Smile Politely tracked down Janet Bean of The Horse’s Ha for a telephone interview on Wednesday from her converted store-front abode off Division Street in Chicago.
The Horse’s Ha are playing at Cowboy Monkey Saturday night at 9 p.m. Cover is $5, and Common Loon and Angie Heaton open.
It was pretty dang hot up in Chi-town too and Janet’s air conditioning had stopped working. I still hadn’t turned mine on for some hard-headed ecological reason, so both of us were wiping the sweat from our brow and dealing with cranky, heat-stroked kids while trying to keep on top of the conversation thread … and yet somehow we ended up chatting for over 45 minutes. No joke.
Smile Politely: Thanks for being flexible, Janet. Yeah, it’s crazy. I have kids too…right now I’m between one kid’s little league game and another’s community theater dress rehearsal.
Janet Bean: My son is really sensitive to the heat and he’s lying on the floor not moving.
SP: Oh no! I can stop at any second and call you back.
JB: No, we’ve got it covered. We’re giving him a special drink right now. Our air conditioning broke and we’re up on the second floor so the heat is pretty intense.
SP: Yeah, it’s hideous here too (pause). So, I’ll introduce myself quickly (yadda, yadda). I remember you from the early 90’s. I lived in Chicago, actually grew up in the Chicago area, and I remember liking your band Freakwater. I played in a series of wildly unsuccessful folk grunge bands at the time … and kind of ran around with the Souled American and Bottle Rocket scene as well as hanging out at Myopic Books and Phyllis’ Musical Inn. So anyway I’m going to fast forward the 15 years I’ve been out of town — out on the East Coast in graduate school and living down here in C-U.
The music scene in Chicago back in the late ’80s/early ’90s for Americana wasn’t great. I always felt a bit out of sync with the rest of the music world. Can you tell me what has been happening in Chicago for that kind of music since then?
JB: Well, I started in a loud, psychedelic garage band [Eleventh Dream Day] back then. And then I also had Freakwater, which started in Kentucky, and then when I moved here sort of worked out of Chicago and we’re still together, although inactive.
I think you’re right. There were definitely stages. Freakwater put out a first record in the latter part of the ’80s. There certainly wasn’t a large scene of that happening at all. I think that Uncle Tupelo put out a record a little bit after … we were already playing shows and active when I remember hearing about Uncle Tupelo … and I think they did a lot, obviously, in that genre to bring it to people’s attention and having a lot more shows. Then, all these other bands that were calling themselves ridiculous country-sounding names all over the place …”The Hasties,” or whatever. Bringing us the Americana thing. And this went on to produce some successful people … people that were introduced to this kind of music they might not have been introduced to otherwise. And giving us a more sincere approach to it, as opposed to a more, sort of, quasi-classical look at it.
SP: More authentic?
JB: Not necessarily more authentic, but less as a vehicle to put on plaid country skirts and throw hay bales out on stage and more as a vehicle to actually write songs that are poignant and speak to you personally. Like anything that’s been around for a while, you have people that are informed by the movement but aren’t necessarily trapped in some of its unfortunate beginnings.
Chicago is just a remarkable music town. I don’t know if its been that way historically, but I always felt that coming here in the early ’80s and playing music, there were always avenues available for us to play, to perform and to grow as bands and since that time it has become even more so … really a mark on the map for traveling bands. And for bands here, you know, it’s just a great music town.
SP: What’s your favorite venue right now?
JB: Well …. my favorite venue … The Hideout certainly is a great community venue. Small, very intimate, a bit rag-tag in a really good way.
SP: Yeah, right off North Ave, right?
JB: Yeah. And the Empty Bottle has a great vibe. Or, if you want something that is obviously a step-up sonically, the Old Town School of Folk Music is just a great place to see music. Or downtown in Millennium Park. It’s a great environment, a beautiful space. There are just so many options here, of every vibe.
The community here has just become more diverse, with the improvisational jazz scene becoming much broader: all of these different players that are intermingling with each other creating a really interesting and vibrant sense of community. That’s just happened in the last few years.
SP: Yes, let’s talk about jazz a little bit. Your new Horse’s Ha CD just came out last week, right?
JB: June 9th, or something like that I think.
SP: Right. Your new CD, and your Solo CD, Dragging Wonder Lake, are pretty jazzy in places and maybe you can talk about how you got interested in that scene and how it contributes to your artistic vision.
JB: Fred Lonberg-Holm, who plays cello with Horse’s Ha (when we can book him far enough in advance … and people haven’t already taken him …) was also in the Concertina Wire, my solo band — he recorded with Freakwater and we had done a couple of things together. He arranged the strings on our End Time record. I love the cello, and I enjoy working with him. Fred is a very active member of the Chicago jazz scene and is internationally recognized.
When he was playing with Freakwater and I was thinking about making my solo record, one of the records that really informed me and I thought about musically when I was making that record, was Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. He had used jazz musicians for a format that allowed it a looseness and a spatial quality that I wanted to try to achieve. So we brought in Jim Baker and Fred, solid in the jazz scene here, and worked in that direction.
And when Jim [Elkington] and I started The Horse’s Ha, I think we both loved cello and Fred’s ability to move outside the standard bounds of the cello … it was something we were interested in going for … and Charles, our drummer, who is also becoming very prominent in the scene here … I don’t know how we even ended up getting him to join the band, but the minute he sat in with us, he was great. We loved it. We wanted him to stay on.
But when we first started out, it was just myself, Jim and Fred. A little trio.
SP: Now it’s much more. I just took another listen to Of the Cathmawr Yards and I really appreciate Jim’s acoustic flat-picking. It’s amazing.
JB: Oh, yeah.
SP: And what I really loved, coming from someone who is pretty immersed in more traditional forms of folk music, is how your music makes the familiar, unfamiliar. So, a kind of “uncanny” feeling. I’ve read some Freakwater reviews that call your music dark and gloomy, or haunted, but to me it’s more than just a haunted house. Like in the book Coraline, when she goes into the house next door to hers, and its exactly like her house, a mirror image, except when the mother, who looks exactly like Coraline’s mother, turns around and her teeth are pointy.
JB: I like the analogy!
SP: This music is very cool, like a Neil Gaiman novel. I wonder, then, about the artistic process and how it all came together. You’ve got these beautiful tight harmonies and this lyrical acoustic guitar-playing going on and then “Boom!” there’s this dissonance, an unexpected chord, a crazy rhythm or dropped beat. It’s really interesting, all these layers. That’s how I’m reading it right now, after only a couple of listens.
JB: I think that’s an interesting reading, and I like your take on it. I think Jim, I think he imagined that these songs and my performances would be more “Americana” in flavor, because of my background. I think he thought they were. But to me, there was a familiarity in this acoustic folk-base. But then there were these interesting, odd, melodic twists. He would give me a demo of a song he had written, and I would listen to it, and at first I would be like, “I don’t get this at all. I don’t know where he’s coming from.” I would be singing along and I would say, “Oh, he should have done that with the melody. Why did he go to that weird place?”
And then I would listen to it again and again and all of a sudden it would get under my skin in a good way, you know. It felt right. So I think there is an unsettledness about some of the ways he structures the songs and I think that what’s compelling for me as a singer to work in that way. Because I’ve come from a certain way of singing, especially with Freakwater, coming from a place where it’s all 1-4-5, for the most part, singing a song for the first time and kind of already knowing where it’s going to go and understanding my place in that song. And there’s a greatness to that too; it’s an organic thing that sort of happens and part of it comes from Cathy and I doing this since I was, like, 10 years old.
But yes, there is a twist, a twist of a knife, that caught me off guard.
SP: So you find yourself resisting that? Not surprising!
JB: Yeah, I resist it every time I hear a new song! I don’t say “Well, that doesn’t make any sense.” I’m listening through it and say in my head, “That’s another one of those…” I understand now that I have to listen to it a few times. I think his songs require that. I’m a slow learner. The challenge is to figure out a way to sing along with it. It’s an exciting thing for me to have to figure out the unusual melodies and harmonies.
SP: It’s very compelling. It’s asking to be listened closely to, I think.
JB: Yes, I think so too. Those are the things that usually stay around for a long time that I keep coming back to. Most of the air candy stuff that is exciting and great does kind of wear off.
And I want to talk about the lyrical content of the songs too. There are a lot of references to things that are kind of iconic, like lots of moon references. But what drew me to Jim also was his gift for facility with language. He writes these really evocative phrases. You think he is speaking of something really specific, but you can’t figure out what that is.
SP: Yeah, I love this one: “A shipwrecked diva feasting on a fly”
JB: Yes. Exactly. Phrases you won’t come by everyday in a song. I like that.
SP: Are you the shipwrecked Diva?
JB: I hope not! I’ve probably thought about that, wondered about that, but I don’t think so … although I could probably be shipwrecked, I suppose. And I can be a diva too, I suppose. But I require much more than a fly.
SP: I guess it depends on how big you are. So, what music are you currently listening to?
JB: Hmmmm…I just bought a bunch of vinyl the other day that I was very excited about. And one that I like very much is this band called Ofege, a psychedelic Nigerian band from the early 1970’s. They’re like this crazy-ass rock band from Nigeria and they were all in high school at the time. I really dug that today.
And then I bought The World is Shaking: Cubanismo from the Congo 1954-55. That was a great one.
SP: Any advice for young women musicians?
JB: Don’t set your goals so high … like, you have to sell a certain amount of records, or you have to reach this major label by that certain time. There is something very satisfying and purposeful to just continue and be a viable artist in a small way. I’ve been playing for a long time, starting out with punk bands, and now I’m 45 and playing and still consider myself an artist and that is very satisfying.
SP: It’s a life activity.
JB: Yea, we didn’t give up after we got dropped from a major label. You know, these things that happen along the way … because that was never the goal. The goal was to enjoy the process.
SP: To grow as an artist.
JB: It’s a lucky position to be in, really, you get to satisfy a certain aspect of yourself…and a lot of people don’t get to do that.
SP: You’ve probably been down to Champaign-Urbana at some point, our lovely metropolis.
JB: To tell you the truth, I haven’t been down there for probably twenty years. I can’t remember when we played there last. With Eleventh Dream Day. Freakwater hasn’t been.
SP: Hard to believe.
JB: I know, I know. My husband went to grad school down there, but I wasn’t with him at that point. I really have little knowledge of Champaign-Urbana.
SP: Well, we hope to change that for the better. You’ll be down here Saturday night at the Cowboy Monkey, and I’m looking forward to it.
JB: I’ll see you there!
SP: Thank you.