Kathleen Edwards Takes Manhattan with her New CD

AT 11 P.M., Kathleen Edwards boards a Greyhound bus in Ottawa bound for New York City. Around midnight, she hits the U.S. border. "Why are you going to New York?" asks the customs officer. "I'm a musician, I'm performing," Edwards answers. "Where are you performing?" is the next question.

Kathleen Edwards Takes Manhattan with her New CD

AT 11 P.M., Kathleen Edwards boards a Greyhound bus in Ottawa bound for New York City. Around midnight, she hits the U.S. border. "Why are you going to New York?" asks the customs officer. "I'm a musician, I'm performing," Edwards answers. "Where are you performing?" is the next question. "On the David Letterman show," is Edwards' response. The officer is unimpressed: "Uh-huh, right, that's how most people go to Letterman, on the overnight Greyhound."

The 26-year-old singer-songwriter would really have been pushing it had she informed the border guard last week that this would be her third Letterman appearance, or that she considers the talk-show host largely responsible for the initial buzz around her debut CD, Failer, back in 2003 (he invited Edwards on twice in three months and fawned over the album). But why the Midnight Cowboy trip to Manhattan anyway? Well, there was no way a snowstorm and two cancelled flights were going to keep the Ottawa artist from launching her follow-up CD, Back To Me, on the Late Show. "I sent him an Armani tie," Edwards says a few days before heading to New York. "We'll see if he likes it. I hope he does - I spent a lot of money on it. By giving him something like that, I hope he can understand how much I appreciated the opportunity. It's one of those things where no one takes notice until one person takes notice."

After she did Letterman two years ago, Leno came calling. Around the same time, Rolling Stone named Edwards an artist to watch; later, the magazine featured her in a fashion spread. While it took that kind of U.S. attention to win her a following back home, she now has the support of this country, and especially of those who'd like to see a down-to-earth roots-rocker join the celebrity ranks of Avril, Alanis, Shania and Celine.

When Edwards comes onstage, Letterman isn't wearing the tie, but he thanks her for it and spends a great deal of on-air time affectionately making fun of her album's cover photo (she's sitting in a field of tall grass with her back to the camera). Dressed in a fitted army jacket, slinky tank top, jeans and groovy blue high heels, she foot-stomps and rocks her way through the new CD's title track/first single - in which she taunts an ex-boyfriend with all the ways she could woo him back. Like the best songs on her first album, this number is packed with wit, attitude and sexuality: I've got ways to make you crazy / wear all the things you always wanted me to / I've got ways to make you run / My daddy is coming for you ... I've got moves I've never used / I've got ways to make you come / Back to me. Letterman can't take his eyes off the monitor that provides the best view of her performance.

AFTER FAILER'S RELEASE, Edwards spent two years touring, singing songs about loutish and disappointing men. All the while, she was falling in love with the guitarist standing to her left. Edwards had heard about Colin Cripps (who's played with Junkhouse, Jim Cuddy and Crash Vegas) from her friend and Junkhouse front man Tom Wilson - he said they'd hit it off. Soon after the album came out, she asked Cripps, who's in his early 40s, to join the band. "We were friends for a couple of weeks," she says. "But we totally, I don't know - I felt like I was hanging out with a movie star the whole time. I could barely keep my shit together when I was with him. I was pretty in awe. He's just like a pretty major talent."

By the end of the exhausting tour, Edwards had moved from the farmhouse she was renting in Wakefield, Que., outside of Ottawa, into Cripps's Toronto home. She had gone from waitress barfly to bona fide recording artist - and the upheaval is chronicled in many of the songs on the new album. In Away, success takes its toll on her old life and friendships: I don't know who to call / I don't know who to write / And I think I forgot / what your face looks like / I've been away. And in Copied Keys, Cripps gets a piece of her innermost mind: 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.

Edwards concedes she still doesn't have many friends in Toronto, but she's adjusting. She and Cripps got married in the summer and spent their honeymoon in the studio recording Back To Me. "He was my producer, and I was his bitch," Edwards laughs. Her U.S. record label, Rounder, had offered money for a bigger name to produce. "My answer to that," says Edwards, "was 'The last thing I want to do at this point in my career is get pressured into using a producer who may have been very successful but who I don't know. I am still trying to get my head around what I actually do, and I don't want to have someone making me feel like their decision is much more weighted than mine.' "

Edwards was nervous about the sophomore album, the fact that you have your whole life to write a debut and six months for your follow-up. But many reviewers, and the NYC audience she played for last week, seem to appreciate the fact that she and Cripps stuck to what Edwards did right the first time around - gritty-voiced, guitar-driven country/rock/folk storytelling not unlike Lucinda Williams or Neil Young. Only this time, the whole package is tighter, more confident and accomplished. Already Edwards is thinking about the next album. "I guess I worry as time goes on that I'll have less adolescent kinds of things to just spew out in my songs," says Edwards about her bad-girl lyrics, "and that I'm going to have to become one of those songwriters who tell other people's stories all the time."

In fact, this daughter of senior federal government bureaucrat Leonard and homemaker Margaret is a lot more mature and sensitive than her hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, take-no-crap stage persona. After a post-Letterman NYC club gig, she initially handles things well as people stream into the claustrophobically small downstairs dressing room. Some are label and radio station reps she's happy to meet and greet. Some are very casual acquaintances she does her best to make small talk with. Upstairs a woman wants access, but instead of giving a name she just says she's from Renfrew, Ont., which is close to the singer's hometown of Ottawa - confused, Edwards responds, "Tell her I'll come up later." But when a tense exchange breaks out between her tour manager and some creepy guy no one knows, Edwards bolts from the room. She can be found not much later huddled alone in the corner of a dark hallway, scarf almost completely covering her head - and she's beyond ready to go back to the hotel.

The next day, over a very Sex and the City-style brunch at a swanky midtown location, she explains her fragile state the night before. "I was very uncomfortable. There was nowhere to go down there except the bathroom, where I went and hid for five minutes. I thought, 'What am I doing? Can I leave? I can't leave, no one else is ready. What's happening? Get me out of here.' "

The breakdown was justified. After all, in a 24-hour period she endured a 12-hour bus ride, performed on Letterman and laid out her brand new material in front of a discriminating New York audience. And all this on the day her second CD hit stores. That's a story to impress even the toughest customs officer.

Maclean's March 14, 2005