Kathleen Edwards on Justin Vernon, Brian Wilson, and her Twitter feed
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson
"Minneapolis was one of the highlights of my entire life, and my last show in the city was at the Varsity in 2009. I am sort of daunted by the idea that I have to one-up that experience," divulges Kathleen Edwards. The Canadian singer will be back in town on Friday evening -- for a rescheduled show due to illness -- to share songs from her latest record Voyageur, an album that has a lot of local connections, including contributions from Brian Moen of Peter Wolf Crier and a music video from Dan Huiting.
Gimme Noise caught up with Edwards to talk about how she's been recuperating and get her biting take on the state of the music industry before her show.
With a need to be on the road, Kathleen came out of the gate ready to go with her album release in January. The tour barely had a free day between January and her original Minneapolis date in April; the singer had been touring non-stop to support Voyageur, fitting in press amidst shows, explaining the reason for her cancellation. "I was totally burned out. I sang for almost a month on steroids, and I just realized I couldn't do anymore. With no days off along with press, I sang every night and sang promo; I tried to do more that I really could," Kathleen says, adding, "I have a hard time saying no to stuff, because there are times where you are at home, and you want to go out and be onstage. I underestimated how much time off was going to have; I basically left myself with nothing."
No one can blame Edwards; any artist with an album as impressive as Voyageur would be excited to share their music with their audience. Co-produced by Justin Vernon, Kathleen took a new approach to writing. On previous albums, the singer arrived at the studios ready to record with all the songs already written having no room for adjustments. With her latest, she allowed herself to be open to new ideas introduced by Vernon while recording.
"I was talking to Justin about the direction I wanted to go in fairly early on in the recording process," she says. "He was somebody that was able to finish my sentences when I was trying to describe what I wanted to do, and for the times that I couldn't articulate it, he really helped."
It's difficult to find a producer with whom you could be so in tune with, but Kathleen was fortunate to acquire one that had the intuition and talent along with communication skills. "There was never a shortage of ideas with Justin," she says. "He was quick at throwing down four or five parts and tinkering with them in a way that really allowed me to produce the songs while he produced some of the musical ideas based on stacking and creating sounds on two or three instruments at one time. This time around, making this album was much more about going inside the songs and turning them inside out until we figured out how they were going to sound on the record. I ended up having to wait until the songs were recorded to go back and say, 'No, that's not the kind of record I want to make. It's too much the same of what I've done.' A lot of the changes were arrangement-based where I was really more willing to live outside of a traditional verse/chorus type of pattern that I've used in the past. I really tried to find a musical variance in the way the songs were recorded musically and arranged. "
One of the most difficult things for an artist to do is to include humor in the music without it developing into something cheesy. With her acerbic wit, Kathleen was able to showcase her personality in her sometimes sarcastic lyrics. "I have a pretty acidic sense of humor, and I also like writing lyrics the way you would talk to somebody in a conversation. I don't make up some metaphor for something; I say things exactly as they are."
That sense of humor was on display when asked about her take on the current music industry -- in particular an advice column hosted by City Pages' sister paper the Dallas Observer where musicians write in asking for advice from a musician.
"So you guys are getting a failed musician to give advice to young emerging artists? That's a fucking great idea," she says. "That sounds like a winner. Can you call it 'Curmudgeon Corner' and everyone gets to ask the curmudgeon how not to fail? I actually don't disagree with the idea of not putting out albums. I'm really conflicted about the way people are absorbing and hearing music in a sense that I'm somebody that just wants to put out a couple of songs. There's something fun about that, and the pressure feels less in the case that I don't have to put out a whole new album. I love the idea of putting out singles and EPs, but I also think there's a place for an album. As somebody who believes in the idea of a project, there cannot be a project if there's no album. I don't think one song is indicative of a snapshot of time, and I really think you'd be undermining the concept of an a record. Having said that, I think there is a place for both."
When asked to elaborate on why she is conflicted on the how people are consuming music, Edwards is aptly passionate about the subject. "I think what's conflicting to me is that there's this manic audience that exists that we, as artists, get constantly told we need to cater to. Content, content, content. I spent as much time making my album as I have trying to create post-album content for people to eat up. The truth is, some of it is fun to do; it's a nice extension, whether it's a visual extension of your music or whatever. I hear other artists like Neil Young, and when it really comes down to it, I don't think any of that matters outside of the singularity of a recorded song or album. I'm conflicted for the need for immediate and constant new work. I don't believe an artist can sustain that. Look at Brian Wilson. There's a great example of a living legend who did incredible work and who tried to keep up with that pace. It absolutely ruined him."
Being a smart business woman, although disturbed by it, Edwards understands the direction of where music is headed. "I absolutely love digital access. I love the downloading culture. I think it's absolutely essential, but there's a point where sometimes it's detrimental to an individual band or artist who's trying to cultivate something long-term and to be constantly pushed to make more available. We're not Wal-Mart. Quality work takes time, and there's a throw away culture that exists that's really tough to shut out. People ask me in my interviews as much about my music as my Twitter feed. It's just a fucking Twitter feed. It doesn't take anything to post 140 characters and say some shit, but it took me my whole life to figure out how to play my music, and I'm still learning how to write songs and all that stuff.
"There's this writer named Sherman Alexie who writes some really incredible social commentary. He goes to a lot of schools to talk to students about technology and emerging ideas. When he asked these kids about art, they responded by saying that they saw no actual financial value to art. His feedback to that was, 'Your generation of artists will not be able to live if you don't see any monetary value in art.' It's not to say that money has always been the motivation, but it's true. My friend bought a four dollar coffee yesterday at Starbucks, and she probably does that five times a week, but does she pay for music? Why don't we think about that? We're the first generation where we're actually saying, 'Fuck you, artists.' Go spend your money at Urban Outfitters or somewhere else. Congratulations, you're really going backwards in terms of being completely hypocritical on what you value and what you think is right."
Much of her intensity displayed in this interview will be present at her live show. "I still remember Minneapolis being one of the funnest, most amazing nights on tour I've ever had. The truth of it is, it's gonna be an emotional and difficult night for me, and I hope that translates into a really candid night of my full band playing in a town I thought I was going to live in. I'm pretty pumped about Minneapolis, to be honest." We're pretty pumped to have you, Kathleen.
Kathleen Edwards with Jenn Grant. 18+, $20, 7 p.m. Friday, September 28 at Varsity Theater, Minneapolis. Purchase tickets here.
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