|Photo by Steve Gerrard|
I didn't know what to do
It was 2008 at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room in Saint Louis, and Kathleen Edwards and her band had just finished playing her songs with such fire, such enjoyment that, really, she sounded nothing like she did on her latest album at the time, Asking For Flowers. She sounded free, almost out to prove that she wasn't exactly who you thought she was, which, to me, is the magic that live music can sometimes offer: on any given night, a song can reveal something -- a feeling -- you had yet to discover.
After that night, I got the feeling that Edwards was itching to break out from something that she had involuntary crawled into -- that her songs were somehow one-dimensional, that her art had no room to breathe. That perhaps she was simply still the woman who wrote the album Failer, singing about hockey skates and one more song the radio won't like.
Well, thankfully, on her latest album, Voyageur, with a little help from Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Kathleen Edwards' songs are breathing just fine.
Edwards and Vernon co-produced the ten-song masterpiece (yes, masterpiece), the best of Edwards' career. It's intimate ("House Full of Empty Rooms," "A Soft Place To Land," "Pink Champagne"), playful ("Empty Threat," "Sidecar"), electric ("Mint"), and exploratory ("Change The Sheets," "For The Record"). It's Edwards at her finest, a project that shows her glowing gifts in all their glory.
I had the great opportunity to speak with Edwards last December about Voyageur, Justin Vernon, songwriting, and "For The Record."
You wrote a song on your last album called "Goodnight, California," and I thought that maybe that song leads us into Voyageur, with the way it was arranged, and its overall structure and feeling. Would you agree with that?
Totally. That's pretty perceptive. It's weird, because I made Asking For Flowers relatively quickly, where a lot of the tracks were done at Jim Scott's studio, and a lot of tracks were done live off the floor, and we had such a killer band that there weren't a lot of overdubs. But, "Goodnight, California" was sort of my pet project, and I knew that there was a type of song I wanted to do, and yeah, for sure, it totally was. And I think it's still a song I look forward most to playing from that record. It definitely started touching on all of the stuff that maybe I was identifying more with as a musician. So, yeah, thanks, that's perceptive of you.
There's something about that song -- it just felt different, it felt really alive. It really brought that record to an end really well. And going into this one, I think a lot of people are going to expect a big departure with what they're reading, but it's not a drastic departure.
No. It still sounds like me. Yeah, it still sounds like me.
Yeah. So, when did you meet Justin (Vernon), and how did you get him involved on this project?
Well, it started in the spring of 2010, and I was pretty knee-deep in working on songs at home, and I knew it was time...I had really been thinking about for a long time, like, "who do I want to make this record with?" I really wanted somebody I could trust and somebody I could hit it off with and feel really comfortable with, but someone who was going to really turn stuff on its head for me. Like, one point I was even like, "oh, I would love to work with Jack White." That's a perfect example of someone who would have some cool opinions about changing my sound. But then, you know, these ideas like Brendan O'Brien or whatever, everything seemed like not the right one. Not that they aren't great producers, but it just wasn't it. And I was working and working, and (Justin) and I had a mutual friend who just was like, "I don't want to butt in here, but I think the two of you would really hit it off, and I think you guys would just be great friends."
So, we started emailing, without any producer talk -- it was just, "hey, nice to meet you." And we were both obviously very familiar with each other's work, and that was nice because I didn't feel like I had to explain what I sounded like, or anything like that, and it felt like we were kind of on even footing right from the beginning.
And then I was working on songs, and gradually I went up to Wisconsin to see Justin's studio, and we demoed a few songs, and one of them ended up being this "Wapsuk" song that I put out in the fall on a 7-inch. I don't know, it just clicked, it just worked. Everything I felt was just missing or couldn't do myself...I mean, I co-produce all my records, but part of a great producer is somebody who can help you figure out where you want to go, and it feels like the right thing, push you when you're not there yet, and also not let you betray who you are and who you sound like. And Justin understood all those things -- we didn't even have to talk about it, it felt natural.
Touching on some of the things you just talked about -- did you bring a lot of these songs to the recording sessions, or did some more ideas spark from there?
No, the songs were written. Part of the thing that I really knew going in was that, whoever I ended up working with, I had to know that my songs were where I wanted them to be. Before, I had written songs, and I was happy with them, and they would tell a story, and I thought about how they go and stuff. And this time around, I kept to that, but I feel like I really stepped up a little bit in terms of being able to edit myself more than I ever had before. I knew I wanted these songs to be a little tighter and cleaner. There are just things about my songwriting that I was ready to work on, for the songs to be more concise. And there were times when I recorded songs (for this record), and they weren't up to snuff, and I was just like, "no, I have to go back and work on this song." There were a couple songs that got re-recorded a few times, and then they got built on after that.
|Photo by Todd V. Wolfson|
There's a line in "Pink Champagne," I think you say that, "Expectation at night will be the death of me." I think that's really beautiful, and I think that it's sort of an underlying theme of a lot of these songs.
For me, you've always been a songwriter that has had lines that jump out like that. When you're writing, do certain lines jump out for you?
Yeah, I mean, I think...like I don't really know how else to be. Like, I've had songs about people or about characters in the past, but...I feel like I sound like a cliché when I say this, but really, I kind of really put too much out there sometimes of myself in songs. And this record is obviously really personal, and you know, there were some songs that were, in retrospect, maybe I was not realizing how much about me they were when I was writing them, or that I was really writing my story down in a way, and suddenly it's on the record and everyone hears it and they know what I've been through.
You know, it's not like a lot of people don't go through it -- it's not like I'm special -- but then you also step back and you realize, "holy fuck, that's the most privtae and vulnerbale shit!" And you put it out there for people to either relate to it or to pick apart. I guess I don't know who else to be. Part of that feels normal, and part of that feels like I'm really setting myself up to...you feel like you're walking around with an open wound all the time.
Well, I've always been a "lyrics guy," so these songs hit hard for me. And I feel like you're saying some things on this album that you've never said before.
Yeah. And I think that there's also...like, for all the sort of heavy shit, there's also a shedding of skin in a way that is really liberating, that I don't feel like I've gone there before. It's sort of the glee of making some pretty big life changes, and feeling validated by yourself, or coming to a place where you're more accepting of the things that you do and the choices that you make. And then getting to reap the rewards of feeling joy and love.
The one song, the last song, "For The Record," -- I needed a few listens before I really got that song, but once I did, I feel like it's one of the strongest songs you've ever written. It's a long song. Was that one a challenge to record and to write?
That is the one exception to the songs not being done when I showed up at the studio. I had sort of written like half of that song, and I went to Wisconsin, and Justin had gotten his friend Brian Moen to come play drums, and it was the three of us. And we were working on some songs, and I then I sat down on the Rhodes and was playing what I had of "For The Record."
And Justin said, "what is that?" And I was like, "oh, it's just a song." And he said, "oh, we should record it right now!" (laughs) So, Brian is on the drum kit, and we all just sat in one room and Justin played guitar, and the three of us played "For The Record." And I didn't have the second verse written yet. So, we tracked it, and I think it's like our second take, from start to finish -- we just built it from there.
Funny enough, the lyrics for the second verse weren't written, and I guess I had ad-libbed this line, "make a story up of a story that was spun," and I wasn't happy with that line. And Justin was like, "no, that's the one." (laughing)
That's the one song that's not about me. It's about Natalie Maines. Well, I guess it's also about me. (laughing) I guess it is a little about me. (laughs)
"For the record, I only wanted to sing songs." I could take that so many ways.
Honestly, and I haven't been doing this for thirty years, but I've been touring long enough and been making records long enough that, for all the victories of feeling like you are doing something really meaningful with your life, and you feel really validated, there are opposite feelings as well. And sometimes you feel like maybe you picked the wrong thing to do, or you forget why you started in the first place. And the truth is, that is my truth -- I only ever wanted to sing songs. I love songs, I can't help it, I can't help myself. I think that's why a lot of people start, and then they get caught up in...shit, and then everything that was pure and good about music is gone. And there are times when I fight to remember what that is, and it feels really wrong, it's counterintuitive. But, it happens. It's a good reminder that you go into music for the love of it, and then sometimes you get caught up in the storm of all the things that consume your time and energy, and they have nothing to do with why you love playing music.