Kathleen Edwards – Singing in the wires
“…as I was writing the song, it became clear to me how significant these certain memories were. I didn’t know it until the words came out. I cried a lot, and by the end I realized they were moments in my life that formed me.”
Having had her whole life to draw upon for her much-buzzed-about 2003 debut Failer, with enough raw stuff left over for her 2005 follow-up Back To Me, Kathleen Edwards faced a familiar problem for a songwriter after she finished touring in support of the latter. “I had no new material,” she said, “and no ideas.”
Did she panic? No more than her hockey heroes up in Canada do when they’re down a goal or two. During a lengthy hiatus, in fact, the Ottawa native did her best to avoid writing. She concentrated on singing, contributing alluring backup vocals to John Doe’s A Year In The Wilderness (Exene who?) and performing at Farm Aid and on the Grand Ole Opry. She learned to play piano, having been trained on classical violin beginning at age 5. And she settled into married life in an old brick house outside Hamilton, Ontario, with her ace guitarist and producer, Colin Cripps, and his collection of vintage radios and clocks.
“I had no plans to make a record,” Edwards said. “I was in no rush. I recorded things in different segments of time. For the first time, I didn’t care if a song was five or six or seven minutes long, or had longer instrumental parts. I wasn’t worried whether a song was radio accessible. By then, I was happily beyond the feeling that I had a strong debut and if I didn’t follow it up with something equally good, the world would come to an end.”
She had a good excuse not to strap on her guitar and get back to the roots-rock drawing board. With its ancient knob and tube wiring, her house is not receptive to the plugging in of amps. “It’s the thorn in my side,” she said. “There is a send line and a return line which are secured onto ceramic knobs throughout the house. Insurance companies hate it when you buy a house with it. But there’s really nothing wrong with it. What sucks about it is that the entire line is connected, so if you were to cut the line and insert new wiring and a plug in a room, it will interrupt the rest of the entire house. When you built a house in 1929, the house was built to last, not like today.”
Ultimately, for an artist who at age of 29 writes songs that are built to last, the “goddamn wiring” proved surmountable. On her new album, Asking For Flowers (due March 4 on Zoe/Rounder), Edwards deepens her artistic voice without losing any of her tomboyish edge or Tom Pettyish energy. As she demonstrates on “Oh Canada” (which features Petty sideman Benmont Tench on organ, and is not to be confused with the Canadian anthem “O Canada”), she can slash and burn with the best of them. She wasn’t born under the flag of Neil Young for nothing. But she’s never too fired up to miss the telling narrative detail. “My life is like a picture left out too long in the sun,” she sings on the album’s title track. “Now I’m trying to remember all the faces of the names I’ve loved.”
One of the reasons Edwards has been able to conquer the sophomore jinx as a songwriter is her willingness and ability to go beyond personal revelation and look outside her own experience, finding expression in lives she hasn’t led. If a certain sameness characterized her earlier efforts — one recurring criticism of Back To Me was that it sounded like a remake of her debut — Asking For Flowers charts new territory in painting scenes, telling stories and, above all, creating moods.
Being happily married can’t help cramping her style a bit by detoxifying her caustic outlook on romance. Flowers isn’t without its kiss-offs and romantic fare-thee-wells, but her canvas has expanded. On “Oil Man’s War”, which is set during the Vietnam era but is handily adaptable to the present, a young man plots to stay with his girlfriend and avoid fighting on foreign soil. “Oh Canada” is a snarling indictment of a society in which “there are no headlines when a black girl dies.” On “Alicia Ross”, based on an actual story, Edwards assumes the voice of a young suburban Toronto woman who was missing for more than a month when it was determined she had been murdered by the guy next door.
“You know that scene in ‘Ghost’ where Patrick Swayze jumps in Whoopi Goldberg’s body to become that person?” Edwards asked. “I wanted to do that with this girl. I was trying to channel her, to reveal the last thoughts she had about her mother, who had to beg for someone to come forward with information about her daughter.
“I probably could have picked easier stuff. But once I started, I was so drawn to this person, to this family, to this story, I knew I had to sit down and write it until I was finished. It was disturbing. But I drank gin until it was done. Gin played a major role.”
Asking For Flowers, which features pedal steel wiz Greg Leisz, lyrical bassist Sebastian Steinberg and guitarist/keyboardist Jim Bryson, was produced by Jim Scott. His work on the 1997 Whiskeytown classic Strangers Almanac made Edwards a fan of his for life. She has credited Ryan Adams’ “brutal, perfect simplicity” on the Whiskeytown album with changing the way she writes songs.
Spare and succinct, “Goodnight California”, the final track on Asking For Flowers, is one of her most deeply affecting songs. Building slowly and plaintively over organ, harmonica and Edwards’ swatches of vibraphone, its textures deepened by strings, the tune is a middle-of-the-night classic. “I won’t let you in my heart,” she sings. “But you are always on my mind.”