“Looking back, it was such a dumb idea,” Kathleen Edwards sings on her new album, a line that sounds kind of dumb itself when it’s typed out, but that in context – between laments for a lonely marriage and the ill-advised wedding that spawned it – renders “Pink Champagne” the most gutting track on Edwards’s fourth record Voyageur, possibly of her entire catalog.
In a general way that song, and the entire album, are about Edwards’s somewhat recent divorce from musician Colin Cripps, who’d been her right-hand man both in life and on stage for years, a development addressed with the same frank, neatly-honed songcraft that had her debut, 2003′s Failer, quickly heralded as a new Americana classic. Four albums in, Edwards has taken a new tack with Voyaguer, fully muting the born-in-a-barn rootsiness she’d been gradually edging away from, filling in the corners of the new songs with blurring, bleeding watercolors – tinny looping guitars, hovering organs and wordless vocals cooing somewhere back there in the warm depths.
Edwards pulled in a few new friends (and one new love, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who co-produced the record) to help her find her way. The result sounds like a deeply satisfying psychic and emotional and musical realignment, like stumbling on a wholly new place that nonetheless feels absolutely like home.
eMusic’s Rachael Maddux talked with Edwards about the new album, wondering what Neil Young is up to, and cheese.
What was your original reason for wanting to collaborate with Justin Vernon? How did you guys get in touch with each other?
We had a mutual friend who exchanged our email addresses. I think some of our conversations were about our similarities in what we do and the lifestyle that we live and stuff like that. At the time, I was pretty early on into making my record and I think initially I was trying to be open to the process of co-writing [thinking], “Well, maybe this could shake things up for me.”
In the end [Justin and I] were both like, “Well, I’m not really into co-writing.” But the musical dialogue that we had was really productive because I was able to articulate, “I want to make this record and I want it to sound like this and this and this.” And he was like, “I totally get what you mean.” And before I knew it, I really felt like he knew exactly what I wanted to do. And when we started hanging out and talking about music, it was never with the idea of, “He’s going to produce this record with me.” It was more just like, you’re throwing stuff up against the wall and seeing what sticks. He wasn’t the only person that I was talking to about music, but ultimately, he was the person who I just really clicked with.
Was it difficult to make some of the alterations to the way you approached songwriting?
In terms of adding a different dimension to my record and the musical landscape that fits with these songs, I did feel a little bit like I had to swim upstream to get there. And it’s hard when you play with the same musicians every night. I think [my bandmates] initially were the hardest people for us to try and break out of this mold. It’s pretty natural when you work so closely creatively with people for a long period of time [to become stuck in certain patterns]. That’s why it really helped for this record to [bring in] fresh ears.
I don’t want to sound like I think I’m really successful, but my first record propelled me into a world that allowed me to walk through a bunch of doors, and it’s hard when something works to try and change that. Because what if [this new thing] doesn’t work, and then all the doors that opened originally aren’t open anymore? With this record, I sort of felt like it was do-or-die time, like it could have been my last shot. I was like, “I gotta fuckin’ knock it out of the park. For me.”
In addition to working with Justin, you have a bunch of guests appear on the album. How do you go about bringing in people you admire to work with?
You just kind of take a chance. I didn’t know any of those people. I didn’t know Stornoway; I’d met Norah Jones once but I wouldn’t say that we were friends or anything at all. Those names didn’t come into play until we were pretty far along in the recording process and we were like, “OK, there’s a space for this. Who would fit?” And of course those people were fresh in my mind because I was listening to those records – Stornoway, Francis and the Lights. And Norah, she’s just somebody who – her voice is just like a big bowl of Cream of Wheat, you know? It’s like, “Yay!” It sounds so nice.
Is it strange for you to be a fan of someone’s music, and then have that person show up and play on your record?
Yeah. Norah Jones, she’s a great example. She’s certainly a famous musician – you can walk into a coffee shop and you can hear Norah Jones playing. You may not know what record it is or what song it is but you know it’s her. And I remember, we sent her the song “For the Record” to sing on, and I remember the first time hearing it I totally welled up, because her voice, a voice that I hear all the time, is singing with me on my project. It just felt like an accomplishment. “I’ve gotten to a certain place where I can ask somebody to do this and they’ll say yes.” It made me feel really emotional and joyful, you know? Just really fulfilled and like I accomplished something.
Has it empowered you to think, well, “Maybe I should see what Neil Young’s doing?”
I’m always wondering what Neil Young’s doing.
Me too. It probably involves model trains. You know, speaking of Neil Young: the song “Empty Threat” has the lyric “I’m moving to America.” It’s such a clichÃ© in the States to threaten to move to Canada anytime anything shitty happens here. Is there a reverse clichÃ© for Canadians?
It’s funny – in Canada, anyone who’s at the top of their field here then moves to America because they want to have a larger opportunity. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell – the whole joke is they’re Canadian artists but they’ve been living in America for 30-plus years. So I called [the song] “Empty Threat” because it’s like, “Don’t fuckin’ make me move to America.” The perception is that there’s just a lot more opportunity in America. It’s like that mouse movie [An American Tail], where they get on the boat and they start singing, “There are no cats in America and the streets are paved with cheese.” It’s totally that!
I wish the streets were paved with cheese. That would be awesome.
I know. The no cats thing would really piss me off.
I want both of those things. Cheese and cats.
Cats and cheese.