Solo effort


August 22, 2003


Janet Bean has never been the sort to hog the spotlight. With Chicago's pioneering rockers Eleventh Dream Day, she lurked behind the drums, popping up only occasionally to add a vocal. With the haunting country combo Freakwater, she shares the focus with songwriting and vocal partner Catherine Irwin. On "Dragging Wonder Lake," she finally claims center stage for herself.

Bean's first solo album for the local label Thrill Jockey benefits from the contributions of some of the city's best musicians. The group she's dubbed the Concertina Wire includes cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, pedal steel player Jon Spiegel, drummer Dan Leali and backing vocalist Kelly Hogan. But the 11 quiet, introspective songs all are intensely personal, and ultimately they're entirely her own.

Bean will be performing with the album's musicians as well as several guests tonight at the Old Town School of Folk Music.


*8 tonight

*Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln

*Tickets, $11-$15

*(773) 728-6000

Q. OK, Janet: Why a solo album, and why now?

A. Early on, playing in those bands, it seemed like I had no business even doing it. It all started out with me playing with absolutely no talent, for the most part, and it just sort of grew as I played. I certainly didn't think about making my own record. But a few years on, when I started writing songs and giving them to Eleventh Dream Day or Freakwater, then obviously you compromise something with doing that. Most of the time it works out great; I've always been really happy with the outcome. But in the back of your head, I suppose it's like, "What would that have been like if I had to do it on my own?"

I suppose it just kind of started with that kind of nagging curiosity. Later on, I had made demos and presented them to various people at major labels and had gotten some interest, but then I just sort of dropped the ball. I didn't want to get involved in it in that fashion. But in the last couple of years, I just sort of needed something to focus on and to prove to myself that I could do it and be responsible for its success or failure, and to learn what success or failure meant to me as as a musician.

Q. So you were collecting these songs and recording them at home?

A. Well, the first song on the record ["Suddenly"] was actually an outtake from [Eleventh Dream Day's] "Lived to Tell." That's an older one. The rest of them sort of came about in a pretty quick period of time over the course of about a year. I didn't do too much four-tracking; it's basically just playing them over and over again at home until your son wants to kill you.

Q. This is a pretty elaborate, almost orchestral kind of recording. Did you have a template in mind, an ideal album you were trying to emulate?

A. I think I went in there with the notion that "Astral Weeks" is my favorite record in the world, and I wanted something that sort of had this very organic element to it, that was a personal journey, and that also had these disparate jazz elements thrown in with this folk mentality. Van Morrison wrote that album when he was like 23 years old; it just blows my mind!

Q. You're a famously shy and reticent person in public, and this is an intensely personal record. On a solo album, there's no one to share the blame or hide behind. Was that a daunting concept?

A. I suppose. Had the reaction to the album been one of complete revulsion, I might be saying, "Yes, it's been horrible!" But I haven't had that experience. There have been some reviews that weren't great, but I've been doing this for a long time, so I sort of take that in stride. I think I probably should have had a little more sense to not write something so personal, but that's kind of the only way I can write. I'm always so taken by Catherine's lyrics and her ability to create something personal that really reveals nothing about her, at least to the listener. For me, I'm not that clever, so it just all comes out!

Q. Where did the title come from?

A. Wonder Lake is a place that my family's talked about for a long time, because my mother and father actually met there. They spent many days and hours on that lake, and when I would ask my mom how she met my dad, there was always this story about Wonder Lake. It just sounded like such a magical place, and then later on, it became a place that I went to with someone else.

It's a place that's a bit out of time. The area north of the city here has been taken over by Lincoln Navigators and lake cottage homes, but this lake is still a little bit rough, and it seems like there's some sort of dark secret lurking about. It's also in sort of a state of distress; it needs to be cleaned and dredged out. I was just thinking about all of those things that would come up from some place, all of these stories that could be dredged up, and voila.

Q. How do you know when you've written a good song?

A. I suppose the ones that end up being the keepers, the ones I think are worthwhile, are just the ones that seem to stick in my head, the ones that I remember the next time I sit down to play the guitar. The ones that haven't just shriveled up and gone away somewhere.

Q. Give me an update on the status of your other projects. What's going on with Freakwater and Eleventh Dream Day?

A. Catherine and I have just been in a state of denial. We have to get this record going, and we keep saying, "Yes, we're in the process," but really we're not getting anything done. Eleventh Dream Day has this funny thing happening in November: We're re-releasing [the 1988 classic] "Prairie School Freakout," and Baird Figi, the original guitar player, is going to come back for the show when we play that record. And we have a couple of new songs: My son, Matt, came home from [ex-husband, guitarist] Rick's [Rizzo] house humming it, and we'll probably do something new at some point.

Q. All of these projects sort of function at their own pace, don't they?

A. Yeah. It's really just sort of a lucky, pleasant, comfortable way to work.