Aaron Freeman is doing fine.
Doing fine is no small thing for a guy who just quit the band he started recording with more than 25 years ago — that would be the oddball cult act Ween — and whipped a longtime problem with substance abuse.
For the first time as a professional musician, “Gene Ween” is using the name his parents gave him.
“Things are great,” says a beaming Freeman from his New Jersey home before embarking on a tour for his true solo debut, Marvelous Clouds. The Ben Vaughn-produced album, which covers the flowery prose and pretty melodies of ’60s poet-singer-composer Rod McKuen, sounds so much like Freeman at his full-tilt, weird Ween best, you wouldn’t guess these songs weren’t his.
“When somebody has a similar musical mind, when its poetry is bound to your own — yes, I felt very comfortable within his words and melody,” says Freeman of McKuen’s rich catalog.
Stop a second, though.
Ween is done. At the very least, Freeman’s working partnership with Mickey “Dean” Melchiondo, the pal he made in an eighth-grade typing class, has concluded.
No more “Boognish” or scary FX-heavy vocals.
If the vibe of Marvelous Clouds represents where Freeman is now and where’s he’s heading (it does, according to him), the emotions will be naked and his sound clean and clear. “If you’re a Ween fan, you can tell what’s mine,” laughs Freeman. “I can see the next stuff that I write similar to my stuff on Ween’s Quebec — simple, melodic, accessible. I love a pretty song with a hook.”
When we spoke, Freeman had just made Ween’s breakup announcement to Rolling Stone. He sounded comfortable about the move during our chat. “There are no victims, there’s no drama to it,” says Freeman.
But one can’t help but wonder if Freeman knew he’d be ending his participation in Ween as soon as he started recording under his own name.
“Wow, yes. I did,” says Freeman as if he just realized that fact. “To be honest, I did. Ending Ween — it was a long time coming. Various things within me needed to happen first. A clear mind, full of confidence. As this record unfolded, it became clearer that things had to be concluded with Ween.”
The solo shows Freeman had been performing for the last several years weren’t simply to stretch his legs. They were to gain footing and gather the confidence to go it alone. Freeman confesses to growing up with an ideal that he one day hoped to achieve: Neil Young.
“People like Young, who could sit there and kill it on an acoustic guitar, then go and do likewise with Crazy Horse — that’s me. My goal was to be a folk musician,” he laughs heartily. “That’s what I consider myself. To keep it simple. Some of it’s twisted, but I always aspired to be the guy who can write a simple song, strap a guitar onto his back and walk off into the sunset if need be.”
Freeman wouldn’t have closed the door on Ween unless he felt sure about it. “When you take an alias, it’s easy to get lost,” he says. Though emancipated, Freeman wouldn’t have gone forward with an album of Rod McKuen covers if not for pal/producer Vaughn’s provocation. “This is his brainchild,” says Freeman. “He had the whole thing mapped out. ”
Vaughn and Freeman knew that beyond the wall of kitsch built around McKuen’s work, his music existed in several genres (open-air jazz, spoken-word classical) and his lyrics could be as pained as they were dippy. With that, Freeman found it easy to slip inside McKuen’s skin. “I fell in love with his music immediately, its simplicity and vulnerability, his sense of melody and phrasing. It was airy and beautiful.”
McKuen’s backstory — of depression, of early retirement, of passionately emotional books and tone poems — was unknown to Freeman until recently. The ex-Ween-ie wasn’t looking to ape McKuen, but rather channel the poet/troubadour:“I was adhering to Rod’s thing but I was also allowing myself to be free.”
It’s fascinating to Freeman that such potently poignant writings came into his life when they did, as McKuen’s songs are often about turning from youth and toward middle age. McKuen trafficked in deeply self-reflective lyrics about getting older and dealing with one’s identity. “These are the things that the 42-year-old me is dealing with,” says Freeman, happily aware of the man he’s grown up to be. “I’m proud of what I did with Ween. I got in a band at age 15 with a friend, made some wonderful records, have great fans and at this age get to do Aaron Freeman 2.0.”
Thu., June 21, 8 p.m., $22-$25, World Café Live, 3025 Walnut St., 215-222-1400, worldcafelive.com.