Published Apr 26, 2008Music plays different roles in everyones lives. For the solitary singer-songwriter, it has to imbue every part of you, otherwise theres a danger of that well of creativity running dry. For Kathleen Edwards, that doesnt seem to be a problem. "I dont remember the moment it happened, she tries to recall. "Music was always there for me. I used to listen to music and sit on the bus to school and feel so moved by what I was listening to all the time that I thought maybe I was much more affected by music than other people, because I couldnt understand how people werent as affected as I was. Just from listening to all sorts of stuff like Ani DiFranco, Cowboy Junkies, Tom Petty. And thats the music before you get bitten by the real music bug, in a sense, where you start discovering music on your own and not music that friends are telling you about.
From the release of her debut album, Failer, in 2002 to her current triumph, Asking For Flowers, Kathleen Edwards has been working at her own music and, along the way, discovering a strong, certain voice. Yet for her, the journey never seems to be over; each new album brings new challenges and opportunities to flex those creative, stubborn muscles. Asking for Flowers is a perfect example. Not only has she taken on broad, difficult subjects, like rising gun violence on "Oh Canada and "Alicia Ross her personal take on the story of a young Markham, Ontario woman slain by her neighbour but she decided to leave the comfort of home and hightail it to California to record with Jim Scott, who produced Tom Pettys Wildflowers, an album that Edwards, as a teenager, adored. It wasnt just Jim Scott waiting for her, but a whole bunch of musicians shed never met, which was Edwards plan all along she specifically requested that Scott pick musicians that would play well with her. "It was definitely weird going down and playing these songs, Edwards admits. "Some of the first songs I recorded were the really emotionally heavy ones, and its definitely a little frightening doing that with people youve never met. In the end, the experiment emboldened her. "It was such a rewarding experience because it makes you feel like every intuition that you have about going for something kind of falls into place. Thats why making records is so great. Its things that are familiar versus things that arent and both of them are like the x factor; you just dont know what theyre going be.
The unfamiliar territory seems starker when you consider that for her last album, Back to Me, she worked with her husband, former Junkhouse and Crash Vegas guitarist (and now full-time Edwards guitarist) Colin Cripps as her producer. For Flowers, Cripps just followed her to California and played on the album. For him, the reason is quite clear: "Just to do something different. I think she didnt want to work with me because of that. [Scott] mixed the last record and it was a really good relationship and hes obviously done some great records and that was definitely was something she wanted to pursue. Edwards admits it was a tough move, but quite necessary. "It was just a chance for me to do something independently of him, she explains, "which isnt always easy because, you know, we do so much together. He did still play on the record, but I think it was a little while before it wasnt such a sensitive issue anymore. Having him around is amazing, so it definitely wasnt an easy thing to do. The circumstances surrounding Flowers would have shocked the Edwards who crafted Failer. That debut made such a strong impression because it was so emotionally straightforward and open and, well, blunt. Indeed, at the start of her career Edwards followed the old adage of "write what you know, no doubt inspired by her youth in Ottawa. She was the one around the campfire at summer camp as well as the one who played with her friends at the capitals Merivale High School. "I would take my guitar to school all the time and it was never with the intention of playing for people. I just liked playing guitar so much that I would go down to the basement and hang out there and sing songs. I wasnt doing it for people.
By 1998, that started to change with regular gigs around Ottawa, backed up by guitarist Jim Bryson, whos supported acts like the Weakerthans and Sarah Harmer as well as releasing his own gorgeous folk rock albums, like the recent Where the Bungalows Roam. Their musical relationship started where most artistic things bloom in Ottawa, over a pint at the Manx Pub on Elgin Street. The alchemy was immediate and it continues to this day Bryson has played on every Edwards album, including Flowers. As to why they work so well together, Bryson says, "Ive always said shes my favourite person in the world to sing with. Ive done lots of singing with other people but theres just a natural intuitiveness that I feel playing music with her. Theres just been something about our personalities that weve always kind of got along like relatives, where we can bitch and complain at each other. Edwards concurs: "I heard someone recently describe the notion that you have soul-mates and stuff like that and Jim is definitely one of my soul-mates. Its not weird, like your soul-mate is the person you marry and all that shit, but your soul-mate is somebody who challenges you and that you have this creative outlet with and we really connect that way. Hes a great friend; hes like a brother to me.
Ensconcing herself in the familiar arms of the Ottawa scene, and with Bryson backing her up, Edwards was ready to take on the onslaught of attention that would come upon the completion of the incomparable Failer. With such hits as "Six OClock News and "Hockey Skates, Edwardss rootsy stomp, personal, no-bullshit, lyrics and commanding yet vulnerable voice attracted plenty of attention. Not only did Rolling Stone give her a shout-out as one of that years most promising acts, she was invited to play The Late Show with David Letterman twice in a span of five weeks. "We got booked on the first time, Edwards recalls, "and then the second time we were on the outskirts of New York City and my phone rings and its my manager Patrick. He says Pull over, wherever you are, pull over right now! Ill call you back in an hour. Were at a gas station in Jersey and the phone rings again and hes like Okay, go to Newark airport, get in a cab, youre going to play on Letterman. Daves sick, but hes got a guest host and they want to you put on the show tonight. Colin and I took our guitars and played Hockey Skates on Letterman [while] the band went ahead to Philadelphia and set up for the gig [that night] and we rolled in an hour before and put on our show on the longest day of my life. Its one of those moments where you go, Wow, is this actually happening to me?
These incremental yet significant steps put Edwards on her journey from the earnest girl with a guitar to the confident songwriter that permeates Flowers. "Its hard to see the long term benefits of holding out on something that you just want to put out and never have to answer to anybody, while before you could just do your own thing, she says. "Just touring and playing live shows and not getting inebriated by the third song that was all a learning experience. You cant learn it until you do it.
One of the greatest changes, and one that informed most of her wider, post-Failer output, has been her relationship with Colin Cripps. Though they met in late 2001, they took the next step mid-2002. "Colin, in my mind, was the uber-talented, uber-unavailable and unaffordable guy in the Canadian music scene, Edwards recalls, "and I just saw myself as the pudgy, confused, scrappy out-of-control person that youd probably never look twice at. I mean, the second he showed up for rehearsal it was pretty intense having him around and, you know, he just brought so many things to the table above and beyond, like, the obviously pretty intense emotional connection.
Cripps, likewise, found something unique in Edwards, "With her, I was given what became Failer and my friend [Junkhouse front-man] Tom Wilson had mentioned her to me before that because he knew her. I went home and put it on and I fell in love with the songs, so thats what resonated with me more than anything. Then, when I met her, it was pretty much instantaneous that we had an attraction. I think that I was probably inspired by her work and then when I met her it felt like any situation where you dont expect anything and it sort of happens in spite of you and youre drawn to each other and that becomes the love story. Her second record, Back to Me, was a balance between the Edwards that burrowed herself in the confessional Failer and the adventurous, widescreen view that she puts forth on Flowers. The familiar came from having Cripps behind the boards as producer the first real test of their relationship. The uncertainty came from leaving the relative safety of the Ottawa scene for Toronto. It wasnt the best of fits, as she intones on one of the most cited lyrics on Back to Me: "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. Describing their working relationship, Cripps admits "there were some bugs that had to get ironed out, but once we got going, I think the flow of ideas and how things came together, it got better and better. Sometimes thats the case with anybody, kind of sussing each other out until you get something to prove the relationship is actually working.
That relationship was the turning point when Edwards had to look elsewhere for inspiration and found it in both friends and the wider world. "The last thing Id ever want to do is write songs or an album about the trials of my life, she says now. "Everyone knows who I would be writing about. Id be mortified. It actually has been a good challenge, being married, because suddenly you go, Wow, I want to write about something that is real, what is that? and I dont want it to always be about me. Its been a really good thing to look outside of myself and start writing songs that are other peoples stories and you can always invest yourself in that, no matter what it is.
Though Edwards has trained her critical eye on bigger lyrical prizes, she hasnt lost the blunt style and penchant for cussing that made Failer so enjoyable. Cripps agrees: "I think she still has the same bite and the same sense of edginess. She hasnt mellowed out because shes been with me, thats for sure. Bryson concurs: "I think that, with a lot of people who make records, that initial record is very, very personal and then what her songs and subject matter encompasses, it keeps expanding and developing. Shes become a very comfortable songwriter and is not afraid to write about things that put her in a situation that she has to answer what shes writing about.
Acknowledging the change of outlook, Edwards is very comfortable from the outside looking in. "I think I write songs that are about friends and Im writing fiction, for sure, but I think its inevitable that I would invest a part of myself in that at the same time. I think maybe, without a better example, its like method acting. You use the life experience that you can feel and connect with to try and tell somebodys story with a piece of that sentiment that you carry. And I think I wouldnt have much to write about if I couldnt connect to any story.
Take "Oh Canada, off of Flowers, for example. She sings: "Its not the year of the gun/ We dont say it out loud/ There are no headlines/ When a black girl dies/ Its not the lack of a sense/ Its called ambivalence. In it, she expertly mixes broader views with more personal ones; its inspiration could be taken as the reason she and Cripps left Toronto and hightailed it to Hamilton. "I never really settled into Toronto, she recalls, "and then there was this major catalyst. We were renting a small house it was attached and the people living on the other side, whoever they were, ended up randomly firing off a weapon; Colin was home at the time, I was up in Ottawa visiting my mum and dad. Bullets came through the wall, went across the room and missed Colin by several feet and the bullet embedded itself in the far wall.
Its not about emulation anymore, or being the girl on the school bus with the headphones taking other peoples inspiration and views to heart. Her career has been a path of discovering her own voice and figuring out exactly what it means to make a Kathleen Edwards album. "Ive been told frequently in the last year that Im a bit of a control freak and I try to take that in stride and try to be conscious of the idea that music isnt just about this insular experience. Sometimes you have to take risks that may not pan out and may not be very good but theyre good things to do, she reflects. "[Flowers] is sort of me getting more involved in the production element of what I was doing and it was really rewarding and tough at times to be the person who has to have the final answer on a take or on a mix. Im still having a hard time reconciling that when its my name on an album and Im the one who has to play those songs every night, how do I be open to things yet still be prepared to stand behind it every time? It can take songwriters many years to figure out those questions, but Edwards has always moved forward from album to album, getting more confident about whats inside her and what shes really capable of doing. As Edwards readily admits, "This process, its like this open book and Im on chapter one. Im hoping there are still endless chapters that I get to fill in.