Freakwater on War Stories and the Power of Memory

Throughout its long career, irreverent humor and compassion for the human condition has been at the core of Freakwater's alternative country music. On its latest record, Scheherazade, its first album of new material since 2005's Thinking of You, founding members Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin explore modern myths and archetypes and the interconnectedness between narrative and memory. In titling the album after one of literature's most famous storytellers, Freakwater examines people's attempts to understand experience, to preserve fond memories and move past hurt.

Freakwater formed in 1989 in Louisville, Kentucky, when friends Bean and Irwin decided to make music together. Bean had been a member of rock band Eleventh Dream Day, an impressionistic-yet-urgent noisy dream-pop act, with future Tortoise guitarist Doug McCombs. Departing from Eleventh Dream Day, Freakwater was more overtly connected to folk and country, but its dissonant melodic structures ensured that it never fell fully in line with '90s Americana or alt-country.

Between their last two albums, Bean and Irwin have been busy with other projects, and thus Scheherazade feels born of a desire to articulate the complex relationship between memory, desire, aspiration and consciousness. The song “Memory Vendor” is especially effective in reflecting how all those threads weave together. The title of the song was borrowed from “In Her Absence I Created Her Image,” by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, from his 1995 book of poems, Memory for Forgetfulness, about the 1982 Lebanon War.

“It's a sad little song about the utter hell that people are living through now in the world,” says Bean. “The state of war that is everywhere now, and thinking about that in terms of children and the impact it has on you forever after that. How it changes you fundamentally as a person and how it affects your DNA. We've found out that fear is an inherited trait. Three generations of mice later freak out when they smell cherries [referring to a study about how mice could be conditioned to fear the smell of cherries]. So what happens to people in this state of war?”

“And the way that [stress] changes the structure of the babies' neural pathways,” adds Irwin.

Preparing for the tour, Irwin and Bean realized that older songs written during the buildup to and execution of the early part of the war in Iraq were still somehow relevant because the conflict persists and has not passed into memory.

In recording Scheherazade, Bean, Irwin and bass player Dave Gay recruited friends and past collaborators to bring vivid imagery to life. Warren Ellis of Dirty Three and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds provided flute and fiddle. Evan Patterson, formerly of hardcore band Breather Resist and now of Young Widows and Jaye Jayle, the opening act for the current Freakwater tour, played guitar. Sarah Balliet of Murder by Death contributed cello parts, and Morgan Geer of Drunken Prayer also performed electric guitar on the record. While that complete lineup won't be on the tour, Ellis may join Freakwater on select European dates. What you can expect, though, is a performance in which Irwin and Bean won't skimp on amusing anecdotes between songs that are both thought-provoking and filled with warmth toward fellow humans. Connection, after all, is crucial to Freakwater's music. At heart, Irwin and Bean feel their music could easily have mainstream appeal.

“A friend of ours said, 'Why don't you try to write music people might actually like?'” says Irwin. “And this is what we come up with. We can't do anything except what we do. In our minds, we think this might be some form of popular music.”

“It's not like we're saying, 'Fuck you, we're doing this or that,'” points out Bean. “We actually think that's what we're doing, and Kenny Chesney's going to want to cover it. But somehow it doesn't happen. Then we're dumbfounded and can't make a record for ten years.”

Freakwater, with Jaye Jayle
8 p.m. Tuesday, February 23, $12-$15, Walnut Room, 303-295-1868

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.