"It's funny," says Kathleen Edwards over the phone, "that we're having this conversation and you're a Nashville-based music writer." They say it's important to know your audience, and the Canadian singer-songwriter is keenly aware to whom she's explaining her new creative direction — she knows her comments might hit close to home.
During the previous decade, Edwards released three alt-country-informed albums (Failer, Back to Me and Asking for Flowers), but her brand-new Voyageur is consciously and explicitly framed as ... well, not that. Which, to her mind, could potentially be a sore spot for this particular long-distance audience.
"I mean, you would probably listen to my records and be like, 'Well, it's not very twangy at all,' " says Edwards. "Except, I would go to the UK and my records would be in the country [section] of the record store. And it's like, 'What?'
"At the same time, I also can appreciate that all that stuff is so subjective, how people are described," she continues. "I don't really identify myself as a twangy singer-songwriter who plays alt-country. I did maybe initially. ... I'm really proud of where I've been, but I was ready to really kind of grow out of that a long time ago. And I felt like the word 'country' — my apologies to all Nashville musicians for saying this — but it's really held me back where I've felt like that's not really how I see myself."
I assure Edwards I'm not the least bit offended. Since we're living in an age when it's impossible for a performer to separate herself from her public musical history and all the music she's ever released will forever be at people's fingertips — streamable, downloadable and no doubt available in ways yet to be introduced — it's worth hearing an established artist's thought-out reasons for changing course. Edwards seems to chafe against the way the twangy singer-songwriter model can tend to elevate lyric-writing and straightforward song structure over musical embellishment.
"Don't get me wrong," she says, "I'm a slave to the song, and I believe that great records are only great records because they have great songs on them." But, she adds, "I don't wanna just do verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus, which in the right place and time, I mean, there's nothing wrong with that. I just sort of felt like I'd done it and I didn't want to keep doing it."
Edwards made 2008's Flowers with Tom Petty engineer Jim Scott as her co-producer and founding Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and protean guitarist Greg Leisz in the studio band. "Basically, they're all world-class musicians," she says, "and I still look back on that experience like it was a gift that I got to try that, got to do that and make a record that way. I mean, not very many people do."
Even fewer have gotten to make a record with indie music's reigning king of ethereality, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. Edwards wound up enlisting him to co-produce Voyageur, but she wasn't initially convinced that was the way to go.
"I didn't really understand how Justin Vernon — the singer-songwriter Bon Iver — was going to produce my record," she says. "He does his own thing, and I'm not looking for his sound to just sort of like be on top of my songs. ... Then in the summer of 2010 I went out to Wisconsin and worked on a song with him, a song of mine. It became very clear very quickly that other than this project that he does, his musicality was certainly far-enough-reaching that he could pretty much do anything."
This time around, Edwards says she got more involved in making all manner of sonic decisions than in the past. And somewhere along the way, she — a married woman no more — and Vernon got involved romantically.
The album suggests that Edwards is still deeply invested in the writing of the words. She takes expert aim at those who've done her wrong, armed with tangible detail and visceral metaphor, sometimes implicating herself it-takes-two-to-tango style. What's changed is the center of gravity. Roots-rocking plays but a minor role, replaced by a feel that's simultaneously lighter and more intricate. Keyboard and guitar effects abound — fluent, rather than abrasive — and, if anything, the reverb enveloping her voice takes a bit of emotional edge off songs dealing with the disintegration of her marriage.
Those are the sorts of touches that shift listeners' attention away from the personal, confessional nature of the material, encouraging them instead to ponder its merits as a multifaceted artistic work. Twangy music-makers have traditionally had pretty much the opposite priorities.
But just to make clear that leaning away from country isn't meant as a geographical affront, Edwards shares the story of her first visit to Nashville — as a freewheeling 19-year-old road-tripping with a guy she'd just met.
"The night we got to Nashville," she says, "we probably parked our car and got the weekly out and said, 'OK, what's going on? Let's go to this place called Exit/In.' I went to that club and saw a band play. If someone had turned to me and said, 'You're going to be playing this room, like, 15 years from now,' I would've probably called them a liar. So I'm pretty excited to come to this room. I mean, I've played Nashville before, but I'm excited to come to that room particularly because I have a very, very romantic and juvenile memory of it."