After Overcoming Her Inner Anxieties, a New Album Allows Kathleen Edwards A Way to Rebound

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

As many musicians will readily attest, a fervent desire to succeed is often accompanied by doubt, frustration and insecurity, qualities that can thwart an artist’s ambitions and diminish their ability to make the kind of music that measures up to the lofty goals that spurred them from the start. When the burden becomes too much it can take an emotional toll and bring any career, no matter how promising, to a screeching stop.

For Canadian singer and songwriter Kathleen Edwards, the dilemma was particularly acute. Unable to deal with the increasing pressure to maintain the high bar established early on, and struggling with her own inner conflict, she stepped back from making music and opted instead to open a coffee shop called Quitters, a tongue-in-cheek branding intended to indicate her break from the business.  She left behind four well-received albums — Falter (2003), Back To Me, (2005), Asking for Flowers (2008 and Voyageur (2012) — and a wealth of critical kudos, but a struggle with depression and the pressures  that were placed on her forced her to rethink her career and take a temporary hiatus.

Despite occasional appearances and a few scattered songs, Edwards’ absence lasted the better part of a decade. Now with a new album, tellingly titled Total Freedom, she’s back with her first complete set of songs in eight years. Feeling newly liberated, she speaks freely about the difficulties that diverted her desire to make music.

“I was definitely not in a good place,” she reflects. “I didn’t know it at the time because I had never experienced it before, but I had clinical depression. I was trying to keep going and I was performing every night on stage — which was the worst scenario you can imagine — and it started impacting my feelings about music and the life I was leading. So I put a lot of things on hold. Any job that requires you to travel is a big commitment. There’s no consistency day to day, and I don’t know if I was depressed due to the lifestyle, or depressed due to a chemical change in my body. I’m sure it was a combination of both. I just know I was really unhappy. There were other things too. My boyfriend at the time was a huge musical entity, while I could barely sell 200 or 300 tickets a night. So it just felt like my heart wasn’t in it. After touring with the last record, I went back to the drawing board and tried writing, but I had nothing in me. I had nothing to offer. I really wanted to move on and not write about this shit and about things I’d rather forget. So I decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore.”

She said that part of the problem was that she had to contend with the expectations that derived from her early accolades. “It was huge,” she contends. “I’ll never forget pulling into a venue in Austin Texas. I was opening for somebody, and I was in this beautiful room and loading in when this person came up to me and said, ‘Oh my God, Kathleen Edwards! I just love your first record!’ And at that point, I was already on my fourth album and he was saying, ‘I just love that first album. Man, that first album was so great.’ When you’re working and striving to constantly keep up, and you spend ten or fifteen years trying to be better and learn how to grow your catalog and write songs that you put everything into, and then someone’s still judging you by your first record, it’s tough. It’s like being on social media and you’re touring Europe and you finally you make it to Oslo, Norway, and then the next morning there’s a post that reads, ‘Hey, I just found out about you. When are you coming to Oslo?’ Fuck man! It was so hard to get there to begin with!”

Those encounters affected both her attitude and her outlook, but now she looks at them with more rationale. “Look, it is a gift,” she says of her successes. “But then you’re constantly trying to keep up with a version of yourself that wasn’t truly realized. There is magic and maybe there’s that thing about making first impressions and not overthinking it and having that great energy. But that was really a tough thing for me. I was really stuck in that. I thought, ‘I’ve really grown and I’ve really improved from the person who didn’t sing very well and didn’t play guitar really well, and I had a rough and tumble recording, but now I’m working with world class people, and it’s my first record you care about?’ How am I ever going to overcome that? But I also know it’s a fucking gift that someone even liked your first record.”

It’s suggested that even though someone might have been taken with her early on, it doesn’t negate the quality of what came after. 

“It doesn’t take away from that,” she concedes. “We only get one chance to make a first impression and sometimes it’s the one that has the strongest impact. But it is hard being an artist and trying to show people that you’re really invested in your work and constantly open to evolving and changing. So when somebody says, ‘Yeah, but I still love your first album,’ it’s a double edged sword.”

After taking her break, she was able to grow her coffee house business, but recently it’s had its challenges as well. The onslaught of the pandemic proved especially difficult. “When we had to close in March, I had 22 employees and we were open seven days a week,” she notes. “We were a pretty big machine, all things considered.  We were forced to go back into start-up mode in May. So now we’re still trying to figure out what we’re going to look like in the fall when the weather turns cold.”

Fortunately, Edwards is a survivor and her ability to persevere changed her direction button her determination. Indeed, when opportunity presented itself, she was willing to take the gamble. It eventually led her back to a place where she felt like she could renew her artistic intentions.

“I’m not one of those people who will sit around and wait for something to hit me over the head,” she insists. “So I moved to this small town and put one foot in front of the other and opened up my coffee shop. Then I got a call from some people asking if I’d be interested in participating in a cowriting session. Well, I’m not a cowriter, but since I wasn’t writing anyway, I figured, what’s the worst that could happen? So I went along. Then I realized that after two years of running a cafe, I had learned a huge amount of new tools and acquired new skills. As soon as I was in the room, I picked up this wonderful vibe and this exciting feeling came back into my heart and mind. It was like, ‘Right. This is what I love about this. There it is!’ So taking a break from that process really helped me fall in love with it again. I was sitting in that room and it felt like such a natural state of being for me. I didn’t have any expectations, there was no context of what I was working for. I didn’t have any ego that said, ‘I’m a cowriter and I better get some credit on this record’ or ‘I’m going to keep these ideas to myself.’”

It was a difficult dilemma at first, but Edwards was able to overcome her anxiety and come to grips with her internal conflicts. As she reflects on back it now, she’s been able to analyze her difficulties and put things into perspective.

“It was all about disappointment, failure, depression, and quitting something, and then taking a big leap of faith, spending some time and shifting your perspective of what your life is going to look like when you’re in your 30s and 40s,” she reasons. “It’s a hard thing to do. I guess I just needed to take the time to look at what I’d done. I’ve done a lot in my life, and I’m the only one responsible for me and my successes and disappointments. I’ve always conducted myself with kindness. I’ve treated people well and I work hard at what I do. But I’ve come to a time in my life where I realize that I don’t owe anybody anything. I don’t owe anyone another record. I offered these things to the world and they were really meaningful to me, and I’m so humbled that they were meaningful to other people too. That was  enough. It was so liberating to make a record, and then walk away from it and realize that all I needed to do was to put my heart into it and work hard. And that’s enough. It’s also been a nice place to come back to.”

In fact, the songs on the new album have given her a real way to express her feelings, particularly as they apply to past relationships and the obstacles that often accompany commitment. Tracks such as “Hard on Everyone,” “Options Open,” “Feelings Fade,” “Take It With You When You Go,” and “Fools Ride” speak clearly and directly to frayed emotions and what can often result in a caustic conflict.

“I knew that I really wanted to start writing again,” she recalls. “I had to remove myself from the cafe because the day to day running of a coffee shop and writing songs doesn’t work together. I really consciously just wanted to write songs and I wasn’t sure how it was going to work, but I wanted it to show that I was letting go of all the angst and the expectations from the previous years of making records. I wasn’t going to be burdened by that in how I wrote. I wasn’t going to be stuck in a place where it still hurt.”

Fortunately, it didn’t take long for her to dispense with the limitations that had held her back before. “Glenfern was the first song I wrote for the record and it became the opening track,” she explains. “It enabled me to accurately describe that wave of gratitude for the people that come into your life…the lasting impressions they make and the memories you can reflect on in different ways over time and especially since the break-up. It told me that is was the kind of record I wanted to make. I sat down and played the chords on acoustic guitar and the words literally just fell out of my mouth. I didn’t have to overwork them. I just remember playing that first verse and chorus while I was sitting in my room and hammering it out and figuring out the words.”

Other songs helped steer her sentiments as well. “I wrote this song called ‘Simple Math,’ and I still feel like it’s my favorite song on the record,” Edwards reflects. “It has this line which is about someone I was with a few years ago and how it was so much work trying to find our groove. I just had this idea that love is simple math and it should be easy. Simple math is easy, so I was kind of just pounding it out and pounding it out.”

Eventually as the record gelled, it became a kind of catharsis and a means of reconciling the tangled feelings she had felt for so long. “It was kind of a delicate way of finding a way to pick myself up and to say, okay, I have some healthy perspective now and I’m really in a good place,” Edwards muses. “An that’s what this record is all about.”

Check out our full review of Kathleen Edwards new album, right here.

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