Kathleen Edwards: The Ultimate Voyageur

Against many odds, including a few trips to the ER earlier this week, one of Canada’s favourite darling songwriters will make her return to St. John’s after all.

The odds were stacked against us having a chat before Thursday’s show.

On Sunday night, according to numerous media reports, Kathleen Edwards “nearly died” from a wasp sting following her performance at a festival in Windsor, Ont. Paramedics swept her away to the hospital and, on Monday, via her cell phone she posted a message to her Facebook page in her fine, witty form:

Just want to thank the St. Johns ambulance and the Windsor EMT’s. I went into anaphylactic shock yesterday after getting stuck several times by a yellow jacket. An epi-pen saved my life, says the ER doctor. Bees and wasps are no longer welcome at my shows. Thanks, paramedics.

Then, on Monday, like a recurring bad dream, she went into anaphylactic shock again. “I was home to have a bath and a nap before my show here in Toronto and I…woke up and my face had swollen up, which didn’t happen the day before…and then it became difficult to swallow and I went, ‘Oh my god, I’m having a second attack. So I had to call 9-1-1 again.”

Her Tuesday press interviews were cancelled as she recovered, and out here Leslie was having her way with the city’s power supply. Wednesday was a new day, however.

Still coming East…

Not even 48 hours later, and still sporting hives, the epi-pen-wielding singer-songwriter is packing her bags for St. John’s, where she and her band will play a show at Club One Thursday night. And she’s taking half of her final hour at home to talk to me.

“The reporting was clearly overly dramatic — I didn’t nearly die, but I certainly went into anaphylactic shock and it happened very quickly,” Edwards recalls, describing the initial incident on the phone from her home in Toronto.

To cap off her unbelievable start to the week, on Monday she was also short-listed for the 2012 SOCAN Echo Songwriter prize for her (now ironic-sounding) song “A Soft Place to Land”.

And, given she’s boarding her plane sporting hives less than two days after a repeat attack, it seems Edwards is just as eager about returning as those who’ve snapped up tickets to her show.

“I haven’t played there since I opened for Bryan Adams (in 2006),” she tells me, explaining she was in port one time since, aboard a cruise ship.

But that was before Voyageur, before the last two years happened. So many things in Edwards’ life were different then.

When the 34-year-old Ottawa-native released her fourth studio album earlier this year to enthusiastic reviews, she must have breathed a sigh of relief. The record marked a huge turning point in Edwards’ life, both creatively in her work and personally in her romantic life.

In conversation…

I heard the record was finished many months before its release. And now it’s been many months since its release. Can you describe those two periods of time — the waiting and the supporting?

I did spend at lot of time working on the album, and started writing the record when I was still married and living in Hamilton. I knew I really wanted to do something that was going to be a step up from what I had done and incorporate some influences that I always felt were mine, that I enjoyed musically but maybe hadn’t quite gotten on a record. So I really fought hard to get to that end point, and obviously it was a rollercoaster of a ride in my personal life, and a lot of that also helped influence the material on (Voyageur).

For the record: In 2010 Edwards and guitarist husband and longtime collaborator Colin Cripps ended their marriage.

Then I finished the record and it was a bit bittersweet because so many things had happened in the process of making the record, outside of just making the record, that I think it was my final exhale a little bit to a very crazy few years, and to a lot of change. And the truth is, when I finished the record I just sat on it for almost eight months — I finished it in May (2010) and it didn’t come out until January. You kind of just get stuck in this no man’s land, just sitting there going, ‘Did this even happen? I’m in a relationship with somebody who’s career is absolutely gone to the moon, and they’re gone.’

For the record: In 2010 she recruited producer and musician Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) to produce her new album. He did, and the two became friends. Then a lasting romance ensued.

There’s this Toronto writer named Ray Robertson, and he talked about finishing a book and going into a terrible depression afterwards. The correlation between, you know, your whole life revolving around a creative project for years at a time and suddenly it just kind of wraps up, and you’re sitting there going, ‘Well, what do I do now?’ And you’re sort of sitting around waiting.

In 2003 Edwards released her debut album, “Failer”. Months later Rolling Stone Magazine named her one of the most promising acts of the year. – Steve Gerrard Photo.

And then when I had to do press for this record I felt like I was going back into talking about a marriage that had been over for almost two years and talking about a new relationship that was difficult because you’re with somebody who’s even more public than you are. It’s been a hard balancing act, to be honest. But I’ve really come through some really difficult challenges with that, you know. It’s my own shit — it’s not anything anyone put on my or anything.

Sometimes when you do an interview to talk about your creative project, it’s something you’ve been invested in your whole life, and the questions revolve around your ex-husband and your new boyfriend, you sort of feel like all the hard work you’ve done doesn’t really stand for anything. I was so afraid to be judged that I had a boyfriend who was famous and suddenly, you know, more people were going to pay attention to me? I have my fourth record out, I’ve been working for years and years, and yet I felt like this was the biggest thing I had done, was date Justin Vernon. That doesn’t feel good sometimes.

I read that you were looking for somebody to produce your new record who would help you take your music somewhere it hadn’t been yet, stylistically. And so, not focusing on (Vernon), but the style of his music is interesting and he definitely took you to somewhere (you’d never been) with Voyageur. How much of that was inside you and waiting to come out, and how much of it was external, whether it was in his influence or in other things that were going on outside of you in your life?

I’d started years ago working on this record, working on the songs. And I knew that my share of production had to be the songs, ‘cause I’m not an engineer.

So Justin was absolutely the person who knew how to finish my sentences, as a metaphor. We would talk about the record—and I started recording the album here in Toronto with my band, and we were tracking and working on it. And I was still trying to find somebody, and I had met him and we had started talking about music and where I want to go (with mine). And he was really able to articulate the sentiments musically that I knew I wanted but couldn’t do myself. I don’t have the skill and he does.

He has an incredible ear for, you know, not changing people from what they are, but making them, you know — throwing ideas up at the wall. And from day one we ended up working so well together. And he knew my earlier work as well, which really helped me feel like I could trust him to not make me something that I wasn’t, and I could step back and let him produce when I was done producing my share. And so we worked kind of like a ping-pong table, back and forth between Toronto and Wisconsin, and I always felt like what he did improved on what I was doing and it always felt like me.

I’ve learned so much from Justin, and I’ve learned so much from my bandmates, Jim Bryson and Gord Tough. Lyle Molzan — he came in as my new drummer for this record, and he had a huge part in helping me flesh out these songs, so that when we did our bed tracks they were the foundation of what this record sounded like. He and I sort of worked on those together. I feel really empowered actually, more than ever, and very happy to be open about what I’m not really good at doing in the studio and what I’m perfectly happy not being good at doing in the studio.

You once said you felt you had been pigeonholed, or had pigeonholed yourself, following your first three records as being a “twangy songwriter”. The song “Chameleon/Comedian” on Voyageur — is there any connection between what you express in that song and that sort of transition out of what you were trying to get out of and the unknown that you were trying to go into?

It’s a funny song to pick because it’s a song I reworked numerous times to get the right feel for it. We played it at some shows years ago, Jim and I, and it had such a different feel to it. It’s one of those songs that I worked and reworked a million times and it felt like a real victory when it ended up coming together. And I think it is one of the examples on this record of something I was looking for that just took forever to get.

Edwards’ third album “Asking For Flowers” was shortlisted for the 2008 Polaris Music Prize, which went to Caribou for his album “Andorra”. – Submitted Photo.

What song or songs on the record do you recall as being the ones that came the most natural, whether it was before or after you began your collaboration — just that you knew from the moment you wrote it that it was going to be on this record and was going to sound how it ended up sounding?

Well the record starts off with it, which is ‘Empty Threat’. I remember I had gone out to meet and try to work with this guy John Roderick, who’s in a band called The Long Winters. He’s somebody whose writing I really liked a lot, so I went up to see him and I came home feeling really, just so incredibly excited and creatively inspired for the first time in a long time, about the possibilities. And that’s what that song’s about. And I went and wrote it and rehearsed it with my band, and it just came together so quickly and, with a few tweaks here and there from my band mates, it was like, oh my god, that’s exactly the direction I want to go in. It came so naturally everything else just came piling out.”

I’m jumping right from the opening track to the closing track — ‘For the Record’. It’s a long, drawn out, atmospheric song from beginning to end, and it seems like a really good closing song. But it was a more spontaneous thing, how that came to be?

I remember, I was actually driving to the studio in Toronto and something just came to me, and I came up with that line: ‘Hang me up on your cross. For the record, I only wanted to sing songs.’ And I went into the studio to track some drums, and right before we got going I went and sat at the piano and fleshed out the verse and the chorus idea, and then I finished writing it in Wisconsin. I just was playing it on the piano and Justin said, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ ‘It’s a song I’m working on.’ ‘Do you want to record it right now?’ ‘I don’t really have the verses all right.’ And he just goes, ‘Let’s do it!’

So we went and tracked it, and I think it was the second take. He played guitar and I was on a Rhodes, and the drummer — we did it all right there. And then Justin added some more stuff to it, and I really love playing that song a lot. I wrote that song about Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks — just how visceral the reaction was to an off-hand comment, and really, frankly, just her being an entertainer and cracking a joke, at a very, very poignant time. And how horribly she was treated for having her opinion. If a man had said it, it would have been done and over. Especially in the country music world — I really feel like women aren’t as encouraged to be articulate politically and to have opinions politically. But by the end the song ended up feeling like mine, like my story too.”

Do you feel like there was some kind of, I don’t know, triumph for being able to express that?

So many of my influences have been really great men, like Richard Bucker and Bryan Adams and Steve Earle, and I could just keep going and going. And I never wanted to be this girly-girl songwriter. I was very conscientious to avoid a very feminine type of—even the way I used to sing when I first started. I was a gravelly singer, and Failer was a tomboy record. And as time has gone on and I’ve grown up — you know, there have been a lot of things that I’ve been a witness to in the entertainment business…where sexism is alive and well in what I do. And over time I’ve felt more empowered and more educated and more informed to actually say what I think and not be worried about pissing somebody off, because I know it to be true and because I have 15 years experience to know it’s true and I’m not just trying to be a loudmouth girl poking holes in the boys club.

Kathleen Edwards and opening act Molly Rankin play Club One in St. John’s tonight. For more information visit www.sonicconcerts.com.

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