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Freakwater's Janet Bean Takes A Solo Turn

Chicago — Janet Bean opts for a cozy two-seat table in the bar of 312 Chicago, a mahogany and marble-bedecked restaurant in Chicago's loop. It's nearly 5 p.m., and a matinee of The Lion King lets out next door. Bean, attired in a tailored suit, fits in with the post-theater crowd and the many business people who populate the bar.

In fact, Bean — a veteran musician, who founded and performed in Freakwater, a lauded collaboration with Catherine Irwin, and, perhaps more eminently, Eleventh Dream Day, also a critical favorite — still has a "day job" working in a lawyer's office in a nearby skyscraper.

Wearing a burgundy skirt and matching jacket, Bean, who has an 11-year-old son, Matthew, appears to fit the corporate image. She doesn't look anything like the typical "indie rocker," nor like a recording artist whose quite wonderful first solo album, Janet Bean and the Concertina Wire's Dragging Wonder Lake, has been released on Thrill Jockey.

The album is rooted in warm Americana soundscapes but centers on Bean's lyrics, which chronicle a year in her life. The tracks are fleshed out with cellos, pedal steel and airy keyboards. "I've always fancied the notion of making a record along the lines of — I love the fusion of the looseness and the jazz sensibilities and the melodic sensibilities and the sadness of [Van Morrison's] Astral Weeks, and so I'd always thought that would be great," Bean said of the approach she took to recording Dragging Wonder Lake.

"That record," she said of Astral Weeks, "is sort of just the deal for me. I guess in that way, it was a touchstone that I had thought about. It was just as much that as my love of just over-the-top Burt Bacharach, like big, dramatic, just super-big pop melodrama — which is probably not a savvy business move really," she said, laughing at the continued prospects of good press (yes, the album has received raves) but low sales figures.

Sitting in the bar, Bean said she doesn't mind her day job; she likes her co-workers and her boss. She quips that not having to work would be ideal but that is just unrealistic at this point. She is seemingly amused by her double life.

Bean wraps a diaphanous shawl around her back and orders a glass of red wine. Her dyed-red hair, slightly darker than her outfit, is pulled back; she sits upright in her chair, her penetrating eyes darting between her wine glass and other bar patrons. Bean speaks hurriedly, but her mellifluous voice, with its prominent Southern drawl, allows her to expand her thoughts, granting a sense of purpose to each word, each complete thought.

Louisville, Skull of Glee and Freakwater

Bean's career as a musician began in the rather unlikely town of Louisville, Ky., where she moved at age 10, leaving Tampa, Fla. As a teenager she became part of Louisville's burgeoning music scene. "When I started becoming involved with [the local music scene] in 1981, they actually had the cover of the Village Voice — some friends of mine from Louisville, and their band called the Babylon Dance Band," she said. "So there was this thriving punk rock scene down there, but very, very small.

"There were a couple bands... I was in one called Skull of Glee, which really was this fabulous surf-meets-Roxy Music kind of band, a really odd, but great band."

Bean laughs when she recounts the names of her early musical projects. That band had an equally quirky roster of players. "At the time [the lead singer]...was in the process of going through hormone shots to get a sex change operation," she said. "So he was this odd, tall, giant, half-character. It was sort of a matter of never being able to afford the right shots and high blood pressure, so he was always in the middle. He was this really great character, really fabulous guy — still is."

Meanwhile, Bean met and befriended Irwin, with whom she began to explore Appalachian mountain music and traditional country sounds. "We started singing together — it was probably '82. It was sort of something to do," she said. "Catherine had her own apartment at the time, and she was pretty young to have her own apartment, so I was over there all the time just to get out of my family's house. We just sang Loretta Lynn songs or Tammy Wynette songs, and then there was like a punk rock club in town that had this open-mic night."

Bean explains that though she initially was put off by some mawkish country music, as she became more familiar with the genre she really got into it. "Even at that time in '82, that super-traditional country music and mountain music was considered pretty great... A lot of times when you're young like that, like 17, I guess you could think it was really just stupid and sentimental music, which, a lot of it, I did feel that way... But when I started singing with Catherine, it was just such fun music to sing because it was so melodic. And you can be big and dramatic. Nobody was really singing Burt Bacharach back then, so it had to be country music."

As time went on, the two women formed Freakwater, only it wasn't called Freakwater at first. Bean explains that the two appeared on several compilation CDs under sundry names including Heat from the Windchill Factory and Hog Butcher to the World. They also played some gigs under the name Mojo Wish Bean and the Trippy Squash Blossom.

Bean claims some responsibility the odd band monikers. "Generally, I guess, I've had a hand in naming most of them," she said. "Freakwater, I can't remember who came up with that. I think we were just driving around trying to think of something to call ourselves that wasn't Mojo Wish Bean and the Trippy Squash Blossom because that sounded so bad."

Bean said that in Freakwater's early days, Irwin provided her with an invaluable musical education, exposing her to bands and genres that influenced much of the group's sound. "I didn't have this breadth of knowledge about mountain music," she said. "And [Catherine's] family, her parents, were avid collectors of the Clancy Brothers records and Irish folk music so she had a bigger foundation... I sort of found out a lot in a short period of time."

Heading to Chicago: Forming Eleventh Dream Day

In 1981 Bean met singer/guitarist Rick Rizzo at the University of Kentucky; the two eventually became a couple. She joshes that, "I came back to Chicago to cast my spell upon him."

When she arrived in Chicago in 1983, Bean said, there wasn't an established music scene in which she felt comfortable playing. "It wasn't that much of a music scene here — I'm sure there was pop stuff going on...," she said. "There was more of a hardcore punk scene, and Rick and I weren't really interested in making that kind of music."

The two formed Eleventh Day Dream, with Bean becoming the group's drummer; she also sang. Recalling the band's development is difficult for Bean, though she acknowledges the influence of friends in the community. "I don't know how we got shows. I don't remember any of that," she said, laughing. "It's all kind of a blur to me. Just at the time there were some friends... it was a nice, kind of fun, friendly, small-town feel of bands. There certainly wasn't the idea that Chicago's the right place to be to play music. Not at all."

But Chicago provided the right community to nurture the band; Eleventh Dream Day were regarded as fine upstarts. The recorded an EP, Eleventh Dream Day and an album, Prairie School Freakout for the independent Amoeba label. They were critically lauded (Greil Marcus singled them out in his Interview column), caught the attention of Betina Richards (who went on to found Thrill Jockey) who was, at the time, in the A&R department at Atlantic Records. Richards signed them to Atlantic. The group's albums received adulatory press, but Eleventh Dream Day never found commercial success.

"I think that we're really highly rated, we're just underpaid," she said, laughing, about being dubbed Chicago's most underrated band in a recent issue of Chicago Magazine. "We certainly get a lot of great press and great reviews. We've been really super lucky that way. So, I wouldn't say the people that are doing the rating have really underrated us. Sometimes I think they attribute much more to us than we're really worthy of. But as far as sales, that could have been better.

"I like being the underrated band," she continued. "It's a nice comfortable position, because you're held with a certain amount of esteem and people root for you because you're like the Cubs or something. You don't really get too big for your britches that way."

Bean said working with a major label had its perks. "It was fun to drive around in Bentleys and go to photo shoots and stuff, and live the high life in a very tiny way," she said.

As time went on, the label tried to influence the band's sound. "I think on El Moodio it was our attempt to see if we could make songs that might somehow appeal to a wider audience. But it didn't really work," Bean said.

"On El Moodio [executives at Atlantic] picked the single to be this song that I sang," she said. "They'd fly you up there and you'd go into the offices and they'd schmooze you and do all this stuff. And they'd say, 'Don't worry about the numbers. You know girl singers aren't big this month' and they'll make some sort of crazy, preposterous comments like that. And it just seems so ridiculous. I think that because it was never our goal to be a huge success that it didn't make any difference to us. We were just excited that we got to keep on making records and critically we were doing fine. It was a fine experience."

Trying Out a Solo Career

Eventually, Atlantic dropped Eleventh Dream Day, though Bean and Rizzo continued to collaborate. The band currently records for Thrill Jockey; its most recent album was 2000's Stalled Parade. Bean also remained a member of Freakwater, recording and writing with Irwin. But an urge to record a solo album — something she calls less an conscious career move and more "just a matter of inertia or someone threatening" — came after suggesting Freakwater partner Irwin do the same.

"I couldn't tour so much," she said. "I was sort of mired in a relationship that was difficult to get away, so I told Catherine I thought it would be a really good idea, since she wanted to tour all the time, for her to make a record on her own, so she could tour on it. And I kind of wanted to make one on my own too in a way... the reason not being to tour, but just because I wanted to make one with all the possibilities that Chicago has to offer as far as musicians and studios."

Bean is at a loss for contemporary influences, mostly because she says she doesn't hear too much current music. Most recently she caught the Polyphonic Spree on late-night TV and was underwhelmed, if not completely disquieted; on the other hand, she said likes the recent Cat Power album, You Are Free.

It's not that Bean has an aversion to new music. She's just limited by technology. "It's sad to say, but I only have a mono hi-fi, like an old-fashioned hi-fi, and then a boom box," she said. "I don't have anything adequate to play music on, so it's regulated by those two devices. So, I don't really buy CDs because I don't really want to buy them for that damn little Magnavox boom box.

"And then my turntable, I love it, but it's really made to play old records, so I'll buy an old Randy Newman record or an old Led Zeppelin record or something," she said, continuing. "I buy those at thrift stores. I don't hear too much new music unless I'm with friends and I'll go, 'Oh, what's this? That sounds pretty good.'"

Bean has some wild fantasies about how she'd like to perform her album. "I'd love to have a big stage show," she said. "My secret fantasy is to have a stage version of it, like ABBA's Mamma Mia! And it starts out — and I'm not in it — people are playing the songs, like this really austere stage and a really white light, just playing the opening part of the song 'Suddenly' which is really spare. And then all of a sudden it's like BIG and then it jumps out and there's all kinds of dancing girls and stuff. It's like a combination of actual thoughtfulness as far as musicians go, and then absolute ridiculousness."

The album befits Bean's vaudeville-esque vision. The songs are typically jaunty despite some hefty themes. "It's a happy little record about desperation and regret," she teased.

And how does Bean manage to contain downbeat themes in happy sounds? "Maybe that comes around Freakwater and the actual history of mountain music and the storytelling aspect of it — like telling dark messages like 'Knoxville Girls,' which is a very dark song — and singing it in a very casual way, where there's no emotion whatsoever," Bean theorized. "These bouncy songs are conveying how somebody went down and murdered a girl on the banks of the Ohio River. I like giving a shiny front, and then the ugly underbelly is even more sinister, I suppose." — Brian Orloff [Wednesday, May 28, 2003]

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