Aaron Freeman is better known as "Gene Ween," his funny-voiced alter-ego that has sung as one half of cult-duo Ween since 1984. But today (May 8th), Freeman releases Marvelous Clouds, an irony-free collection covering songs by kitsch singer/poet Rod McKuen, and the singer's first album under his own name. The album marks Freeman's first solo release since Gene Ween's 1987 Synthetic Socks cassette, and arguably his most straight-faced and rawly emotional endeavor to date.
"I'd been having an identity crisis for a long time," Freeman told Rolling Stone. "It's really weird having two names, and I wanted to be Aaron Freeman. I was born with that name, but everybody I knew, it seemed – it wasn't really that way – was calling me Gener or Gene." Gone also are the goofy affectations he has often used to mask Ween's sometimes extraordinarily personal lyrics, which could often blur into comedy. "I love singing in different voices," he says. "Maybe it's my age, but I really just wanted to just have my own voice, and really make sure that I stuck to it. I wanted to make sure I sang it straight. With Rod McKuen's songs, there's no reason to affect your voice."
McKuen, a best-selling poet during the 1960s and 1970s who worked with arrangers to orchestrate his words, has been retired since 1982, when he was diagnosed with clinical depression. With an art-pop vibe all his own, McKuen's sometimes self-released recordings ranging from high-minded classical works to surreal and wounded song-poems. In 1969, Frank Sinatra released A Man Alone: The Words and Music of Rod McKuen. Since McKuen's retirement, though, the spotlight has dimmed considerably, his ornate recordings relegated to thrift store LP bins and YouTube reruns.
"Every time I would listen to 'As I Love My Own,' it would strike me as a song Aaron could have written," noted producer Ben Vaughn, who also helmed Ween's 12 Golden Country Greats album in 1996, and who first played McKuen for Freeman. "It doesn't rhyme and it rolls along with abundant amount of melodic freedom." After contemplating a solo album for several years, Vaughn's suggestion last fall pushed Freeman into action.
The resultant Marvelous Clouds, recorded with Los Angeles session musicians, sounds remarkably like Mollusk-era Ween between its occasionally kitschy lite-prog orchestrations and McKuen's lyrical flights. "I think his songs are amazing," Freeman says. "I love a songwriter who keeps it really simple and really intimate and is not afraid to show his joy and pain in a very simple way, and that's what he does."
It is a very particular album at a very particular fork for Freeman, who has been living in Arizona for the past several months in a drug and alcohol recovery program. Though his relocation follows an onstage meltdown with Ween in Vancouver last year, it is not Freeman's first time sober. It is his most serious, however, and he plans to employ what he has described as a "sober ninja" on future tours. "I'm going to have to be very careful of the situations," he notes. "The rock & roll lifestyle is pretty grating and it's pretty tough when you're trying to be sober, as it were."
Both in content and execution, Marvelous Clouds is also the most serious of Freeman's extra-Ween work, which has included solo tours in recent years. He plans to hit the road in late spring with a hired band (albeit including longtime Ween bassist Dave Dreiwitz) helmed by a full-time musical director. "I want to emulate the shows from back in the day where you play a bar of music and talk over that. There are going to be little clouds floating round, and I'm going to have a spotlight guy."
The long-reclusive McKuen (who recently started tweeting) has expressed his love for the album, and invited Freeman for a visit to his Los Angeles home, set to take place soon. But Freeman's ready for anything, even more voices, like the demented version of "Mr. Sandman" he has sung on recent solo tours while the occasionally gigging Ween has remained on a recording hiatus. "I'm totally going to go for it," he says. "I'll do a Motown record, and a standards record." For now, though, he's going to be Aaron Freeman for a while.