The Freakwater heroine gives it her all on her recent solo album.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
If you’re wondering why seven years slipped by without new music from Catherine Irwin or Freakwater, part of the answer might be a little more visceral than you care to picture — turns out Irwin’s not real big on puking.
“I usually spend about two or three days just throwing up,” the 50-year-old Louisville native says of the days just prior to recording. “I just get so overwrought having to show people stuff that I’ve done. So I guess I try to limit the amount of throwing up I do by only making records every seven years!”
Irwin’s self-deprecating appreciation of human foibles provides the connective tissue that makes her songs so empathetic. But we know from Freakwater’s seminal catalogue and now Little Heater, her sublime second solo record, that these pre-recording barf sessions are mere neuroses manifest — the morning sickness of song-birth, if you like.
Frankly, for a songwriter who, in the finest tradition of old-time country, digs in the darkest corners of the human condition for narrative fodder, anxiety and nausea seem likely by-products. But Irwin seems well-equipped to undergo the dark journey; she’s got a sly sense of humor and employs it frequently and effectively both in conversation and song. She named the record not after a cold heart, say, or some poverty-stricken family disaster involving one of those constantly combusting portable electric heaters — nope, not those, and not a gun either.
She named it after her bird-dog’s propensity to warm Irwin up under the bed sheets in the winter. The gun idea was actually the basis for another title that, she says, her friends warned her off: “I wanted to call the record Minnie Pearl Handled Revolver, but I was advised against it,” she says.
She can laugh about it now, but the seven years between records were fitful and difficult for Irwin. She decided to try home-recording, which resulted, she says, in two wasted years. Another attempt with Virginia’s Black Twig Pickers didn’t bear fruit, either. Irwin says the home-recording experiment proved particularly unpleasant.
“Everybody I know knows how to make their own records in their bedrooms, and I thought, ‘I could do that — I can bring in an 11-year-old or somebody like that who could operate a computer,” Irwin says. “It turns out I really hated it, I didn’t enjoy it at all and it sounded like shit.”
You have to stack those experiences atop her normal trepidation going into a new recording. Combine that with the obsessive, years-long tinkering of a perfectionist, and the puking begins to make some sense.
“I have a hard time considering something to be completely finished,” says Irwin, who confesses she has paintings lying around that she’s worked on even longer than this record. “I’m just not very prolific or very fast at writing songs, and I tend to throw a lot of them out. If I even get close to making a record, then I start thinking that everything that I have can change. I think people should just come and take the thing away from you; it’s not really getting that much better after a certain point. I shouldn’t necessarily take six years to finish making a record. I don’t think, in terms of a career path, it’s a very smart way to proceed.”
But something changed when these 13 songs were put to tape under the guidance of Tara Jane O’Neil, another Louisville native; this time, Irwin actually enjoyed the recording process, which took place last spring in Woodstock, N.Y. Compared to the lean arrangements of her previous solo record, 2002’s Cut Yourself a Switch, prudent countrypolitan touches – Marc Orleans’ pedal steel, strings from members of Ida, and O’Neil’s backing vocals — ornament these songs of sin, loss, self-destruction and death.
“This is the first time that I ever made a record that when I went back to it and listened, it evoked pleasant memories for me of being in the studio,” she say. “It was fun, actually. That was new.”
Part of it was the musical camaraderie O’Neil fostered in the studio while occasionally frolicking in a kimono, or the day a pair of black poodles emerged from the forest nearby for a quick meal of freeze-dried liver the studio owners kept on hand. And part of it was Irwin good-naturedly faking her way through Orleans’ “nerdiak” pedal steel-player comparisons, and watching awestruck as Jean Cook multi-tracked her string parts on the fly into gorgeous flourishes.
Even Woodstock’s hippie iconography provided some unintended comfort for the ex-punk rocker Irwin.
“In Louisville, and Kentucky in general, there are all these people that we call Civil War re-enactors wandering around, they just look like extras from a post-Civil War era film about the collapse of the South,” Irwin says. “And in Woodstock there were a lot of hippie re-enactors sort of people. So I felt quite at home there because they look the same. Well, they all have beards, anyway.”
One of those Kentucky beardos, Will Oldham, paid back Irwin’s appearance on his 2001 Ease Down the Road LP by contributing back-up vocals to two Little Heater’s tracks. Oldham’s warble nestles snugly with Irwin’s lost-Carter-Family-member voice, and she loves singing with Oldham because he’s “very cooperative and interested in making the thing be the best thing it can.” But she’s also jealous of him, and another prolific songwriter, for their knack of knowing when a song is finished. That’s the place Irwin and her anxious stomach would like to occupy.
“You just don’t get the sense that Bob Dylan, especially now, goes back in and second-guesses himself a whole lot,” she says. “I could be completely wrong about that, but there seems to be a kind of spontaneity in the sense that the thing is going to make some sort of sense and it’s going to be right.”
The reality though is that Irwin sounded pretty “right” — as in natural — when Freakwater debuted in the late 80s, first under the monikers Penny and Jean and, later, Mojo Wishbean & Trippy Squashblossum. Irwin’s father was a fan of the Clancy Brothers and other Irish-based folk music, as well as Pete Seeger, and she says her first musical goal was simply to be like folkies Woody Guthrie or Ian & Sylvia. So the leap to the Appalachian traditions outside her door wasn’t difficult. In fact, Freakwater’s self-titled 1989 debut for Louisville-based Amoeba records initiated the 90s’ alt-country movement, largely because of Irwin’s seeming ease dovetailing old school country styles with the typical punk rock-bred kids’ concerns.
Without hearing the music to, say, “Family Tradition” off the first Freakwater record, you could easily read this poignant yet funny line coming from the Dickbrains, the punk rock band Irwin formed with her brother Alec prior to turning full-time to country music:
“I don’t drink very often, I almost never get stoned/Once I get started you’ll have to drive me home/My father is an alcoholic, my grandfather was too/And that’s why I’d better stay away from you.”
“I think probably the things are all true, what people say, that these two kinds of music are really similar: the relatively simple structure of the song, the scenes of despair and self-destruction that are kind of common to punk rock and country music,” Irwin says. “But I don’t really know what other kinds of music would have been available — it’s not like I could have just thought, ‘oh, I’m really interested in jazz, maybe I’ll play that instead’ because I wouldn’t have had the musical ability. So, realistically, if I had to say what led me, or a person, in that direction, it would be more based on musical knowledge, or ability to play one’s instrument. What other kind of music would you end up playing, unless you had like a gamelan or something? I didn’t have a harpsichord handy.”
It may not be the most difficult music to learn, but penning a moving and intelligent country song is another task altogether; listen to the drek on CMT today to hear just how many ways it can go wrong. But even though the music of Irwin and Freakwater wouldn’t sound out of place on Harry Smith’s anthologies, what really sets Irwin apart is the streak of modern humanity — achieved through leavening humour or a secularist’s grace (as on “Sinner Saves the Saint” on Little Heater) — that runs through her Southern gothic vein.
Irwin reminds us of our Christian duty to forgive — and learn from — the thieves and whores one moment (“We Must Also Love the Thieves”), and relishes revenge the next (“To Break Your Heart”); dichotomies like that don’t come off as mutually exclusive, but remind us of our capacity for good and evil. That ability to straddle our conflicting traits and see the humour in that or forgive it has earned Irwin kudos from songwriters across a gamut of styles and eras, Neko Case, Steve Earle and Randy Newman among them. Irwin remains stoic, claiming that any grand themes only appear in retrospect.
“I guess it’s not really a big surprise that I don’t have a big plan, the big picture is slightly out of focus for me,” she says. “When I’m actually doing the thing, I don’t really have any idea why I’m making certain decisions, and then later you look at it and think, ‘oh, that’s what I meant, I see. It does make sense.’ I think that if I’ve gotten better at anything in songwriting it’s trying not to edit things to death. I think I’ve gotten to be a little more abstract, lyrically, which I like. And things sort of seem to make sense to me later now when I hear the song back; ‘oh, I know what I was talking about.’”
As strong as Little Heater is, and as good as O’Neil and the others sound harmonizing and playing with Irwin, Freakwater fans want to know what that band’s status is. There have been one-off shows with Freakwater cohort Janet Beveridge Bean (who now works at a Chicago law firm) after 2005’s Thinking of You tours, and even a couple (fruitless) attempts at writing together. But now that’s this solo project has passed Irwin foresees the two collaborating sooner rather than later. She says her label boss, Thrill Jockey’s Bettina Richards, has asked for a new record.
“I’ve got more songs, and it’s really fun singing with Janet, and I miss doing that,” she says with affection, before needling her Freakwater partner one last time. “It’s just that everybody’s gotten really busy. And Janet has a really nice life, which I think is part of the problem (laughs). If I have to blame anybody, I’d have to blame Janet’s really nice life. Because I always used to say, ‘no one is allowed to get cable TV, because if anyone gets cable TV then we’ll never go play shows again because there won’t be any real appeal to staying in a hotel.’ Like if you can just watch Behind the Music at home, then why would we ever go out and play shows? I’m not saying that that’s the entire explanation, but Janet’s pretty happy right now. So she doesn’t have a lot of material to work with.”
[Photo Credit: Sarah Lyons]