Photo by Sarah Lyon

September 19, 2012

Catherine Irwin’s time comes

Catherine Irwin is nothing if not patient. Her songs are leisurely and deliberate, seductive in their Southern Gothic charms for those who let them take over. They parallel her solo career itself. Her new solo album, Little Heater, is her second, following 2002’s Cut Yourself a Switch

Best known for co-leading the influential country/folk band Freakwater since the late 1980s — a band that has released only one album in the 21st century so far — Irwin has shown she can write faster when required. Neko Case’s singing partner, Kelly Hogan, commissioned a song for her recent solo album, which Irwin quickly crafted. (Case, Jolie Holland and Califone have also sung her songs.)

“I guess I’m just real slow,” Irwin laughs. “I don’t have any good reason … I don’t think it’s any better, necessarily, because I took 10 years to make it.”

Irwin had written a couple albums of material during that time but didn’t consider it up to her standards. “But I don’t think that’s the best way to proceed … If someone else was in charge, rather than me, I might’ve made several records.

“I need structure — I went to the Brown School! I was trained to need structure by an institution lacking in structure.”

She did not thrive at that school, getting thrown out for “chronic truancy.” Ironically, another Brown School student (a graduate) was Will Oldham, who has been releasing approximately one album per year for the past 20 years. Oldham sings on two songs on Little Heater, “Mockingbird” and “To Break Your Heart.”

Irwin’s songs are beautiful but dark, tinged with a pinch of humor and a pound of lonesome, full of what her bio brags as “loss, despair, self-destruction and delusion,” and her country has more in common with Hank Sr. or Hazel Dickens than modern pop stars like Blake Shelton. Irwin attributes that to her roots.

“My father was from Northern Ireland. That explains a lot, I think, about what’s wrong with me,” she says, breaking into another laugh.

“Basically — the gloom. I’m not sure, really, what that explains, but there was a lot of Clancy Brothers going on in the house, a lot of bagpipe music.”

Her musical education was also formed at the “hippie schools” she attended (“when I did go to school”), where folk musicians like Pete Seeger and John Jacob Niles were taught to unassuming school kids.

Another Irish-American Louisville native, Tara Jane O’Neil, produced and performs on Irwin’s latest album; steel guitarist Marc Orleans and members of Ida add parts; and Irwin recorded songs by both of this week’s concert’s opening acts, fellow Kentuckians Wooden Wand and Brett Ralph.

Enlisting O’Neil as a producer worked well for Irwin. “She records herself and makes these beautiful-sounding records in her house, and I’d been trying to do recording on the computer. It turns out I’m not very well-suited for that.”

O’Neil “… has many skills, and some of them are quite practical. Little things like getting everybody in the room at the same time … It was pretty great. I don’t think I’d ever had a pleasant experience recording anything before. I was listening back to this record the other day and I thought, ‘Oh! That’s nice! I remember that and Tara hopping around in a kimono, there was a little dog there ...’

“I’ve never listened back to a record before and felt anything but some sense of dread. Like, ‘Oh, that was where somebody lost their mind and had to be taken out of the room,” she laughs. “’That’s where somebody had a tantrum. I remember that part now.’”

They recorded the album in a studio in Woodstock, N.Y., one year ago. Irwin felt at home in the musically active hippie town. “There are some people who look a lot like the people here. Like the kind of Civil War re-enactor people you see walking around here … It’s like that, but with tie-dye. Really nice people were bringing us kelp sandwiches.”

Catherine Irwin with Wooden Wand and Brett Ralph’s Kentucky Chrome Review

Saturday, Sept. 22

The Rudyard Kipling

422 W. Oak St.

$10; 8 p.m.

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