Required Reading: Welcome Back, Kathleen Edwards

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Kathleen Edwards performs at The Birchmere in 2013. (Photo by Mark Caicedo)

Required Reading is Parklife DC’s essay series on music appreciation.

“The next time Kathleen plays here, we’ll be opening for her.”

Eric Brace of Last Train Home uttered those prophetic words at Arlington, Virginia’s Iota Club back in summer 2003. One of those NPR drive-way moments had put Kathleen Edwards on my radar when I heard one of her first interviews.

Her first album, Failer (Zoë Records), had just been released and when I heard its first single, “Six O’Clock News,” I was hooked.

Seeing Kathleen perform it a couple months later at Iota confirmed what I’d heard on the radio — clear, driving melodies, imagery rich lyrics, and a voice pure, strong and vulnerable. Even in a stripped-down solo setting, her stage presence silenced the bar’s normal background chit chat, clearly signaling that a new musical presence was bursting onto the burgeoning American folk-rock scene.

Watch Kathleen Edwards perform “Six O’Clock News” live in Toronto on YouTube:

After that first show, I attended just about every Kathleen Edwards performance I could get to in the DC metro area. As an aficionado of live music, I was struck by how the power and immediacy of the songs compared to the meticulous production values of their studio counterparts. I saw solo, trio, and full band performances — and in every instance, the concerts were compelling, pitch perfect, and spontaneous.

And of course, the witty, entertaining banter with the audience and her bandmates gave the shows an intimate, relaxed atmosphere.

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Kathleen’s sophomore studio effort, 2005’s Back to Me (Zoë Records), confirmed Failer’s brilliance. Back to Me showcased a growing songwriting and performance confidence, particularly in songs like the title track, the opener “In State,” “Summerlong,” and the gorgeous “Pink Emerson Radio.” In 2008, she followed up with Asking for Flowers (Zoë Records), another album adored by critics and fans alike. With songs like the wistful “Buffalo,” the tongue in cheek, “The Cheapest Key,” the Petty-like slow burner, “Good Night, California,” and the stunningly beautiful “Sure as Shit,” her musical palette continued to expand.

See Kathleen Edwards perform “Sure as Shit” at Rough Trade East London in 2011 via YouTube:

Kathleen is also a master of the cover song and every show would have one (or two). Between 2002 and 2012 she covered dozens of artists; from Neil Young to AC/DC, John Prine to Tom T. Hall and Jeannie C. Riley. She has that rare ability to make someone else’s song her own — renditions of Black Sabbath’s “Changes,” to The Flaming Lips’ lovely “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” and Jason Collett’s fragile yet ultimately triumphant “Bitter Beauty” are unique and charming interpretations of the originals.

Check out Kathleen Edwards covering Loudon Wainwright’s “Swimming Song” on YouTube:

By the time Voyageur (Zoë Records) came out in 2012, Kathleen had become a seasoned performer and singularly accomplished singer-songwriter. The album established Edwards as a top 100 artist, charting at No. 9 on the US Billboard 200 and her first top ten album in Canada, reaching the No. 2 spot. But, prophetically, some of the album’s song titles seemed to hint at the calamities to come: “House Full of Empty Rooms,” “Empty Threat,” and “Going to Hell,” all great tunes, nonetheless carried an undercurrent of the turmoil in Edwards’ life.

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Most Kathleen Edwards fans know how she left the music industry in 2014. Despite steadily growing praise for her songwriting and live performances, the phenomenal success of Voyaguer came at a steep price. She stepped back from performing, recording, and touring as she grappled with clinical depression (something about which she is characteristically candid), retreated to Ottawa (Stittsville to be exact), and opened a coffee shop named Quitters.

Kathleen’s foray back into music making began in 2018 when Nashville songwriter and longtime fan, Maren Morris, proposed a collaboration. The resulting song, “Good Woman,” was included on Morris’ 2019 album, GIRL. Kathleen recalled, “Funny enough, the third person in the room for those two days was Ian Fitchuk, and [we] ended up starting the process of producing a record.”

Over the next couple years, she would occasionally show up onstage and release snippets of new music on social media. Fans’ speculation was rewarded this past May when Kathleen announced a new album, Total Freedom (Dualtone Records), set for release on Aug. 14. As Ms. Edwards says, “As it turns out, you never really stop being a musician, and quitting it for a while gave me permission to come back to it when I was ready.”

Stream the official audio for “Options Open” from Kathleen Edwards’ new album:

Judging from the online reaction to Kathleen’s return to recording, there are many who still carry a torch for her music. Songwriting and performances as authentic and ground-breaking as Kathleen’s are valuable traits in today’s music industry. Indeed, by the time Voyageur was released, she was exploring new musical styles, song structure, and live performance configurations.

Kathleen’s work has been compared to Neil Young and Lucinda Williams, but I also hear Keith Richards and Chrissie Hynde. She can write and perform rockers like “Independent Thief,” and “Back to Me,” but then bring tears with lovely ballads like “Sweet “Lil Duck and “Sure as Shit.” Much like Warren Zevon, Kathleen’s ability to write songs about losers (or failers, as she might say), lowlifes, and heartbreak is tempered by the lyrical gift of reaching into one’s heart and exposing pain and regret with simple and achingly gorgeous melodies. Thus, Kathleen’s raucous and racy “Back to Me” (her “Excitable Boy”) easily stands alongside the poignant and timeless, “Away” (her “Mutineer”).

See Kathleen Edwards perform “Away” in 2013 via YouTube:

With Total Freedom, Kathleen has written another musical chapter of a story that’s far from over. And maybe that story ends, again, with a coffee shop in Stittsville but somehow, I suspect, and hope, the story has many more pages to fill.

Find Total Freedom, and much more music at Kathleen’s website.

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