On September 18th, Thrill Jockey Records released the new solo album by Freakwater's Catherine Irwin. Little Heater is Catherine's first solo album since 2002's Cut Yourself A Switch, and her first record since Freakwater's Thinking of You (2005).
Little Heater features collaborations with such artists as Tara Jane ONeil, Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy), Marc Orleans, Daniel Littleton, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Jean Cook. I recently had the opportunity to ask Catherine about the writing, recording, and collaborative experiences that all went into the making of Little Heater.
Hi Catherine, thanks so much for taking the time to participate in this interview and to discuss the making of your new record. I'd like to begin by asking you when and how you began writing the songs that would ultimately become Little Heater?
Catherine: We recorded the latest Freakwater record (Thinking of You) about 6 years ago. I started writing songs for a solo record right after that. I don't think that there is any real advantage in taking so long between records. Even though I am clearly not very prolific I have probably gone through 3 records worth of songs since then.
Whenever I write a new song I always just keep messing with it and changing it until I finally get it put on a record. Ultimately I don't know if my songs are any better because of all of the rewriting and editing and cooking down but I definitely end up with less total volume.
Catherine: "Dusty Groove" (Kelly Hogan covers this song on her new record) was really crying out for a string section and some Memphis Horns action. The song is about Dusty Springfield and I really wanted to get super fancy on it. That song probably really determined the trajectory of the record.
Before I decided to go up to New York to record with Tara Jane ONeil, I went to Virginia and did a little bit of recording with a really stripped down string band. That was when I realized that I really wanted a much more complex Dusty In Memphis production.
Jean Cook wrote and played the most gorgeous string arrangements. Elizabeth Mitchell did the beautiful background vocals. Marc Orleans pedal steel part sounds amazing. I didn't get the horn section, but maybe someday I can do one of those records with the Boston Pops or something...
What were some of your biggest influences and sources of inspiration during this time?
Catherine: I was listening to a ton of White Stripes at the time. I am so crazy about Jack White's lyrics. The way that they sometimes wander in and out of such dreamy, abstract constructions while telling such great little stories. And he has the best rhymes.
Danielle Howle is an incredible songwriter from South Carolina. Tara Jane and Dan Littleton both played in her band in the past. I listened to her record Live At The McKissick Museum, and Tara Jane's record with Nikaido Kazumi (Tara Jane ONeil and Nikaido Kazumi, available via K Records) all the way from Kentucky to New York.
I had also been listening to a lot of Gary Stewart. The way that that ghostly vibrato just trails off at the end of a phrase is so incredible. It is so faint and subtle and creepy.
Please describe your writing process, both lyrically and musically.
Catherine: I always come up with the words and the melody at the same time. It's the only way I can remember anything. I come up with an idea and wander around working on it for a few days before I try to figure out how to play it on the guitar. I probably lose a lot of ideas that way.
I never seem to have a tape recorder so I just figure if it isn't catchy enough for me to remember it might not be that great. I guess that is the first cut of the editing process. If I can't remember how it goes, it just disappears. I don't know how other people write songs. I imagine there are probably more efficient ways to get it done.
Catherine: Tara Jane is an amazing and very humane engineer. She has this beautiful, beatnik poetic style when it comes to talking about sounds. It's very visual which is perfect. I know exactly what "shiny" sounds like.
The studio is out in the woods near Woodstock. It was really like a dream. Tara saw a bear right outside the door. I have never had a situation like that before where everyone is so nice and no one (including myself) is just seething or having some sort of crack up.
Even though most of my previous recording experiences had been pretty miserable, they had also been way too short which adds a lot of anxiety. We could just get up in the morning and start recording. It is really easy to get a lot done that way.
My singing and guitar or banjo parts were recorded together first live. I can't really play guitar without singing which always limits the ways that I can record. There are always parts in my vocals that makes me totally cringe but since they are stuck to the guitar track I can never do anything about it. I'm sure that if I could overdub my vocals I would just want to keep doing them over and over again. I would get super micro and drive everybody crazy. I did do background harmony vocals on a couple of songs.
I was listening to the playback of "The Whole of the Law" wandering around in the live room singing to myself. Tara Jane secretly recorded me and we both liked the way it sounded. On the tracking list that vocal was called "stoned hippie chick". It has a really nice distracted quality.
All of the other musicians had such great ideas and came up with parts that were so much more refined and elegant than I would ever have thought of. They have a kind of restraint and sense of space that I really admire.
Tara got such a beautiful sound out of the acoustic instruments. All of the mics and their perfect placements had nicknames like "butter" or "rectal". Originally I was supposed to take the record somewhere else to mix and those names were going to be pretty embarrassing if I had to hand the track information over to a new engineer. Luckily Tara and I ended up mixing it together.
You have a number of really great guests on this record (including Bonnie Prince Billy, Tara Jane ONeil, members of Ida, and Marc Orleans on pedal steel). Can you discuss how you connected with these artists, your experiences working with them on the record, and your own philosophy/ perspective of the rewards of these collaborations?
Catherine: I have been really lucky as far as collaborating with other musicians goes, especially on this record. It has almost always worked out for me to just trust people to play the perfect thing, to play exactly what I wanted before I even knew what it was.
I live in the kingdom of the Bonnie Prince Billy! He was so great about working on the songs. We are friends and have sung together on projects before. I sang on his record Ease Down The Road. He has such an amazing voice and such great soaring ideas about harmony. He recorded a harmony track for "To Break Your Heart" that I ended up leaving through the whole song. It is so great to hear double Will.
Tara Jane and I have been friends for a really long time. I don't know why I never had this recording idea before. She has been engineering and producing her own extremely beautiful, great sounding records for more than a decade. Tara's voice is so compelling. She is weirdly shy about singing and is inclined to mix her vocals super low. Everyone else on the record had to work really hard to get her to turn herself up.
Tara has been playing with Ida off and on for years and it was through her that I met those guys. Elizabeth Mitchell's singing on this record makes me cry it is so pure sounding. When she and Jean Cook were doing the awesome background parts on "Hoopskirt" Tara and I were both crying. Watching Jean construct a string arrangement just totally destroyed my mind. She would have the previous 3 or 4 violin tracks stacking up in her left headphone and the part that she was playing live going through her right headphone and she just never looked back.
Daniel Littleton's guitar and piano parts are so beautiful and restrained. I really admire the way that Ida captures such an open, spacious sound. They play just the exact right amount and leave the right amount of silence. Bettina at Thrill Jockey introduced me to Marc Orleans the awesome Brooklyn pedal steel player. I love the parts he came up with.
Catherine: People like to believe in "progress". I don't really care about it. A lot of the musicians that I really admire just do what they do. Some records are better than others but there is more of a "sameness" than a difference between them.
The great thing about Freakwater is singing with Janet, but there isn't really any difference between the songs I write for Freakwater and the songs on my solo records. I think that Janet and I have been singing together for so long that I always hear her part in my head when I am writing a new song. The way that Janet's voice and mine go together and don't go together is the "Freakwater thing"...
There aren't really any vocal harmonies on Cut Yourself A Switch. That definitely set it apart from the records Janet and I make. It was a lot of me singing about me with Dave playing bass. Little Heater has tons of vocal harmonies from Tara Jane and Elizabeth and Jean and sometimes me singing with myself. The production is really lush and orchestrated by comparison, but the songs themselves aren't really that different.
What's next for you in 2012 (and beyond)? Can you talk about your touring plans and what you have coming up next?
Catherine: I hope to play quite a lot of shows this year. Ideally, I would like to get on a tour with somebody who is actually somewhat popular and is willing to let me have a shelf to sleep on in their bus.
We have been trying to get a Freakwater record together for a couple of years and I think that we will start seriously working on that this spring. That would be great. I really hate playing shows by myself.
Chris Mateer is a freelance music writer living in Portland, OR. He is the founder and writer of the Uprooted Music Revue and has been contributing regularly to No Depression. In addition to music writing, Chris teaches visual art and plays the mandolin, banjo, and drums.
As a player and music writer, Chris is always excited to share and learn more. He believes a community thrives on participation and enthusiasm, and he's thrilled to contribute.
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