Kathleen Edwards: From Failer to Voyageur
A few things about Kathleen Edwards.
She’s Canadian – from Ottawa, actually – and proud of it. She’s a Cancer with curly red hair and beautiful teeth. She studied classical violin. Nowadays, though, she mostly writes songs and sings and plays guitar.
Her first album, Failer (2003), created a critical stir, mixing country, rock and pop sounds, whip-smart lyrics and lilting vocals that channeled melancholy, longing and a free-floating pissed-off attitude. Two more albums, Back To Me (2005) and Asking for Flowers (2008), followed in the same vein but tracked a maturing musical sensibility.
Edwards’ latest album, Voyageur, was produced with the help of her current boyfriend, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Through a more varied sonic palette, it records the dissolution of her marriage in poignantly pointed songs, such as “Change the Sheets” and “House Full of Empty Rooms,” while struggling through some spiritual and artistic stuff.
On the chorus of the closing track, “Record,” she intones, “Hang me up on your cross. For the record, I only wanted to sing songs.” But far from some kind of accidental martyr, Edwards can be deeply introspective, profane and kooky – sometimes in the same sentence.
Recently, during a call from her parents’ farm, where she was hanging out with Vernon, Edwards talked about her new album, Lady Gaga, the influence of geography and sex, and the crazy cast of cats that appear on her blog and Twitter feed: kittythefool.
I’m sure you have no recollection of this, but my first introduction to you was on the phone while you were out traveling with Richard Buckner. I remember him saying you had beautiful teeth.
“Those were some crazy days. Actually, I remember my Atlanta show with Richard Buckner, because he took me down the street to some place where I had fried green tomatoes for the first time. But he’s the one with the great teeth. I was taken aback by how lovely his teeth were.”
I think the first time I saw you live was at the Americana Music Awards, I’m going to say in 2003, when you had nominations for album of the year and artist of the year. That was a pretty heady time, I imagine. Of course, that begs the inevitable question: Was the “Americana” label sort of a trap?
“I don’t think of it as a trap, because I’ve had so many people be so kind and supportive of me from that group of people over the years. But I just think it got a little stale. Anyone who’s a songwriter nowadays, and has any inclination toward certain songwriting heroes, from John Prine to Neil Young, is labeled Americana. Why don’t you just call it bland? Everything has been blanched in that word.”
I’m curious about how you think you’ve evolved as a songwriter and performer in the period between Failer and Voyageur. I would think the titles alone could offer quite a compare and contrast.
“There’s been a lot of time between those two records. Part of me feels very far away from that person who made Failer and who was just driving my Suburban around looking for gigs. That just seems like a long time ago. The truth is, I feel like I’ve done my best work since Failer. I think I’ve written a lot of good songs in-between. At the same time, I still have people come up and say, ‘It’s really nice to see you. I just love Failer so much.’ It’s so flattering, but I just want to say, ‘Holy shit, man. I’ve been grinding it out since then. I put out two other records that in my mind have a lot more maturity and meant a lot more to me.’ Sometimes you feel like you’re not given the opportunity to grow in the way that people inevitably do.”
Could you talk about some of the changes you made with the new album? To me, the songwriting seems a bit more personal and the sound goes off in some different directions…
“A lot of the creative decisions were very intentional. To be honest, it kind of goes back to the Americana thing. I felt like it was a dead-end. It’s not how I see all of myself. And it certainly isn’t how I want to be thought about. I don’t want to be stuck in this alt-country singer/songwriter genre. My ear is much more interested in other things. So I was ready to step out and try things I hadn’t done, but in way that wasn’t going to betray anything I like about myself or who I am.”
So it was pretty clear you weren’t going to make a dance record or go all Lady Gaga?
“Not yet. I don’t have the patience for all those hours spent in wardrobe. You know what’s amazing about Lady Gaga? Everybody thinks she’s a musician. But really, I’ll bet you she employs like 40 people whose job it is to do set design and costume design and makeup and hair. She’s like Andrew Lloyd Webber, employing all these people who would otherwise be working shitty Broadway gigs. Instead, they get to do all this fun, cutting edge stuff. They could have been working for Blue Man Group before she came along.”
So your boyfriend, Justin Vernon, produced Voyageur, which I’m sure is a subject that comes up in most interviews. But I’ll bite, how did that all come about?
“We were aware of each other and we had a mutual friend who thought we would hit it off. I was at this point where I was really, really ready to reach out to people who I didn’t know for the sake of having a conversation about music. We were e-mail buddies for a little awhile, and we were having this wonderful dialogue back and forth, sharing experiences about this thing we do. The more I got to know Justin, the more it became obvious that his ideas felt like exactly where I wanted to go.”
When did you start recording together?
I went to Wisconsin for the first time in August of 2010 and we recorded a few songs then. This one song, called ‘Wapusk,’ about this remote spot in this National Park I’d just been to in northern Manitoba, came together and I released it as a 7-inch single. But that was the spark that led to me thinking, ‘Holy shit. This works. And this feels like a really good amalgamation of me going in a new direction and feeling really trusting of Justin’s input.’ It also felt like he really knew who I was.
Is it fair to call Voyageur a breakup album?
“Yeah. The weird thing about it, though, is that I wrote a lot of those songs when I was still married. And some of them, I didn’t really realize what I was writing at the time. But what do you say? This record is predominately about a big change in my life. A lot of that had to do with being married and then not being married. The things you do and think about and realize about yourself – who you want to be and who you change into, and hard truths about life, and the pains of growing up. Becoming a more responsible adult is a really, really hard thing to do. And then it’s really liberating to try, and to be more accepting of yourself.”
Do you like to talk about your songs?
“I don’t know. I figure if I talk about what all these songs are about, it kind of takes away from it. They kind of are a statement and I don’t really know what else I can add to it. It’s why I write songs.”
I’d be curious about your take on the Canadian identity.
“I was just in Scandinavia and I really connect with the mindset of Northerners and I really love the lifestyle that they’ve embraced. There’s a quiet confidence about Scandinavians that’s comforting and I relate to a lot, in the sense that I feel Canadians are a bit like that.”
So is geography an influence on your songwriting?
“This is going to sound ridiculous, but I honestly think my two biggest influences are Canadian geography and sex.”
“Sex. Having sex in Canadian geography [laughs]. Just sex and sexuality in general. Most of the time I write stuff when I’m outside walking in the woods somewhere.”
You’ve often cited Neil Young as an important early influence. Who are some of the people you’ve learned a thing or two from more recently?
“There’s a singer/songwriter from Seattle named David Bazan who was in a band called Pedro the Lion. He put out a record a few years ago called Curse Your Branches that really fucked my shit up. It was a really important record for me. I listened to that record when I turned a pretty big stage in my life. It was kind of the soundtrack to it. It was all about him rejecting the church that had been part of his life for so long. The National’s High Violet was a huge record for me. Huge. I bought Boxer and didn’t get it. It didn’t connect. But High Violet just knocked my socks off. And, obviously, I would say Justin has been a big influence on me in this last year and a half.”
Your cats seems to be a big influence on your blog and Twitter feed. But aren’t you a little young to be a crazy cat lady?
“Dude, I’m 33. You think my biological clock likes me right now? My fucking children are my cats. I’m borderline psychotic. What am I supposed to do with biology? So, yeah, I’m really into my cats right now.”