Canadian singer/songwriter Kathleen Edwards talks to Richard McComb about love, insecurity and why you won't catch her in Dolce & Gabbana.
It’s not easy being in love with the darling of the American indie folk circuit, especially when you also happen to be a footloose musician.
Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards’ boyfriend, Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, is riding higher than ever on the back of a double win at the Grammys’ including best newcomer.
Edwards flew to LA for the awards, catching a 5am plane after a gig in Toronto and loved being a “fly on the wall.”
But career commitments mean she and Vernon are apart again. Hence her entry on Twitter, just before I call her: “Up in the air. Again. Life on hold. Parts of it, anyway.”
Is everything all right, I ask?
“I’m in a long distance relationship and we’re both touring musicians and so the amount of time we get to spend together that is not, (a) on a tour bus or (b) over Skype is pretty limited, especially lately. We are both pretty busy. I think that’s what that was about. It’s a little hard some days,” says Edwards, who is speaking from Toronto before stepping on a plane to the UK.
“When you’re really in love, you make the best of it, no matter what. We both love what we do and we’re both pretty committed to making sure the other person feels supported to do that. There is that part that carries us. Now we’re both in some of the craziest, most exciting times of our lives. This is an amazing time and the last thing we want either of us to feel is that we can’t enjoy it.”
The 33-year-old is playing at the Glee Club, Birmingham on Monday as part of a tour to promote her fourth album, Voyageur, an infectious mix of country-rock, ballads of heart-break and regret, raw guitars, sonic landscapes and some glittering pop.
Voyageur falls into that bitter-sweet canon known as break-up albums, the record inspired by the collapse of her five-year marriage to guitarist Colin Cripps. The pain is addressed directly in songs like Pink Champagne (“In a dress to kill and a glass to fill I wasn’t ready but I didn’t fight”) and House Full of Empty Rooms (“I used to make you happy/But I don’t know you/Not the way I thought I did”).
There’s no spite, just honesty; and for Edwards, honesty is all important, backlit as it is by the artist’s ever-nagging doubt: am I actually any good?
“Some days I feel like I am putting my first record out and I’m trying hard to find an audience,” she says.
“And there are days you realise you are in a position that thousands of people would love to be in. Sometimes perspective is finicky thing. Some days you don’t have a lot of it and some days you do.”
The irony is that with Voyageur, Edwards found herself ruminating about the end of a relationship with the man who was gradually becoming her new love. Vernon, one of the coolest guys in indie music, produced the album and Edwards says the studio sessions and their unfolding romance happened simultaneously. She travelled to Wisconsin, Vernon’s hometown, in summer 2010, they worked together for a few days, and clicked.
Edwards says: “I was a little outside my comfort zone and that felt really good. I felt like I could trust him because he knew where I’d come from. He knew the work I’d done and he believed in the quality of the work. I could just be me and be really open.”
The fact Vernon helped Edwards give musical expression to the emotions that accompanied her marriage disintegration has artistic logic to it.
“My work has always been about life – and relationships play a huge part in life. They are a huge source of raw material. It’s the human experience,” says Edwards. “I never felt there was something strange about it [making Voyageur with Vernon]. I think Justin probably understands that better than anybody. Sometimes you write a song in a place and it comes from a very heavy heart or a very full heart and you have to capture that moment and it stays with you because it’s part of your history.
“And then you end up making a record and your history contributes to the making of this record. I wouldn’t have been able to write these songs or make this record – I would never have met Justin – had I not gone through what I’ve gone through.
“There are times when people’s interpretation of songs is not accurate to what the song’s really about and that’s great too because it makes you feel the song is still yours and all the little things that sparked it still get to be yours.
“Then there are times you feel you wish you hadn’t written songs about any of it because it’s a really painful, true life experience and most people don’t shout it from the top of the mountain, all the failures they have had in life. Sometimes I am my own worst enemy. I beat myself up a lot about it. I know I’m not a bad person and there have been lots of times in the last few years when I felt I was not a very good person.
“You do your best to come to a place where you make peace with the choices you make in life, which aren’t about hurting other people, they are about being honest to yourself and trying to live your life to the fullest, like you would want anyone to.”
If she’s uncompromising about the need for emotional honesty, the same holds true for artistic credibility. Edwards is most definitely not interested in the fame game per se. She’s got a homespun, dry sense of humour and she does not do PR stunts.
“Sometimes it’s like swimming upstream,” she says. “The type of things people want you to do, or participate in, in the entertainment business is embarrassing, it’s just a joke.
“Sometimes you feel you get asked to do something that has nothing to do with music. I am not interested in participating in that element of it.
“I recall being asked to wear certain things in a photoshoot. It was like, ‘Dude, do you even know what my music sounds like?’ I’m not going to put on thigh-high fluorescent green Dolce & Gabbana boots. Like sorry – not sorry. Like f*** off.
“Thankfully, I have a good head on my shoulders and know that making other people happy, or thinking you are making other people happy is the quickest way to make yourself unhappy.”
The title of her latest album harks back to her childhood. Born in Ottawa, she recalls the excitement of going to summer camp at Temagami, Ontario, where she belonged to a group of child adventurers called the Voyageurs. Temagami is “one of the most picturesque places,” she recalls fondly. “It’s like old growth forests and beautiful pine trees and there’s beautiful lakes and river systems and people go on canoe trips. I spent my summers doing that. They were formative experiences.
“My father was in the foreign service and we got posted abroad when I was a kid. I had always sworn that when I got to be an adult I would stay in one place and rest somewhere – and then I became a touring musician.
“I realised my whole life was a training for this thing I do. It fulfils me on a huge level and at the same time it’s the one thing I wish I could change some days. I want to stay in one place, too.”
The dilemma – the rootless existence versus the pull of having a fixed home – is unresolved but there’s something distinctly – what shall we call it? – Canadian about Edwards’ sound. I tell her my wife was walking through the room while I was playing Voyageur and instantly remarked that it sounded Canadian.
“Wow! I think that might be the best compliment I’ve ever gotten,” says Edwards.
So it’s a good thing, to sound like that little girl on the lake in Temagami?
“Are you kidding? Yeah, f***, yeah. I feel like someone saying that is the one thing that you long to hear – to make sure that you know you are honest.
"That’s the most honest thing I can think, that I would sound Canadian. Most people don’t even know what that means. There’s not a way to describe what that means. She’s got free tickets to the shows.”
* Kathleen Edwards plays Birmingham’s Glee Club on Monday, February 27.