Published Jan 30, 2012Kathleen Edwards walks into her rehearsal space – about two weeks before her fourth album Voyageur is released – with one overwhelming thought on her mind: "I wish I got into a car accident on the way here."
Edwards finished tracking Voyageur about eight months ago. It still had to go through all the finishing touches, but she's essentially sat with the completed record since last May. For the majority of artists, having new material on the shelf for that long is an undesirable eternity. The creative process isn't quite finished until the work is shared, but for Edwards, the delay brought her to her breaking point.
I haven't been in a happy place since I've finished the record," she says. "I've felt pretty depressed, questioning a lot of things. Some days I wake up thinking, 'Fuck, I've wasted my life!'"
Writing Voyageur took Edwards through some of the happiest times of her life, but especially to the saddest places. Her divorce is undoubtedly front-of-mind when she speaks of the lowest lows, but the waiting period has plagued her with many other questions.
Where do I want to live? Where's my home? How come I don't see my family more?" She follows her string of questions with a thought that illuminates her depressed state. "I want to be a mom. I want to have kids. My biological clock is fucking hanging me every day. Maybe I'm not going to make music for the rest of my life."
That's an unsettling thought when listening to Voyageur, an album that has certainty written into fabric of each song. The ten-song diary places Edwards on a musical stratosphere that her past work points to, but falls well short of. The build during "A Soft Place To Land," with chanting drums and a lonely string section, raises the sombre song from merely "moving" to "celestial"; "Change the Sheets" erupts with confidence at each chorus explosion; "Pink Champagne" captures Edwards's voice at its strongest and most vulnerable. In short, Voyageur is what other singer-songwriters will aspire to – Edwards has set a new benchmark for her contemporaries to look up to.
Her unhappiness is a product of wading through life's septic tank, articulating each floating bit and then waiting for months in silence. It's natural to question, and Edwards, even as she still processes, realizes she wants to move on to that next stage of life – she's just uncertain how to get there.
But even as she's ready to give up on music in one moment, the next recalls the freedom it brings. "I don't want to say [Voyageur] is the best record I've done; it's more like the biggest victory I've ever had," she confirms. "I wanted to fuck shit up, break free from this Americana, alt-country pigeonhole – and I feel like it worked."
Then her next sentence pushes her mind to think of the network of friends who helped make Voyageur. "Jim Bryson – I love him – he helped me finish 'Sidecar,' which I was literally ready to flush down the toilet. Phil Cook, who's an incredible piano player, came in and literally created a wall of sound in a few days… and Justin Vernon" – aka Bon Iver, her romantic and production partner – "had his fingers all over this record.
He was able to play with things in a way where I didn't have to leave the room for 20 minutes," she remembers. "He'd just say, 'Well, how about we throw the piano through this sound and do this and that…'
"'Empty Threat' is the perfect example. I recorded it in Toronto with my band and I took it to him. He spent about an hour on it and there were ten new ideas that were exactly what I was looking for. He just instinctively knew how to get there."
And he knew how to encourage. "I kept thinking 'Pink Champagne' needed to be different. He kept holding on to it saying, 'I really think the piano and vocals you tracked are the core of this song. We can't re-record this better. This is the version of the song; it's bleeding all over itself.'"
While her excitement for Vernon and his work is palpable, she's still a bit perplexed at what people are now asking her. "The questions I'm tired of are questions that people should be asking him," she says. "Or questions they want to ask him, but they ask me instead. Like, 'Does Justin really live in a cabin in the woods?' Fuck, go out there and find out for yourself!"
Suddenly, it's clear that it's the eight-month silence that's pushed Edwards into her self-diagnosed depression. "The break brought me to this place where I forgot what it is I do, what it is that makes me get up in the morning," she says.
So, is Voyageur Edwards's last record before a break? While it sounds possible, especially as her desire for children increases, she says she can't do that. "I don't think I can take a break because I won't be doing something that is really meaningful in my life," she explains. "Then you start living for other people and that's not a good reason to have kids."
She finds inspiration in friends such as Julie Fader, who's able to have a child and still make music. She finds hope in her music that forces her to explore the undesirable situations in life – even when she's wishing for the end.
About an hour into that rehearsal, Edwards finds her old self. "Oh my God, there you are!" she exclaims to herself. "Oh right, this is why you think life isn't fulfilling – it's when you're not playing music!
It's who I am."