Louisville Lip: An Interview with Catherine Irwin

By Neil deMause

Catherine Irwin on stage is a sight to see. She scowls, she grimaces. She fiddles with her guitar, brushes back a strand of unruly hair. She begins to tell a joke or a story, often prefaced by an apology for being no good at telling jokes or stories - as if by way of example, it often ends with no punchline. If she's performing with Freakwater, the alt-country duo for which she's best known (when she's known at all), she will look over uncomfortably at her singing partner Janet Bean, hoping against hope for a way out. She'll pause, and in her Kentucky twang murmur, "Well..."

And then the two of them will burst into such remarkable harmonies that all else will drop by the wayside. Freakwater's instrumentation is usually minimal - Bean strumming, Irwin picking, habitual bassist David Wayne Gay dourly thumping along, whatever sidemen they've accumulated adding perhaps pedal steel or fiddle, whatever's available at the moment - but it's the voices that can transport you to another world. If sorrow can be a joyous thing, then Freakwater's music is the place to find it.

According to band legend, Catherine Ann Irwin first met Janet Beveridge Bean at a Louisville punk show in the early '80s; when Catherine heard Janet's full name she promptly busted out laughing, and a lifelong bond was formed. It wasn't long after that the two friends began singing as a guitar-playing duo, first on country and folk classics (heavy on what they'd call "dead baby songs," like "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake"), and soon on their own original compositions. If the voices - Irwin's heartsick yowl intercut with Bean's sweet keening high harmonies - were immediately striking on first listen, on second and fifth and tenth listen it was the lyrics that drew attention: there are plenty of country songs about death and loss, after all, but how many culminate in a chorus that proclaims, as did "Gone to Stay" on the 1995 album "Old Paint," that "there's nothing so pure as the kindness of an atheist"?

The pair kept up the collaboration in their spare time, practicing harmonies on the long-distance phone lines after Bean relocated to Chicago with then-husband Rick Rizzo, starting the indie-rock band Eleventh Dream Day. (Irwin stayed behind in Louisville, painting both houses and canvases; her paintings adorn the covers of three Freakwater albums.) After more than a decade of sporadic recording, they hit their arguable pinnacle with their 1997 album "Springtime," an achingly beautiful mosaic of mournful ballads and up-tempo folk songs, lyrically thick with triple-entendres and political import: songs about Muhammad Ali's famed dunking of his Olympic medal into the Ohio River after being refused service at a local restaurant ("Louisville Lip"); about the lingering legacy of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. ("Lorraine"); and about the lures and snares of late capitalism, where "false hope is the seed in the fields of greed that we must plow, and even one big union won't help us now"("One Big Union"). Needless to say, a pair of women from Louisville harmonizing about the Wobblies while backed by an all-acoustic band (Freakwater wouldn't add a full-time drummer until 1999's "Endtime," and would abandon the idea just as quickly), occasionally pausing to tell rambling stories or cornball jokes - let's just say it's not a likely ticket to success on either Top 40 or the Grand Old Opry.

In any case, all hope of music-industry riches probably ended with the Steve Earle Incident. Earle, the country bad boy-turned-music-impresario, had recently started E-Squared, one of the major-spawned "indie" labels then springing up like crabgrass (this one an affiliate of Warner Bros). Earle wanted to sign Freakwater, but on the condition that they jettison Gay and their other Louisville bandmates for more accomplished studio musicians. The pair kept their pride, but lost their shot at mainstream stardom. As Irwin would later tell the Chicago Reader: "I started thinking how I'll be living in a cardboard box, ranting constantly and disturbing all my little box friends by talking about the day we marched into the Time-Warner building and said, 'I don't need your goddamned money!' and everybody would be moving their cartons away from me, thinking, 'There's that woman with that weird Warner Brothers fixation.'"

Though they've steered clear of the cardboard box so far, Freakwater has remained a part-time gig for both, playing only occasional shows in recent years, mostly around Louisville and Chicago. In the last year, they each broke their musical hiatus with the release of a pair of solo albums: Bean's "Glass of a Stranger" is a richly instrumented pastiche of piano ballads and jazzy folk-pop songs, while Irwin's "Cut Yourself A Switch" is even sparer and darker than the average Freakwater album, with its centerpiece a tale of a Louisville girl's funeral (a teenager this time, at least, instead of a baby) entitled "Cry Our Little Eyes Out."

After the release of "Cut Yourself A Switch," Irwin embarked on her first-ever solo tour of the U.S., lugging along only a guitar, a banjo, and perpetual foil Dave Gay. The two sat for an interview with HERE in the basement of Southpaw, a former 99-cent-store-turned-nightclub in Brooklyn's rapidly gentrifying Park Slope neighborhood. -Neil deMause

CI: So what do you want to talk about?

Well, the nice thing about having my own magazine is we can talk about anything. So we can talk about music, we can talk about politics, we can talk about the Amish...

CI: That was so great when we played in Philadelphia. Because at first I thought, oh god, I hope I don't start talking about the Amish. They might be proud of their little freakish cult that lives in their state.

Have you had bad experiences with the Amish?

CI: I just feel like they're really creepy. I think they're a bunch of tax evading child molesters, basically.

DG: You know, the tape's rolling.

CI: I don't have anything good to say about the Amish. And I was hoping that I wouldn't talk about them, but then I did. And then it was really funny, because I was just yelling this stuff about the Amish from the stage. And I said, "Does anyone else hate the Amish?" And people were "Yes! I hate the Amish!" And then they came up to me after the show and said, "I hope it was okay that I said I hated the Amish." Cause some people felt good and wanted to tell me, and other people were worried that it was some sort of a trick. Then when I told them it was okay, they were really relieved.

Because sometimes I just can't stop talking, and I have no idea what I'm going to say. I'm always really sleepy, all I ever want to do is sleep. And the last time Freakwater played in New York, I said something about how I thought I had Lyme disease. I don't think I said I thought I had Lyme disease, I think I said I did have Lyme disease.

And afterwards, this woman came up to me, and said that she had Lyme disease. And she said, "I'm so glad you said that, because I have Lyme disease too, and no one ever takes it seriously. They make fun of me." That was really awkward.

But as Jim White said [earlier, during soundcheck], part of your act is you're selling your wacky personalities.

CI: I'm not really trying to. Just sometimes I get started telling some sort of story, and then I feel like the more I talk, the deeper I dig myself into some sort of pit.

So how's the solo tour going?

CI: It's been going okay. We played a bunch of shows with Neko Case, and that was really nice. And then we played with the Smog guy the other night, in Milwaukee. It's kind of weird to get used to. I think my insane babbling is even more so, because there's no one there to stop me, because Dave's not allowed to have a microphone. Janet's not standing there looking at her watch and giving me hateful looks.

Why isn't Dave allowed to have a microphone?

CI: I just think that would be a whole new world of trouble.

So some of these songs were originally supposed to wind up on the next Freakwater record?

CI: Not really. We were supposed to make a Freakwater record last year. And I have a bunch of songs for the Freakwater record, and we haven't done that yet, and then I had other songs that seemed like they'd be okay for me to do by myself. Then I did a bunch of cover songs on the record, too, because it just too many songs by me in a row, I couldn't stand it. So I thought it'd be good to break it up with other people's songs. It seemed like it worked out kinda well. The flow of the record seems pretty good.

But we were supposed to make a Freakwater record for the last year and a half, and hopefully we'll do it this year. [Editor's note: At press time, Freakwater was scheduled to go into the studio to record in the fall.] It would be nice. Things have gotten complicated as far as people's lives are concerned, and it's just hard to get away and go play shows and stuff. Janet has a job and she has a son, and so she needs a certain amount of income. And I'm kind of... aimless. And it kind of got to a point where if we didn't do something pretty soon I was going to have to get a job, and I really didn't want that to happen.

I just kind of thought, well, maybe if we made a record, I could get away with another year of slacking. Driving from one town to the next and getting free sandwiches.

I'm always curious about how musicians make ends meet.

CI: It's pretty ugly. It's only possible for me just barely because I don't have any worldly goods, really. It's always possible for me not to make any money just because I've never made any money.

Is that something you still aspire to?

CI: I've never aspired to not making money.

No, no, no, making money.

CI: It's dirty! I don't even like to touch it!

No, I would like to. I know my mom would feel better if I had health insurance. It seems pretty unlikely. I mean, for a while I was thinking of trying to become governor of Kentucky, and then that just sort of fell through.

DG: It's not over.

CI: It's not over. Especially now, because Paul Patton, our governor, is in a lot of trouble. He was having an extramarital affair with this woman that ran a nursing home. And then she left him, and then he sent the state nursing home inspectors. It's a huge scandal, he's pretty much dead. So it's my time. If we hadn't done this record now--

DG: You'd be on the campaign trail.

CI: I'd have one foot in the gubernatorial mansion.

I have to say, never having been to Louisville, I have a very strange image of it, given that I associate it with you guys, Muhammad Ali, and Hunter S. Thompson.

CI: That would create a very strange picture. Of those three people, I don't know who is the most popular in Louisville. I don't think they really give a damn about any of those three people that you mentioned. I mean, I wish people spent more time thinking about Muhammad Ali than they do.

Aren't they building some kind of Muhammad Ali Center?

CI: They are. They've been talking about that for the last 40 years or something.

I mean, they named a street after him, and this white person's social club actually changed their address. The street used to be called Chestnut Street, and they changed that street to Muhammad Ali, and the people actually moved their address to the alley, so that they wouldn't have to have their street address on Muhammad Ali.

So he's not as huge a deal there as you would think. Or Hunter S. Thompson. Or me.

Until the gubernatorial race.

DG: Ned Beatty.

CI: Ned Beatty. Is he from Louisville?

DG: I know this from you. Maybe it's one of those things you make up.

CI: No, he's from Kentucky. I think he's from Louisville.

So how did you get to be doing this kind of music? It wasn't the kind of music that everybody was doing in the '80s in Louisville, right?

CI: No, not really. But I guess everybody that I knew was in a band. Like a rock 'n' roll band - I don't even know if you can call it rock 'n' roll because that sounds too ... perky. But my brother and I were in a little folk band, and we always played Woody Guthrie songs. And then we wrote little songs about how much we hated high school and stuff, and we had electric guitars.

I guess I ended up writing my own songs just because I couldn't figure out how anybody else's songs went. I was never that kind of good guitar player that could just listen to a Heart song and figure out how they were doing it. So I'd end up writing my own songs because it was easier that way. And then Janet and I started singing together, and we both had been interested in country music. My favorite thing is vocal harmony singing: the Davis Sisters, or George and Tammy. And what's actually fun for me to do is to sing with other people, which is the downside of this record. It's just an awful lot of me.

When I started playing with Janet, we were playing a lot of standard country songs. And I just ended up writing more and more songs, because it seemed like it was easier than figuring out other people's songs. Plus, other people's songs weren't necessarily about me.

Well, not all your songs are about you.

CI: This Bob Dylan song is obviously somewhat about me! Maybe not entirely. 'Cause he never calls.

Did you see the review of your record in Pulse: "Irwin's songs have the resilient sense of place that makes it hard to imagine these were concocted from within her contemporary life, and not dug up from beneath some old tree."

CI: I know, isn't that nice?

It's this mixed compliment: It's good in that it sounds like this old-time stuff that the Carter Family would have been playing. But then complimenting it by saying, wow, it doesn't even sound like you wrote it!

CI: Yeah, I'm gonna be found out.

To have that authenticity you have to be dead, basically.

CI: The whole issue of authenticity is really just a music writer's invention to me. I mean, I don't even know what people mean. Do people think that when they hear "Under My Thumb" or something?

DG: You know what it means. Like, Little Richard vs. Pat Boone doing "Tutti Frutti."

CI: Well, Little Richard wrote that song. But when you hear just a normal person singing a song, like a Rolling Stones song, you don't think, "Did he really meet a gin-soaked barroom queen in Memphis?" Is that authentic? Did he really do that or is he just making that up? It's really weird the way that some people get ragged on for authenticity and then other people don't.

Do you think that plays into the way people take your music?

CI: Usually, we kind of alternate between being accused of being authentic and accused of being - when we were making this "Cut Yourself A Switch" record, somebody wrote a piece that said, "You know, it sounds authentic, and yet you know that Irwin probably ran over to Starbucks in between takes of the song and slurped down a triple latte while she talked to her friends on her cellphone."

First of all: I have no friends.

DG: Your phone got cut off.

CI: I have a $300 cellphone bill, and it's been turned off since May. It's such a lie!

I don't know. I feel like we're being accused of something I never even was trying to get away with in the first place. I never pretended that I was riding to Chicago on horseback or something.

DG: Even the Carter Family was part of the folk revival, back when they were doing that, right? They were part of a revival.

CI: They were part of basically swiping stuff from people who knew less about copyright laws than they did. They were exploiters of the less literate.

Authenticity, I don't know. I think a lot of terrible things happen to most people. But I don't really feel like I have to ask someone, "Did that terrible thing really happen to you?" I guess I could understand if I was writing a song from a perspective of a coal miner or something. That would probably really get on my nerves if somebody else was doing that. But at the same time, people like Bruce Springsteen are talented at doing that. I mean, he can write an excellent song that's pretty fiction-based. Unless he's got a very very strange life.

Between tours, he's off undercover.

CI: He's living in Allentown between tours. And he's got some sort of dental appliance that he puts in, and goes undercover. He probably could arrange that. Get me on the line at the Ford plant, or something.

So what would you do as governor of Kentucky?

CI: Well... I would get health insurance for myself and my family. I'd do a lot of good works. I'd support the arts. I'd be like a Ralph Nader.

I remember somewhere where you were quoted as saying, "Don't get me started on my ideas about redistribution of income." So feel free - the Amish, redistribution of income...

CI: The Amish, we can pretty much have their stuff, as far as I'm concerned. I mean, that's a couple states away, we're not contiguous with Pennsylvania, so we'd need a little incursion into their territory. Because they've got a lot of really nice shit up there.

Well, that'd be a popular platform in Kentucky. Not having any Amish, it's like running for president of the United States against Iraq.

CI: It's similar. They're plotting something!

They don't let our inspectors in.

CI: I'd just like to get in there and have a look around, really. They just keep saying no.

Those people are such freaks. They don't even have buttons. Is that true? Or did I make that up?

But seriously, how important is politics to you? Certainly I'm always impressed by how you address it in your songs.

CI: I'm obsessed by it. My mother and my brother are extreme do-gooders. My brother is busily working to get more funding for AIDS drugs, and going to Haiti and South Africa and just spreading good all around. And my mother is a do-gooder in Louisville - she works for this interfaith religious organization where she basically gets to eat food from all the different people who hate each other. Israelis, come over, we'll eat! Palestinians, mm, so delicious!

Does your family like your music?

CI: My mom's a big Freakwater freak. There's a Freakwater website that this girl was running for a while, and my mom actually went on there to correct some lyrics. She's pretty hard-core.

It seems like it's almost easier to be political through music right now than it is in the greater world.

CI: Especially if it's something people have to read. Sorry to say that to the magazine guy.

You don't have to tell me. One of the reasons I do a zine is because there's not a lot of places that want an article of more than a thousand words.

CI: Unless you could print it on a naked lady.

I realized recently that your song "One Big Union" and Tom Tomorrow cartoons were two of my more important touchstones on the state of the world today.

CI: Yeah, I'm a huge Wobbly fan. I love those people.

Have you ever been in touch with the current Wobblies?

CI: You know, they sent me some really nice stickers a while back, and I lost the envelope. I was carrying this stuff around because I was so excited about it - "ooh, look what came in the mail from reds!" And I carried it around for three months, showing it to people, and then I lost it.

It's really interesting, because the audiences that we play in front of, I don't know how much politics people really take, but I try to beat people over the head with it as much as I think I can. I plan to continue that.

It's hard. It's really hard to write political songs. It can so easily turn terribly wrong. There's certainly plenty of that around. As a fiendish NPR listener, I'm aware that it's easy to be heavy-handed, particularly about something that you're really passionate about. That's like the worst tragedy, when you can tell that somebody is really concerned about Superfund sites or something, and then they try to write a song about it. And it could end up being much better as a letter to the editor.

I guess nobody needs to look too far about something to get either incredibly pissed off or just despondent about. The way that the government and the country are headed, they're certainly not trying to make me happy. It's not that they're thinking: "Hmm, little girl from Kentucky, why so sad? Why you think so often of death?" They're not thinking of me, and what would make me feel like perhaps things are looking up - less starving people or less petroleum-coated otters. Just everything's awful, and it's just more and more awful. The people that really are concerned about it, their heads must be beaten to a pulp from pounding them against the wall.

So what keeps you from feeling like you're beating your head against a wall?

CI: Well, I don't think I can. There's just a sense of outrage that's just a little bit ... aerobic or something. Everything's just awful, but I don't know what else I would do musically, really. If I was younger, and I was just learning how to play guitar, this would be a really excellent time for really hateful punk rock.

It's always kind of funny to me, these questions about the themes in country music, because I guess they just don't seem that different to me than the themes in any popular music. Maybe it's because the lyrics are so much more prominent, and so much easier to understand because of the way the records are produced - it's more story-oriented. But a lot of Black Sabbath songs, aren't they talking about death? More babes, but also death. I mean, Led Zeppelin: elves, and death. Trade unions and elves. Stuff like that. It's all grim.

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For more on Catherine Irwin, visit the Freakwater fan site at www.freakwater.net

Photo by Jim Newberry