It’d been six years since Kathleen Edwards had seriously thought about making music when she received an out-of-the-blue phone call from the manager of country star Maren Morris in 2017. For the previous three years, Edwards had been working 12-hour days at Quitters Coffee, the neighborhood cafe in suburban Ottawa she opened after a series of creative, mental health, and romantic crises led her to pause her music career in 2014.
Morris, a longtime fan, wanted to know if the Canadian singer-songwriter would write with her. Edwards was intrigued. “I thought, ‘I had my head in the sand for so many years, I’d love to try that,’” she says. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
She flew to Nashville that fall and spent a few days with Morris and producer Ian Fitchuk (who had been wrapping up work on Kacey Musgraves’ Grammy-winning Golden Hour). They were in disbelief that the reclusive Edwards actually showed up.
During the session, Edwards pulled out a refrain from a half-finished song she’d started years earlier: “You’ve got the love of a good woman.” Edwards wrote the line in the aftermath of a breakup, its line intended as disbelief that someone could be walking away. The trio reworked it, turning the plea into Morris’ joyful 2019 song “Good Woman.”
Co-writing “Good Woman” was a familiar emotional process for the 41-year-old Edwards, who has spent the past eight years of her life transforming personal calamities into conquests. Her last album, 2012’s Voyageur, coincided with a dark bout of depression. After enduring a public narrative about her 2011 divorce and a short-lived relationship with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon that had spun out of her control, performing and writing new music had started to feel emotionally harmful. “None of it felt right,” Edwards says. “It was all stuff I just wanted to heal and recover from, not sit with everyday.”
She contemplated her next steps.
“Kathleen, you’re fucking so unhappy,” Jim Bryson, her friend and longtime collaborator, said to her, half-jokingly, around that time. “Just quit music, go home, move back to Ottawa, and open up a coffee shop called Quitters.”
That’s exactly what she did.
Edwards returned to Ottawa, signed a lease on a storefront, and began getting her cafe off the ground. She played a few local one-off gigs (“I realized, ‘Holy shit, I make a lot more money playing music than I do selling a cup of coffee’”), but she had mostly stopped thinking about songwriting.
“The guitars were in a room that I never went into,” she says.
That all changed after her trip to Nashville. “Holy fuck, I’m in a good place,” she thought to herself. “I’m going to play music again.”
Over the next two years, Edwards began writing the songs that make up Total Freedom, her first album in eight years, due in August. The LP, a breezy roots-rock blend of spaced-out War on Drugs-inspired riffs, brisk roots-pop, and brooding noir-folk, is a comfortable synthesis of Edwards’ early alt-country records and the textured folk-rock of Voyageur.
“There’s a part of me that’s very electric and raw, and I felt like this record couldn’t just be, ‘Here are my feelings on an acoustic guitar platter,’” says Edwards. “I really wanted the tone of the record to be set by the pocket of the drums.”
Total Freedom is the result of profound self-reflection from Edwards, who’s reached a place where her past trials, false starts, and wrong turns have begun to feel less like a burden and more like a blessing.
“Life’s imperfections,” is how she summarizes the album, “and how they all add up to a pretty perfect picture.” There’s a song about Edwards’ re-connecting with her childhood best friend; a tribute to her late golden retriever, Redd; and a number of songs about a relationship that began and ended over the course of the album’s gestation.
Bryson, who co-produced the record alongside Edwards and Fitchuk, offers a three-word summary: “Dogs and exes.”
In the 10 some-odd years since Edwards last released music, the roots-music scene has exploded in her absence. What Edwards hadn’t realized until recently is that her records, beginning with 2003’s country-rock firestorm Failer, have inadvertently helped lay the foundation for that very community.
“Could there be a Brandi Carlile or a Margo [Price] or a Jason [Isbell] without a Kathleen Edwards?” says Paul Roper, the head of Dualtone, Edwards’ new label and the home of the Lumineers and Gregory Alan Isakov. “I’m not sure.”
In the years since her retreat, Edwards’ reputation has only grown among peers like Caroline Spence and Courtney Marie Andrews, who cite her as an influence. “Like all great art, Kathleen’s music comes with all the messiness attached,” says Josh Ritter, who’s been a fan since seeing Edwards perform on the Failer tour. “You can appreciate it, and it speaks to how you actually feel because it doesn’t try to tidy everything up into a perfect bow.”
Ask a fellow songwriter for their favorite Kathleen Edwards song, and they’ll have an answer ready. For Ritter, it’s 2003’s “Mercury.” For the Canadian singer-songwriter Hannah Georgas, who opened for Edwards on the Voyageur tour, it’s 2003’s “Bellevue.” Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and Morris both cite 2012’s “Pink Champagne,” a tragi-comic reflection on marriage.
“When I was writing my first album Hero, I was going through a very painful breakup at the time, and I would sob to songs like ‘Pink Champagne’ and ‘House Full of Empty Rooms,’” Morris says.
Edwards only recently learned to take such acclaim in stride.
“I’m sure it’s very satisfying to sell out Wembley Stadium or headline two nights at the Ryman. I’ve never done that,” she says. “And it was hard when those things weren’t happening for me. But now my priority is, ‘My work was actually really good.’ I used to think, ‘If I’m so good, why can’t I stay at a nice hotel when I’m on tour?’ But I can hear those things better now.”
Kathleen Edwards has never been able to figure out why her songs so often end up becoming prophecy. “One thing that I find fucking weird and funny and completely inexplicable is how I’ll write a song and two years later, I have completely written my history,” she says. “I think I’m writing a song about someone else, and then I go, ‘Holy shit, that’s about me!’”
A year and a half after she released the first song on her debut Failer, 2003’s “Six O’Clock News” (a fictitious murder narrative that includes the line “I’m gonna have your baby this coming June”), Edwards was sitting in her bathtub, pregnant, when she realized that her baby was, in fact, due in June. “That still makes me go, ‘What the hell?’” she says. Edwards later had a miscarriage.
Almost 10 years later, after releasing 2005’s In State and 2008’s Asking for Flowers to growing acclaim and slowly increasing popularity, Edwards wrote 2012’s “For the Record.” The song, told from the perspective of Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, was a tale of an artist who’d lost control of the narrative surrounding their career.
“For the record,” Edwards sang, “I only wanted to sing songs.”
That song, too, ended up foretelling her own future. In the wake of her divorce from musician Colin Cripps, Edwards spent several years pouring herself into making a career-defining record in Voyageur. The day she finished mastering it, Edwards called her parents from New York, record in hand, and broke down in tears.
“That” she says, “is the day my depression started.”
With its modern flourish and profoundly personal narratives, the album had Edwards poised for stardom. “When Voyageur came out, it seemed like the possibilities were endless for her,” says Fitchuk. The LP charted in the Top 40 and drew scores of new fans, including Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith. “When I saw her play in L.A. [in 2012], it was a cathartic experience, it was a beautiful experience, but it was also a painful experience,” he says.
“I knew I didn’t have the desire to kill myself, but I wanted to die. When you’re stuck in that feeling, you’re not living, you’re suffering.”
The album soon began taking its toll on Edwards. She had produced the record with Vernon, but upon its release, a story emerged that diminished Edwards’ role and over-emphasized Vernon’s.
“It was a narrative that I wasn’t in control of, that my ex husband wasn’t in control of, and that Justin wasn’t in control of,” she says. “It was there in every article, that I made a record ‘with my boyfriend.’ And that was hard, because I fucking worked my ass off and that wasn’t really the context in which I felt that work deserved to be seen.”
At one point, she stumbled upon an alt-weekly somewhere in the Pacific Northwest that described her genre as “singer-songwriter girlfriend.”
Edwards soldiered on throughout 2012 and 2013, touring the record even as her personal life began to fall apart. During that time, she had become overwhelmed by a recent onset of clinical depression. “I knew I didn’t have the desire to kill myself, but I wanted to die,” she says. “When you’re stuck in that feeling, you’re not living, you’re suffering.” She was diagnosed in early 2013 and, the next year, surprised fans with the news that she was stepping away from music.
She began seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication. Within two weeks, the “cloud and heaviness came off my shoulders,” she says. “It made me so acutely aware of the feeling of, ‘OK, I got my fucking hope back. I feel well again.”
Total Freedom opens with the graceful mid-tempo rocker “Glenfern,” named after the street on which Edwards used to live with her ex-husband Cripps. The song is both a gracious meditation on their relationship and a peaceful reckoning with the past.
When I go walking in my neighborhood, I wonder how I even got here
It seems so long since those Hamilton days and the first house we bought together
And the online street view used to crack me up, it was you standing in your slippers
On the front porch with the Siamese cat, but it’s not up there anymore
And I, I will always be thankful for it
The first time Fitchuk heard “Glenfern,” it sounded like a revelation. “There was this emotional evolution that made me feel like Kathleen wasn’t the same person she was when she was making her other records,” he says. “It showed the ways that she’s processed challenges and pain and complications in her life and has neutralized them and turned them into a power.”
The 10 songs on Total Freedom were recorded in Nashville (with Fitchuk) and Ontario (with Bryson). Writing “Glenfern” helped Edwards open up. “It ended up being this song of incredible gratitude,” she says. “It felt like a reset.”
The next to come was “Options Open,” a bouncy roots-pop number set to a Roxy Music drum groove. She started the song during a relationship that eventually soured throughout the course of working on Total Freedom in 2019. By the time the album was finished, the opening line of the song (“I love you so much, everything”) was transformed into a declaration of self-love.
“I extracted myself from a relationship that was really bad and really unhealthy,” says the songwriter. This time, though, music was a salvation, the “continual light,” she says, “that I followed though the tunnel.”
Today, Edwards is at ease. She’s developed a Zen-like acceptance during quarantine. She is once again in a relationship, and the process of opening herself up to her new partner, telling them stories about her past life, has led her to realize something about herself.
“I’ve always been a self-deprecating person,” she says, “but sometimes, I’ve let that self-deprecation take up too big of a space, and that’s allowed me to not see things for what they are are.
“I went and started this coffee shop and I did it all on my own, with money that I’d saved from music,” Edwards continues. “And last year, when I was going through such a hard time in my personal life, I persevered and made a fucking record. [With the quarantine], I just sometimes think that maybe this whole thing has allowed me to stop and go, ‘Who knows what’s ahead?’ Maybe I’ll have to make some changes in my life for this reason or that reason, but, holy fuck, if I’m not resilient.’”