WITH the release of her fourth album Voyageur in 2012, Kathleen Edwards was on a career high. It made the US top 40 and the Canadian singer-songwriter toured incessantly to capitalise on its success, gaining multitudes of fans. Yet she felt so miserable that she could hardly bear to pick up her guitar.
Eventually she consulted a psychiatrist and in 2013 was diagnosed with clinical depression. ‘I wanted to die,’ she said. ‘When you’re stuck in that feeling, you’re not living, you’re suffering.’
The answer, to her public’s dismay, was to make a clean break with showbusiness. She moved back to Stittsville, a village on the outskirts of Ottawa, and opened a coffee shop called Quitters.
Thankfully, however, she would disprove the old cliché that quitters never win and winners never quit. After six years of hard grind beside the frothing machine, she has at last rediscovered her musical mojo and the latte lover’s loss is the listener’s gain. Welcome back, our lass, it’s good to hear you again.
The story begins in July 1978 when Kathleen was born in Ottawa. Her father Leonard Edwards was a diplomat who would become Canada’s deputy minister for foreign affairs.
Kathleen studied classical violin from a young age but was more interested in the music of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and on leaving school she shunned university in favour of playing country-tinged music in clubs and bars.
By autumn 2000 she was touring Canada and the US, and in 2002 was signed by Rounder Records after an appearance at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Early the next year came her first album, Failer. And what a debut it is. The first thing that hits you on track one, Six O’Clock News, is the brilliant loose and spontaneous sound. Kathleen sounds like she has just tumbled out of bed and found Neil Young’s band Crazy Horse sitting in the kitchen all set up and ready to play.
The song tells the story of a girl whose troubled boyfriend pulls a gun on police. She is expecting his baby and wants to plead with him to give himself up but cannot get through the security cordon and he is gunned down as she watches on television. Phew!
Track two, One More Song The Radio Won’t Like, is another cracker. The singing and playing on this album, by musicians I’d never heard of, is superb.
The tempo slows for Hockey Skates, a lament about ‘going down in the same old town down the same old street to the same old bar’.
The Lone Wolf is brilliant, particularly thanks to the lap steel and national steel guitar of Fred Guignon. Again, the narrator’s lover comes to a sticky end.
The next track, 12 Bellevue, features another troubled relationship – ‘I put a hole in your heart and I fed it to you’. Mercury is slow and mournful but Kathleen gets her feist back on Westby – ‘I don’t think your wife would like my friends’.
Maria is another rockin’ workout while National Steel slows things down with Kathleen using her classical strings training to good effect. We conclude with Sweet Little Duck, slurred vocals reminiscent of the great Lucinda Williams as she broods about depression.
If Edwards had never made another record she could have been proud of her career but 2005’s Back To Me is even better.
In State, as in 20 years in state prison, is another ode to a wrong ’un – ‘You talk so sweet until the going gets tough; the last job you pulled was never big enough.’
The title track has Kathleen vowing she will use her womanly wiles to bring back her errant bloke. Again, the playing is great. Pink Emerson Radio has her looking around her room before it burns down. You’ll have gathered by now that Edwards is no sugary songwriter, preferring gritty stories which more often than not end in a grisly comeuppance.
Independent Thief is another great track with our Kath on fine vocal form backed by top-notch guitar. Old Time Sake has her pleading with her chap: ‘Don’t you dare leave till the morning; like you always do.’ She is in similar mood on the lovely Summerlong while What Are You Waiting For includes the uncompromising couplet: ‘You say you like me in your memory; You’ve got to be f***ing kidding me.’
The album concludes with three absolute belters which reflect Edwards’s feeling of dislocation having moved from rural Canada to Toronto: Somewhere Else, the gorgeous ode to her home town Copied Keys and Good Things.
Three years later comes a gentler offering, Asking For Flowers, on which the Edwards band is mainly replaced by session musicians. Not a good idea. In contrast to the bad-boy first tracks of its predecessors, Buffalo is a much more downtempo opening and showcases the singer’s new skills on the piano, which she taught herself to play. The Cheapest Key is a vicious putdown of a lover but lacks the musical roughness of yore. The title track, about a downtrodden wife, is probably the best, closely followed by I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory and the finale, Goodnight California. Several reviewers described Asking For Flowers as Edwards’s best album yet, displaying greater maturity and vocal skill, but I have to say I prefer the older stuff, jagged edges and all. You could never mistake these tasteful session musicians for Crazy Horse.
Ditto Voyageur, co-produced by Edwards and her then squeeze, Justin Vernon from the band Bon Iver. By now those grungy guitar licks are but a distant memory and the singing is frequently homogenised by poptastic harmonies and backing vocals. So ofcourse it sold well in America.
By the end of 2012 Edwards had split up with Vernon and was in the depths of despair. ‘I could not conceive writing music any more until I was better,’ she said.
Working 12-hour days at Quitters and dealing with the public provided some relief from her misery. ‘Their lives were about commuting to work, taking kids to school and navigating real life,’ she told an interviewer from the Guardian. ‘I realised I was giving them something, which was a place to come and just escape for five minutes and have a coffee: that is a wonderful thing that I can do.’
Edwards said she felt part of a community for the first time following her peripatetic upbringing and derived great joy from her dogs and her garden. Her guitars were locked away in a room she never entered.
Then, in 2017, she received a phone call from the manager of country starlet Maren Morris, a long-standing fan who wanted to know if Kathleen would be prepared to write songs with her. She decided she would give it a try, she told Rolling Stone magazine. ‘I’d had my head in the sand for so many years. What’s the worst that could happen?’ She flew to Nashville and spent several days with Morris and her producer Ian Fitchuk. The result was Maren’s hit record Good Woman, a song based on an idea Kathleen had come up with years earlier.
Back in Stittsville, she decided she was ready to return to the musical fray, and began writing the songs that would make up her comeback album, Total Freedom. It opens with Glenfern, a midtempo number more like the old stuff, named after a street where she used to live. Co-producer Fitchuk said the song was a revelation. ‘There was this emotional evolution that made me feel like Kathleen wasn’t the same person she was when she was making her other records. It showed the ways that she’s processed challenges and pain and complications in her life and has neutralised them and turned them into a power.’
Hard on Everyone is another one where you can actually hear the drums, as is the excellent Options Open. And I’m a sucker for songs about dogs, in this case Who Rescued Who? about a much-loved golden retriever.
Edwards continues to run Quitters while of course observing the social distancing rules, and broadcasts occasional concerts from the band area in the corner. ‘The cafe is a community hub in my town,’ she says. ‘We give people some sanctuary in their life, and many people have lost their sanctuary — they can’t leave their homes, their jobs. My job is about investing in this place personally so that other people can feel good.’