Freakwater – Not your auntie’s skiffle band
When what you have studied leaves your mind entirely, and practice also disappears, then when you perform whatever art you are engaged in, you accomplish the techniques easily, without being concerned over what you have practiced. This is spontaneously conforming without being aware that you are doing so.
— Yagyu Munenori, 17th-century Japanese zen swordsman,
Book on Family Traditions in the Art of War
Maybe money can’t buy everything
It looks like I’m never gonna to know for sure
Maybe money can’t buy happiness,
Well neither can just being poor
— Catherine Irwin
Most of us — the ones with jobs, anyway — get so tired it’s some kind of miracle the day ever comes to an end. Wrung out, worn down, clinging to weekends like a broken oar amid whitecaps. Freakwater have written a whole batch of songs for their fourth long-player, Old Paint, that seem to be about waking up the next morning and catching the bus to work.
“Uh, I’m pretty old,” Catherine Irwin starts off, with no evident irony. “That may have something to do with it. I’m 33. I don’t have a whole lot to say as far as perky young people go. I mean, I don’t hold it against them, but I don’t really want to hang around with them, either.” This is all punctuated with a series of dry chuckles and sips of morning coffee, all cloaked in the comfort of an anonymous hotel room with a stranger on the phone. But she sang eight months earlier, less guarded: “All your beauty will be stolen/by a young girl in the night/A thief as quiet as a dark cloud/that’s stolen away the moonlight” on the opening track. “I wasn’t drinking to forget/I was drinking to remember/how I once might have looked/through the eyes of a stranger” — that’s how the song opens.
And so while Old Paint is many things — first and foremost a gorgeous record — it will do also for a sustained meditation on the art of aging in a time of declining expectations. These are songs about enduring, about finding peace amid ruin and suspended grace. Unintended, yes, but Old Paint is about as close to a concept album (even down to covers like Woody Guthrie’s “Little Black Train”) as country might wisely come. “You were waiting for your chance/it wasn’t coming/You were waiting for your chance/it finally came….Did they know you were the ones/who hated evil more than pain?”
Actually, Cathy writes the songs, Janet Beveridge Bean arranges them. Then they weave their voices around the melody, shag some friends into the studio and make a record, pretty much because they damn well feel like it. That’s four discs in 13 years of singing together. Plus the odd compilation track, and three cuts on the impossibly out-of-print Keep On the Sunny Side: A tribute to the Carter Family. And lives, these two have lives.
Janet plays drums and sings with her husband, Rick, in Eleventh Dream Day. Their bass player doubles in Tortoise, just to add another layer of complication. Janet and Rick also have a four-year-old son and have settled in Chicago, where Rick’s now back in college. Cathy paints things, in order of preference: canvases, sets, houses (“it just depends on the size of the paintbrush”). And she still lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where Freakwater properly began.
“The first time I remember seeing Cathy,” Janet laughs, “she was on my street wearing some crazy kind of long, fancy coat. I was probably 13. She used to hang out with the girl at the end of the street who I was terrified of, so I didn’t go anywhere near them. Later on I saw her when I was about 17 at a Circle X show — they were sort of an art band from Louisville who moved to New York — and we met. She fell down laughing when I told her my name, and we were friends ever since.”
“She got kicked out of her parents’ house and came to sleep on my floor” — that’s Cathy’s short version of a long story. They started singing together “because she said she would,” Irwin says, wonder still in the telling. “I don’t think anybody else wanted to, and she did, and she had a really nice voice, so I tricked her into doing it.”