Most any question about their songs is met with a recitation of historical precedent. When asked, for example, where the band picked up its overweening death fixation, Bean will say: “I think the history of Appalachian balladeering is almost nonchalant about it. You would sing a song about death, but it’s almost a part of life. It was such a predominant issue in a lot of the old mountain songs.”
In Louisville, Bean and Irwin spent hours plowing through Louvin Brothers and Carter Family records and harmonizing around a basement four-track, until Bean left for Chicago with soon-to-be-husband Rick Rizzo. Bean and Rizzo eventually formed Eleventh Dream Day, an occasionally sublime indie-rock outfit that resembles classic X during its finer moments, a country version of Tortoise during its worst. Living in separate cities (“It’s good in some ways. Otherwise we would have killed each other by now,” says Irwin), Bean and Irwin would sing on the phone to each other, mostly, until officially forming as Freakwater in 1989. The trio, with Gay on board as bassist, released two records on local indie label Amoeba before moving to Thrill Jockey a few years later. It would take the release of 1995′s Old Paint, which remains perhaps the definitive Freakwater record, before the band was seen as anything more than the bastard stepchild of Eleventh Dream Day.
Though Eleventh Dream Day was ostensibly the more successful outfit (although their major-label flirtations would prove in vain as well), its frequent forays into traditional country felt trailer-trashy, meant to tweak. Freakwater explored the flipside: The aggressively traditionalist, deathly earnest Old Paint was steeped in dobros and pedal steels and national guitars, full of bleak, mournful ballads about drinking, murder and dread. Lyrically, like its predecessors, it made only cursory references to the latter part of the twentieth century. Occasional allusions to waitressing, cars, or atheism (most notably in Old Paint’s now infamous “There’s nothing so pure/As the kindness of an atheist” couplet) seem the band’s only tie to the present.
Bean and Irwin echo perfectly the gentle, world-weary fatalism of Appalachian folk hollers, replacing coal-mining disasters with car wrecks, and injecting occasional bits of feminism along the way. “Catherine is never the victim,” says Bean with admiration. “Some of her songs are full of a lot of venom and can be really ugly and caustic, but it’s never this ‘Pity me’ sort of thing. I think a lot of women writers in the past have come from vulnerable positions like that. But she doesn’t.”
Bean and Irwin split the songwriting and singing duties; in Eleventh Dream Day, Bean and Rizzo do the same. “My husband’s really good at writing allegories, but it’s hard,” Bean says. “You don’t want to reveal too much and hurt people, but [if you're afraid of that] then you’re paralyzed. My songs, if they’re not narrative stories, they’re things I write to punish myself, to reinforce the way I’m supposed to behave. I need to impose discipline upon myself because I don’t have enough from the outside world. Sometimes I think between Catherine and me we could keep a lot of soap operas going. It’s hard to capture how poignant day-to-day life can be in a song.”
Springtime is only vaguely cheerier than Old Paint, thanks in part to new multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston (late of Wilco), who even contributes a lead vocal track on the song “Harlan”. “Catherine and I were probably out of our minds to let him do it,” says Bean. “Because now everyone will probably be like, ‘Let that guy sing!’, you know?”
Bean also points to Springtime’s lack of dead baby songs — a onetime Freakwater staple — as further proof the band is lightening up some. “She said there were no dead baby songs?” asks Irwin in delight. “She just doesn’t know what she’s singing about. The record is perkier sounding, but lyrically, I don’t think it’s any perkier. I don’t think this record is any less, um, evil.”
The women of Freakwater, rarely cheery, one suspects, under the best of circumstances, seem to approach the mere act of being in Freakwater as if it were a bit of a chore, an intrusion into Actual Life. Recording is unpleasant; touring, as Bean once said, is like giving birth. Bean swears she will never again tour as she once did, playing in Eleventh Dream Day and Freakwater at the same time, opening for herself and wreaking havoc on both her vocal chords and her psyche. Her five year-old child with Rizzo provides an added complication. And Catherine “has a life she likes, and doesn’t want to leave,” Bean says.
Irwin stays in Louisville, writing songs, and painting to pay the rent (“My goal in life is to do less, actually, not more,” she says). Louisville has been kind to Freakwater, one of the few cities that seems instinctively to know what to make of them. “It’s because Louisville is full of perversity, and they love of that sort of thing,” explains Bean.
Audiences in other cities have not been as understanding. Freakwater is regarded as far too twangy for all but the most progressive college/hipster crowds, and for Top 40 country audiences, Freakwater is, of course, out of the question.
Louisville once gave a start to acts such as Slint and Palace; Will Oldham, in fact, can be seen as Freakwater’s only living sonic equivalent. (He also has the distinction, along with Richard Buckner, of being one of the few artists Catherine likes who is still alive.) But the city hasn’t offered up much since. When asked if there is a music scene in Louisville, Irwin says, “I don’t know, there may be. I, um, don’t go outside much. There probably isn’t one. I mean, someone would have told me.”
On “Louisville Lip”, the song that serves as the centerpiece of Springtime, Muhammad Ali throws his gold medal into the river when a restaurant wouldn’t serve him. It is one in an endless string of true events — car wrecks, house fires that kill children — that find their way into Freakwater’s catalog of universal woe. “So far I haven’t had to make up anything in my songs,” Irwin says. “I keep hoping someday awful things will stop happening to me and I’ll have to make things up. But not yet.”
In years past, Freakwater’s schedule — long periods of hibernation followed by short bursts of activity — lent the band’s records a tentative feel. One reason Springtime sounds more assured, Irwin and Bean will tell you, is because the extended legal wrangling with E-Squared which postponed its release gave them more time actually to learn the songs. In years past, Bean and Irwin were able to rehearse together only when time and travel money permitted. Recording sessions were similarly brutish and short. Surprisingly, given its budgetary limitations, Springtime is a clean, decidedly un-lo-fi recording, much more polished than even the Brad Wood-produced Old Paint.
Bean and Irwin debuted several tunes from Springtime at a show in Chicago last winter, where the band has a sturdy fan base. “We never [play] to be more popular,” says Bean. “It’s usually to make money, like, ‘If we do this show, we can pay our insurance next month,’ or whatever.” Freakwater will, with great reluctance, play their first-ever Los Angeles headlining show in their extended history sometime this spring, as well as a few weeks’ worth of roadshows. No one seems to know what happens next. Bean speaks wistfully of getting her teaching certificate and moving her family to Greece for the summer.
“There’s a certain amount of instability when you’re involved in music. It’s not like you get a 401(k) plan or something,” she says. “You get screwed sometimes, and things turn out great sometimes, and if you love what you’re doing, it doesn’t really matter. I love singing, and I love playing my guitar, but I love doing it in my house just as much. Sometimes I think I need to figure out whether I need to do it beyond that level. Apparently I do. Sometimes I’m just not sure why.”
Allison Stewart is a Los Angeles-bred, Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in music and politics.