The Blossoming

Kathleen Edwards emerges one of AltCountry’s best songwriters

Jan 28, 2009 at 2:06 pm

With her third record, Asking for Flowers, making many critics’ “Best of 2008” lists, Kathleen Edwards can finally relax a bit and enjoy the fruits of her labors. Yet this Canadian singer/songwriter still can’t wait to get to her next show in the next town.

Edwards, an Ontario native, has quietly been strengthening her reputation as one of the finest AltCountry songwriters this side of Lucinda Williams. With her unvarnished voice, a balanced blend of twang-rockers and grainy, Folk ballads and her third acclaimed record release in five years, Edwards is primed to be a longstanding contributor to the Roots Rock canon.

I first saw Edwards open for My Morning Jacket at Bogart’s a few years ago, and she held her own against the Kentucky quintet (not an easy task). What’s evident from the opening “Six O’Clock News” on her great debut, Failer, to “In State” on her second record, Back to Me, is her knack for writing anthems with a midtempo lope.

I recently spoke with her from her home in Hamilton, Ontario, as she got ready to attend a yoga class. She lives there with her husband, Colin Cripps, veteran guitarist extraordinaire in her band and one of the main guys who helps her shape the songs into their finished versions.

Between Cripps and her other longtime accompanist on guitar, Jim Bryson, the sound of distorted guitar still forges many of the melodies. At times their hardy, melodic twang even recalls Neil Young’s Crazy Horse sound without the extended lift-offs and jams.

“I’m home for a few days and then heading out for more dates,” Edwards says. “It feels good to do normal things again here at home that I can’t do on the road. But I love pulling up into a new town and realizing this is my job every night.”

With Canada’s relatively low profile in the U.S. music scene, it makes sense that most of Edwards’ influences are south of the border.

“I never listened to Joni Mitchell or The Band while growing up,” she says. “It was all American music. And I listened to Richard Buckner, Steve Earle and Whiskeytown before I ever really got into Johnny Cash or traditional Country music.”

As the daughter of a diplomat, she traveled quite a bit in her youth and this music became a constant in her life.

Her music shares some of the same rugged textures found in Buckner’s or Earle’s songs. She made a point of broadening the instrumentation found on her new record.

“I have a background in Classical music with violin but later got into things like Tom Petty and AC/DC,” Edwards says. “Recently I got a piano and made myself practice for a few hours every day so I could do a few things on it. That’s me playing it at the beginning of (the new album’s lead-off track) ‘Buffalo’ — you can hear the pedals scraping.”

For the first time, Edwards’ studio band was handpicked by the producer, Jim Scott, who has worked with Tom Petty. With a professional cast of intuitive players on hand like the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench on keyboards, Greg Leisz on pedal steel and Don Heffington on drums, Edwards could step back and focus more on her songs and worry less about which version to choose for the record since most were high quality recordings.

Though Asking for Flowersisn’t a major departure from her first two records in its dark tone, the songwriting has expanded and become more topical. Edwards tackles contemporary issues such as the disappearance of a woman in her native province in “Alicia Ross,” as well as the issue of growing violence in her homeland in “O Canada.” Like many other artists have done recently, she chimes in on Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy in “Oil Man’s War.”

It’s not all grim subject matter, though. How could there be a Canadian record without a reference to hockey, the national pastime? Edwards name checks Marty McSorley, a hockey star, in the rollicking “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory.” Her profane sense of humor pops up in various songs throughout the record, from “Sure As Shit” to “The Cheapest Key.” This is, after all, a woman who named her production company Potty Mouth for kicks.

What elevates Edwards above many of her peers, though, is her gift for gritty lyricism. Plainly put, she’s a hell of a writer, and that sharp literary quality edges its way through her best songs. On “Asking for Flowers,” in three, taut verses, she captures the frustrations of a woman tired of settling for diminished expectations. A creeping sense of claustrophobic desperation floods her aching voice as she sings the refrain, “Asking for flowers is like asking you to be nice/ Don’t tell me you’re too tired/ 10 years I’ve been working nights.”

“The title song is about a friend of mine who was dealing with a few things in her life like depression and emotional problems,” Edwards says.

An inherent working class bravery echoes through this song and others, as Kathleen determinedly chokes back the
fears that keep many of us grounded from flight, freedom and risk. Though she’s writing more politicized songs lately, it’s still her personal ones that resonate the most even if they’re not autobiographical.

“I’m into songs, it’s always about the song for me,” she says. “Sometimes I listen to the radio and wonder, ‘Where’s the song?’ I’m not prolific, but writing isn’t a chore either — I love doing it. Writing is fiction, but I can’t help but draw from the people in my life.”

For the first time, Edwards now struggles to write concert set lists that reflect the breadth and quality of her three records. It’s a challenge to include all her best material, though, and as conundrums go, it’s a nice one to have.

KATHLEEN EDWARDS performs at the 20th Century Theatre on Feb. 2. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.