Kathleen Edwards: Making a Left Turn at the Crossroads

Music Features Kathleen Edwards

At the end of 2009, Kathleen Edwards found herself at a crossroads. Her first three albums had been acclaimed by critics and roots-music fans in both her native Canada and the United States. The lean redhead was proud of those records—proud of their subtle storytelling and unvarnished folk-rock—but she was afraid that if she made another one just like them she would start sounding stale.

She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next, but she was sure she didn’t want to make yet another refinement of her breakthrough debut, 2003’s Failer. Meanwhile, her marriage to Colin Cripps, the guitarist/producer she had relied on so much in the past, was falling apart.

“Those first three records are accomplishments I’m proud of,” Edwards says by phone from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where she is staying with her current boyfriend, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. “No one told me what to do on those albums; I made all the decisions myself. But I did what I knew how to do; I stayed in this folkie, twangy world of Americana singer/songwriters. Finally I told myself, ‘You know, I have other ambitions; there are other things I want to do.’”

The result of those ambitions is the new, very different Edwards album, Voyageur. Co-produced with Vernon, it features lush chamber-pop arrangements and lyrics built around metaphor rather than narrative. But it wasn’t easy getting there.

“I didn’t want to put out a record that anyone could think was ‘twangy,’” she recalls. “I love pedal steel guitar—it’s the most melancholy sound in the world—but I’d already done that. For the first time I could say, ‘Okay, I’m ready to change things up a bit.’ I was feeling a little stuck in a rut.”

Edwards is suggesting that there are two kinds of premeditated change: change that repudiates a mistaken past and change that breaks from a successful past before it curdles. She was looking for the second kind of change but wasn’t sure how to go about it.

She knew how to make songs like “Six O’Clock News,” the attention-grabbing tune from Failer about the pregnant girlfriend of a barricaded gunman. She knew how to build up a story from carefully placed details—the police ribbon, the failed farm, the baby’s due date—and how to deliver those details in an unassuming soprano over a chiming alt-country arrangement. Now she wanted to do something else, but how?

“It’s not that I didn’t have songs,” she insists, “but that I was falling into a pattern. A lot of the songs on my last record, Asking for Flowers, were other people’s stories. I wanted to break away from that and write about my own stories, my own feelings. I knew I could write a narrative song, but I wanted to do something different. To figure out what that was, I needed a sounding board.”

But who? Edwards had always admired John Roderick, the singer/songwriter who fronted the Long Winters. She didn’t know him very well, but she instinctively felt he might help her out of her impasse. So she contacted him and asked if she could come out to Seattle and show him the songs she was working on for her fourth album. She had never let anyone else into her songwriting process before, and it was a sign of her desperation that she invited Roderick in.

“I’m not one for co-writing,” she says, “but this was a good experience. I didn’t show up, saying, ‘Let’s write some songs together.’ I showed up saying, ‘Here are the songs I have; let me play them for you on the piano. Let me know where the holes are and how I can fill them in.’ He gave me a lot of feedback that gave me things to think about. It was a life-changing 10 days; he brought out all these feelings I didn’t know I had that were just bubbling under the surface. I went back to Canada feeling, ‘Gee, I have the capacity to do so much more.’”

Roderick wound up with two co-writing credits on Voyageur, both slow songs about the collapse of a marriage. Edwards had married Cripps in 2004, but by 2009 the partnership was in trouble and in 2010 the couple divorced.

“Pink Champagne” is a good example of her shift from narrative-based lyrics to metaphor-based lyrics. Edwards evokes a marriage not by tracing a sequence of events—first they meet, then they fall in love, then they doubt, then they marry—but through concentric rings of images, each expanding on the other. Snapshots from a fancy wedding—the white carnation, the matching bridesmaid dresses, the silk purse, the pink champagne—illustrate how the ceremony’s pomp and circumstance can overwhelm one’s reservations. “I wasn’t ready,” she sings, “but I didn’t fight.” She addresses her ex-husband tenderly (“I wish I didn’t feel this way”) but decisively (“Looking back it was such a dumb idea”).

On “A Soft Place To Land,” the other Roderick co-write, Edwards sings from the middle of the divorce process. She doesn’t retrace what already happened but describes how she was feeling at that moment in metaphors that ripple outward, as if from a stone tossed in a pond. On the mournful verses, she declares that she’s calling it quits, and on the resigned, sighing chorus she aches for “a soft place to land,” like “the forest floor” and “the palms of your hand.” On the agitated bridge, however, she seems to change her mind, asking her husband to “call me in the night,… call me in the day,… call me by my name.”

If narrative songs rely on the forward movement of time—first this happened, then that happened—reinforced by the forward movement of rhythm, metaphoric songs deemphasize time. The latter approach tries to capture one particular moment or feeling by encircling the target with layers of images and similes—and also with layers of harmony. So it’s not surprising that her two co-writes with Roderick replaced the twangy, clippety-clop canter of her early songs with more atmospheric resonance.

Edwards returned from Seattle to her home in Toronto with a batch of revitalized songs. The experience with Roderick had been so positive that Edwards began thinking about other collaborators. She thought of Vernon, whom she had admired since first hearing For Emma, Forever Ago in 2008. After all, if lush resonance is what you want, why not go to the Nick Drake of his generation, to the neo-gazebo-rock master himself?

“There are songs on both his records that I don’t know what they’re about,” she admits. “Most of them, actually. As a songwriter who likes to lay everything out, it’s very different from what I do. But I don’t analyze what he does; I just get lost in the musical landscape he creates. We had some mutual friends who told me, ‘Hey, Justin really likes your work.’ We started emailing back and forth. Eventually we talked about me coming up to his studio to record a song or two.”

That was August 2010. Edwards’ marriage was over, and the new album she was recording in Toronto had stalled because she was dissatisfied with the early tracks. She showed up in Eau Claire, and Vernon suggested that maybe they should write a song or two. “I’m not really a co-writer,” Edwards told him. He sighed with relief and said, “I’m not really a co-writer either.” Once they got that out of the way, they decided to record something together instead.

She pulled out a composition called “Wapusk.” Named after a Canadian National Park on the Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba, the song is an evocation of childhood memories that could have happened nowhere but her native Canada, where brown rivers meander like caramel and polar bears still hunt beneath the aurora borealis.

Behind Edwards’ deliberate acoustic-guitar strum, Vernon added electronic squiggles that resembled insect chirps and bird cries and later big, slow-motion chords that shimmered like the Northern lights. Edwards was so happy with the results that she released “Wapusk” as a 7” single in 2011 (it’s now available as a digital-only bonus track for Voyageur).

“We really connected well in terms of having the same vision,” Edwards says of those first sessions with Vernon. “He would listen to a track and say, ‘Maybe we should use this kind of drum approach,’ and I would say, ‘Yes, that’s just what I’m looking for.’ It was very affirming that this was the right place. Justin had great ideas, but he gave me a lot of rope to try things. It was very organic; it raveled together.

“At this point, there wasn’t any notion that Justin was going to produce this record; I thought I’d do a couple of songs with him and the rest in Toronto. But the more we talked about it, the more obvious it became, and finally I said, ‘Hey, why don’t you produce the record with me?’”

After her first visit to Eau Claire in August 2010, Edwards had done some recording in September in Toronto. But she was unhappy with the results and in October returned to Eau Claire to throw her lot in with Vernon. Because they were working at his home studio, where they weren’t being charged by the hour, the leisurely sessions stretched out through the fall and winter. The album was mixed in May, mastered in June and held for release till January.

Before long Edwards and Vernon were connecting on a personal as well as musical level. They were falling in love, a feeling that Edwards celebrates in the new song, “Sidecar.” Co-written by her old Ontario colleague Jim Bryson, the song opens with a burst of garage-rock drumming and a Cars-like buzzing guitar riff. Over this automotive music, Edwards doesn’t tell a story so much as she elaborates a metaphor. She will be a sidecar to her new love’s motorcycle as they go barreling down a mountain, chasing “the hard stuff”—and in the spirit of an egalitarian relationship, on the next mountain she will be the motorcycle and he the sidecar.

The twin circumstances—the home studio without a clock and the giddy new relationship—encouraged Edwards to take a new approach to her songwriting. Instead of arriving at the studio with finished arrangements for the band to execute, she invited their help in completing the songs.

“In the past, it all centered around me,” she concedes, “but this time I wanted to step back and allow the band to step forward. The part they provide is what’s hard to imagine when you’re at home writing the songs. It’s like when you’re a screenwriter and you’re putting down words that might fit a visual, but you can’t know for sure till you sit down with the actual images. And just as screenplays are often rewritten on the set, some of these songs were rewritten as we were tracking them. ‘Chameleon’ and ‘Going to Hell,’ for example, didn’t turn out at all like I heard them in my head.”

The latter describes a divorce as going to hell in the most literal sense—as a journey that travels “from the mountain pass to the prairie grass” marked by “breadcrumbs in the shape of an arrow,” leading to a “leaky boat” that may or may not reach the opposite shore. Layered in metaphors, the song begins quietly with a chiming guitar as if starting out on an adventure; slowly but surely, though, Vernon builds his guitar-and-keyboard Wall of Sound, upping the danger and anxiety of the trip.

During the dark days of her crumbling marriage, Edwards found herself sitting on her tour bus with Dan Wilson, her opening act, outside a venue in Nashville. She was strumming her guitar and mumbling, “I’m going to hell in a basket I made, woven from the letters and it spells your name.” Dan asked, “Are you writing a song called ‘Going to Hell?’” and she said, “I guess I am.” She decided to describe going to hell as an arduous outdoor trek and started collecting metaphors until she had pages of lyrics.

“It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my songwriting life,” Edwards remembers, “because I knew I had good images that expressed something I felt, but it kept coming out like a dull roots-rock song. But I cut out a lot of lyrics and kept trying it again and again till finally my drummer came up with a feel I was happy with. The drums played a huge part on the whole record; they were different sounding than anything I’d ever done. They carried the energy so I didn’t have to, the lyrics just sat on top of them.

“This whole record felt like that. I knew there was a final film I was trying to make; I could imagine the way it should sound in my head. But it was hard to articulate that; sometimes the only feedback I could give them is ‘That’s it’ or ‘That’s not it.’ If I didn’t get so much from playing with other people, I would just play solo all the time. But when you take a song to other musicians and you come up with something better than what you came up with yourself, that’s the most amazing experience.”

Edwards’ new drummer Lyle Molzan played a huge role in the transformation of her sound but not as much as Vernon, who set the stage for her lyrics with his signature dreamscapes of reverberating guitar, swirling organ, plinking banjo, tinkling xylophone and soaring falsetto.

The importance of his stage-setting can be seen in the unusual lengths of his instrumental introductions. On Edwards’ previous release, Asking for Flowers, the pre-vocal openings were shorter than 20 seconds on eight of the 10 songs. On Voyageur, the intros are longer than 20 seconds on seven of the 10 songs. On “Mint,” the giddiest of the new love songs, Vernon takes a full 50 seconds to create the mood with crunchy rock chords, chirpy lead notes, circling organ and dizzying oohs before Edwards ever enunciates a lyric.

Though Edwards calls from Wisconsin, she is still commuting between Eau Claire and her longtime home in Toronto. But she admits that a move to the U.S. isn’t out of the question. On “Empty Threat,” the first song from Voyageur, she sings, “I’m moving to America; it’s an empty threat,” but that song was written early in 2010, right after she returned from Seattle and before she ventured to Eau Claire. At that point, the possible move was just a metaphor for the freedom she felt to go anywhere and do anything without being tied down to an old way of music-making—or a troubled marriage.

She was surprised when her metaphor became a real possibility, because being Canadian is such a crucial part of her identity. Her first album had a song called “Hockey Skates,” and her third album referred to Marty McSorley, the Canadian hockey star, and to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “Oh, Canada,” on the same album, ponders crime and racism in Toronto, while other another song mentions the border crossings to the south.

A young Canadian, especially a young musician, always has to answer the same question: Are you moving to the U.S., where there are larger audiences, bigger opportunities and more money? Or are you staying close to your roots with your friends and family? On 2005’s Back to Me, Edwards sang, “Everybody out here, they wanna live somewhere else. I wish I could find a place and stay there by myself.” Edwards never thought she’d be one of those restless people, but the need for change—and unexpected love—has her on the brink of making that move. Still, it’s not easy.

“I love where I’m from,” she exclaims. “Being Canadian is such a gift. Maybe because I grew up overseas I have romantic notions about Canada. One of my passions is Canadian geography; I love being outdoors in every corner of the country. I feel very supported there. There are programs for artists in Canada that gave me an opportunity to do a lot of things in a very encouraging environment. You forget that those programs don’t exist in every country.

“For a long time I couldn’t imagine not living in Canada, but now I don’t know. The geography of Wisconsin feels like an extension of Canada, but there are still so many cultural differences. We don’t have Targets in Canada; we’re not so politically polarized. We read a lot.”

Edwards’ musical/personal relationship with Vernon will undoubtedly attract attention—both desirable and undesirable. Two songs on the new album explore the boundaries between a performer’s public and private lives. “Chameleon/Comedian” is a variation on the old theme of the clown who hides his sadness behind his big red nose and big red grin. “You’re a comedian and you hide behind your funny face,” she sings in the first verse, but in the third stanza, she adds, “I’m a chameleon; I just hide behind the songs I write.” Tellingly, Vernon’s high harmony shadows each line.

More pointed still is “For the Record,” which describes a heroine who was lifted on the crowd’s shoulders when she was “number one,” but who is hung “on your cross” when a story is spun the wrong way in the press. Vernon’s slow, sad chords on the electric piano unspool for more than a minute before Edwards finally sings the first line, “My blood is thick but it still runs.”

“That song is about the Dixie Chicks and what people in the public eye can go through,” Edwards reveals. “One day a 12-year-old girl has a Natalie Maines poster on her bedroom wall, and the next day she’s burning it. Not everyone agrees with how you conduct yourself, but Natalie is a great singer. She should be on stage sharing her gift, but that episode broke something in her.

“I’m sure she started out singing the way I did—that she loved music so much she couldn’t stop and it became her whole life. I remember being in my own bedroom in my parents’ basement, when listening to music felt like such a singularly powerful thing that it took over my life. I was so excited to go home and hear a record or play the guitar. Listening to a Cowboy Junkies record or Everything but the Girl, I overflowed with feelings like I would combust. I would hate to ever lose that.”

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