Kathleen Edwards

TrackAlbum
National SteelFailer
I Make The Dough, You Get The GloryAsking For Flowers
House Full Of Empty RoomsVoyageur
GlenfernTotal Freedom
SummerlongBack To Me
Birds on A FeederTotal Freedom
Copied KeysBack To Me
Change The SheetsVoyageur
Who Rescued WhoTotal Freedom
Goodnight, CaliforniaAsking For Flowers

Kathleen Edwards photo 4

 

 

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Kathleen Edwards playlist

 

 

Contributor: Carl Parker

Alerted by an interview I read with Kathleen in an early 2003 edition of No Depression magazine, which along with an advert for her debut album Failer in the same issue – that included a quote claiming she was an amalgam of Lucinda Williams and Neil Young (in Crazy Horse mode) – everything indicated that Kathleen Edwards was just the sort of singer/songwriter who would hit the right spot with me.

Kathleen Edwards poster 1

The album wasn’t available in the UK so I had to go online and buy it from the US. But I was buying it unheard. This was an era before YouTube, and pre-Spotify or other streaming services. Buying online in pre-broadband and Amazon times was nowhere near as easy as it is today. The record more than met my expectations and it remained a favourite for the rest of the year (and is still loved today).

I have checked Bob Harris’s online archive (he being the only national DJ likely to have played KE) and see that he had played Six O’ Clock News a couple of times on his BBC Radio2 country programme, so it is possible that I had heard her before I got the album, though I don’t recall the song registering with me.

As Kathleen’s career progressed and each new album came out, an incremental improvement on the previous one was obvious – in both the depth of the lyrics and the quality of the songs.

Having said that, prior to the release of last year’s Total Freedom, I was wondering whether Kathleen could sustain that progressive improvement after taking a break from music for about eight years. Exhausted by living a life on the road, a joke within the band that she was going to give up music and open a coffee shop called Quitters became a reality. The question for me was would her craft as a songwriter, to combine music and lyrics in a way that expressed her musical personality so eloquently, emotionally and sweetly, have atrophied or even deserted her in the intervening years.

In the interregnum she had lived a life not that different to the sort that most of us experience; a daily routine where you turn up to work, put the hours in and go home at night, to do much the same the next day.

A call from Maren Morris to go to Nashville to co-write with her, provided the spark that led to her interest in creating new music being rekindled and ultimately to the recording of Total Freedom. The hackneyed mantra of “use it or lose it” hasn’t applied here. Rather it appears to be the case that a period of extended rest has re-energised her and she has returned bursting with enthusiasm and fresh ideas for new music.

To return to the beginning, I had a very brief encounter with Kathleen and her band before their first London gig at The Borderline. I was an early arrival in the queue, in prime position to get one of the few seats with a view of the stage, in a venue that was otherwise standing.

Unfortunately, my friend was not so punctual and as I had the tickets I had to wait and watch the queue file past. There was no point in phoning him to tell him to call me when he arrived, as I knew from experience that you couldn’t get a signal inside the venue, which was situated in a basement.

As I waited, Kathleen and her band came walking down the alley. When they got up to me, she stopped and asked if I would mind taking a photo of them, making sure I got the venue sign in the picture. I was more than happy to oblige. After they went in, I was kicking myself for not asking her to dedicate a song to the ad hoc photographer at the door.

The song I would have asked for would have been National Steel, which is my first selection.

It’s a melancholic opener, but has a deep melancholic beauty which is enhanced by Kathleen’s staccato violin layered over much smoother string playing (I believe the violin was the first instrument she learned to play). And of course her gorgeous voice that makes this and all the other songs in this list worth listening to. It’s something that I don’t think gets enough attention in live and album reviews, but it is really a thing of beauty.

The song is based around a phone conversation, sketching the ending of a relationship, with the recurring phrase in the chorus: Are you writing this all down?, but the key line is the ambiguous Trading your daughter, two thousand dollars for a National Steel. I can conjure both benign and malign interpretations of that line. It alone could form the basis of a novel. Whatever the intention it adds an extra layer of mystery to the song.

 

I was very tempted to include the song Somewhere Else in this list. To date it’s the only cover song Kathleen’s recorded for an album, though AC/DC’s Money Talks has appeared on a live EP and she frequently includes covers in her live set – (I recall a lovely rendition of Neil Young’s Unknown Legend at one gig). Somewhere Else was written by band mate Jim Bryson (there’s an amusing, albeit low quality, video of Jim performing the song with Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy on YouTube). Out in cyberspace there is a bootleg compilation of 18 cover versions that Kathleen performed live between 2002 and 2013.

All of which leads me to song choice #2, which is a song Kathleen wrote about Jim Bryson, titled I Make The Dough, You Get The Glory. For the chorus Kathleen has created some great analogies: You’re cool and cred like Fogerty, I’m Elvis Presley in the 70s, You’re Chateauneuf, I’m Yellow Label, You’re the buffet, I’m just the table … You’re the Great One, I’m Marty McSorley. That latter comparison being between Wayne Gretzky (the Lionel Messi of ice hockey) whom I had heard of, while Marty McSorley was an unknown quantity whom I had to look up. To put it politely, he was noted for his more robust style of play, contrasting with the finesse of Gretzky. But as sports’ fans know, players such as MM are generally an essential element for any successful team to make it to the top.

The key lines are Once I got drunk with Jeff, I told him I was in love with you, But I love you like a brother, so at least half of it was true. So Mrs Bryson can sleep easily, while Jim continues as an essential band member and, I should think, confidante, but those words show the depth of gratitude she feels.

One notable thing about this song is that it displays a lot of humour, but has an unusual quality rarely found with fun songs; that it stands up to repeated listens and doesn’t start grating on nerve ends.

The Asking For Flowers album from 2008 also features another step upwards in production with Jim Scott brought in, though Kathleen is credited as co-producer.

The video is also a lot of fun and features as guests the aforementioned Marty McSorley along with Jim Cuddy (again). Other than band members, there may be any number of Canadian celebrities that I don’t recognise also appearing in the video.

 

When I was thinking about which songs to pick for this Toppermost selection, I was also thinking about the lyrics to Kathleen’s songs that for a large part of her oeuvre arise from her personal experience.

However, it also occurred to me that they were written and recorded to be listened to and to be enjoyed as songs per se. The casual listener won’t know anything about Kathleen. I’ve been enjoying her music for some eighteen years now and through the lyrics themselves, from comments she has made on stage and from reading interviews, I have a sketchy knowledge about the stories and experiences behind many of them. But really, knowing the backgrounds doesn’t matter. What is important is the tune and the lyrics and how they combine to create an emotional truth and how that in turn resonates with the listener. Conveying that is the most essential element, not just of her songs but for any songwriter who intends to share their life experience. Do the elements of the song come together so that a first-time listener understands it and can enjoy it for what it is? The back story doesn’t matter, it’s a question of whether the listener can connect with the song.

So having said that I’m moving on to one her saddest songs. From the 2012 album Voyageur I have chosen House Full Of Empty Rooms. She told us from the stage that it’s about waiting for the realtor to come and collect the keys for her house, after the end of her marriage. I don’t think I need to say any more than that. The lyrics say everything you need to hear.

 

I’m a sucker for a happy ending. While House Full Of Empty Rooms signalled regrets at what had been lost through her divorce from former guitarist Colin Cripps, the opening song on Total Freedom looks back to their time together with a sense of perspective and understanding and, dare I suggest it, celebration.

It’s a song where Kathleen remembers that there were many happy times that they shared. I will always be thankful for it is a repeated line in the chorus. She sings of the things Colin did for her, stopping her getting smashed on whisky, and him getting captured on Streetview … you standing in your slippers, on the front porch with the Siamese cat. The perspective of we had a tour bus with a bed in the back, we bought a rock and roll dream it was total crap … it almost killed me recognising how she has come to terms with that period of her life and is happy to escape it. There is also, late in the song, the confessional I guess some things we should have said, ’cause it was too late when we did … and I am sorry for everything.

They are reconciled to the degree that Colin is once again playing in her band. The online launch event for Total Freedom (a link to the whole performance has been posted at the end) which was streamed live from Quitters, featured Colin on guitar and more recently Kathleen has announced a forthcoming tour which will again feature him on guitar. They’ve both got on with their lives and now find themselves in happy places that allow them to interact professionally.

This is the terrific opening track on Total Freedom and it’s titled Glenfern.

 

The Back To Me album (the one after Failer from 2005) rang some changes. Colin Cripps had joined the band as guitarist, he co-wrote some of the songs and also took over as producer, while in the studio Kathleen and the band were being augmented by Benmont Tench on piano. It’s possible that Tench will play on anyone’s album if the money is right, but I’d like to think he’s got enough security to be a bit picky about whom he will play with (I can’t imagine that he doesn’t have enough money to enable him to refuse sessions that he doesn’t fancy) and his presence marks the record company’s confidence in Kathleen developing as an artist through the kudos she’d accrued with the Failer album. There is also one song, Old Time Sake, that was produced by Pierre Marchand who is notably associated with Sarah McLachlan as her longtime producer (along with many others).

Summerlong raises the hope that a new relationship will last longer than a summer. It frames a sketch of the passions of youth, I know how to beat the rage, of my tender age. Touch me once in the hall, but don’t look back and don’t call, but the chorus moves on to him at the confusion of young love, There are some things I can hardly say, You’ve got me feeling a brand new way, Please don’t let this be summerlong. It’s bright and breezy. Some might suggest it’s lightweight but I think it’s a very fine, very enjoyable song.

 

The first track to be released from Total Freedom was the excellent Options Open, a song that philosophises on growing older, while the next to come out was Birds On A Feeder. When I saw that title I was a bit worried. Had Kathleen gone down a New Age path that had resulted in a twee tune, with hello birds, hello sky lyrics with birdsong overlaid to accompany her vocals? I shouldn’t have worried. While it’s a really delicate, almost fragile song, it’s anything but twee. It’s also the song that gives the album its title.

Strings intro is joined by a picked guitar before the vocal comes in, sketching an idea of pleasure in domesticity before the chorus of I’ve got birds on a feeder, I’ve dogs and they’re sleeping, I’ve got total freedom, no-one to need, while the second chorus adds a gently murmured “me” at the end. Third time around it is more enigmatic with an extra line, which might be No-one to … or No-one too in the sense that everything she has is enough, before touching on the fears of being with someone and the realisation it might end. The term ‘achingly beautiful’ is possibly overused, but I am nonetheless applying it to Birds On A Feeder, because it fits so well on a song where Kathleen sings so movingly, with her voiced pitched towards the upper end of her register.

I’d also refer you to the album covers at the top of this post. This latest one is the first where Kathleen faces the camera. She’s staring confidently at the lens, the hint of a smile, self possessed and ready to look the world in the eye, confident in her freedom.

The images for the first two seem to be puns on the titles. Failer (the title coming from a deliberately misspelled/mispronounced word in the song Six O’ Clock News) has a distant shot of a broken-down truck with someone (most probably Kathleen) leaning against it. For Back To Me, she sits with her back to the camera. The next two have art sleeves with no photo of anyone. So the face-on image appears to be a deliberate departure from established practice, I’d suggest with the intention of establishing this is a new phase of her career and everything is different now.

 

Sometimes you listen to an album and out of the blue a song you’d never really noticed hits you hard.

This happened with the song that is now my favourite from Back To Me. I’d owned the album for a while. The songs Independent Thief, Summerlong and Pink Emerson Radio had established themselves as my favourites when one day I was driving alone, playing the album, when Copied Keys came on. It was almost as if I was hearing the song for the first time. It had hardly registered with me. How had I missed it and failed to notice its excellence? It ended and I immediately replayed it and probably did so a few more times.

It’s built on a slide guitar motif that Colin Cripps plays with a lot of sustain on the notes, while Kathleen’s lyrics describe sublimation of the narrator’s personality in trying to fit in and adapt to the partner’s existing life: These are your old friends and I like them fine, These are your old streets and you know them well, This is not my town and it will never be… Keys to a house, keys to a life but while entrance is gained it’s to something strange and to someone else’s experience. A facsimile of a life.

 

The second song that I’m picking from Voyageur is Change The Sheets. Opening with a keyboard figure that calls to mind a muted version of the intro to The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again, this is another end of a relationship song, though if you were to listen to it without paying attention to the lyrics, it would come over as an upbeat, happy song.

It moves at pace, with no sense of any maudlin sentiment within the music, but the lyrics tell a different story, opening with My love took a ride on a red-eye plane, Going home … while the second verse ends Here is the truth, I swear it used to be fun, Go ahead run, run, run, run. The chorus leaves no doubt: Change this feeling under my feet, Change the sheets and then change me.

As well as the official video I have linked to a video of one of my favourite KE gigs, when she played an in-store promotional set at the Rough Trade East record shop in east London. It was really good to be close up in a fairly small crowd. The sound in this isn’t the best (but it’s not too bad either). I was standing next to the guy who took the video.

 

Kathleen Edwards photo 3

Jim Bryson, Kathleen and Gord Tough at Rough Trade East,
London, 8th November 2011

 

 

One thing you learn about Kathleen, to a degree from onstage chat but more so from her Instagram account, is that she loves her dogs and cats. Who Rescued Who from Total Freedom is dedicated to the memory of Redd. It’s a beautiful song that anyone who has had a long relationship with dog or cat will wholly empathise with. They occupy a space in our lives and there is a real emptiness we feel when they are gone. The title relates to Redd being a rescue dog. Such a lovely tribute and epitaph.

 

I started with a song that is strong on atmosphere and similarly I’m finishing on one. Again, it’s a song that features Kathleen playing violin, though on record she’s part of a string quartet. Given that Goodnight, California is one of Kathleen’s longest songs it is also notable for one of her briefest set of lyrics.

A strummed acoustic guitar is joined by a picked guitar before the rest of the band joins in, with strings swelling in the background. Towards the end there is an extended bluesy harmonica solo, played over a string-laden background that sounds brilliant. Another notable session player turns up on this song, with Greg Leisz who adds very tasteful guitar lines. Kathleen is also credited with playing vibraphone.

Though it absolutely sounds nothing like it, there are similarities to John Martyn’s Small Hours. Both songs create a mesmerising soundscape that pull the listener in, with the lyrics almost incidental to the music, where the atmosphere and texture embraces you, immersing you for a short time in a place where magic exists. The creative impulse for this music being borne out of innate artistic sensibilities, resulting in a stunning, unique performance. It’s unlike anything else she has recorded.

Why California? This song doesn’t offer the listener any clues, because nothing in the lyrics indicates any location at all. I would speculate that the bar setting was in California, but speculating beyond that seems a pointless exercise.

A meeting with a close friend or former lover. I’m not gonna lie, I’m not looking for love, I won’t let you in my heart, but you were always on my mind. Who knows and should we care? Kathleen and the other musicians have set out to create a piece of atmospheric music and succeed wonderfully well. It just sounds beautiful. Vocally, she returns without lyrics late in the song, but with a sustained “Aaaaah” mixed deep down among the instrumentation.

And that makes up my current 10 favourite Kathleen Edwards’ songs. It’s great that she’s back making music and I hope that she comes back to tour the UK, but takes her time and enjoys the experience. I saw an example of how the grind of the road affects a performance. In 2005, when Kathleen toured in support of Back To Me, I saw her at the Islington Academy in the April and she and the band were excellent. They returned to the same venue that November and as they came on stage I could hardly believe it was the same band. They very visibly looked tired and drawn. There was a horrible moment in one song when in trying to hit a note Kathleen’s voice cracked and made an awful sound. I felt really bad for her. A break from the road was clearly long overdue. So I hope if she does tour over here she manages to find the right balance between making touring worthwhile and avoiding running herself down physically and mentally and is able to embrace and enjoy the trip.

It’s good to have her back.

 

Kathleen Edwards photo 1

 

I’m finishing here by posting my review of a 2012 gig at Bush Hall in London which was published on the No Depression website.

 

 

Kathleen Edwards photo 2

 

Kathleen Edwards official website

On quitting music, falling for a conman – and her comeback
Laura Snapes, The Guardian Interview (2020)

Total Freedom album release – full show
Live at Quitters, Stittsville, Ontario, August 24th 2020

Kathleen Edwards biography (AllMusic)

Kathleen Edwards photo 5

Singer-songwriter-businesswoman-badass coffee slinger
Amanda Sage interview on Kickass Canadians, April 1st 2015

Carl Parker originated in Chester but has lived in north London since 1981. He’s unusual in these times in not subscribing to any social media, but contributes to sites like The Afterword and used to contribute to No Depression before it turned into an elitist institution. He’s recently retired and enjoys a relaxed life, where listening to new music is a recurring pleasure.

TopperPost #980

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Aug 25, 2021

    Great list on an excellent songwriter. An indication of the quality of her songwriting is that when I drew up a list of 10 songs for a possible Toppermost a while back, they were entirely different to this one. Might still have to have ‘One More Song The Radio Won’t Like’ and ‘A Soft Place To Land’ in my Top 10 though.

    • Carl Parker
      Aug 27, 2021

      That’s the beauty of Toppermost – sometimes you ask yourself how could a particular song not be there; other times you think that a song is an inspired choice that probably wouldn’t have occurred to you and at other times there is a song (pretty rarely) when you think “You have got to be kidding me”.

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