Freaky Folk: An Interview with Freakwater

Freakwater_Duo_2015_Edward_NearyRooted around strong vocal harmonies, a pop sensibility and a penchant for just writing what comes from their souls, Freakwater is a band that has seen its way around the industry landscape for a while and learned a thing or two. “After 30 years together, Catherine and Janet’s unflinching lyrics and compelling vocal harmonies can stab you in the heart from a mile away. There is a powerful continuity to their work but the band has never been constrained by any musical category. There is no band like Freakwater but Freakwater.”…A truer statement probably couldn’t be conjured up. There is just something you learn and adapt to in performing with someone for a duration of time that Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean can appreciate and capitalize on like very few artists can do in this day and age.

I was fortunate enough to ask the two singer-songwriters from Freakwater about the history of the band, what it means to them to have performed music together for nearly 3 decades and the community aspects and excitement around their performance at the Newport Folk Festival this July. Check it out…

RLR: For folks who may not be as familiar with your music how would you sum up your sound in a short phrase? Who is Freakwater?

Janet: Freakwater is the sound of hope being destroyed, at least when we’re doing it right. Because, only when you do away with the nonsense of hope can anything be achieved.

Catherine: I think we might fit in the Doom Country bin.

RLR: The band has a rich history going back to the late 80s, coming up, cutting your teeth, open mic and dives and the like. How have you found the state of folk or roots or country or americana music (however you want to slice it) has evolved in that time? Do you think in present day that the branches of the Americana tree have grown stronger with time? You all really started this alt- country/americana music trend before it even had those monikers.

Janet: We actually didn’t do much open mic stuff, just our first time on stage together, which was at a strip club by day, and then that was it. It was far too traumatic, the singing part that is.  All music, at least live music is always churning, evolving, devolving, buttoning up, unraveling . There currently seem to be an endless number of branches to the folk tree, but that doesn’t mean the tree is stronger. Sometimes I think some pruning might make things healthier, but maybe I am totally wrong. Tags for folk bring up endless classifiers: psychfolk, acidfolk, progressive folk, intuitive folk, pagan folk, folktronica. I don’t know, is “progressive folk” the folk equivalent of prog rock or is it progressive politically? I fear it’s the former. I bet if Safe as Milk by Captain Beefheart was released this year the metadata tags would probably list it as folk, maybe prog folk. It’s all a bit bonkers, but time is an effective hoe and whatever you want to call it folk, roots, country, Americana, folktronica whatever it is today will overturned and that’s all fine.

Catherine: To our minds and ears there isn’t anything “Alternative” about Freakwater. We really have no alternative. I think we are playing “Pop music” that just isn’t very popular. We are just doing what sounds right to us.

RLR: As you head into the summer and inevitably July at Fort Adams for Newport Folk Festival, I would imagine anyone with a foot in the river that is folk music would be excited. A bit part of what Newport stands for is this “community” or family kind of a vibe. Hailing from Kentucky (and Chicago?), did you experience anything similar in the music community that you came up in? Care to share any sort of memories or lessons you learned from earlier days in your career?

Catherine: The copy of “1963 Blues At Newport” my brother got when we were in kids looks like it’s been run over by a monster-truck. I can recite Pete Seeger’s introduction of Mississippi John Hurt by heart. The Reverend Gary Davis and John Lee Hooker really exploded our little punk rock minds. I’m definitely very excited about playing at the Newport Folk Festival. I’m going to get all the Freakwaters watch “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” the 1958 documentary before we get to up there. Louisville, Kentucky (where I live) has a very cooperative musical community. When was growing up everyone I knew was in a band. It still like that. People work really hard contributing to each other’s projects — even though there is almost never any money involved.

Janet: I suppose what I have learned over my time in music is to laugh at the absurdity of it all and let the story unfold slowly. If your goal is to be famous for most people it’s gonna be a rough, depressing journey, but if it is simply to be making music that satisfies you personally then you can do it forever. While Chicago is not home to such a world famous folk festival as Newport it’s music community is vibrant, complex, nurturing and highly cross-pollinated. Musicians by nature seem to be communal species. One of the best things for me being a musician is the way it opens up my world. Musicians pull into a town and they look for other musicians. Musicians open up their homes to other traveling musicians. We are often nomadic creatures looking for a merry band of co-conspirators. As a general rule I don’t think this is as common for writers or visual artists. Maybe this is because their mediums are primarily solo endeavors. Musicians seek and create community and Chicago has one of the strongest musical communities I’ve ever known.

RLR: You all certainly have your feet firmly planted in the soil where roots and folk music flourish. With the rich vocal harmonies being evocative of Carter family songs and more and comparisons that cross genres and moments in time. Was there a specific record or artist (or a few) that really had an impact on you in your formative years? What made you make that call that “this is what I have to do” (create music and songs and art)?

Janet: Catherine and I have a pretty idiosyncratic style of harmonizing, some may feel we’re not harmonizing. What we’re doing is each singing the song as if our lives depended on it. Sometimes Catherine is pulling me up into the lifeboat and other times I’m pulling her into the lifeboat. Sometimes we’re just laying back together in the life boat worrying about dehydration and then next we’re imagining what it would be like if we threw the other into the deep. Singing with Catherine is a beautifully existential experience. My most favorite part of Freakwater is when our voices give birth to this strange shape-shifting third voice that jumps out like the Alien jumps out of Sigourney Weaver’s chest. I am not sure what precedents there are for what we do, but I guess if I had to pick one it would be The Carter Family, although odd as it may sound for me Neil Young’s voice was one that I took as a model when I was about 16. His voice weighed me low in the best way. People have often suggested my vocal warble is Emmylou influenced. I love her and all, but it’s really all from Neil. To answer the last part of the question; I don’t know if I ever had a moment of thinking “this is what I have to do.” I started playing music in bars when I was 16 so I could get in the bars. So I guess that moment must have been when I turned 21 and I could get into bars without being in the band, but the band kept going.

Catherine: Well, I can’t possibly improve on Janet’s description of us singing together! Vocal harmonies are my favorite thing — two dozen Mary Ford’s stacked up on top of each other, the Everly Brothers, Fleetwood Mac — singing is always what draws me into a song. I am a huge Carter Family freak. It is an honor to be compared to them. Woody Guthrie caused me to want to play music. Like a lot of people I really just wanted to be Woody Guthrie.

RLR: If you could choose anyone, who do you wish you could collaborate with? Still with us or passed on, no rules.

Janet: Johnny Cash, Burt Bacharach, Led Zeppelin, P.J. Harvey, Leonard Cohen there are others, but it would be too dangerous to collaborate with certain titans like George Jones, Hazel Dickens, Bob Dylan or The Carter Family because if it turned out badly and they hated us, or they were real mean it would be too devastating.

Catherine: Yeah, I don’t know about collaborating with my musical idols. I’m likely to just freak out in a situation like that. Once I snuck into a party where Hazel Dickens was singing. She wanted me to sing and I really couldn’t. I was so petrified. She thought that was hilarious and was laughing her head off about it. Hazel Dickens making fun of me was the best thing ever.

RLR: Keeping on that collaborative theme (and given the very collaborative nature of festivals like Newport), do you find that you enjoy that piece of performing? Bands evolve and change and the core typically remains the same. I could see Freak water as a duo or the large outfit I expect we will all experience at Fort Adams. What is your favorite way to perform? Do you find that you feed off the energy of other artists when you are joined on stage? Of the acts already announced for NFF who would you love to pull up on stage during your own set?

Janet: My favorite way to perform…hummm.. I guess it depends on the songs. Right now the big band is truly a bunch of fun, but even with the big band Catherine and I do some tunes striped down with just the 2 of us. All of our records have a song or two that’s just Catherine and I. We have never made a full record with just the two of us and no other instrumentation. I think that should be next on the list! To answer your last question; we are remarkably incapable of jamming or doing the hootenanny thing. When it looks like group fun is about to happen we recoil like a couple of Axolotl’s to sunlight, but in the spirit of the collaborative theme it would most assuredly be Patti Smith because she is a God and we could actually play Gloria because it’s not so different from a Freakwater song just a 1, 4, 5 in E and that’s how we like to keep a tune.

Catherine: I love it when Janet and I have exactly the same answer! Patti Smith, absolutely — Gloria or Ghost Dance. I saw her in a Japanese restaurant in Austin. When she left I went over and sat in her chair. I faked like I was tying my shoe.

RLR: What does the rest of 2016 look like for the band? Shamelessly plug away!

Janet: We have a European tour beginning September 19th we are very excited about and if we survive that we will keep on plowing the fields of Freakwater until it’s time to let the field rest for a bit. We are famously and shamelessly, because we’ve got shame covered through other failings, without goals.

Catherine: Hmmmm. That’s a bit confusing. Yeah, we are going to Europe in the fall. That’s going to be so great. When we get home from that tour we’re going to work on the Freakons record. The Freakons are a project we are doing with our friends the Mekons. It’s been in the works for a while. Freakons are going to be epic! That’s a kinda shameless plug. Janet: oh yes, the Frekons!! I will shamelessly spread the word about the FREKONS because we shall rule the world, or at least the nearest local bar to any stage that will have us!