Let me start by saying I have my therapist to thank for this review. I was complaining, literally the day before the album was dropping about my writing procrastination . I told her that one my favorite artists has an album coming out and I’d like to write something about it.
Then I told her I had already read a handful of reviews by other writers and mine would surely suck by comparison. From there I trotted down my usual path of imposter syndrome and self-doubt. Ya know, the usual spiel.
She told me to write it anyway. She told me, in kind therapist speech, to get the hell out of my own way.
And so, here I am. And with goddamn good reason.
Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards is on my top ten list of all-time favorite artists. She’s been on this list for several years and will never be knocked off it.
Even when she put a pin in her music career to open Quitter’s Coffee in Ottawa back in 2014 and I wasn’t sure if she’d ever add to her four album catalog, it didn’t matter. That’s how much love I have for her music. That’s how much the four albums “Failer” (2003), “Back to Me” (2005), “Asking for Flowers (2008) and “Voyageur” (2012) mean to me.
Like many others, my first exposure to Edwards was by way of the “Failer” radio single “Six O”clock News” and I’ve never looked back. The voice, the songwriting, all of it. Fucking spectacular.
Through the years I’ve been fortunate to have seen Edwards a total of six times at shows here in Portland, Maine. At various size venues she captivated those in attendance and was always keen to chat with fans afterwards. The last time I saw Edwards live was in May of 2012. I also interviewed Edwards in 2005 and reviewed one of her shows in 2005 for the Portland Press Herald newspaper and you’ll find those at the end of this review.
From those four previous albums are so many favorite songs. These songs are part of my DNA at this point. These songs get me. I need these songs in my life.
Some of them are “Hockey Skates, “Mercury,” “Sweet Lil’ Duck,” “In State,” “Pink Emerson Radio,” “Old Time Sake,” “Away” “Alicia Ross, ” “Sure As Shit” “Goodnight, California,” “Empty Threat, “A Soft Place To Land,” “House Full Of Empty Rooms,” and “For the Record.”
And I might add , Edwards released a holiday song for the ages last December called “It’s Christmastime “Let’s Just Survive.”
And while I’m at it, I’ll also mention that in 2015 she covered Roxette’s “It’s Must Have Been Love” and it takes an already sad song and adds a Edwardsian layer of quiet, lovely angst to it. I mean Jesus. H. Christ take two seconds and take a quick listen.
If you’re not familiar with Kathleen Edwards, I encourage you with every cell in my body to do some exploration and join in the celebration that is her new album “Total Freedom,” releasing on August 14, 2020. Or as I like to call it: Kathleen Edwards day.
I started getting inklings that Edwards was back in music-making mode several months ago when quick clips of her clearly in a recording studio started showing up in her Instagram stories. She also hopped onto Instagram for a few live performances and I was beside myself watching them.
Then I heard that Edwards had been in Nashville having been invited to co-write a tune with Maren Morris. The song “Good Woman,”penned by Morris, Edwards and Ian Fitchuk landed on Morris’ “Girl”album, released last year. Edwards also sings backing vocals on it. Turns out, that invitation by Morris was how Edwards found her way back into wanting to make another record. Hey Maren, THANK YOU.
Edwards has gracefully shared via several interviews some of what’s gone down since she was last in the public eye and I don’t feel the need to rehash that all here. But I’ll say this: There was huge relationship and mental health issues that needed dealing with and healing from and I’m beyond thankful that Edwards was able to navigate through them.
Now I’ll go back to nerding out about “Total Freedom.”
On May 19th a press release arrived and I’m pretty sure I frightened my dog Odie (he’s often down by my feet when I’m working) with my excited shriek. The release shared the TRIUMPHANT news that, holy god, Kathleen Edwards was BACK and that “Total Freedom” was due out on August 14 and holy shit, the new single “Options Open” was out!
Here’s an excerpt from the release:
Edwards is back with a refreshed creative outlook and a new sense of freedom. Across the album’s eleven songs, Edwards revisits past relationships with a new perspective, explores her own resilience and optimism and for the first time pursues what she feels is right rather than what is expected.
I clumsily threw my headphones on and the earth stood still for those few minutes while I gave “Options Open” a first listen. Make fun of me if you want, but I was ALL ABOUT this song from the first second, the first guitar lick. About 15 seconds later, Edwards, voice was in my ears singing these lines:
I love you so much
everything you do you say you speak it just works for me
I blame it on the weekly flyer
that took me down to Crappy Tire
you were smiling when I looked up
I guess we’ll always have a parking lot
for 39 years I’ve been keeping my options open
By the end of that day, I had listened to “Options Open” about nine times and it was like getting caught up with an old friend over coffee on the deck that eventually segues into whiskey in the living room because so much has happened to get filled in on.
In the coming weeks, three more songs were set free. “Hard on Everyone,” “Birds On A Feeder” and “Fools Ride.” They’re all quintessential Edwards. Smart. Sound. Lyrically brilliant, per usual. Here’s a few lines from the moody af “Fools Ride.”
here comes the red flag flying in the shit parade a warning sign that I ignored
signed my good name to a house
you can’t afford
there’s a run in the rug
a pull in my sweater
something true was in that letter
loose ends you never tied
now I know it was all a lie
Ouch/I LOVE IT!
Somewhere in there I started getting emails from her new label, Dualtone Records telling me all about super groovy pre-order options. Wearing my HARDCORE fan hat, I immediately ordered the limited edition gold vinyl edition of the album. As I write this, tracking info is telling me it’s arriving on Aug. 17. Can I blame Trump for messing with the postal system for the delay? I’d sure like to. Anyway, that’s not the only thing I ordered. My birthday was on July 2 so I decided to splurge. After all, artists aren’t able to tour right now and I sure try to do my part to support them financially so I pulled the trigger and bought myself a 10-minute “coffee'” Zoom chat with Edwards. This was a 100% fan geek moment which I have zero regrets about.
So about that Zoom chat! It happened on the afternoon of July 3, the day after my birthday and was supposed to be a ten minute convo. I simply can’t ever fully get out of journalist mode so I had a few key questions prepared and with permission, I was hopefully going to record audio of the chat to reference for whatever I knew I’d eventually end up writing. But, I’m a total loser when it comes to technology so the recording didn’t happen and to make matters worse, Kathleen had to see a giant, silly pic of my pooch in the background because, under pressure, I didn’t know how to switch off the goddamn virtual background during the Zoom session. But, she was cool about it and remembered me from all those years ago. We ended up Zooming for more than a half hour and it was a knife in my heart that I don’t have a recording of it because it quite honestly ended up being one of the best interviews I’ve ever done. We chatted up a storm about everything from the album to her depression. All of it. But yeah, I know, I gotta let go of the technology glitch. Plus, I’m hoping I’ll get another chance for a chat soon and you’ll all be the first to know if that happens as it’ll wind up here most certainly.
A few weeks later I reached out to her publicist and asked (read begged) them to send, for the love of all that’s holy on this planet, an advance copy of “Total Freedom.” A response, with a link, arrived soon after. I’ve been savoring the tracks, listening at different times of the day and night. Favorite songs rise to the top (I’m looking at you “Glenfern”) and then another one hip checks me (hi there, “Feelings Fade”) and I’m absolutely leveled by what Edwards does best: Deconstruct conflicts, relationship bullshit and any number of shitty things that comes with being an occupant of this planet. But she doesn’t do it in a way that’s depressing. Edwards’ brand of realness is its own category of documenting what it means to be a flawed human who hopscotches around the path of personal growth. Said another way, it is some of the finest songwriting you can ever hope to hear. And her singing voice has a quality to it that I’ve long struggled to find just the right words to describe and I’ll likely fail here as well. There’s a warmth to her voice yet it’s infused with a put ’em up ember. Can something be soft and yet ready to stab you at a moment’s notice? Can a voice hold your heart in its hand but also sink it’s teeth in and vampire out some blood from your veins? Can a voice wash over you like a summer sunset and then have you fighting back tears? Hers can.
Welcome back, Kathleen Edwards. I’ve missed you terribly but “Total Freedom” has been worth the wait. I love the hell out if. “Ashes to Ashes,” “Who Rescued Who” and “Take It With You When You Go.” ALL OF THEM. On a scale of one to five, I’m giving this album a 42.
Go here and order a copy along with a bunch of other swag.
P.S. My therapist will be proud. I’m publishing this thing the day BEFORE the album drops. I just banged this whole thing one in one fell swoop and I can’t wait until midnight when the world can experience “Total Freedom.”
FROM THE AIMSEL ARCHIVES
As a music journalist, I interviewed Edwards way back when for the paper I write for, the Portland Press Herald. The conversation dates back to 2008 and sadly it’s not online anymore but I was able to at least access the text in the paper’s archives and so, what the heck, here it is:
Portland Press Herald 3/27/08
Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards is back with the new record ”Asking for Flowers” (Zoe), and she’s kicking off her American tour in Portland at the Big Easy. I caught up with Edwards a few days ago, and we talked about the new record and how she really digs Portland.
”I love coming to Portland and stuffing my face with every part of shellfish I can get my hands on. It’s a lot better than getting it in Saskatchewan,”Edwards said.
She’s pleased with the new album. ”I’m feeling really good about it,” she said, ”and I feel like I took a lot of risks in making this record. Until the first couple of reviews came out, I really didn’t know if I’d even made a good record.
”It’s not like your opinion of yourself is so securely based in what other people say, but good reviews and bad reviews sometimes determine whether you’re going to have 100 people at your show or 500 people at your show, and you always hope that you can move forward in what you do.”
Of the album’s title track, Edwards said, ”I think ‘Asking for Flowers’ is the best song I’ve ever written, but that’s because I feel I invested a lot and I was telling a story of a friend who is really close to me, and I wanted to do it justice and worked really hard to do that.”
Another song she likes, and it’s one of my favorites too, is ”Goodnight California.” ”I always wanted to record a song like that,” she said. ”It just took me three records to find the courage to do it. I remember being in the studio trying to describe what I wanted to do, and everybody kind of looks at you like, ‘What? A seven-minute song?”’
As it turns out, Edwards has struck gold, and it closes out the record divinely. It includes a string quartet in which Edwards plays the violin, but you’ll also hear her on vibraphone. A Hammond organ, electric guitar and harmonica bleed throughout the song; the percussion and bass are its heartbeat.
The first-person song ”Alicia Ross” is arresting in its intensity: ”Mamma, can you hear me?/ As I dragged on the day’s last cigarette/ He pulled me so hard off my very own back steps/ And he laid me in his garden/ All the years I’ve watched him tend.”
Alicia Ross was a real person. She was 25 years old when she was killed by a neighbor in Ontario. Her body went undiscovered for five weeks. It reminded me of the story of Amy St. Laurent, the young Biddeford woman who was murdered in 2001. What happened to St. Laurent hit me in the gut with the same force that the Alicia Ross slaying must have hit Edwards.
”I still don’t know why that story in particular – because there are so many stories all over the world of families losing daughters or mothers or children. It’s tragic every time, and I think this one was a very public display of agony,” aid.
The thought-provoking power of music is something that Edwards zeros in on, and ”Asking for Flowers” documents this repeatedly.
Wait. What? There’s more! I found another gem in the Press Herald archives. I reviewed Edwards show at the long defunct Big Easy in Portland (Maine!) in May of 2005 and get this, Mary Gauthier opened the show.
Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram 5/8/05
Kathleen Edwards began her North American tour in support of the record “Back to Me” on Friday night. The pressure was on when she released the record in March because 2003’s “Failer” was such a critical success.
However, she packed the house and is riding the wave of the title track, which is in heavy rotation on stations nationwide, including Portland’s WCLZ.
Indeed “Back to Me,” gets high marks as both a single and a record as a whole. With poignant songs like “Pink Emerson Radio,” “Away” and “Independent Thief,” Edwards continues to effectively express human conflict.
She was in fine form accompanied by a four-piece band. Blending a mix of songs from both records, Edwards owned the room.
“Don’t say you’ll change after the next time, you wouldn’t even be yourself if you were telling a lie. Maybe 20 years in state will change your mind,” sang Edwards in “In State.” Another standout was “Lone Wolf,” with Jim Bryson on xylophone.
Edwards graced us with two encores: the devastatingly beautiful “Away” and “Hockey Skates,” one of the finest examples of songwriting in the last few years. “I am so sick of consequence and the look on your face. I am tired of playing defense; I don’t even own hockey skates.”
Edwards truly loves Portland so don’t be surprised if she returns this year.
Opening acts don’t usually get much ink, but I’ve never seen The Big Easy more quiet and attentive than when Mary Gauthier played her 45-minute set. She was utterly captivating from the moment she and guitarist Thom Jutz took the stage.
People paid attention and hung on every word and with good reason. Her 2002 release “Filth & Fire” was named best independent record by The New York Times. “Mercy Now,” her debut with Lost Highway Records, was just released and has received almost unanimous rave reviews. It’s a sparse record with songs that rise from their own ashes and put an arresting chokehold on you despite its slow pace.
While she certainly has a Southern twang, there’s a whole other layer to her voice as she often is speaking, as much as singing, into the microphone ala Robbie Robertson. Her songs take aim at her struggles, her pain and her take on life’s journey and they hit the mark every time. The live performance took this to the next level and the audience didn’t know what hit them.
Gauthier was intense but accessible. Between her and Edwards it was a distinguished night of singing and songwriting artistry.