Canadian born singer/songwriter Kathleen Edwards may be a relatively new name to British audiences, yet her career as a recording artist dates back to the last Century. Having cut her teeth as a teenager in 1999 with the 'Building 55' EP, it took a further four years for her debut LP 'Failer' to see the light of day. Two albums and nine years later, she's about to release her fourth long player, 'Voyageur', amidst an overwhelming sense of expectation due in no small part to an almost universal seal of approval from various internet blogs and the glowing endorsement of co-producer and beau Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver.
Currently warming up for a mammoth world tour that will see her take to the road across various continents until the end of March, Contactmusic caught up with Edwards during a break from rehearsals.
I guess you must be quite busy at this moment in time?
Kathleen Edwards: Yeah, I'm in Toronto working with my band, getting ready for the tour which starts this weekend, so we're just spending the last two days rehearsing. We're all pretty tired but I guess the real hard work starts when we get out there on the road. The record comes out in North America next week as well so we're just rollin'.
Exciting times then. Are there any expectations from the label about 'Voyageur', bearing in mind the wave of critical acclaim it's received from numerous areas of the media during the build-up to its release?
KE: I'm always reluctant to have certain types of expectation because you never know how that stuff's gonna go and sometimes there's luck, other times there's timing and as a result you start to believe several doors will open and sometimes they don't. I can't really say what the label (Maple Music) are expecting because part of me doesn't really care. I mean, obviously their expectation is for me to sell thousands of records and make them as much money as possible, but I think when artists start to get weighed down by sales targets and units that's when they tend to question themselves even further about the perception as to why their music didn't stand up. I'm quite optimistic about 'Voyageur'. I feel like I've made the best record I've ever made, and I know most artists say that every time they put a new album out but I've always believed my work in the past has been of a certain level. When I put my last album 'Asking For Flowers' out I was really proud of it, but this time I wanted to do something completely different. In some respects I feel like my work is done. I spent two years working on this record to make it what it is. It took me to a whole world of meeting and collaborating with different people so in terms of expectations, I guess the main one from my point of view is just that people hear the record. I kind of feel the record will speak for itself and if I have any momentum and doors open as a result I'd like to think its purely because of that and not because somebody bought into a really great marketing campaign.
You've collaborated with some renowned artists on 'Voyageur', people like Norah Jones and Stornoway for instance. How did these come about and do you see yourself working together again in the future?
KE: It's hard to say if we'll work together again as they've all got their own lives to be getting on with. A lot of those collaborations came together when I was already a long way into the recording process and there were lots of little holes left like back-up vocal parts and the truth is, when you're making a record is often the only opportunity an artist will get to sing with other people or work with other musicians. Without taking anything away from my band who are all great you sometimes can become a little isolated so there's always a wish list when it comes to making a record and the people on mine were all artists I thought would be a really good fit for 'Voyageur' and when I asked them they all said "Yes." Justin (Vernon) was the broker for a lot of those people. Stornoway share the same label (4AD) as Justin and Norah Jones is an old acquaintance of both of us and she was able to do it.
Justin Vernon co-produced 'Voyageur' and you've also been in a relationship with him for a while now prior to this. Has he had much of an influence on your music and songwriting as when I listen to the songs on the new record compared to those on your earlier works like 'Failer' or 'Back To Me' it's almost like listening to two completely separate artists?
KE: Well, if I made the same record over and over again I'd be a pretty boring person, and obviously Justin's contribution to 'Voyageur' was hugely significant, but in terms of the songs I already had most of the ideas sketched out before we started on the album, and then continued to build on them as we were making the record. I was very determined to make a different record, one that couldn't be specifically tagged to any one kind of genre, such as Americana for example. I think that by sticking to one particular area of music it often results in a bland record. Its easy to become complacent and just coast along into one nebulous area, and I didn't want to fall into that trap, so I worked on my songs and I'd already started working on the production. There were times where I'd reached an impasse and didn't know where to go so when Justin got involved it kind of broadened my horizons somewhat. You know, I'd never worked with Protools before for example, and his ideas for constructing the songs gave me a new outlook. He's very creative and always trying different things. He's got his process for sure but he never uses the same approach twice. I met him when he was just finishing the Bon Iver record and when I started working with him I soon realised his approach to me was quite different to how he worked on his own record.
It's interesting that you say one of the main motivations for 'Voyageur' was for it to not be seen as just another Americana record, as when I listen to the album that's one of the last genres that springs to mind. When I hear songs like 'Empty Threat' it reminds me of Juliana Hatfield while 'Mint' has a hint of 'International Velvet' era Catatonia about it. What music were you listening to while making the record as it's quite a diverse record on reflection?
KE: I'm really pleased you mentioned Juliana Hatfield because she brought out a record a few years ago and there were a couple of songs on that album I absolutely adored. One of the records that was hugely influential to me in the last few years would have to be 'Curse Your Branches' by David Bazan. That became the soundtrack to a whole year of my life. I don't think a day went by where I didn't play that album, so much in fact that it's probably got scratches all over it now! Another record that I fell in love with over the course of making 'Voyageur' was 'High Violet' by The National. That was hugely influential for me. Its kind of weird with The National because I listened to 'Boxer' a few years ago and it never really connected with me, yet 'High Violet' was just perfect in every way. I remember going on this long drive listening to that record and thinking every song was just untouchable. It's such an exquisite record. And of course the new Bon Iver record too. When we went on tour with them, watching Justin and his band play every night, it kind of sets itself into your psyche. I also love my Neil Young and Tom Petty. I don't think I'd have started making music myself had I not been so obsessed with their music from an early age.
Do you see 'Voyageur' having a similar impact for you as 'High Violet' did for The National in terms of gaining more mainstream exposure than your previous releases?
KE: I'd be lying if I said I didn't want more people to hear my music or to be playing to a larger audience every night, but that's just because everyone hopes to grow. I think I've been very fortunate so far. I don't have any complaints and would love to be in a position where more people became aware of my music, but at the same time that wasn't the motivation behind making the record. One of the things I have noticed is that my audience has generally been older. Especially when I've played over in the UK, the definition of the Americana crowd there are people of an older generation who like Alison Krauss or Patti Griffin. Back home, I recently went to see an artist called The Tallest Man On Earth who's this really great songwriter, and I looked out into the crowd and was like, "Oh. My. God!" Everyone was aged between eighteen and thirty yet he sounds like Bob Dylan. You know, to people aged forty and upwards, they'd immediately associate him with Dylan, yet the audience was full of these kids who obviously got what he was about. Seeing that kind of made me realise that there is no one particular age group or demographic that's really going to get me. It's just that they haven't heard me and the reason they haven't heard me is because usually if they read about me the words "country" or "alt-country" tend to be associated with my name and you know, I don't even feel those are boundaries I live in. That isn't the kind of music I listen to. Not any more anyway and its not how I see myself or how I want to be seen by other people. That's why I'm really proud of 'Voyageur'; I wanted to make a record that shows I have the musical capacity to do something else.
I find it quite strange that someone discovering your music for the first time with 'Voyageur' or even its predecessor 'Asking For Flowers' would automatically associate you with country to be honest.
KE: It's not something that I get to decide and it isn't something I know how to control. I think music is always going to be open to interpretation and people are either gonna like it or not, but I've always attracted a predominantly male audience. It puzzles me why women of my age don't seem to like music, or at least never come to my shows. I mean, it is changing; it's changed over the last few years and hopefully it will continue to improve in the future.
A lot of the lyrics on 'Voyageur' seem very personal. 'House Full Of Empty Rooms' for example talks about being "I'm far from perfect" before going on to say "I used to make you happy". Were a lot of the lyrics influenced by your divorce from Collin Cripps last year?
KE: It's definitely a snapshot of the past few years of my life and how things planned out or didn't, as the case may be. Splitting up from a seven-year relationship is a huge thing in anyone's life. It takes up a lot of your energy and emotional time. I think I'll probably always be dealing with my divorce in a sense that it represents a complicated period of my life. How you evolve as a person - it's not like you can write your biography until you've lived it - and I was living through a lot of that shit, you know. I didn't realise how raw a lot of the content of the songs was until people were coming up to me after hearing them. Maybe there is too much personal detail in some of them but at the same time I don't really know how else to write other than pretty candidly and there are definitely moments where the content can be interpreted as being about my previous relationship but then people are always going to interpret songs how they want anyway so.?
Your music has been used in a film ('Elizabethtown') and is currently being licensed to several television shows. Bearing in mind the current state of the record industry with album sales being on the decline, do you see licensing becoming a significant part of an artist's development in the future and are there any products or productions you wouldn't want your music to be associated with?
KE: Well, apart from 'Summerlong' which was in 'Elizabethtown' back in 2005, it wasn't until recently that I had many licensing offers for my music, and even then, everyone knows the only reason you get a song in one of Cameron Crowe's movies is because he likes it. But yeah, it's a huge vehicle to have your songs featured in television shows, and not only in terms of exposure, but also for continuing momentum. I mean, it allows me to do things like print my own vinyl. Its not as if I'm making any money from this. If anything, the extra revenue from licensing just about helps me to break even. I guess the perceptions towards advertising are changing as well. If you'd asked me this question six or seven years ago my answer would probably have been "Well Tom Petty didn't do it so I'm not selling out either!" but let's face it Tom Petty has also sold millions of records in a very different era. You have to consider every offer very seriously. Of course there are some companies who I wouldn't like to be associated with my music but then you also have to put yourself in the artist's shoes. For a band that's just starting out it really can be the difference between being able to make a record or not. Or being able to go home and take some time off even. I think people tend to forget that. They just think being a musician makes loads of money when it really doesn't, and most of the time you're working to pay off the debts you've amassed either making a record or touring.
You're scheduled to appear on the David Letterman show next week. What can we expect from your performance?
KE: Well, I'll be appearing topless! No, I'll just be doing my song ('Change The Sheets'). I've been on the show a few times now so it's no big deal. My first appearance on the show was in 2003 just after 'Failer' came out. My mum called me up the other day and said "Do you know, the first time you were on the Letterman show was 17th January 2003 and now you're on it again exactly nine years later to the day. I think that's so amazing!" and I'm like, it is fucking amazing that I'm still alive!
Finally, you're on tour until the end of March. What are your plans for the rest of 2012? Any festival slots for example?
KE: Yeah I'd like to think so, although a lot of that stuff is still being planned out.
The album 'Voyageur' is released on 23rd January 2012.