Kathleen Edwards: A Soft Place To Land

Canadian chanteuse Kathleen Edwards finds a home in Bon Iver's Wisconsin studio

Feature by David McGinty | 09 Jan 2012

Back in October, among the bar queues of The Usher Hall, a smattering of shared opinions pronounce Kathleen Edwards "not a million miles away from Laura Veirs" or "mumble mumble Aimee Mann, mumble". An uneasy reminder of how regularly female artists are lumped together; with each overheard attempt to categorise the Canadian singer/songwriter all that becomes clear is that Edwards, in town supporting Bon Iver, is difficult to pigeonhole. 

Earlier that afternoon, The Skinny met up with Edwards, finding a quiet corner to talk about her new album Voyageur, co-produced by Bon Iver bandleader Justin Vernon, its themes of geography, and where she finds herself now.

Whilst on her previous record, 2008's Asking For Flowers, Edwards approached the concept of place in a national sense with Oh Canada – a song that communicated her disillusionment with her home country – here everything is more localised, focused on accounts of intimate spaces, and private matters. “I think heart and geography are my two biggest influences, and geography might be a bigger influence,” says Edwards. “It’s just ‘cause you see so much. For people who don’t go to a lot of places, you forget how much of your identity is about where you’re from. That’s what means everything to me… I write personal songs, so geography is literally the most significant influence in my life.” 

Voyageur, though its title would suggest otherwise, doesn’t glorify a Kerouac inspired wanderlust, but rather evokes the idea of home, and a distilled longing for a specific place. While it begins with Empty Threat, with its chorus ‘I’m moving to America', it quickly establishes its theme with songs like A Soft Place to Land, House Full Of Empty Rooms, and Change The Sheets which, to a certain extent, express a sentimentality for domesticity and residence.

From this, it’s difficult to tell whether, for someone who spends so much time on the road, touring is something Edwards relishes or just can’t seem to… “Get away from? My Dad was in the foreign service when I was a kid,” Edwards explains. “So I grew up a few years in Europe and spent a few years in Asia; as much as I knew it was a good experience, I always wanted to be the kid who grew up on the same street, in the same house, and had the same friends since I started going to school. I always wanted that, and there are times when I can say that I’ve had that. I decided at some point in my teenage years to stay in one place for the rest of my life, once I could decide for myself.”

Plans scuppered, however, when she started playing music – “and with that came touring, and before you knew it I was like ‘oh this is what my childhood was preparing me for.’ And so the Voyageur thing… I feel like I’m in a constant state of travelling. I’m a nomadic individual for sure."

The use of such persistent recurring themes often provokes a strong sense of listener empathy, whilst disguising the ‘too personal’ in allegory. Although on Chameleon Comedian, Edwards sings ‘I’m a chameleon, I just hide behind the songs I write,’ not all of Voyageur’s foundations are obscured by domestic metaphor; more explicitly Pink Champagne recounts the breakup of a marriage. When asked about the gap between this record and 2008’s Asking for Flowers, Edwards offers: “There are lots of reasons,” leaning back in her chair and looking around with a certain degree of apprehension. She hunches forward and continues: “I went through some personal shit that just took a lot of time. I was married and my relationship ended, and that takes time. Even moving takes weeks and months out of your life sometimes. But musically speaking, it took me a long time because I knew that I wanted to do something different this time.” 

Working with Justin Vernon at his Wisconsin studio seems to have been a catalyst for this record, and has perhaps helped Edwards craft an arresting sound, more apt to her style of songwriting. “It was great. It was the first time I ever really went somewhere that I wasn’t really home as much, but I was in a home, you know?”

What Vernon and co. have built in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, Edwards describes as having evolved from something fundamental to their band. “I have a lot of respect for what that studio is because it was a home and they’ve made it a workplace too,” she says. “It’s this really beautiful thing that they just sort of keep building as they go, and it’s a product of Bon Iver that started out as music, and truth, and honesty, and then it developed into them making enough money to build this place, and actualising their dreams as musicians; and it’s so cool to be there.” 

Voyageur is a record that builds upon and complements Edwards’ commanding songwriting, whilst introducing new dynamics and a varied musicality with confidence. Something she is keen to demonstrate when she returns in February to play Glasgow’s Òran Mór with her full band in tow. Adapting to suit the particular support slot we catch her on, Edwards opts for a more stripped back set tonight. “I’ve opened for a pretty wide variety of people over the years,” she says, “the nice thing about that is I have the advantage of being able to curb the way I present my music to suit the show… I get to reinvent these songs all the time.”  

Voyageur is released via Decca on 16 Jan. Kathleen Edwards plays Òran Mór, Glasgow on 24 Feb http://www.kathleenedwards.com