“We’ve been singing together since 1982,” says Janet Bean of her musical partnership with Catherine Irwin in Freakwater. “And what we do now is no different than what we did then.”

“But that’s the magic of Freakwater,” Irwin says, laughing. “It’s exactly the same as when we started. We haven’t gotten significantly better, or worse, or anything.”

It’s true that since the two first began recording in the mid-80s in the basement of Bean’s parents’ house in Louisville they’ve stuck to a template pioneered by classic country, bluegrass, and folk vocal groups like the Delmore, Louvin, and Clancy brothers. But they’ve also sharpened their art through the years, exploring the subtleties of those styles across seven studio albums. “Catherine has a love for this idea of music being a sort of haiku, where it fits into this particular form, and it’s within that form that you can address things in different ways,” Bean says.

In the six years after Freakwater’s last album, it seemed increasingly unlikely that they’d collaborate again–both women even put out solo albums. But last month Freakwater released the new Thinking of You, and on Saturday they’ll warm up for their first extended tour since 2000 by opening for the Dirty Three at Metro.

For the new album Bean and Irwin, along with longtime bassist Dave Gay, brought in members of Califone to help reshape and color their music, and those additions help make the album arguably the strongest in their already impressive catalog. But it took a while for Irwin and Bean to get to the point where they could record together again. Following their 2000 tour in support of 1999’s End Time, Bean had separated from Rick Rizzo, her husband and bandmate in Eleventh Dream Day. (They’ve since divorced, and share custody of their son.) To make ends meet Bean dialed back her musical efforts and took a full-time job as a project assistant at a local law firm.

“After a while I urged Catherine to do something on her own, because I wasn’t able to tour, and she had all these songs written,” Bean says. Irwin released her solo debut, Cut Yourself a Switch, on Thrill Jockey in 2002. Around the same time Bean gathered a group of locals, including cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, pianist Jim Baker, and pedal steel guitarist Jon Spiegel, to record Dragging Wonder Lake, which came out in 2003. “I was going through a rough spot personally, and a lot of songs came out of that,” she says. “So I thought maybe it would be a good idea to write my own little opera.”

Irwin and Bean tried to reconvene Freakwater during all this–at one point they booked studio time with producer J.D. Foster, who’s worked with Richard Buckner and Laura Cantrell–but for two years each attempt fell through due to scheduling conflicts. Finally, in the summer of 2004, Irwin forced the issue: she moved to Chicago for nine months to work with Bean on new material. With the songs written, they asked Califone’s Tim Rutili, a friend and Thrill Jockey labelmate, to produce the album. “I was thinking of some sort of way to make it interesting and easy at the same time,” Bean says. “Califone has a really beautiful organic sound, and I’ve always liked what Tim does, so it made sense.”

Freakwater began recording Thinking of You last winter at 4deuces Studios (the former Clava) in Bridgeport with a core backing group of Gay, Spiegel, and Califone drummer Joe Adamik. The setup was similar to that of End Time, the first Freakwater album that wasn’t purely acoustic. But the sessions also featured contributions from two more of Rutili’s bandmates, multi-instrumentalist Jim Becker and percussionist Ben Massarella, as well as Zincs leader Jim Elkington on guitar and saw player Evelyn Weston. (“No one can pass up the opportunity to have a saw solo on their record,” Bean says.) And Rutili pitched in as well, playing electric guitar, piano, organ, and ukulele.

The denser arrangements were the source of a few headaches–the band had to rerecord much of the album after a hard-drive malfunction wiped out several weeks of overdubs. But the additional players help give the songs on Thinking of You a richer, more atmospheric sound, underscoring the wounded mood of “Loserville,” the epic tale of romantic obsession in “Jack the Knife,” and the outrage in the topical “Buckets of Oil.” Bean and Irwin’s magnificent close-harmony singing and sharp compositions are the focus throughout the album, but as always they wrote all the songs separately.

“The idea of writing a song with someone is almost confusing to me,” Irwin says. “You see it in the movies where one person is sitting at the piano and the other person is leaning over with a highball in hand, and all of a sudden they’ve written a hit. But we’ve never really been able to do that. Usually when we write it’s more like each of us on our own kinda crawling on the floor of our apartments weeping. It’s not like a group activity. It’s pretty ugly.”

However, Bean did enlist Elkington to assist on the lyrics for a lilting lovesick ballad, “Double Clutch.” “He’s just got a really beautiful way with words,” she says. “So I described what I had in mind to him, and it actually came out a lot better than what I had imagined.” Elkington will sit in with Freakwater during the upcoming tour and open shows as the Zincs starting on Halloween in Arlington, Virginia; he and Bean have also been working on new songs for the Horse’s Ha, a project featuring Adamik, Zincs bassist Nick Macri, and Lonberg-Holm that Bean says “sorta sounds like John Renbourn crossed with Cole Porter–pretty much unlike anything I’m familiar with.”

Last month Bean’s other band, Eleventh Dream Day, debuted a set of all-new material at the Hideout Block Party. The group is recording a new album due out in the spring. Irwin moved back to Louisville after completing Thinking of You and is about to record her second solo album. “It’s not that I’d never leave Louisville,” she says. “If I was going to the south of France I would be really happy to leave. . . . But Chicago in the winter–man, I dunno.”

Bean recently left her job, making her free to play music full-time for now. On October 20 Freakwater begins a three-week tour that concludes November 11 with a show at Schubas to celebrate the release of the record; they’ll play additional dates around the country and in Europe through the end of the year. The new album has reminded Bean and Irwin of both the persistence and importance of their friendship. “It’s funny, because I don’t think anybody who starts some dumb band when they’re 19 or 20 would foresee it as becoming something that goes on forever,” Irwin says.

“The thing is, making music in Freakwater has been remarkably uncomplicated and driven by nothing other than the fun of it,” Bean says. “We’ve never had this idea that we were supposed to be achieving, so it wasn’t like we were ever really failing. Maybe that’s why we’ve lasted so long.”

Dirty Three, Freakwater

When: Sat 10/15, 11:30 PM

Where: Metro, 3730 N. Clark

Price: $16

Info: 773-549-0203 or 312-559-1212

More: 18+

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.