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Northern Exposure

Kathleen Edwards' Fail-safe songs strike a universal chord.

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One of the keys to Kathleen Edwards' sudden success is the way her tales of busted-up love could have come from almost anywhere. For that matter, so could her album art. The cover photo of her debut disc, Failer, shows Edwards slumped against the front of a well-worn truck, its hood up, her chin down. It captures a specific moment, but its setting, five minutes north of her former farmhouse in Ottawa, Quebec, is indistinguishable from, say, Ottawa, Kansas.

"It's like that scene in Austin Powers where it looks just like the hills of England, but it's really Southern California," Edwards says. "There are a lot of rural areas in Canada that are probably very similar to the outskirts of Kansas City."

The truck itself, one of the few constants in her life this year, is actually broken down -- not in that photograph, but now. "I still own it," she says with the tone someone might use to talk about an old dog. "It's hurtin'."

That's probably the only aspect of Edwards' life that's hurting right now. This afternoon, she's squeezing in three interviews on the drive to London after crossing the English Channel on the tail end of a European tour.

"I guess you could say I play roots-rock, alt-country, whatever, and there's just a real interest [in Europe]," she says. "The European audience that's been coming out -- they really listen. Half the people that came to my shows didn't even have my record and hadn't even heard a song, but they came on recommendations, and they were open-minded. They don't need to hear it to come and see it, take an interest in it and sit through a show incredibly quietly."

The sometimes gentle, sometimes raucous Failer deserves every bit of the attention it's been getting. Edwards' bittersweet voice, casual good looks and emotionally rugged storytelling have rocketed her to the kind of attention about which most Americana (Canadiana?) artists only dream. Rolling Stone tagged Edwards as one of its Top Ten Artists to Watch. She's appeared on all the late-night talk shows, and she's been crowned as the alt-country heir apparent to Lucinda Williams; there's no denying the vocal similarities.

Still, when asked if there is any part of her career about which she'd like to set the record straight, Edwards says, "The perpetual comparisons to Lucinda Williams. It's the one thing that consistently insinuates that she was a big influence on me, and that I'm trying to be the next Lucinda Williams, which is absolutely not true, mostly just because there's already one of them."

Edwards' songs, especially exasperated kiss-offs and sardonic slaps such as "Hockey Skates" and "Westby," bear a closer resemblance to storytellers such as Richard Buckner (with whom she's toured) and Aimee Mann. "Mercury," in which the narrator admits how close she came to being a murderer's next pickup, and "One More Song the Radio Won't Like," a stinging satire, echo Mann's emotional depth and biting wit.

Edwards' songs tend to come from the perspective of women who are, one way or another, telling their messed-up men that they're leaving -- a pregnant girlfriend sighing good-bye to a holed-up beau about to be killed by the police ("Six O'clock News"), or an angry, dissatisfied narrator settling for one last sweaty roll through the sheets as she sorts things out ("12 Bellevue").

"I wrote a lot of the songs in a time in my life where I was really ready to close the door on mistakes that I'd made and things I'd done in the past," Edwards says. "I wanted to move on and not feel like a child living in an adult world. I was going through a lot of endings and new beginnings, and I think that inevitably translated into the songs I was writing."

Failer's final song, "Little Duck," is a deceptively sweet acoustic tune that cloaks the album's end in a cloud of noise.

"I think ['Little Duck'] is one of the darkest songs on the record," Edwards says. "It's funny, because [coproducer] Dave Draves and I had this idea about creating a chaotic ending. We tried it in the studio and recorded all these other tracks, but it never came off the way we heard it in our heads. We sent it off to [mixer] John Whynot, and he came back with it, not realizing that we had dropped the idea of that chaotic ending. All those things were in there, and it was perfect. It was exactly the way we wanted it to sound."

Edwards has been touring steadily for months, and though she has new material ready, she plans to stay on the road until at least Christmas. She'll make her first stop in Kansas City with drummer Joel Anderson and bass player Kevin McCarragher, the Failer rhythm section, with Colin Cripps providing the electric guitar bursts so central to Edwards' music.

"I play a few new songs, some with the full band and some solo during my shows," Edwards says. "It's funny, because Neil Young is touring in Europe right now. Basically, he's played in every town, or has been about to play in every town, I've been to or just left. A lot of people were saying that with his shows, he's playing smallish venues, and he's playing solo acoustic. He comes and sits down and plays an hour and a half of songs nobody's ever heard before, from a new record that's not even out yet.

"That's the essence of songwriting," Edwards continues. "You go in, and people may be your fans, or they may not know you at all, but the idea is that they're there to hear songs. There's always this idea that you should play all the songs that people want to hear, but there's something really great about the basic idea of going back to playing songs for people who don't know them, and going back to the moment."

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