In the spring, as we sat in the quarantine sunshine of the COVID-19 pandemic, the talk turned to Kathleen Edwards. What was she doing? Would she ever make another record? The extra time at home and the gorgeous weather juxtaposed against unemployment and anxiety made for ideal listening hours in the back yard and my phone, not the greatest of musical vessels but utterly portable and bottomless, sang out religiously. As Kathleen continued to appear throughout a curated playlist, I found it impossible not to dig into the albums proper. Like an old friend showing up with a full bottle, Failer knocked me back to 2003 and another March in a different lifetime, the Variety Playhouse, and Kathleen belting out AC/DC. My 3-year-old daughter would be singing along to nearly every track from 2005’s Back To Me by the first of April, (“Papa? Can I be Kathleen Edwards?”) and by May, I’d fallen in love with Asking For Flowers (an album I’d, unfortunately, dismissed at the time as too pop) and discovered 2012’s Voyageur. But the greatest revelation came upon learning that Kathleen had a new album slated to be released come summer– and what had ultimately happened to her. Burned out from exhaustion and buried in the hail of depression and expectation, Kathleen walked away from music entirely in 2014. She went home to Ontario, Canada, and opened a coffee shop, Quitters, in the community of Stittsville. Trading days on the road for hours behind the counter and in the kitchen, Kathleen rebuilt herself and learned to exist outside of the industry grind. But as the gods of fate and rock n’ roll would have it, Kathleen Edwards had not been forgotten. Longtime fan Maren Morris, enjoying her own success, reached out to Kathleen for a potential co-writing session. A trip to Nashville to write one song created sparks, and soon the fire was high enough to reach the stars. Stylistically, there’s only ever been one Kathleen Edwards, and Total Freedom proves she’s more capable than ever. Welcome back, Kathleen. We’ve missed you.
AI- I want to go to the point of genesis, I think, for this project, when Maren Morris reached out to you about writing. When was that? I’ve seen conflicting accounts, whether it was 2017 or 2018?
KE- It was 2017.
Did you know her at that point or were you aware of her work?
I knew that she was blowin’ up and that she was becoming kind of a big superstar. I really loved that song that really opened all those doors for her. It was “My Church”. I just think it’s a fun, cool, sexy with swagger song, and I love listening to it. So when she calls and asked to work with me, I was flattered and thrilled– and I said, “Yes, of course!” I was working a lot of shifts at my coffee shop, so any excuse to get out of town and go down to Nashville seemed like a good idea!
Had there been other overtures at that point in time? Prospective collaborators?
No, not really. My guess is that Maren just liked my early records. I would imagine given that she sort of had every opportunity she might be interested in pursuing at her disposal, and she called me as one of, I’m sure, many people. She was the only one, and it was really nice. I loved it!
Was that just gonna be like a one-off thing for you? Or were you like, “You know what? I think I could do this again?”
We spent two days together and we ended up coming up with a song that made her record [“Good Woman”]. It just felt like a really easy and natural thing for me. And so I realized that I kinda missed making music! I missed being around creative people, and I didn’t necessarily want to just do co-writing. I thought, “Well, maybe I’m ready to write my own songs again.” So I went home and thought, “I gotta get off of the schedule in the kitchen at Quitters and actually work on songwriting at home.”
You’d been doing some live performances from time to time. I think in 2019, after that experience, your live schedule looked pretty productive. I’m guessing that was an anticipation of what would eventually become Total Freedom?
I’ve always needed to run songs through with my band– just to really know. Because until you start playing a song live, you don’t have a sense really, if it’s good or not. So much of making music is about playing it. I needed to do some live shows to test things out.
Was it weird playin’ the old songs?
No, it was kind of nice actually. It was like–I’m gonna quote Taylor Swift now if that’s allowed– your favorite sweater. It was like puttin’ on your favorite sweater and lovin’ it. The old songs felt like that, especially when you’re playing new songs that no one’s heard before. You feel like you’re walkin’ on a tight rope– and then all of a sudden, you put on your comfy sweater and slippers when you play the old songs.
A lot of artists start out in the restaurant, the bar industry. I believe you did your time in a Starbucks before hittin’ the road if I’m not mistaken. Comin’ back from that session in Nashville with Maren, workin’ in your coffee shop and then pickin’ the guitar back up and writing… Did it feel like those early days? Did you have a sense of deja vu?
Oh my God, totally! It’s funny, a lot of people ask me like, “What was it like putting out a record?” I was like, “It’s like my first record again!” Because I had this other life and this other job, and I got out of that music bubble for long enough that it didn’t feel like I had anything to prove or lose. I just had all these years of experience behind me–and yet I didn’t care about some of the things that after a while you care about when you’re doing it every day. I just got to step out of it for so long that it feels like my first record again.
I was gonna ask you, specifically, about that– what it was like going back into the studio. And if you don’t mind, how was it different from your last time recording?
I always find the first session of recording the hardest because you have all these pressures and expectations of yourself and how things are gonna sound. You’re just starting from the beginning and it’s like you go in and you feel cold. You just feel like you’re not warmed up. You’re not sure what you’re making. You’re not sure what it’s gonna sound like at the end. And it’s a bit terrifying! But I was surrounded by really good people and I knew we’d get there. A lot of people go into the studio and they’re like, “Okay, we have a month, we’ve got to make a record. You’re not gonna leave this room until we’re done.” And I’m the kind of person that needs to work for a couple days and then go home and listen for a couple days and then go back and fix it or massage it or start new songs or whatever to know that we’re on the right track. It took a little while. It was just lots of fits and starts.
And compared to the last time you found yourself in a recording studio? Did you feel more in control this time?
I’ve always really felt in control. I’ve always produced my records with the people that I’ve asked to help or be producers. I think every time I go in the studio, I’m like, “Is it gonna land? What’s it gonna sound like? Is this right? Is this what I envisioned in my head?” Yeah, the studio is always a funny place. I know a lot of people love the studio. I find the studio a little spooky sometimes. There’s a lot of pressure to get it right, and you have five hours before the invoice gets printed. So I find it a little daunting sometimes being in the studio.
This is a really cool story, actually. The day I met Maren Morris to work with her, I also met a guy named Ian Fitchuk, who’s a musician, producer… He was one of the producers behind the Kacey Musgraves record [Golden Hour], and he’s produced a lot of and played on a lot of great records that are coming out of Nashville. The day I met him, I realized that I’d met a kindred musical spirit, and so we started working together to make a record. On my next trip down to Nashville, I was listening to the local radio station and I heard this amazing song. I was like, “Wow, that’s really cool!” And I Shazam’d it. I got to his house so we could work on my music, and I was like, “I just heard this really cool record called the Hush Kids! This song was on the radio!” And he was like, “Yeah, yeah, I know Jill and Peter [Groenwald] and Hush Kids.” And then we just went about our day. Later in the day, I saw the album cover on his table and I picked it up and I’m like, “Oh yeah, you have a copy of the record!” When I started flipping through the album credits, I’m like, “Dude, you produced this record! You played on it!” And he was like, “Oh yeah! Well yeah, I worked on it.” I was like, “Oh my God!” The guy is so modest and humble. And then, of course, I met Jill, we had lunch and I think she’s wonderful. She’s a beautiful singer and the music that Hush Kids make is just incredible.
Did you understand or did you know the kind of influence that you had with your earlier records on other artists?
To be honest? No. I felt like I went into music exile a little bit, and I forgot that people still listen to the work I did. Funny enough, another early memory was being in Nashville for the first time in five, six years and working with Maren and about an hour before I met her and Ian for the first time to work, I was sitting in a little coffee shop in Nashville, just minding my own business, and someone came up to me and was like, “Are you Kathleen Edwards?” And I was floored! Because I feel like I had become invisible, which I was perfectly happy to be, but I didn’t realize that people still knew my work. It really gave me an incredible sense of gratitude and appreciation, and realized too, that I’ve done really good work over the course of my life, and I feel really proud about that.
I’d bet money that there are other artists that have looked at your decision to step away from music and performing, and they’ve thought, “I really wish I could do that.” ‘Cause the burnout is real. The depression is real. I mean, it’s real for any individual in any line of work, but artists deal in emotion, and that can get heavy. Has anyone ever said, “I want to do what you did?”
Everyday! Everyday. I hear everyday, “You did something that all of us think about doing.” I think what’s hard is that all creators, you don’t just decide to do it a little. You have to give up a lot of things and you have to really be passionate and committed to doing it. It’s a job, but it’s not a job and it’s all-consuming. We’re entrepreneurs! Creators have to go out and then hit the pavement and try and make a living out of making something from our hearts. It’s incredibly exhausting and it’s incredibly brave. A lot of people go to a job every day that they might complain that they hate it, but musicians and artists, we made something out of nothing. And it asks a lot of us. I think we put musicians and people who are on stage up on a pedestal instead of realizing that it actually takes so much just to show up. I’m really glad I took the time because now I can say it’s actually okay to step away from something. It doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t change that you did it in the first place, and it’s not failure to need to take a break from something.
I’m assuming there was probably talk of a tour? Of course, with COVID-19 that’s not happening. With this new album, it’s clear– to me anyway– that you’ve not missed a beat. And there is obviously still an audience that wants to hear what you have to say. What do you want to do next?
I think one of the hardest things about COVID is that none of us know the answer to that question and how it applies to us. None of us can make concrete plans. None of us know what’s gonna happen in a month or six months. And it’s a very precarious way to feel! A few times I have thought, “Well, my life’s gonna look like this in three months. I’m gonna go tour in six months…” To be honest, it feels bad when you’re disappointed and those things don’t come true. So I’m giving myself permission, whatever it’s gonna be, it’s not in my control. I really hope there are shows six months from now. I really hope that people understand that at some point, a lot of us do actually have to go back to work and try and earn a living because we’re just sittin’ here waiting– and a lot of other people are still able to work. I really hope that there are shows, but I’m just gonna ride the wave like everyone else is ridin’ it. And try to not beat myself up too much in the process.
You’ve got Quitters outfitted to do streaming shows. Is that something you intend to do regularly?
I’m sorry to say the answer is no. I did an album release at Quitters and it was webstreamed and I was really proud of it. I was really grateful that there were all these incredible musicians and tech guys and film crew that came and made it happen. But that day, I realized that when I can’t see people, and when I can’t connect with people, it takes the joy of music out totally. Performing isn’t performing if I can’t see the people I’m playing to. The webstream thing’s a cool temporary solution, I realized, but man, I’m not playing until I can play in front of people. There’s no point. That’s what this is all about for me– connecting with people. As a performer, that’s what I live to do. So I’m just gonna wait.
I’m gonna nerd out on you completely here… With Total Freedom being out [on vinyl], what are the chances of seeing some vinyl reissues of Failer or Back To Me or Asking For Flowers?
Well… I’m working on that right now! Failer never came out on vinyl, and I actually moved to Dualtone Records now, and they’re committed to getting my records out on vinyl, which is what people want.
In fact, that’s true. We do want that!
So I’m workin’ on it– and we’re pretty close to getting it all done! We just got sent a bunch of test pressings for all the vinyl and we’re moving forward on that. I’m pretty excited about it!