Kathleen Edwards

North Americana

Music Features Kathleen Edwards
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“I have reoccurring dreams about The Edge,”   Kathleen Edwards  says matter of factly. The hip Canadian chanteuse and I are boozing and schmoozing at a cozy New York nightspot called The Slipper Room, which is hosting her publicity company’s annual Christmas party. With the smell of Maker’s Mark wafting from her glass, Edwards notes that, while she’s not a huge U2 fan (don’t get her started on Bono) there’s something ineffable about the band’s guitarist.

Edwards and I are two of a mere handful of writers, musicians and industry types paying attention to Nashville singer/songwriter Jessi Alexander, whose cover of Tom Petty’s “Breakdown” sparked the Edge musings. A good portion of the memorable guitar work on Edwards’ new album, Back to Me, recalls Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, at which she grins and says, “My guitarist thinks he’s The Edge, but he really sounds like Tom Petty.” Petty, amusingly, is the only other artist about which Edwards has recurring dreams.

“I wish I had reoccurring dreams about Andrew W.K. [instead]. That, I wouldn’t mind.”

When I meet with her the next morning, Edwards’ strawberry-blonde locks are fashioned in tiny pigtails, and she’s wearing thick, black-rimmed Buddy Holly specs she scored at Oliver Peoples in Manhattan.

Her baby-blue hotel room is comfy, with its stocked bookshelf, homey wallpaper and white coffee table—Ryan Adams’ number is scratched onto the back of a receipt (he wants to meet her in the studio today). With the honk- and whistle-filled bustle of Lexington Avenue and the frosty Gotham air pouring through the open windows, Edwards sits Indian style, sipping coffee and cracking jokes often.

In both appearance and conversation, she’s hardly the sad, pissed-off introvert she seems on her celebrated 2003 debut, Failer. We discuss Edwards’ former love for New Kids on the Block (Jordan Knight was her favorite) in between talk of the people and places flowing through Back to Me, and how she “totally choked” when she initially went in to record the disc.

“People think that I’m dark and brooding and suicidal,” she says. “You know what it is? I have all this pent-up, like, darkness and then I get it out, and then when I see people, I’m like, ‘Hey! My name’s Happy!’”

With each girlish giggle and self-deprecating anecdote, the easy-smiling singer emerges more and more—like your best friend’s little sister, the girl who’s forever shadowing the fellas. It’s appropriate, then, that when we ambled into her hotel room, the tube was tuned to SportsCenter. That said, she’s a natural beauty—equally alluring in the previous evening’s party dress as she was in the flannel shirt she wore for her first New York gig nearly two years ago.

While fun and quirky, the 26-year-old Ottawa native is confident but modest. Considering all the adulation heaped upon Failer, Edwards could have justifiably gotten a little full of herself over the past year. But before she could, the sophomore jinx jitters knocked her down a notch, at least in her own head.

“I remember doing interviews right up until the end of the Failer tour, and people were like, ‘So what’s the new record gonna be?’ and ‘How are you gonna go into it knowing that your last record did so well for you?’ I was like, ‘Oh, no problem,’” she says with a sweet, slightly embarrassed grin. “I was like, ‘I’m just gonna forget that there’s a record company, and I’m just gonna do my thing,’” she laughs.

“But I got to the studio and totally choked. I freaked out for the first couple of weeks. I was like, ‘This sucks’ and ‘What are we doing?’ I was doubting everything. And the songs that I knew were great, or I felt really good about months before, I was suddenly like, ‘I think this probably sucks.’ … Suddenly, my barometer was totally out of whack. I was in a couple of weeks of utter self-doubt, which was good, actually, but poor Colin [Cripps], who produced the record, he really held it together and stayed so even-keeled, which was amazing.” As the songs drew closer to completion, she regained her confidence. After some 200 shows in the past year, Edwards was less uncertain, however, about her singing. “On Failer, I didn’t sing like I felt good about singing. I really struggled to sing well, and I think that’s obvious—it’s tough to hear if I’m even singing. But on Back to Me, I’m singing more, rather than trying to; I’m not forcing it as much, I’m just singing.”

The same cast of barflies, lovers, friends and traitors on Failer return for Back to Me, simply because Edwards missed them.

After her career started blossoming last year, via a steady stream of rave reviews, Edwards began spending progressively less time in her rural hometown, opting for Toronto instead during breaks on the lengthy Failer tour. For a while, she kept a place back home, which she shared with a roommate. But eventually, she put her things in storage, with love—or something close—beckoning some 280 miles southwest in Toronto.

Back to Me charts the impact of the move on her heart, finding the lonely singer longing for her former life. “Thematically, the record’s about, sort of, dislocation and relocation and absence,” she says. “My worst nightmare would be to make a record that’s like”—she takes on the voice of any number of knucklehead stoner musicians who immediately send our eyes into the back of our heads—“‘I just spent the last year on the road, and it sucked.’ That’s not at all what those songs are about.

“I think it’s more, like, ‘I’m in Toronto and I miss my home, I miss my friends.’ It’s the little things that creep up on you after forgetting that they’re around. You forget, ‘Oh f---, I have all these great friends who I used to see every week or two, and I don’t see them at all anymore.’—just feeling sort of out of touch with something that was so wonderful in my life. But it was replaced with something else really wonderful. But it still doesn’t replace it. You still think about it.”

In “Copied Keys,” she offers, “This is not my town, and it will never be / This is our apartment filled with your things / This is your life, I get copied keys.” On “Independent Thief,” featuring My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, she bemoans the watered-down big-city drinks and her newfound loneliness: “I don’t want nothing from you / All I need is just some company.” In “Away,” she yearns to be back in an Ottawa dive: “I was rehearsing a part from down at the bar / My mouth smelled like a drink / We were laughing, I think / I’ve been away.”

“I think the only way of me trying to be a part of their lives or be a part of my old life,” says Edwards, “was to actually include them in what I’m doing now.”

Such life changes are rarely easy on anyone, but Edwards gave up something she spent her childhood seeking—stability. Although she’s spent the majority of her life in Ottawa, she grew up the daughter of a foreign serviceman who eventually became a Canadian ambassador. Consequently, she spent many of her formative years in Switzerland and Korea. After high school, though, there were no more two-year sabbaticals in Seoul, and her roots became further entrenched as she plied her craft in local bars. “When I moved to Toronto, I left something that I always wanted in my life since I was a kid, which was a community of friends and being able to live in the same place for years. I loved it, and I loved living in the country.”

On the new album, except for some accordion here and a pleasing horn arrangement there, musically, the formula is still very much the same. Back to Me is vintage Americana, if a bit more rousing at times. “I certainly don’t think I’ve gone on any departure of any kind, and I wasn’t ready to,” Edwards says, searching briefly for the right words. “I feel like I know what I’m good at at this point, without having tried too many other things. Not that I don’t want to try and expand on what I’m doing. [But] I don’t think what I’m doing is f---ing rocket science either. I try to have a good song and everything else just naturally falls into place. And I think everything on this record just came extremely naturally to accompany the songs.

“I totally love and respect songwriters who are open to trying anything and everything. But I’m a bit closed-minded still, and I’m still not ready to venture into a land where I feel like I’m not sure if it’s good and I’ll just do it anyway, just to try it.”

Edwards starting playing violin at age five, and took up guitar at 12. That same year, she began spending her summers at music camps, where the boys strummed Neil Young covers and the girls Ani DiFranco tunes. While she fell in love with Annie Lennox and Sinead O’Connor as a teen, DiFranco proved the biggest influence on her first recording, a 1999 EP co-written with a fellow Ottawa singer/songwriter Edwards describes as “much more ‘grrrr, chicky girrrrrr.’ I’m really percussively playing.

“While I don’t have the same sort of connection to her records the way I did when I was a teenager, I still think a huge part of my lyrical influence and the way that I write lyrics is based on her—not content wise. I loved how at the end of each line, there was always this poignant statement where you were like, ‘Yeah!’ I liked that she didn’t write any songs that weren’t about anything.”

After discovering Whiskeytown’s Stranger’s Almanac, Edwards found herself primarily listening to male voices and writing more Americana fare—even while she didn’t really know what Americana was at the time. “That record changed my life, my musical life—that and a few of Richard Buckner’s albums, too, like Devotion + Doubt and Since.

“What changed everything for me about Whiskeytown was the songs and that the songs were just so full of imagery without being these run-on songs—there was a start and a finish. And there wasn’t all this fluff in there to get to one line. It was like every line, every verse, to me, was complete, and I loved listening to songs that really evoked a lot of cinematic imagery. I was probably 20 when I first heard Whiskeytown. At that time, I didn’t know there was a Lucinda Williams, I didn’t know who Gram Parsons was; I knew who Steve Earle was, but I’d never listened to him before that.”

Her Whiskeytown epiphany led to the cycle of songs that would become Failer. Once she had the disc’s marquee track, “Hockey Skates,” she could feel the tide shifting: “I remember playing that song at local clubs and people would be like, ‘That’s awesome.’”

But even after the disc’s release, it wasn’t until she appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman that she got props from critics in her own country. “Things would have been very different last year had they not agreed to have me on the show. It really had this avalanche effect, where people were like, ‘Oh, you’re gonna be on Letterman?,’ especially in Canada. … ‘Now the national media will pay attention to you.’ I was doing 10 interviews a week with the Canadian national press … My record was out for months before and no one gave a shit. Maybe people liked it, but no one was willing to bring any attention to it until I had gone to an American program. I was pretty irritated by that, because I thought, ‘How many people are out there in Canada who are great songwriters [and] aren’t going to be playing on Letterman, but deserve national media attention. How stupid is it that we have to be vindicated or valued by American media to be valued by our own.’”

On a less serious note, Edwards cracks up when remembering some of her initial ideas for Back to Me, recalling how she told some journalists how the record would be sort of a “space record, kind of like a Sea Change/Beck record or something.” While that didn’t transpire, she says, “I certainly like to think that this record will stand up on its own. And whatever I choose to do after this, It will always be about the songs, because that’s what I like. I like writing good songs.”

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