Catherine Irwin – Letting her Freakwater flag fly
When Catherine Ann Irwin — best-known as half of the creative nucleus of Freakwater — was a just a tot, she learned that her financial security for life had been provided for. Or so she thought.
It was the early 1960s, and Irwin’s father was attending graduate school at Indiana University in Bloomington. Baby Catherine, her two-year-old brother and her parents were living in the apartment-style housing reserved for married students. “One day, my Mom put our laundry in the [communal] clothes dryer…and somebody stole it,” recounts Irwin, 40.
As fate would have it, her brother’s security blanket was in this particular load. “It was the first act of human cruelty that he’d experienced,” she continues. “And it just completely shut him down. He didn’t poop for a year.” Finally, to induce regularity in the lad, the singer-guitarist claims her folks started bribing him. “For several years after that, my parents used to pay my brother a quarter to poop.”
While young Catherine received no such compensation, she was unconcerned. “I just assumed that [my money] was going to come later, and that there was no reason for me to go to school, or get a job, ever. Because I was sitting on a gold mine.” She laughs at the recollection. “And then, finally, I found out that it wasn’t going to pay off after all.”
Fortunately, Irwin didn’t spent the last four decades just sitting around waiting for her parents to write that prorated check. Since 1982, she and Janet Beveridge Bean have been making music together, although they didn’t settle on the Freakwater moniker until shortly before recording their influential, eponymous 1989 debut. Since that release, which predated Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression by a year, Freakwater has gone on to issue another five well-received albums featuring their unique fusion of indie rock, roots country, folk, and bluegrass.
But while Bean has always split her time between Freakwater and her other band, Eleventh Dream Day, Irwin has been slow to stretch her wings as a solo artist, playing her first show without Freakwater only two years ago, at South By Southwest 2000 in Austin, Texas. Now, three years after Freakwater’s most recent full-length, End Time, Irwin has at last offered up a full-length under her own name, Cut Yourself A Switch (released October 8 on Thrill Jockey).
Irwin handles the bulk of musical responsibilities on the twelve-song set, with Freakwater bassist David Wayne Gay as her sole, shadowy accomplice. Save for the accordion of Lance Wille on the creepy Yuletide number “Dirty Little Snowman”, a few turns by fiddle player Cailen Campbell, and one appearance by Gay’s other outfit, the Unholy Trio, there’s virtually nothing to distract from Irwin’s distinctive, thumb-and-forefinger-only guitar style (a self-taught technique somewhere between Travis picking and Carter scratching), and her throaty vocal delivery.
“Knowing that nobody else was going to sing, I tried to fill in some of the gaps,” she explains. Contrasted with End Time, which featured a string trio, pedal steel, mandolin and Hammond organ, as well as Bean’s sweeter vocal timbre, Cut Yourself A Switch is alarmingly stark, yet riveting nevertheless.
Irwin’s motives for crafting the sound of Switch, and just recording a solo album, period, seem inextricably interwoven. “One big reason for making this record was just so I could go out and play shows,” she explains. “Janet’s been really busy the last couple of years, and it’s been almost impossible for Freakwater to go on any kind of extended tour. So I wanted to make a record that it would be really easy to go out and tour on, with less [instrumentation] on it.”
She also deliberately avoided spending time — and money — in developing relationships with a host of other musicians outside her usual sphere. “I didn’t want to pay anybody else,” she says, with a chuckle. “And I didn’t want to have to try and explain anything to anybody else. I had to explain some stuff to Dave, but he’s pretty good at figuring out what I’m trying to say at this point.”
Still, she had to hash out some basics with Billy Reynolds and Aaron Price, who recorded the disc in the spring of 2002 at Collapseable Studio in Asheville, North Carolina (where Gay lives and works at a lawn mower shop).
“I made them rent this [two-inch analog] tape machine, and they didn’t really know how to use it, so that added to the recording time,” she says. “It’s funny. Janet just recorded an album, too, and she made her whole record in, like, three days. And I don’t know what I’d done by the time three days were over…smoked several packs of cigarettes.”
While Irwin felt sure that recording on analog tape was the only way to make a record prior to this experience, she’s since entertained second thoughts. “I do think it sounds nicer than anything else,” she maintains. “They probably make digital things that have some sort of feature on them that makes it sound like analog tape, but if I recorded things digitally, I’d never finish, because it’s so easy to do things over and over again, and just go nuts about little, tiny details. Whereas analog tape is so arduous to remix that you kind of have to live with stuff.”
Warts and all, the results captured on Switch prove just as unnerving and beautiful as Irwin’s Freakwater originals; death, bad luck, and love forsaken all still figure prominently. But the songwriter felt that asking fans to stomach twelve ditties a la “Cry Our Little Eyes Out” or the especially grim “Swan Dive” (“My mother heard that one and said, ‘People have enough problems, they don’t need to hear that'”) was a tall order. “It was just too much of me.”
So she and Gay tempered the program with covers from their live set, including Jo Stafford’s 1952 #1 “You Belong To Me”, “Power Of My Love” (plucked from 1969’s From Elvis In Memphis), Roger Miller’s “Don’t We All Have The Right To Be Wrong”, and the Carter Family’s “Will You Miss Me”.
The album’s liveliest performance is Irwin’s reading of Johnny Paycheck’s 1977 top-10 country hit “I’m The Only Hell (My Mama Ever Raised)”, which was already a staple in the repertoire of the Unholy Trio, who supply accompaniment and “angelic vocals” on her rendition.
Irwin thought about sending a demo of it to her mom — who contributed the B&W cover photo for Switch as a Mother’s Day surprise, but decided not to risk an unfavorable reaction. As it transpires, there was no cause for concern. “It turned out to be her favorite song on the album…except she was insulted by the idea that someone might think she’d never raised any hell.”
Of course, now that Irwin is promoting Cut Yourself A Switch, Freakwater is finally resuming activity. The group recently played a handful of dates as part of Thrill Jockey’s tenth-anniversary celebrations, and though Irwin isn’t certain when the band plans to make another record, she swears it is in the cards. “We’ve been supposed to make a record for two years, but we just haven’t done it.”
Meanwhile, Irwin and Gay plan to make a series of short jaunts around the country this autumn and winter in support of Switch. “I think Dave’s goal is to never go back to the lawn mower shop,” she jokes. “He’s just planning on milking the cash cow of Cut Yourself A Switch.” Hey, it might pay off — people have staked their futures on crazier financial propositions.