 years ago. “I’m always closer to it than I was,” says Bean. “It’s like the rabbit and the carrot; you never quite seem to reach it. I’m sort of delusional, anyway. At 33 I still think I could join NASA and be an astronaut. I could do anything, if I could just figure out what it is.”
Given the trauma surrounding its birth, it’s a small wonder that Springtime is Freakwater’s lightest record yet: Though full of the mournful folk ballads and Gothic bluegrass numbers that have become the band’s stock in trade, on Springtime Freakwater also makes fine work of several bustling, almost peppy folk-pop numbers. “It’s like we’re getting perky all of a sudden,” says Bean, with some trepidation. “I don’t know where that comes from.”
While Springtime is the band’s most accessible record, if only by default, no one expects the relative upsweep in record sales for alternative country artists to reach as far as Freakwater, whose raw, starkly pretty Appalachian folk bears little in common with, say, Son Volt. Stubbornly anachronistic and seldom seen, Bean and fellow frontwoman Catherine Irwin tour rarely, briefly, and under great protest. They release an album every couple years or so and have spent the latter part of their creative lives at Thrill Jockey, a small Chicago indie that houses similarly iconoclastic acts such as Tortoise and The Sea And Cake.
It was to everyone’s surprise, then, that major-label interest, in the form of Earle’s E-Squared label (affiliated with Warner Bros.), came calling last winter. To hear Bean tell it, Freakwater, enticed by the prospect of a label run by a respected artist, came close to signing with E-Squared until concerns over the amount of artistic control the band would retain scuttled the deal.
“It put our lives on hold for the longest time, although I’m sure it didn’t stop Steve Earle for a minute. It’s one of those things where you go in, and you think you have a certain idea about a situation, and then they’ll say, ‘How about firing your band and taking it to the next level?’” Bean said. “That made us kind of nervous, but we were willing to go down there and work with session musicians. [Bassist Dave Gay] was even willing to let them play on the record. That was the first stumbling block. We were gonna sign, and then we got a lawyer and things fell apart, and they insinuated that that was why. I think they needed a band that felt comfortable being controlled a little more.”
The resulting public dust-up, which led to, among other things, a Bean-penned article in a local paper detailing the experience, and a protracted online skirmish, prompted Earle to tell a Chicago audience during a show last winter that the Freakwater women (who did not attend) “can kiss my ass.”
“Steve Earle’s had a rough time of it,” says Bean. “I don’t bear him any ill will, even today. It was just something that happened, you know? I still think we could have worked together.”
For their part, representatives from E-Squared have claimed that the deal fell apart not over matters of artistic control, but over far more prosaic things, like Freakwater’s demands for larger advances and tour buses. Though that seems unlikely for the women of Freakwater, who have survived this long on shoestring recording budgets and second jobs (Bean waits tables; Irwin paints houses), the lack of money has been a bone of contention since the band’s early days in Louisville, Kentucky.
“It’s like this ambiguous ground we ride where it takes up a lot of our lives, but we don’t do enough with it to take it to the next level,” says Bean. “It’s like, we can’t get jobs because we’re not around enough, but we aren’t gone enough to make money. And it’s always been that way.”
Best friends now, Bean and Irwin weren’t immediately drawn to each other when they first met growing up in Louisville. Irwin vaguely remembers being nasty to Bean; Bean remembers Catherine as a “nice little punker girl.” It would take a mutual antipathy towards the bagpipes, of which both Irwin and Bean’s fathers were overly fond, to eventually unite them. “Those things were incredibly loud. I mean like a truck,” Irwin remembers. “But I still say the bagpipes can be used for good, not evil.”
While Irwin had cut her teeth on country music, “I was an album-rock chick,” Bean says. “Pink Floyd, all that sort of stuff. I didn’t have a certain mindset about country, or anything. I didn’t actively dislike it, except for the Statler Brothers. It represented something I didn’t really want to be interested in when I was a kid. It was all around me growing up in Alabama and Kentucky, and I wanted to separate myself from it.”
Irwin soon talked Bean into performing at an open mike night at the now-extinct Beat Club in Louisville. “It was in an area downtown where there were a lot of strip bars, and we went and did ‘Pistol Packing Mama’ and ‘Divorce’,” says Bean. “We were pretty well-received, although whether it was because of the music or our low-cut dresses I still don’t know.”
The Beat Club gig would mark a turning point, if only because it may have been the last time Irwin and Bean, given the current deathly seriousness with which they approach their music, displayed anything remotely resembling irony. “Well, the whole thing started out with a love of those songs, with enjoying them,” says Bean. “But being 18 years old, everything is ironic. Everything was sort of meant to piss people off, I guess.”
Although Freakwater’s songs — which are, almost without exception, lonely, lovely ballads about divorce, hardship, and dead babies — could do with some leavening, Bean and Irwin seem to have, unwittingly or not, cast themselves in the role of musical preservationists. Their desire to protect early twentieth-century country and bluegrass traditions — things, like mountain folk hollers, that even predate oft-cited Freakwater archetypes such as Bill Monroe — is almost palpable. Whatever else Freakwater are, they aren’t kidding.