It was one of the highlights of the year for me,” Kathleen Edwards says of the 2003 SXSW convention in Austin, Texas. Her breakout performance there this year became one of the most talked-about acts at the festival. “The year before I’d gone, and I’d played this little club. I wasn’t signed to Rounder yet, and it was actually the first time they came out to hear me play. So it was amazing to go back and have things be drastically different. I remember the year before when I went, Norah Jones was kind of everyone’s cup of tea, and it felt like I had been put into that sort of place at SXSW this year.”
Now, it seems impossible to think of what happened to Norah Jones in the months after last year’s SXSW—the near universal acclaim, the constant play on MTV2, the Grammys—and not wonder if Edwards is headed in the same direction. But if the thought crosses her mind, she doesn’t mention it. Edwards remains quite humble, and while she’s clearly ambitious, the accolades she’s received don’t seem to have raised her expectations particularly high. She still considers herself a nobody—when asked whether she’s bigger in the U.S. or in her native Canada, she replies, “I don’t think I’m big anywhere.” It seemed somehow fitting that of the four artists at this Paste cover shoot, Edwards was the only one not accompanied by at least one label representative to make sure the photos and interviews went smoothly.
The album that’s gotten Edwards so much attention is Failer, a collection of 10 country-inflected songs that fits comfortably under the Americana heading. She delivers the songs with straightforward confidence and
disarming simplicity, and the album, though not particularly adventurous, possesses an extraordinary overall
consistency, especially for someone so young. Edwards’ primary strength as a songwriter is melody, and much like Tom Petty and Neil Young, both of whom she cites as influences, she’s adept at composing strong, simple tunes that persistently work their way into your head. Her voice sounds wise and weary—almost jaded, which has led to countless comparisons with Lucinda Williams. But the comparison doesn’t quite fit—Edwards has none of Williams’ terse, spitting delivery, and none of her intensely psychological self-scrutiny as a writer.
“It’s a real honor to be even in the same sentence as Lucinda Williams,” she says, “but in terms of people
thinking she’s been a big influence, it’s not really accurate. I think that what she’s done in the last 15 years paved the way for me to be received the way I have been. But people like Aimee Mann and Ani DiFranco have been far more influential for me personally.” Why country music, then? “Because my biggest influence to date is Whiskeytown. It just opened doors for me to listen to music that had country inflections without thinking of them as cheesy or tacky. I loved that they used country instruments in a way that wasn’t straight-ahead country. I’d never appreciated pedal steel before, and then it became my favorite instrument. To this day, I think Ryan Adams is my favorite songwriter of my generation.”
Edwards has been touring steadily for over a year now, and her audience is building. Immediately after the photo shoot she was whisked away to LaGuardia to catch a flight to Boston, where she co-headlined a show with The Thorns. The singer-songwriter started the year opening for Richard Buckner, followed by months of solo dates, and a lengthy stint opening for Guster, for Edwards a less than satisfying experience. “The Guster fans just couldn’t be bothered. I had people in the front row leaning there, looking bored, talking on their cell phones. I’d rather be at home, writing or hanging out with my cats.” And home is where she’s headed now, after another week of shows. There she’ll have some time to relax before starting work on her next record in the spring.