I don’t remember the first time I ever heard Kathleen Edwards sing. It must have been that my wife had downloaded a track or two from her album Back to Me (2005), and every time her iPod coughed an Edwards tune up on shuffle (most often the title track) I would always be intrigued enough to ask her who it was. After repeating this pattern for a couple of months (and driving the missus to distraction with my short-term memory loss), I decided that further investigation of Edwards was warranted. I loved the driving rural-tinged rock of “Back to Me,” the way the plaintive, unstudied quality of her voice collided with the occasionally profane, no-nonsense spirit of the wounded persona so often woven into her lyrics. But no moaner Edwards—the woman has a tart sense of humor to go along with all the other aspects of her talent that makes it so much easier for the lilting, moody and downright raucous elements of her melodies to co-exist and, more importantly, latch a serious hold onto my brain. And best of all, her voice didn’t dictate to me a picture of what she looked like. I listened to Kathleen Edwards for probably a year before I ever saw her picture. Something about not knowing what she looked like let her music an extra veneer of the ethereal, a quality that again coexisted without contradiction with that tender, unpolished, very real voice.
It was with genuine surprise when I finally did see a picture of Edwards, round about the time her album Asking for Flowers was released in 2008, that I realized I had formed a mental picture of her and that her actual physical presence was a perfect match to her voice, yet somehow not quite what I had imagined. I’m not sure what all this projection of imagery has to do with appreciating Edwards’ estimable talent as a singer-songwriter, but somehow, for me, it does. Not to get to metaphysical, but there’s a ghostliness, an extra-dimensional ripple, a supple tactility of the notes she sings, combined with a slightly rural way her vowels are rounded off and taken on expected intonation (she is Canadian, if that fact is at all pertinent), that makes her voice breathtakingly beautiful yet not the slightest bit precious. As a singer-songwriter she is as likely to undercut the anguish of lyrical themes like self-doubt and one-sided, crippled relationships with a dash of self-deprecating humor (“I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory”) that strengthens her own sense of clarity upon looking in the mirror. But when the shadows darken, as in the shudderingly beautiful “Scared at Night,” the rich darkness of childhood fears are deepened not by hackneyed nighttime imagery but by expressions of fear drawn from the sometimes random and awful intrusion of everyday life and a child’s first brush with death-- that is, the real seeds of nightmares:
“As a young man you were shooting rats
By accident you hit the farmyard cat
He ran for the fields and
Came back the next day
You had blown out his eye
And you could see his brain
Your dad said "Boy, there are some things in life.
You don't want to do but you know is right.
So take him out back and finish him off."
You got your gun off the shelf
It only took one shot
All the days you're unsure
Believe in me
I don't want to anymore
In the dark
Picture me in your mind
And i'll lay with you
So you don't have to be scared at night”
Kathleen Edwards avoids all the pitfalls and clichés of precious navel-gazing and wounded frailty that can and does often dilutes the power of even the strongest of modern singer-songwriters. Her voice is strong but not impenetrable or strident, and the aural pictures she paints of curdled, buoyant and indifferent love mark her as a major artist after only three albums. Crawdaddy described Asking for Flowers as “filled with darkness and snow and bolts of lightning across the horizon… arguably the best record Lucinda Williams never wrote.” Her songs are cinematic in the best, most unforced and unstudied way, tapestries for a multitude of tones and inflections and points of view. And I look forward to many years so seeing and hearing the world through her artistry.
The marvelously acerbic and evocative name-checking of ”I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory”
Kathleen Edwards rocks the roots in “Back to Me”
Ms. Edwards knows her way around a cover too, as she demonstrates with this qwistful, haunted take on Neil Young’s “Only Love (Can Break Your Heart)” (Glasgow, 2008)
Another cover, this one showing off her spiky humor as well as her way of injecting emotion into a delicious slice of cheese—Listen as she bites into the Outfield’s “Your Love”(Kent, Ohio, 2009)