Alt-country's New "It" Girl: Kathleen Edwards
KATHLEEN EDWARDS had a serious classical musical upbringing, of the sort suitable for the daughter of a senior Canadian diplomat. She played violin from age 5 to 17, studied with National Arts Centre Orchestra violinist Karoly Sziladi and was part of the Ottawa Youth Orchestra. But as a trumpeter in her high-school band, Edwards was inclined to let her hair down. "I was the jackass in the back playing La Bamba," she says. And all classical pursuits fell by the wayside once she discovered the guitar during some Kumbaya-type sessions in Temagami, Ont. "I was always embarrassed," says Edwards, "to tell people I started singing and playing guitar at summer camp. But that's how it happened." Red-faced no more and light-years past corny singalongs, the 24-year-old Ottawa native is now alt-country's latest "It" girl, thanks to her critically adored debut album Failer.
Edwards independently recorded and released the CD almost a year before it was picked up last September by Canadian label MapleMusic Recordings and Rounder Records in the U.S. It was Rounder's aggressive marketing that got Failer into "the hands of the right people," says Edwards. Soon Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and critics from major American newspapers were gushing. Last month she performed on Late Show with David Letterman and Last Call with Carson Daly - and only then did she start to get substantial press back home.
She's just a little bitter. "If you are a Canadian singer-songwriter," she says, "whenever you tour Canada it's like you're still considered a local act. But as soon as an American comes, even someone who's very grassroots and not huge, it's a bigger deal. There are as many good songwriters in Canada but we all have to travel south to gain that critical acclaim." But Edwards isn't holding any grudge, not with both sides of the border now paying attention. She's currently opening for Blue Rodeo in Ontario, has a headlining U.S. club tour starting next week, and will perform on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno Feb. 17.
After a few years fooling around with her older brother's guitar at camp, Edwards got her own for Christmas when she was 15. She taught herself to play songs by Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival - the staples of her brother's record collection. "Then I started listening to Ani DiFranco," she says, "and emulated her style of playing guitar. I figured out how to detune stuff and really fingerpick." Her first attempts at songwriting were in the DiFranco and Indigo Girls vein of '90s folk. But when she grew tired of imitating others, Edwards went looking for her own style. Turns out she's more rough and twangy and less hippie-chic than the Lilith Fair stylings of her youth. She's currently being categorized with the cool kids of alt-country, like Ryan Adams and Kasey Chambers, and has scored comparisons to Lucinda Williams, the grande dame of Americana roots rock.
Failer is pretty irresistible for anyone who finds that the musings of singer-songwriters go down better with traditional country-style instrumentation. Edwards wrote all the songs acoustically and invited some Ottawa-area musicians - including Jim Bryson on electric guitar and banjo, Fred Guignon on slide and lap steel, and Tom Thompson on pedal steel - to help her create the sound she wanted. "I didn't have the first clue about how to play the pedal steel," says Edwards. "But I knew I really wanted to use it."
Failer also introduces an intoxicating narrative voice, whose tales of drinking, police standoffs and fooling around with older men suggest a woman with experiences far beyond Edwards's years. But upon closer inspection, her lyrics reveal a playful innocence and a heart unhardened. This is a girl who's had some fun (no one likes a girl who won't sober up); some heartbreak (I'm not so dumb, I can take a hint/Gave you 48 hours and then I split); and has toyed with hard living (Going down to the same old bar and I don't even order any more).
Edwards lived in Switzerland and South Korea as a child before finishing high school in Ottawa. (Her father, Leonard, was an ambassador and is currently deputy minister for international trade.) After playing with the notion of going into Native law or English literature, Edwards says, "I just decided I didn't need to pay tuition to go read books. I can travel and learn languages and religions and enjoy literature without having to take a course on enjoying literature. Of course my dad says, 'That's a really closed-minded way of thinking about it.' "
Edwards got a place of her own in the capital city and a job as a waitress. In 1999, she made a seven-song EP and then set up her own Western Canada tour by cold-calling music stores in cities she'd never been to and asking where someone like her, a folkie singer-songwriter, could get a gig. She scheduled 10 shows in six weeks and travelled by herself in her '88 Chevy Suburban. "If I didn't make enough money at the last show to afford a hotel on the way to the next, I'd sleep in the back of the truck at a Tim Hortons. They were open 24 hours, so I felt kind of safe."
When she got back to Ottawa, Edwards says she slipped into an early 20s slacker lifestyle of "going out every night, having a day job, being hung over every day for the day job, then going out again." She says that when she decided she didn't want to go to university, she didn't plan on wasting her life, going out to a bar every night. So at 22 she moved into a farmhouse in Wakefield, Que., 45 minutes outside of Ottawa. "I really wanted to be on my own," she says. "Suddenly I had no distractions and had all this time and quiet on my hands." She wrote the songs for Failer in two months.
That kind of rural magic also worked well for Canadian Sarah Harmer, who drew the same sort of cross-border acclaim in 2001. She wrote the songs for her major-label debut, You Were Here, at her farmhouse near Kingston, Ont. The two artists share the same management, U.S. label and laid-back style. And like Harmer, who's quietly retreated to the farm this past year, Edwards plans on heading right back to the boonies when all the fuss over Failer has died down. "I rent a place right now that I'd like to buy eventually," she says wistfully. "My neighbours are sheep farmers and beekeepers. It feels like home."
Maclean's February 17, 2003