Kathleen Edwards is undoubtedly one of the most respected songwriters to have emerged from modern Canada, and with her latest album ‘Voyageur’ she proved so seamlessly. With her fourth full-length, the Ottawa resident embarked upon a whole new path in life; using her album to sew up the wounds of one relationship whilst, quite literally, falling in love in the recording studio. Thus, we meet the heart-on-her-sleeve songstress as she readies herself for her second appearance on the Polaris shortlist, and divulges just what went into the voyage for her next chapter.
It’s your second time being nominated for the Polaris Music Prize. How’re you feeling?
I’m totally excited. It’s not liked the past few weeks have been sitting around waiting for tonight, so I’m kind of in that place where I’ve got so much going on all the time that I haven’t really been able to think about it, which is better actually.
What’ve you been up to recently? Lots of shows?
I’ve done a lot of touring at the front end of the year. I played in the UK a bunch earlier this year. Then, I had some time off this summer to enjoy my beautiful Canadian rainless summer. All the band were talking about how it was the best summer because it was so hot and sunny and we played tons of outdoor festivals.
When it comes to playing live, what’s that like as an experience for you, as someone who so enjoys the craft or writing itself? Do you prefer playing live, or does it feel, at times, invasive?
Well, it’s this really complicated world of opposites. For me, personally, I need to be somewhere that’s still and quiet. I need to come down from the hectic pace of touring to be able to work and write, and touring is so far the opposite of that world that I don’t find them compatible at all, which is frustrating, because playing live is such a changing and creative thing and it’s fun and it’s interactive. You want to get up on stage and play a new song all the time.
And in terms of performances, there are so many other people involved - you have an entire audience’s worth of anticipation.
The difference too is one my first tour I had one record, and now I have four. People like different records for different reasons and I like playing different songs. The songs in my back catalogue that I like play, they change. So, if you’re only going to play fifteen songs and you’ve written forty.
I don’t know how anyone could pick their setlist.
It’s easy, there are a lot of crappy ones that you don’t pick [laughs].
So, with your latest album, do you feel it is definitively, your ‘best work’?
Yeah. Everyone thinks their latest album is their best work. I think it’s really just very different for me and my relationship. It’s very different from my last records because… I’ve always been a narrative and personal songwriter. I get pretty attached to the things that I’ve written about. They’re about me, they’re about me watching somebody else go through something and this record, for some reason, has been like the monkey on my back. I wrote a lot of these songs during some pretty difficult life territory and I’ve been navigating that ever since. I’m still navigating hard territory. I finished my record and went through a depression, then had to start promoting and touring that record during that time. So, my relationship with the record is that I love it, and it’s been my vehicle for getting to the other side of depression. But, it’s also been the inescapable reminder. I made this joke the other day that it’s like stepping in dog shit, and then walking around with this smell following you around, thinking, ‘What is that bad smell?! I can’t seem to get rid of it!’ It’s my vehicle and my tormenter.
Do you feel that such a personal and honest approach is something you have to do as an artist? You have to be that raw, and put yourself that far out there?
Yeah. I think I’m really coming to terms with that part of who I am and the music that I make is going to be like that. I want to run away from it because I’ll talk to strangers and I’ll do press where I’m talking to people on the phone, and I don’t even see their face and they’re asking me about my ex-husband and my new boyfriend. That part is… What am I gonna do? Pretend that those parts aren’t relative? Those things are written on my sleeve. I wear my heart on my sleeve, but it’s about making peace with the idea that maybe that’s my gift, or the thing that I’m good at doing. It’s the one comfort about putting yourself out there and feeling pretty vulnerable when you do. I don’t know how else to do it.
How was it working with Justin Vernon on this record?
I mean, it was amazing. We worked incredibly well together. It was a godsend. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had and, you know, the experience was obviously augmented by the fact that we fell in love. There’s something so incredible about making a record with someone that you just want to be in the room with the whole time. It’s wonderful, right? But, the nice thing too is that I didn’t really know Justin too well when we started working on this record together, so it was nice learning about him as a musician and really seeing how incredibly gifted he is. I have a very different relationship and perception and idea of who Justin is than a lot of people do. Not because I have an ‘inside’ to it, but a lot of people see him as a songwriter and I don’t have that relationship with him at all. I’ve seen him as a musician. I’ve seen him sit in a room and play with somebody else’s work; tinkering on Pro Tools on my vocals and telling me what line was his favourite line after I did ‘Ten Passes’. He has an incredible ear and there is no denying that he is incredibly gifted, and I don’t even relate a lot of that to the Bon Iver stuff, which is funny.
As you’ve said, ‘Voyageur’ was incredibly personal for you, whether it be through the developing of that relationship or because of the subject matter itself, so how does it feel to be given such recognition for that, from something like Polaris?
As I was saying, I made this record and went through a really, really painful period of time where I was really depressed. I’ve only just come out of it, but the one thing that was a lightning bolt of joy is to feel like you’re part of something when it feels like you live in your head a lot. When you’re depressed, you feel isolated and you isolate yourself, and the Polaris is an extension of that sentiment; to feel like you’re a part of something. I’ve been making music in this country for over ten years and I know a lot of the people that are nominated, and there are a lot of people on the long list that I know, and I feel like we’re a part of something. When your record gets recognised in an arts community, it really solidifies that feeling that you do good work. It’s not because you got nominated, or because you’re going to win. It’s because you have all these people who have your back. The best part too is that no one’s going to agree with the winner. Everyone has a different idea - music fans, even the jury have a very polarised idea - of who should win this prize. It’s not about the prize: it’s about the dialogue of music and art and taste. That’s the beauty of it.
Kathleen Edwards’ new album ‘Voyageur’ is out now via Maple Music.