Over the years, I’ve interviewed sassy Canadian songwriter Kathleen Edwards several times and followed her career. With the release of Voyageur last month, which is getting lots of well-deserved critical buzz, I chatted with her for a cover story that just came out in Canadian Musician Magazine. We talked about her new direction – both personally, musically and professionally, and the influence of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) on this new disc.
here’s the story that originally appeared in Canadian Musician.
Kathleen Edwards’ new album Voyageur, which dropped January 17 on Maple Music Recordings, is a cathartic journey in song; it’s about new beginnings — leaving the past behind and exploring the pain and healing surrounding the dissolution of her five-year marriage to former bandmate/guitarist Colin Cripps. While Edwards, 33, says things between her and Cripps are now amicable, she does not deny that this is her breakup record.
“The process of going through that was certainly reflected in the songs,” she admits. “He is still an important person in my life. I love him a lot … I don’t love talking publicly about my divorce, but I’m at the point where I think the material speaks for itself.”
Voyageur was recorded between August 2010 and May 2011 — mostly in Fall Creek, Wisconsin at Justin Vernon’s home studio and the rest of the bed tracks were laid down in Toronto at Caterbury Studios. The 10 cuts on her fourth full-length studio release, offer a personal, often painful, document of this lost love. Edwards hopes these songs will speak to others who have felt a similar loss. This sense of loss is seen even before spinning the new tunes on iTunes. One glance at some of the song titles scream out this theme: “House Full of Empty Chairs,” “A Soft Place to Land,” and “Change the Sheets.” Listening to the lyrics brings out this theme further – with lines such as “I’ve been feeling lost for so long.” “The tone is hushed on some songs, charged with boundless energy on others. Layers of sounds show the meticulous work that went into each guitar part and each vocal overlay. Edwards sounds like a bird with a broken wing at times, but she later soars like a bird that has relearned to fly.
“I’ve never felt as vulnerable in my whole life as I did when I finished this record,” reveals the songsmith. “I fought hard to make it a quality record. I wanted to do something different. It was hard because it is very personal material, but at the same time, I don’t know how to write songs that don’t mean anything to me. You put out things to the world that are obviously about you and you are judged, listened to, and analyzed; hopefully, people find themselves in my songs because what I experienced is like what a lot of other people go through. Maybe that is the comfort and reward … to realize I am not alone.”
As the title of one of the emotionally-charged songs on Voyageur says she’s “looking for a soft place to land.” Enter Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), who provided this pillow and made sure the songwriter wasn’t alone for long. Edwards was familiar with Vernon’s work, (not really a surprise since his band was nominated for four Grammy Awards in 2011.), and reached out to him first via e-mail.
“I was not even thinking about him producing the record,” Edwards comments. “I just thought we could work on a few songs and we did, but once that started it was pretty clear there was really good chemistry to continue working on a full record together.”
Following a brief hiatus from writing – and the tumult in her personal life – Edwards was ready to explore new musical territory, including trying to co-write. “I hadn’t really done this in the past and the idea was that it might lead to some breaking new ground in the way I write songs,” she explains. “That was one of the reasons Justin and I first reached out to one another. We both quickly realized we didn’t really like co-writing and we just went from there.”
While the pair didn’t co-write any songs, Vernon’s influence was huge on Voyageur; it’s heard in even the smallest musical ideas. The indie songwriter and his Canadian counterpart shared many dialogues about music; Edwards says he was full of great suggestions. “He was in tune with knowing where I wanted to go, so I was able to articulate a lot of things musically that I wanted to accomplish with this record.
During the songwriting stage, Edwards knew she needed to take a step back once in a while and figure out how to get the songs where they needed to go … it was an ongoing process — definitely not a go into the studio and record the songs in six days live-off-the- floor type of session.
“I would go to Wisconsin with some of the bed tracks and we would work on the colorings of them a bit,” Edwards says. “Then, Justin would work on these tracks and run some cool ideas through them. That’s how we built the record … piece by piece.”
Besides taking Edwards’ muse to new songwriting shores, Vernon’s influence guided this voyage; at the same time, the couple became fast friends. Voyageur is a journey; it’s this journey that the Toronto-based musician takes listeners on, on her first record since Asking for Flowers (2008), According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, “voyageur” means: “a French-speaking or Métis canoeman employed by merchants in Montreal to transport goods to and from trading posts in the interior.” Translate this to Edwards’ art and it’s the perfect title for this collection of songs and for her life as a travelling musician. Substitute the canoe with a touring van and rather than transporting goods, the artist is delivers songs from town to town. As the daughter of a diplomat, the songwriter spent parts of her childhood living abroad in places such as Korea and Switzerland. With this worldly youth, it was almost a given Edwards would choose a career that involved travelling.
A LOVE AFFAIR WITH NATURE REBORN
The sharp-tongued songwriter says she’s always had a strong affinity for Canadian geography and describes herself as an “outdoorsy person,” having lived in different parts of Ontario. In between globetrotting with her dad’s job, she also spent childhood summers in northern Ontario, northern Quebec and the Northwest Territories. She’s also spent a lot of time driving around the Great Lakes, which no coincidence, are represented on Voyageur’s cover. Apart from the newfound relationship with Vernon and the split from Cripps, good old Mother Nature – a muse for poets and writers for centuries – also inspired this latest batch of songs. This love affair was rekindled when Edwards was chosen in 2010 to partake in the National Parks Project; this initiative to celebrate Parks Canada’s centennial saw 13 filmmakers and 39 musicians interpret this country’s national parks in a series of short documentaries and songs. Edwards spent five days in Wapusk National Park in northern Manitoba – the result was, “Wapusk,” which was released as a seven-inch single last fall.
“It was the first time I had been out in the woods for a few days at a time and it was a wonderful reintroduction to that part of my personality or part of my childhood that was such a formative thing in my life,” she explains. “I just fell in love with that whole aesthetic again. After five days, I left feeling like my life has been this incredible journey … I’m never in the same place very much and I’m always on the road. Emotionally and personally, everyone goes through critical experiences and they shape where you’re going and to whom you become. The journey of life is a pretty lame metaphor, but I’m a career traveler and it has affected my whole life … it’s a big part of who I am.
“I spend so much time on highways, at service stations, clubs and urban areas, so to go out to the wilderness again was very grounding,” she adds. “It was a big spark for sure.”
Following Asking for Flowers (2008), which made the Polaris Prize Short List, the creative sparks had dwindled like the dying embers of a firecracker; Edwards was burned out. A year and a half touring to promote the record took its toll. The road weary song slinger was tired of following the white line and living this life that she describes as not normal.
“You burn out pretty quickly when you spend a lot of time on the road and you just want to live a normal life for a while,” she explains. “Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, ‘I’m going to do some work in the garden today that I’ve ignored for the last year and a half or sometimes it’s I’m going to cook a meal. It’s funny some of the things you live without for long periods of time, then it occurs to you that you’ve gone to the polar opposite for a while and you just to get your feet back on the ground.”
Edwards says that, while the life of a touring musician appears glamorous to most, it is exhausting and you are never in charge of your schedule. One town and day just blends into another – think of the age-old rock joke where the performer says, “Hello [insert town]” and said star mistakes where he is playing.
“You are surrounded by people 24 hours a day, seven days a week and you have no routine,” Edwards comments. “Every day, you don’t know what is going to happen. There are days when you come home from the road and you say, ‘fuck, all I want to do today is get up, make a coffee, and stay in my pajamas all day.”
VOYAGEUR: A COLLABORATIVE AFFAIR
Speaking of people, besides Vernon, it was Edwards’ longtime friends and bandmates who she chose surround herself with for the Voyageur sessions. Joining Edwards were long-time bandmates and collaborators: Jim Bryson (guitars and keys), John Dinsmore (bass), Gord Tough (guitar), and Lyle Molzan (drums). Voyageur also includes guest appearances by Francis and the Lights, Norah Jones, Stornoway, John Roderick, Phil Cook (Megafaun), Sean Carey (Bon Iver), Afie Jurvanen (Bahamas) and Brian Moen (Peter Wolf Crier).
Toronto-based producer Ian Lefeubre, an old friend from Ottawa, oversaw the Hogtown sessions where Edwards and her band recorded a lot of the bed tracks at Caterbury studios. Edwards specifically mentions how Molzan really set the tone for being committed to her and helping her and her songs get where they needed to go.
“Lyle helped me find something that was different in drums that I’ve never had before,” Edwards explains. “The nice thing about Lyle is that he is very focused on the small details and that’s what I needed … I needed someone to be fixated on little high hat hits for example; little things suddenly became a part of the sound I wanted to work on. I didn’t want to write songs that were your typical structure of verse/chorus, verse/chorus, verse/chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus, outro.”
Another long-time compatriot from Canada’s capital – Bryson – also played an integral role, doing a lot of the collaborating and writing for the record from his Ottawa basement. Bryson’s friendship with Edwards, which he laughs, has always been “purely platonic,” goes back to before she even released her critically-acclaimed full-length debut Failer in 2003. Bryson says that it was inevitable that the songs on Voyageur would take the turn that they did.
“When big things happen in your life and big changes happen, it gets reflected,” he explains. “Sometimes with music, it’s nice to clean the slate and make things new again. She’s not a different person, but she was excited to try something new and have a fresh go at it. The new record is a reflection of new surroundings and the introduction of a fresh personality.”
Bryson, who, when we chat, is enjoying some downtime at home a few weeks before Christmas, before joining the rest of the band on tour later this spring, says Voyageur was the first time since her debut that the pair really worked together on a batch of songs. It was a slow process at times, he admits, but it also was a lot of fun; Edwards and her fellow co-creators meticulousness is reflected in the end result.
“She tried things many times, playing them live to hear how they sounded,” Bryson says. “Some worked and some didn’t have the excitement level she wanted. There were certain songs she recorded three of four times until it hit a nerve. There’s a genuine connection in these songs. Her other records are like that, but after three records of a certain style, she definitely cleaned the slate with this one.”
As mentioned, the bulk of Bryson’s contributions were recorded in his Ottawa basement on limited recording gear. This is the new world of musical collaboration. Edwards would send Bryson a song via e-mail and tell the multi-instrumentalist what she was looking to add, whether it was a vocal, guitar or keyboard part.
“I would send a whole bunch of stuff back and tell her to take what she wanted,” Bryson says. “The biggest example was ‘Sidecars’ where a lot of the keyboards and some of guitar happened where she wasn’t around to say whether she liked it or not and she ended up using a bunch of it.”
If Edwards choose not to use one of Bryson’s ideas, he didn’t take it personally. “I know how records work,” says the seasoned songwriter. “It’s like taking photographs. You take 100 and may only use three of them. If it’s a signature part and you really feel connected to it you can have a discussion, but otherwise if you are playing on someone else’s record, it’s their record … at the end of the day, it’s her deal. It’s not like I can throw a barrel of monkeys down the stairs and mic it and expect her to use it.”
Jokes aside for a moment, Bryson says the record has so many faces to it. Asked to pick a few favorites, he names “Change the Sheets,” due to the Wurlitzer loop that runs throughout, along with “Going to Hell” and “Chameleon/Comedian.” While the subject matter of many of the songs is heavy, the Ottawa musician says that it’s real-life stuff that most people should be able to relate to. “My joke is that music is not coal mining but there is still a lot of struggle in life.”
Getting back to Edwards and her life on the road, we conclude our chat talking about one of her favorite places in the world to play – Scandinavia.
“There is a weird connection between Canadian artists and Swedish artists,” she explains. “There is something about the songwriting culture, which I think has a lot to do with the geography of our countries … that plays a huge part in influencing songs and music.”
While Europe is a favorite stop in her global travels, Edwards admits that she needs to tour Canada more – she’s never even done a full cross-Canada tour; she hopes with Voyageur she’ll spend more time touring in her home and native land. With a trio of dates set for February – Montreal on the 7th, Hamilton on the 10th, and a homecoming show at the Phoenix Concert Theatre on February 11, this wish is already on its way to be granted. After the burn out, the break up, and the downtime, Edwards is exciting about hitting that white line yet again. Leaving her normal life behind for a while, taking a trip with Voyageur and her bandmates, and seeing where this new and exciting road will take her.
“It’s been a really hard test of everything we touched on before,” she concludes. “I feel optimistic about this record and it’s a nice way to start the year.”