Alt-Country Icons Freakwater Get a Fresh Start with Bloodshot Records

Bloodshot Records/Tim Furnish
Freakwater frontwomen Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin first put their harmonies to tape in Bean’s parents' basement in Louisville. That was way back in 1985.

Bean and Irwin like to joke that they then founded Freakwater in 1989 simply to “get into bars for free.” But the band has had remarkable staying power if that’s truly the case. They've taken sustenance from the fact that they were the forerunners of an alt-country movement that has since blossomed.

Back then, the term alt-country didn't exist. And yet that genre would later encompass the kind of twangy post-punk music that the duo played. But for whatever reason, Freakwater never broke big like many of its contemporaries. Still, Bean and Irwin have kept moving forward, and after 10 years without releasing a studio album, the group finally breaks the dry spell with its new effort Scheherazade. The band’s Bloodshot debut, the disc features more of the somber alt-country tunes for which the group is known. The vocal harmonies sound sharp, and it seems as if the group has gotten a good second wind.

Prior to this new release, the band recorded exclusively for the indie label Thrill Jockey Records.

“We’ve been with [Thrill Jockey label owner Bettina Richards] for the better part of the 30 years that we’ve been making music together,” says Bean during a recent conference call with Irwin. “It was great. She has a beautiful idiosyncratic label that puts out records that she feels strongly about. We respect her and her label. We just wanted to try something new. We’ve been doing things the same way for 30 years and wanted to try something new.”

“We just wanted a change,” adds Irwin. “We wanted something different. The marriage had gotten stale.”

Since the two already knew the folks at Bloodshot, it wasn’t difficult to convince them to put out their new album.

“If we had to go and talk to strangers, it might take us another ten years,” says Irwin with a laugh. “We can’t imagine what it would be like if we had to send out tapes to strangers. The amount of crushing defeat would be immense.”

Irwin says she and Bean didn’t want to go into the studio with just enough songs to make a record but with “a whole lot of songs.” They went in with something like 19 songs.

“That was a lot for us,” she says. “I think it paid off. The ones that didn’t make it were a hard call. We felt strongly about the body of songs we made. We’re really happy with them.”

To record, they holed up at La La Land, a Louisville studio run by Kevin Ratterman (My Morning Jacket).

“It’s a beautiful big room, and it has a super chill vibe,” says Bean. “You can imagine you’re in Laurel Canyon or something. It’s a beautiful set up. We got people Catherine knew in Louisville, and she introduced me to a few different players. It was probably the most comfortable recording experience we’ve ever had in some regards. It was much more relaxed.

Murder by Death’s Sarah Balliet plays cello on some songs. Evan Patterson from Young Widows and Jonathan Hood from Oh Baby play on the album as well, and Warren Ellis from the Dirty Three and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds contributes too.

“Warren Ellis did some fiddle playing and alto flute parts,” says Bean. “He’s incredible.”

“It’s a full band so that creates a different sound automatically, although there are some songs that are stripped down,” adds Irwin. “Having more of a guitar player on it gave it a dirtier feel that I really love. It made it swampier. It moved it in that direction. These players were so great. I had this crazy idea that I wanted wah-wah and this Isley Brothers part on this song ‘Down Will Come Baby.’ I got Evan [Patterson] to play wah-wah so we could have a psychedelic jam. Part of it was the songs lent themselves to some different things. I think we went into the studio thinking that we would try a bunch of stuff and be open.”

Waking up at three in the morning inspired the twangy tune “The Asp and the Albatross,” which references the famous Samuel Tayler Coleridge poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

“Yeah, I love the cadence of that poem,” says Irwin. “It’s the thing that will put me back to sleep. ['The Asp'] is a song about this Welsh word that’s the term for the things that when you wake up before the dawn and all the misery you think of. It’s a list of the stupid shit you go through in your mind. It’s a little story about that.”

Irwin and Bean agree that they don’t intend to take another decade to deliver a new studio release.

“We’ll see how this one goes and how traumatized everyone is [after the tour],” says Irwin. “I like the people we’re playing with. It’s been fun playing with this band for sure. I guess we have to be nice to them. I don’t know. Like Janet says, we’ll be stuck in a van with them in the dead of winter. We’ll see what happens.”

Bean concurs.

“Realistically, taking into account the average lifespan of a human, it would be good if we did one in the next ten years,” she says. “I think we have the highest mortality rate for our demographic. I fall squarely in the demographic that’s most likely to commit suicide or have an untreated kind of disease. Taking all that into account, it would be good to get our next record together.”

Freakwater, Jayle Jayle, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 11, Beachland Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $12,

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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