THOUGH FREAKWATER IS perhaps best known for the sparse, ghostly harmonies of Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin, the band’s elusive presence has been nearly spectral in the last decade. After releasing six stunning albums in the ‘90s, beginning with a breakthrough eponymous debut in 1989, Bean and Irwin took an extended hiatus. There was no break-up, just a break, and both singers released solo albums, followed by a collaboration with the like-minded Califone in 2005.
But Irwin plays out sometimes, mostly in her hometown, and rarely but occasionally elsewhere. She has performed regularly with fellow-Louisville resident Will Oldham, and with her friend Michael O’Bannon. Monday, November 15, Irwin will stop by Delilah’s on Cayuga (formerly WildFire) for her first appearance in Ithaca.
Irwin’s visit town comes on the heels of a stop by a Harry Smith festival. Smith, the archivist most famous for the Anthology of American Folk Music, is a kindred spirit with Irwin, who collects and transforms songs from our country’s past.
“I choose songs that I like first and foremost, and songs that haven’t been heard too much before,” Irwin said from her home last week. “I try to find songs that don’t talk about Jesus. That’s been a big quest in the world of Freakwater, because it is hard to avoid Christianity in North American folk music, but I try to. So sometimes there are covers that I might want to do, but I won’t because it has an overtly Christian message. Sometimes in Freakwater we’ll change the word God to buddy. Jesus also will become buddy.”
Cut Yourself a Switch, Irwin’s 2002 solo recording contains covers by Merle Haggard and Roger Miller, but Freakwater was also famous for its covers: Loudon Wainwright’s “Out of this World” for instance, is among the darkest and spookiest songs of the 90s.
Freakwater always defied easy categorization. A freak folk group before the label existed, the band continued in the tradition of Americana while brining the spirit of spacey rock influenced by the Velvet Underground. Irwin’s songs about death and dying compliment the Emmylou-esque offering of her partner’s singing.
“Janet [Bean] would say that [my songs] are possibly too sick or too personal or depressing,” Irwin added. ”People don’t necessarily take in all of the implications of a song that I’ve written.”