Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean are alt-country pioneers who have been playing music together as Freakwater since they came together in Chicago in the mid-1980s.
Now based in both the Windy City and Louisville, Kentucky, in Feburary, 2016 the group released Scheherazade (Bloodshot Records), their first new album in over ten years. Recorded by Kevin Ratterman at LaLa Land Studio in Louisville, Kentucky with Kevin Ratterman (My Morning Jacket), Scheherazade marked the band’s first time recording outside of Chicago and features a number of guest talents including the duo’s longtime bassist David Gay, Elkington (Tweedy, Horse’s Ha, Eleventh Dream Day), Warren Ellis (Dirty Three, Nick Cave), Evan Patterson (Young Widows, Jaye Jayle), Sarah Balliet (Murder By Death), and Morgan Geer (Drunken Prayer).
The album is titled for the famed heroine and narrator of the classic One Thousand and One Nights (also known as Arabian Tales), who saves her life and those of countless future victims, from a murderous king who becomes so enchanted by her storytelling he falls in love with her and makes her his queen. “We both identify with Scheherazade, although for Freakwater I think the sense of dread that drives the story is internal, rather than imposed by an external force,” Irwin said. “I’m pretty sure that Janet and I both spend more time wandering off inside our own brains telling ourselves little stories than we spend out in the real world, even if the story is just something like ‘what’s the worst possible thing that could happen next?’”
The album’s opening track, “What the People Want,” certainly addresses that train of thought, pairing ominous, haunting sounds with gritty, violent lyrical imagery detailing a woman’s torture, murder, and abandonment with Irwin and Bean questioning in harmony, “Whose baby are you, anyway?”
For the video for “What the People Want,” Freakwater enlisted the help of director Kathleen Judge. A video and poster artist who regularly works with Neko Case, among other musicians, Judge is also longtime friends with both Bean (her former neighbor) and Irwin (former co-worker a Chicago’s beloved venue, The Hideout), so the band gave her free reign to interpret the video how she saw fit. “The best collaborations happen when you respect another person’s work enough to give up control,” Irwin said.
Scheherezade found power through her voice, but the video for “What the People Want” contrasts this by taking influence from women around the world who have been silenced by gender-based violence. Central in Judge’s mind as she was creating the video included the attacks on women in India (specifically Jyoti Singh, who was gang raped and murdered on a bus in Delhi in 2012), the “Highway of Tears” murders of Indigenous women in Canada, thousands of African American women who have gone missing in the United States, and the women who have been murdered around Ciudad Juázez, Mexico. She explores these different narratives and captures the anxious, haunting vibe of the song with animation in a dark color palette that conjures thoughts of nighttime and shadows, leaving the victims’ large, emotion-filled eyes as the brightest focal point in the frames. Newsprint, missing person signs, and billboards are interspersed throughout, highlighting the fact that society is often apathetic to these horrific crimes, even with full-knowledge that they occured.
“Often these crimes against women go unnoticed, unreported or diluted with terminology made to lessen the crimes (for instance saying a prostitute was murdered—as if that makes it ok),” said Judge. “How these murders and disappearances are often not even in the news made me think women are often treated similar to a discarded newspaper. I wanted the texture of the piece to reiterate that concept.”
Watch “What the People Want” below and purchase the album through Bloodshot Records.