Anthems for the lonely girls' club
Wakefield singer lays her life bare in her songs
Kathleen Edwards is standing at a country bar in Wakefield, eating a club sandwich and fries (lots of ketchup and vinegar), taking the occasional pull from a bottle of Labatt's 50. She drives a big, blue Suburban and is wearing blue jeans, scarf, gingham shirt and a tuque that advertises the Toronto Maple Leafs on one side, and Molson Export on the other. Her answering machine plays a segment from Stompin' Tom Connors's The Hockey Song.
In other words, she appears entirely at home in the Wakefield area, where she lives in a rustic, woodsy home, and if you were scouting the joint for the next queen of the No Depression set, a name derived from the very inaptly titled alt-country magazine, you might not even notice her.
But the woman who disdains folk music because 'There's no whisky on stage" has these eyes, both curious and curiously-shaped; green eyes that look as though they've seen their share of disappointment and sadness, forming large pools from which she's drawn the tears of her music.
Copper on the corner, and he loaded two rounds
And I can't even cross the line to talk you down
And Peter, sweet baby, where'd you get that gun
You spend half your life trying to turn the other half around
Edwards is only 23, but on the eve of the release of Failer, her first full-length solo CD, she's already creating quite a stir in the music industry.
Hamilton folk-rocker Tom Wilson, in lamenting Canada's lack of support for its own, recently used Edwards as an example, stating that Canadians "won't go to the wall for Kathleen Edwards until someone in America goes to the wall for her. That's the disease of being Canadian."
Like Gillian Welch, Stacey Earle and Lucinda Williams (she shares striking musical and vocal similarities with the latter), Edwards seems to hold nothing back in her music. It is warm and gut-wrenching, her sometimes breathy voice reaching out like a familiar hand and twisting your heart until it hurts.
Hers are the anthems and ballads of the lonely girls' club.
"I can write songs when I'm happy," she points out. 'They're just not usually about me."
Did you lose your head when the farm went down
Or was it when your daddy died after he moved to town
And I know your mama calls you good-for-nothin'
She says her baby is a failer and she don't want you callin'
Kathleen Edwards' music is just right when you're alone in the car, driving away from somewhere you don't want to leave, a description which causes her to stiffen noticeably. A bit close to the bone, perhaps?
'that's exactly the time I wrote the album," she says. 'that's totally the content. I left a relationship and moved up here, and would go back and forth to town.
"It was a horrible time, and a lot of the songs came from then."
The 10 tracks on Failer display a worldliness that one might be surprised to hear coming from a 23-year-old. Her upbringing, though - in a diplomatic family that saw her raised in places like Seoul, Korea and Geneva, Switzerland - partially accounts for that healthy and sharp overview, while the album's well-grounded grassroots feel stems in part from summers spent at her grandparents' home in Melford, Sask.
She took her first musical steps at the age of five when she began training in classical violin. But as a teenager, she was lured away by fellow summer-campers who all seemed to be able to play the guitar.
With Ani DiFranco and Tom Petty as her favourites, she taught herself to play guitar - she now plays a richly resonant 1957 Gibson Southern Jumbo - and credits Ottawa singer-songwriter Jim Bryson for her move to the alt-country style.
'The songs, and the way he played them," she recalls.
'The first time I saw Jim play, my stomach was in knots, because I was so excited. I was hanging onto every word and every note he played."
And Peter, sweet baby, there's just something that I gotta say to you
I'm gonna have your baby this coming June
We could get a little place down by Gilmour Park
You could do a little time and save my broken heart
Edwards's music comes straight from the heart but it isn't necessarily sparse. Alongside the hurting emotion of her lyrics and vocals are heady, full instrumentation, provided by some of the area's most talented musicians, including Bryson on guitar, banjo and vocals, drummer Peter Von Althen and guitarist Fred Guignon.
There's a fullness, too, that comes from the addition, on various tracks, of saxophones, lap steel, organ and strings. "If I had to redo the whole thing," says Edwards, "I'd pick exactly the same musicians."
The album is also enhanced by a decision to intentionally record it in analog - as opposed to digital - mode, which Edwards, who co-produced the effort, says provides a deeper, richer tone.
"Digital," she believes, "only aspires to be analog."
But, like any musician, her prime motivation to find a way to have listeners "get" what she's doing: 'that I'm pretty much the person you hear on the record. That I'm the real thing. That this isn't an act.
'The cover of my record is one of those real clichés - a broken-down truck on the side of a country road. Well, that's a road I drive down every day. My truck breaks down at least once a month.
"My songs are very personal, and I sing them the way I'm going to be singing for a long time. What do I want people to get? I want them to get me."
I try to come clean but I guess it's no use
Copper went ahead and he just shot you through
Now you're lying dead on the avenue
I can't feel my broken heart
I can't feel my broken heart
The Ottawa Citizen