Bon Iver's Vernon leads Edwards to departure
It's difficult to listen to Kathleen Edwards' transformative fourth album and miss the distinctive influence of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon.
Vernon co-produced the record from his home studio in Wisconsin, contributing backing vocals, guitar, synth, bass, vibraphone, drums, banjo and organ. But more than that, Vernon - who is also romantically linked with Edwards - helped the five-time Juno nominee chart a new musical path, marrying her sturdy songcraft to lushly expansive sonic landscapes that carry more than a hint of his own outfit's rustic folk.
New sound aside, Vernon's name alone should help Edwards' buzz reverberate into new corners. And while Edwards might rather make noise by virtue of her own pristine voice, the 33-year-old Ottawa native - whose sales have yet to reflect her critical plaudits - will welcome new listeners any way she can get them.
"I would be lying to myself if I didn't realize that obviously Justin's involvement in this record is going to have people listen to the record who would otherwise be like: 'Oh, I think she's an alt-country singer/songwriter person,'" she said in a recent interview from her Toronto rehearsal space.
"So I do really appreciate that."
Not that Edwards didn't fret about the optics of the situation, and whether it would look as though she was trying to capitalize on her romantic relationship with the critically adored singer/songwriter, who was recently feted with four prominent Grammy nominations.
But it was a conversation with a friend that helped Edwards realize that she didn't need to avoid the association.
"My friend Julie said to me last night ... 'This is your story, and you don't have to apologize for the fact that you met someone and you're in love, and you made a record with someone who just happens to be the person who's also on your speed dial,'" Edwards said.
"I was like, you're right. I don't have to be embarrassed or worried about what people think my motives are, because I know what my motives are: they were about making a really good record, and he was the person that I made it with."
But Edwards had another motive beyond simply making a good record. She wanted to make a different record.
With her three prior albums, Edwards built herself a farm house in the space separating alt-country, Americana and roots rock, finding fertile lyrical terrain with grit-packed yarns about down-on-their-luck sorts (a group that occasionally included Edwards herself).
The most recent of those records - 2008's Polaris Music Prize-nominated "Asking for Flowers" - hinted at a burgeoning musical wanderlust emerging in Edwards, and "Voyageur" (hitting stores Tuesday) is the resultant adventure. Austere, subtle and richly detailed, the new record signifies a shift in direction that Edwards says didn't come about accidentally.
"I went in going: 'This has to be different. I don't want to make a rootsy singer-songwriter record. It's just not interesting to me. It's not challenging. And I feel like I have all these influences and I have all these ambitions musically, creatively, that I need to really commit to seeing through this time.'"
Edwards started work on the album in Toronto in 2010, but felt she needed a producer to imbue the project with fresh ideas. She first started chatted with Vernon via email, and soon made the trek out to Wisconsin to see his studio.
When Bon Iver's glumly beautiful chamber folk initially hit, long before Vernon was singing the hooks on Kanye West songs, the myth around Vernon's backstory - that he wrote his first album while sequestered in a snow-bound cabin - was almost as potent as his plaintive, wounded voice.
That fable has faded over the years, and Edwards poked fun at it when asked about Vernon's reputation.
"He lives in a cabin and he hunts rabbits every day and he doesn't really have normal clothes," she deadpanned before laughing.
"You know what? The myth should stay intact. It's a good story. And there's so many parts of it that are very true."
Once they met, Vernon and Edwards hit it off, and it was clear that their visions for Edwards' record aligned comfortably - "I forget where his ideas started and mine stopped," she says now.
In fact, it sounds as though Edwards' twangy confessionals have been warmed up beside a winter fire, with a greater emphasis on each element in the swirling sound. Each note of the shimmering "Chameleon/Comedian" seems to singe, while "Change the Sheets" - one of the most upbeat tunes on the contemplative disc - dances atop jabs of lantern-lit keys.
Edwards wanted the record to sound buoyant, even if its subject matter is frequently wrenching.
Prior to meeting Vernon, Edwards divorced longtime collaborator Colin Cripps. And she doesn't deny that the fallout of that fractured relationship inspired some of the material on the record.
'this record is a lot about my life and there are times when recently, now that I had time to think about it, I thought: 'Oh my God. I literally like drew a door right here,'" she says, motioning to her chest, "'and a little doorknob and there you go. Have a look inside.'
'There are times when I wonder if that's been a mistake only because it's left me feeling pretty vulnerable and ... I didn't really see that coming."
On the ethereal "Pink Champagne," Edwards sings about the bittersweet disappointment that often comes with life's big moments (the song is also linked to her love affair with the alcoholic beverage, which culminated in an instance of street-side retching in Calgary - an admitted low point). "House Full of Empty Rooms" and "Going to Hell" similarly feature the sort of wounded introspection that their titles suggest.
But Edwards didn't want the album to be a downer, nor did she want the record to become bogged down with her struggles.
"I am trying to look forward and not be this person who's got a list of things that I want to bitch about before I move onto my next record," she said, smiling.
"I travel too much to have a regular therapist appointment, I guess."
In seriousness, Edwards found herself questioning whether all this - writing, recording, but especially touring and travelling - were still for her, particularly during the long gestation period between her finishing "Voyageur" and its release to the public. During that time, Edwards grew increasingly anxious about whether the new record would live up to expectations.
"You start thinking that you should start thinking about finding something else to do with your life that isn't music," she conceded.
She's feeling better now that the album is being released. And, heightened anxieties aside, she acknowledges that this record could provide an opportunity for a commercial breakthrough.
With a plain-spoken honesty that's typical for her, Edwards doesn't dance around such expectations the way artists often do. While she didn't plot a calculated grab at a bigger audience, she sure would appreciate one.
"I have my eye on a Lamborghini," she said with a wry smile, before continuing seriously.
"Who am I kidding? Of course I'd love to play for more people. I mean, you think I want to get smaller? ... If I could play every night in a room that's like a thousand seats or something like that, that would be a dream come true.
"So we'll see. But it doesn't shape what is going to make me happy. I feel really privileged and lucky that I even get to make this my job."