Freakwater is calling from a tire shop somewhere between Ann Arbor and Cleveland. Janet Beveridge Bean is sitting in the band's nine-person van, while Catherine Irwin is in the waiting room. The band's singer/guitarist co-founders are experiencing troubles with their vehicle.
"The van says that it has seven starts remaining, and we were just curious to know what that meant," Bean says. "And the check engine light came on."
To paraphrase AC/DC's sage advice: It's a long way to the top if you want to play Appalachian-style murder ballads.
The Louisville/Chicago group is currently touring behind Scheherazade, its first album in more than a decade. The last Freakwater album came out in 2005; the one before that dates back to 1999. So the obvious first question: What brought them back together now?
"Well, Catherine was trying to stage a campaign for governor of Kentucky," Bean deadpans. "And I, in turn, was working on my campaign to be the people's princess. Neither of those panned out."
"We've been playing shows the whole time and working on our various campaigns," Irwin agrees. "We're never not playing together. We're just really slow about making a record. I guess ten years is as long as you'd want it to be, since I've got at least a foot in the grave."
In fact, Bean and Irwin — the nucleus of Freakwater, along with bassist David Gay — have been busy with other projects. Bean's best-known band, Eleventh Dream Day, released its latest album Works for Tomorrow in 2015, and she's also been involved with Chicago act the Horse's Ha. Irwin released two solo albums in the meantime, with her most recent, Little Heater, dropping in 2012.
"We just have to decide at some point that we're going to do it," Irwin says. "I think we both really respond well to deadlines. No one's really in charge of the Freakwater machine."
Scheherazade finds the group broadening its sound. The album was recorded in Louisville instead of Chicago — a Freakwater first — and the core members sought input from an expanded lineup, including Morgan Geer of Drunken Prayer (also in the touring band) and Warren Ellis of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
"We just decided we wanted to do it differently," Bean explains. "We rehearsed with these guys, and it's the first time we've done that — we always just brought friends in the studio. And we were going into a studio with lots of big, beautiful plate reverb, and we wanted to take advantage of that. So that's the big, roomy sound. Catherine and I love a lot of 1970s Nashville records, so I think we were trying to capture that."
No matter how long between records, however, Freakwater's sound is instantly, achingly familiar. In particular, Irwin's deep, smoky vocals intertwine so well with Bean's high harmonies that you would be forgiven for thinking they were a sibling act.
"It's like a family band in that we've been doing it forever," Bean acknowledges. "We started when we were sixteen or seventeen."
"We both played in punk bands, but we were singing classic country songs together," Irwin adds.
As usual for Freakwater, Scheherazade's songs are full of darkness, thwarted love and death. The very first track, "What the People Want," is based on a story Irwin heard on NPR about a woman being raped and thrown down a well. "Down Will Come Baby" takes a line from the famous lullaby and makes it sound ominous, almost malevolent. (As others have noted, Freakwater songs often include dead or sick children.) "Missionfields," a song Geer wrote for Drunken Prayer, recalls the devastation of Hurricane Katrina the same way old folk songs commemorated floods, droughts and other natural disasters.
At the same time, there's a dark gallows humor to much of the band's work.
"There are many layers," Irwin says. "I think things have to remain a little abstract, but not so much that people have no idea what you're talking about. For example, someone described 'What the People Want' in a recent review as being 'a classic Appalachian love ballad.' A murder ballad, maybe, but they didn't say 'murder' ballad. That song is so dark and horrifying that it's really hard to explain."
Bean and Irwin are hoping to take the band to Europe this summer. Beyond that, however, their plans are characteristically vague. "I think it'll be easier in five or ten years' time, since we can just attach the equipment to the back of our Rascal [scooters]," Bean laughs. "We can just have a caravan."
"Janet's got some amazing video of the place where her dad lives, and the amazing events that go one there. It would be a good circuit for us to be on," Irwin adds.
"I am so obsessed with old folks home's Friday afternoon music specials," Bean says. "I go to them regularly and they're insane! They'll have like the Tom Jones dude, the one guy who plays the spoons, the one-man Jamaican band..."
"We've never played at a place openly calling itself an old people's home," Irwin adds. "Although they may have been functioning in the same capacity."
"I think we'd have a hard time at the end, when you have to do the patriotic rally to 'When the Saints Come Marching In'," Bean admits. "There's always a three-song medley."