I have a few somewhat niche musical interests: the first – unsurprisingly – is that of the Americana and country genres; the second – also unsurprisingly, since it was the era I grew up in – is alternative music of the 90s; the third – actually surprisingly – is that of Canadian artists. I’m not sure exactly how it started, but I’ve got a lot of love for a set of musicians who hail from Canada (many of whom found their biggest success in the late-90s and early-00s). It’s kind of a thrill for me when I can marry any of these specific interests together, and that’s something I can do with Kathleen Edwards.
My first introduction to her was via a soundtrack I’d come across because some of my other favourite Canadian artists featured on it: ‘Men with Brooms’, a semi-obscure 2002 Canadian film (it is, I finally discovered when I got around to watching it a few years ago, not the greatest cinematic achievement – despite the stellar soundtrack – but if you like comedies featuring Leslie Nielson and curling teams, it might be the movie you’ve been searching for). On that soundtrack, Edwards performs ‘Hockey Skates’ in all its stark and delicate beauty, so needless to say I went hunting for more of her music and became hooked.
Edwards, the daughter of a diplomat Leonard J. Edwards (former Canadian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs), accordingly spent periods of her childhood outside of Canada in places like Korea and Switzerland. Her interest in music was formed early, playing violin from the ages of five to seventeen, going as far as to be a member of the Ottawa Youth Orchestra. She went on it pick up guitar at summer camp (much to her embarrassment at having such an uncool avenue into the instrument), and from there she was influenced by her brother’s collection of Bob Dylan and Neil Young records.
She recorded and released the limited EP ‘Building 55’ in 1999 (it’s not widely available but the tracks are on YouTube), even if – like most first records – it’s not a release Edward’s is especially happy with in hindsight (“A copy of “Building 55” sold on ebay for $300. Now if only I could get more people to pay $10 for the records I’m actually proud of,” she joked on Twitter in 2011). On the back of the EP, she went on to tour before releasing her first “real” release in 2003’s ‘Failer’. She then released another two records before her most recent, 2012’s ‘Voyageur’, and then in 2014, struggling with mental health issues, she decided to say goodbye to the music industry and go and open a coffee shop in Stittsville, Ottawa (which she – with a knowing wink – named ‘Quitters’).
Each one of Edwards’ three full length albums have their brilliant moments, but ‘Voyageur’ comes top of the pile for me. There have been many, many albums written in the throes of divorce over the years, but I’d argue not many as perfect as this one. ‘Pink Champagne’ describes a relationship that is convincingly perfect from the outside, but one that in the deep recesses of your mind you know isn’t (“Book a honeymoon and find yourself thinking / My life is a perfect mess / Cause when you’re far from the phone / I start feeling at home where I am / Thinking the grass would be greener, at last / If I were on my own”). ‘House Full of Empty Rooms’ is about a relationship falling apart from lack of communication and the unacknowledged fact that the ship is sinking (“You don’t talk to me / Not the way that you used to / Maybe I don’t listen / In a way that makes you think I do”).
Not all of her best songs relate to divorce however: ‘Oil Man’s War’ from ‘Asking for Flowers’ is a tidy tale of a couple hurriedly marrying and fleeing to Canada to start a new life away from tiresome parents and the prospect of being shipped off to war. From the same album, ‘Scared at Night’ holds all the emotions you’d want from a song reflecting on the daunting reality of growing up, through the hindsight lens of a childhood spent on a farm.
It’s been a quiet time for fans of her music since she opened ‘Quitters’; that was until she put out the witty Christmas tune ‘It’s Christmastime (Let’s Just Survive)’ this past November. This release marks what looks to be a full on return to music for Edwards. Both her Twitter and Instagram show she’s been recording new music for some time now, and there are strong hints that 2020 will finally be the year she’ll release it.
And damn, it’s sure going to be great to have her back.
Building 55 EP (1999)
Back to Me (2005)
Asking for Flowers (2008)
As previously mentioned, ‘Voyageur’ is heartbreakingly sad brilliance throughout but ‘House Full of Empty Rooms’ really hits the spot in that way only beautiful sad songs can.
Edwards ability to capture the specific feel of a place so that it feels like a personal memory is exceptional, but nowhere does she do it better from me than in ‘Alicia Ross’, a song about the real murder of a young woman of the same name that took place in Ontario in 2005.