Kathleen Edwards – Failing to fail
As Kathleen Edwards considers the expectations already wrought by her debut album, Failer, she gestures as if she’s trying to shoo away hype like a housefly.
“A lot of people have asked me what it is like to have all this buzz? What is it like to be the buzz kid or the ‘It Girl.’ I haven’t really done anything yet,” she says emphatically, jabbing her fork into a plateful of omelet while seated at the back of a Toronto restaurant.
“What is the point of all this if I can’t follow through? I just say relax and let’s all have dinner in a year or two years and see if I am actually able to do something with what I have. Right now, it is an interesting time. I kind of feel like I’m either going to feel like all this was worth something, or I will fall flat on my face. If I am going to fall flat on my face, the sooner the better and I will just accept that. That will be okay.”
The 24-year-old’s modesty may be admirable, but the anticipation is merited. Failer (due out January 15 in the United States on Zoe/Rounder Records after a 2002 release in Canada) heralds the arrival of a rare talent. It’s an astonishing collection of songs containing an impressive range of style and tone. Edwards masters moody atmosphere on “Mercury”, “Lone Wolf” and “National Steel”; dabbles in black humor with the offbeat hostage-taking scenario “Six O’Clock News”; and gets righteously angry and funny on “Westby”, a kiss-off to an affair with a married older man (“If you weren’t so old I would tell my friends/But I don’t think your wife would like my friends”).
On “One More Song The Radio Won’t Like”, Edwards lays out the commercial expectations and second-guessing that’s part of the modern music game: “Write a hit so I can talk you up/No one likes a girl who won’t sober up,” she sings. “He says he’s got a strategy/I’m a test of his sanity.” As music business critiques go, it’s a bullseye; it also happens to be, despite its title, the most radio-ready track on Failer.
What’s perhaps most startling about Edwards’ singing and songwriting is how short a time she has actually been doing it. She was born into a diplomat’s family and studied violin for 12 years as she ping-ponged between homes in Korea and Switzerland, before returning to Canada’s capital, Ottawa, as a teen. Her itinerant early life inspired an enduring affection for solitude. After high school, encouraged by the music of Ani DiFranco, she tried her hand at songwriting. A meeting with acclaimed Ottawa songwriter Jim Bryson led to friendship, musical collaboration and a new direction for her music.
“When I saw Jim play, it kind of changed the way I write,” she recalls. “The way he delivered his songs, his lyrics, the way he played his guitar — I remember just sort of changing a lot about how I wanted to make songs and play them.”
Bryson downplays his influence on Edwards’ burgeoning talent. “Her songwriting didn’t really change, but it did develop,” says Bryson, who plays guitar and banjo and contributes backing vocals to several songs on Failer. “Before, she would really try to fill things up. She would sing louder and use soaring notes. She has developed a sense of space in her music. She was really just finding her voice.”
The first fruit of Edwards’ redirected interest in songwriting was an EP, Building 55, which was recorded in Ottawa and released in 2000. But subsequent personal setbacks and frustration from working dead-end jobs compelled Edwards to load up her truck and relocate from the city to the isolated countryside outside Ottawa — a difficult process detailed in many of the songs on Failer.
“I was just dying to live up there,” she says. “It was partly the quiet and the space. I wanted a garden. I didn’t want to live in an apartment anymore. I wanted to have a place were there were no distractions, so I ended up moving up there.
“I was really struggling. I had no money. I still don’t, but I would wake up in the morning, and I would think, how am I going to find five bucks today to buy groceries?…At some point, you hit the bottom. But there is a huge amount of those songs being true to my life, even now.”
The intentionally misspelled title of the album was also a reflection of her setbacks. “I’m driving my broken-down truck, I don’t have any money. I am getting phone calls saying: ‘When are you going to focus and go back to school?’ That parental pressure of always wanting your child to have a clear, focused idea of a future,” she says.
“I know it is failure with a U, but why do we put a U in there? When we bail, there’s a bailer in my boat, not a bailure. If you fail, are you a failer, too? I just thought it really represented what I had gone through, around the writing of those songs.”
Bryson says he was impressed by the fearless honesty of the songs that resulted from Edwards’ trials. “She’s very quick to respond; if someone breaks her heart, she’ll write 10 songs about it in a week,” he says.
Edwards says she realizes now there are consequences to being so direct in her songwriting, but she can’t imagine softening the truth. “‘Westby’ was one of those songs that I wrote that definitely raises a few eyebrows, being about sleeping with a married man,” she acknowledges. “I don’t know if I would write it now. I realize how an open-book your life becomes when you write songs that are incredibly personal. And yet, I can’t imagine not having written that song.”
Collaborating with producer Dave Draves and her friends in the Ottawa music scene, Edwards began crafting the rootsy, atmospheric sound of Failer in the fall of 2000. The album was mixed by the following autumn, and then early in 2002, she released it independently, selling it from the stage at her infrequent gigs.
At the same time, she began to hone a distinct onstage persona — a tough-talking wiseacre capable of interrupting potty-mouthed stage patter to deliver the hushed “Hockey Skates”, then shifting into the righteous rocker “12 Bellevue”. She opens most of her shows not with a boisterous rocker, but with the slow burning “National Steel”, one of the most intense songs in her repertoire. It’s a deeply personal dressing-down directed at an estranged companion, and she delivers the haunting chorus — “Are you writing this all down?” — in a gorgeously melancholy voice. (She’s also apt to toss in a left-field cover choice, as on a recent string of U.S. dates opening for Richard Buckner in which she tackled an AC/DC song.)
As Edwards’ reputation built, the Universal-distributed Canadian indie Maple Recordings issued Failer with broader Canadian distribution in September. Rounder/Zoe soon signed on for the January U.S. release. Presenting the same set of songs for a couple years has been a challenge, but some of the most personal numbers on Failer have evolved in her own mind, she says. “The song can always change. It doesn’t have to always be the same thing to me. You can have a falling out with somebody in the last week and go out and direct the idea of that song at that person. I can still deliver the song as genuinely as when I wrote it.”
Edwards’ restless talent has hardly been idle as the business side of her career plays out. In the interim, she has already written a follow-up album (the successor to Failer?). The sluggish pace of the music business has frustrated her. “When I found out the record wasn’t coming out in the U.S. until January, I nearly went through the roof,” she confesses. “I am tired of waiting for everyone else to get their shit together. I have my shit together. I am ready to go.”
On the other hand, the deliberate pace has its up side as well, she acknowledges. “If it had all happened a lot quicker, I would still be struggling to keep up with what is going on. I don’t want that. I don’t want to feel like anything is above me or out of my hands.
“I tend not to blow things into the proportion of: This could be my big break,” she continues. “Being naive is a wonderful thing, but it will only help you so much. I am kind of ready for anything. I can work with anything, as long as the end result makes me happy.
“I just want to have the chance to do this again, I guess. It is not how far it gets me; it is how much I get out of it.”