The Americana band returns after a 10-year recording hiatus with a new album and a new tour. Why?
“This country’s too big.”
Freakwater is on tour, and even though the Americana band has been around since their genre descriptor was “alt-country,” it had never been to Salt Lake City before. “It’s really flat, and there are giant mountains off in the distance,” Catherine Irwin says on the phone, looking out from the van. She still enjoys the travel more than you might think, but mainly the getting-there parts. Once in cities, the experience is and has always been limited as the band rarely gets time to see more than the venue. When you sign up for rock ’n’ roll, you can’t complain much about the hours or the bars, but it’s still frustrating at times. I know Vienna doesn’t look like the inside of a punk rock club, Irwin thought the first time she played there. Tonight, Freakwater gets to experience another punk rock club when it plays Gasa Gasa.
Irwin and Janet Bean of Eleventh Day Dream came together in the late 1980s and formed Freakwater to play a version of Appalachian folk that embraced punk’s spirit-first ethos. Their songs and harmonies aren’t exact, but they’re off in personal ways that give the songs life. They’re off in the same ways as songs found on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, so Freakwater songs might simply sound traditional if they were heard with the surface noise that gives old records their patina.
Their new album, Scheherazade, is their first in a decade, and as Irwin talks about it, whatever romance she might once have attached to the band is replaced by a core practicality. She never sounds resigned or beat down, but realistic in the way people are realistic about things they’ve done for for more than 25 years. The album’s not a reunion, she says. “We’ve been playing shows,” and they’ve been busy together and apart. Eleventh Day Dream released an album, and Irwin recorded a solo album.
“We’ve never been that prolific,” Irwin adds, laughing. “And I have to say, there’s no shortage of records. Twenty million people release an album every day. We haven’t been clogging up the pipeline for sure.”
The impetus to record again came during a tour in 2013 when they were joined by guitarist Jim Elkington, an in-demand musician who made the two-week run particularly fun. “We played a lot of old songs, reinterpreting them with him,” Irwin says, and he encouraged them to write more songs. The idea of recording with him got Irwin and Bean to think seriously about a new Freakwater project, but ironically, Elkington was busy as the musical director for Jeff Tweedy’s self-titled band when studio time opened so he only played a little on the album.
For Scheherazade, Irwin and Bean worked with a larger musical palate than they’re accustomed to. Freakwater has often limited itself to acoustic guitars, an upright bass and voices, but this time they employ fiddles, banjos and pedal steels as well. The band didn’t start the ball rolling the way for Scheherazade the way Elkington did, but it helped confirm that they were on the right track. Irwin had played with the musicians in different projects around Louisville, and when she and Bean heard them together, they knew an album would work.
“Everybody brought so many good ideas,” she says. “The songs sounded great once we started playing with them.”
Bean wrote specifically for the project, but Irwin’s process is more organic. She had a handful of songs at the start of the sessions, though she had written more since the release of her 2012 album Little Heater. She remembers songs by going over them again and again though, and she can only keep track of so many at a time. “If I can’t remember how they go, I figure it wasn’t that good,” she says.
In Stephen M. Deusner’s review of Scheherazade for Pitchfork, he writes:
It’s their most cinematic album yet, with the music functioning almost as a soundtrack to Irwin and Bean’s short, violent songs. On the very first song, "What the People Want," somebody throws a baby down a well, accompanied by tense swirls of strings. On "Down Will Come Baby," they rewrite the old, twisted lullaby "Rock-a-bye Baby," and the band navigates a series of key changes that lends a vertiginous effect, as though the cradle is in freefall.
“‘Down Will Come Baby’ isn’t about a baby; it’s about an adult,” Irwin says, and she balks at the idea that there are many children in peril on the album. Then, thinking about it, agrees that there are. Why so many? “Because they’re in peril in real life,” she says, her voice lilting up at the end, asking as much as answering the question. She wonders why listeners take “baby” literally when they sing it and wonder if it’s because they’re women. “When Justin Bieber sings ‘baby’ you don’t think that,” she says, laughing. In the case of “Down Will Come Baby,” though, she recognizes how reshaping a lullaby brings infants to mind. “That’s a logical conclusion.”
Flexible lineups have always been part of the Freakwater story. Irwin and Bean effectively are Freakwater, and they’ve usually been joined by David Gay. The instrumentation beyond that—when there have been additional instruments—has been in constant motion. “We never generated enough money to keep people on a retainer,” Irwin says, but the trade off has been the pleasure of playing with different musicians and hearing their songs as others hear them.
After years of receiving more acclaim than money, an obvious question is why Freakwater—or any band—continues. Doesn’t a lengthy hiatus from recording tell you something? Why continue to play in a band when it’s pretty clear that it has found whatever audience it will find? Why discover that the punk club in Salt Lake City looks like most other punk clubs more than 25 years into a career?
“I don’t know,” she says. “I guess we like doing it. We always see each other, and we’re like family. We really respect each other’s songwriting, and it’s just funny. There’s always one of us laughing, and I think we both get something from each other’s ideas in a weird, sibling sort of way.” She thinks it has been easier for Freakwater to continue because they never had a plan. If they ever had dreams of having a song or album get big, those dreams came second to the experience of making music together. “We just do things we think are good.”
Freakwater last toured in 2013, but that was regional and limited. They played some one-off festival dates in California in the years since, but the tour that brings them to New Orleans tonight is the first time in years that they’ve loaded up the van to see the country. It’s their first tour since the music industry cratered, so they’re discovering just how much money there is in vinyl at the merch table. Albums are bulky in the van, but “the new model seems to be sell more stuff,” Irwin says, and albums do well. When the band left from Chicago in February and headed north to Ann Arbor, Irwin hadn’t found her car zen yet. Shortly into the drive, she started thinking, We should be in China by now. At least the Ukraine.
“I get a little claustrophobic in the middle,” she says, laughing. “I like to cling to the edge of the country.”