Kathleen Edwards – Basic instincts
“Can you just hold on one second?” Kathleen Edwards asks. “I feel like there’s smoke coming from the side of the house. It’s blowing by the window, and I’m getting a little freaked out about what it is. I’m gonna call you back in 30 seconds.”
Edwards is speaking by phone from her home in Toronto, about halfway through an hour-long interview. She calls back promptly as promised, explaining that the supposed smoke was “just someone’s dryer vent.” She laughs, then adds, “I just had a ‘Pink Emerson Radio’ moment!”
Edwards is referring to perhaps the most affecting song on Back To Me, her second album for Rounder Records. It’s a subtle but masterful piece of songwriting, initially just a little scene-sketch of items taking up space in an apartment: posters covered in glass, keys on a hook by the door, a lace dress, motorcycle boots, a pink Emerson radio.
The chorus, however, betrays a sense of urgency in its ten words: “There’s no time to waste/There’s no time to wait.” Edwards keeps the suspense until the final verse before she reveals the reason for the panic:
Sirens up on the street
Smoke is burning my eyes
And the neighbors are screaming at me
I can only carry one thing
It sounds like the sort of story that might have been inspired by a newspaper article about someone who escaped a burning building. Thing is, Edwards wrote this one from personal experience.
“Yeah, it did happen to me,” she acknowledges. “I was in my apartment one day — this was when I first moved out of my parents’ place, and we were kitty-corner across the street from this pizza place. I lived in this shitty building; I think they were in violation of every fire code possible, and there was not even any security at the front door.
“So people came through the front doors and up the stairs and started banging on all the doors of the tenants. There was a huge fire, and we were really lucky that I didn’t lose my apartment; in fact, I only had a little bit of water damage. But it was one of those things like what people say in the paper after their place burned down — they wish they had grabbed this, or they wish they had taken that.
“I just thought it was kind of a neat little story about what happens when you have all these things and it’s like slow-motion through your head — you’re trying to not panic and just grab what means most to you, and how do you choose one thing?
“And in the actual story of my life, of course, I grabbed my violin and two guitars. It was so funny, like, without hesitation — I went to the corner, grabbed the stuff and walked out.
“Thankfully I didn’t lose anything. But even if I had, I probably still did grab the right things. Well, I know I did.”
Such are the random circumstances that can cause us to define our priorities. At the time, music was hardly Edwards’ livelihood; she was just out of high school and had barely begun to start writing songs. Yet even then, music was…everything.
Edwards seemingly came out of nowhere a couple years ago to become one of the most promising new singer-songwriters in North American music. Her Rounder debut Failer was originally self-released, then got picked up by Canadian indie Maple Music in mid-2002 before Rounder issued it in the U.S. in January 2003.
Failer showcased Edwards’ razor-sharp lyrical flair wedded to memorable roots-based melodies delivered by a beguiling singer whose breathy vocals alternated between brash and fragile. The leadoff tracks “Six O’Clock News” and “One More Song The Radio Won’t Like” were a one-two power-punch of pop urgency, but she proved equally adept at more understated fare such as the gender-battle challenge “Hockey Skates” and the mysterious ballad “Mercury”.
Edwards seemed to leap right past the usual “new artist” phase and into the forefront of the roots music crowd, as evidenced by her nominations for album of the year and artist of the year at the 2003 Americana Music Awards. She also gained a big-time supporter in David Letterman, who featured Edwards as a guest on the day of her album’s U.S. release. She even scored a second appearance on the show a couple weeks later as a last-minute fill-in when Letterman was out sick and Regis Philbin was subbing.
Any artist who has toured for years without getting on the late-night shows can attest to the significance of Edwards’ coup. Indeed, it had an immediate impact on her stature. “The phone was not ringing until the David Letterman program said we’d love to have you and here’s your date,” Edwards says. “When that press release went out, suddenly it was like, I couldn’t even fit all my interviews in.”
Such success has made Back To Me, released March 1, a source of considerable anticipation for some and of inevitable anxiety for Edwards. “You say, ‘Oh, I’m not gonna have the sophomore slump, I’m not gonna let that shit get to me’ — but it did,” she admits. “It got to me for awhile. I was really second-guessing a lot of things, stuff like, ‘Am I writing songs that are as good as the songs on Failer? Is this record sounding too produced? Is there a song as good as ‘Hockey Skates’ on this record?’