Freakwater – Not your auntie’s skiffle band
But it’s not a trick, the way their voices meld together. At last, on Old Paint, they have settled into the pure, soaring sadness of Flatt & Scruggs or Bill Monroe, a kind of blue, mountain sense of harmony with roots in gospel songs and bagpipe sounds and singing away cold nights through thin walls. It’s something else, a way of being, maybe, but not something one exactly….learns. Born to, sometimes. And it’s probably no accident that there are fewer covers than usual on the new record. Feels Like the Third Time, their third outing, hints at this growing glory, particularly with the opener, “Drunk Friend,” but at last it has become a matter of instinct. Not trying, doing.
“Over the course of the 13 years we’ve been singing together, it’s come together,” Janet says. “It hasn’t been a chore, [but] obviously it took us a long time to figure out how to do it. It just gradually happened. I think once you sing together for that long, you just have an instinctive feel for where each other are going. Neither of us are musically trained. I just sing after she starts singing; it just happens.”
“It’s just sort of what happened,” Cathy says (and they’re not in the same room, finishing each other’s thoughts, but they could be), “because that’s just where my voice tends to go. Janet’s style of singing is pretty natural, but I think she has more options vocally than I do. She probably could do something else, whereas I don’t really have any choice.”
Cathy Irwin fell into music and painting at least in part as the result of a permissive upbringing and attending one of those educational experiments that cropped up in the ’70s. “My parents didn’t really listen to bluegrass music much,” she says, “but I went to kind of a hippie school, and there was a lot of Appalachian stuff [there]. This is kind of unrelated, but…well, my father’s from Northern Ireland, and I just found out that my aunt was in a skiffle band in the late ’50s. I guess I shouldn’t have squandered that now, because I was hoping to use that later in an interview when somebody asked me why we played this kind of music. I was going to say, ‘Because my aunt was in a skiffle band.'”
Irwin’s father is an Irish bagpipe player — well, in competitions? “No, incompetently,” she laughs, endlessly laughing. “We lived out in the middle of nowhere, so it was OK. It wasn’t OK for the people who had to live with him, but it wasn’t bothering anyone else. Keeping it in the family. I woke up many mornings to the sound of him playing bagpipes. That drone, I’ve always loved that droning thing.”
“I was more into your typical album rock,” says Janet. “Her father is Irish, and so I think he had some interest in the Clancy Brothers, and things like that. So she had more of a folk background than I did. That’s what led me to start listening to things like that. Then, she was a big Tammy Wynette fan, and I would listen to those things. I mean, I’d heard them, but I’d never really heard them in a way that I listened to them very much. Or was able to get past the scary stereotypes.”
Bean, her husband, and Eleventh Dream Day have been through the indie label wars (and had one brief fling with a major; Freakwater got more press then). Freakwater, in a smaller way, have followed suit, which is why their first two releases are as scarce as Jay Farrar quotes. “The fellow who put them out is out of Hollywood,” Janet says sadly. “He became very bitter toward the music business because he wasn’t getting paid what he should have from distributors. He just sort of shut down. He’s held the tapes, and he won’t give them to us, and he won’t put them out, he won’t do anything with him. I think he thinks he’s going to make a lot of money off of us or something at some point. Crazy, you know.
“We’ve offered him money in the past, but nothing’s ever really been satisfying for him. I think we might end up — since we never had a contract, and he never paid us a penny for any record we ever sold anyway — I think we probably have the right to remaster off the CD and re-release them. I think we’re looking to do that, but, it’s just a bad business-friend relationship.”
And, quite honestly, the Beans have had more important matters to attend to. This is how Janet lists the touring Freakwater: “Bob Egan, he’s the pedal steel/national/fiddle/mandolin player, and Dave Gay plays double bass, and Cathy and myself, and Matthew my son, and my sister who babysits.” See, Matthew — he’s almost four now — has had one of those baffling health problems that drives doctors nuts and scares parents something fierce. Eleventh Dream Day canceled their last tour, but the doctors seem to have figured it out, Matthew’s better and acting like a normal talkative toddler, and so Freakwater went out on the East Coast with Wilco, and expect to come West later.
“My mother says this is the record that’s going to do it for us, so I have to tour,” Janet says. “She’s lending me money on the promise that it’s going to be a success, so I have to go and do my best.”
Which is kind of just another bus to catch, isn’t it?