When John Doe came through town a couple of weeks ago, he referred to Kathleen Edwards as “the Katharine Hepburn of music.” It seems to be the perfect analogy for her, as Edwards possesses all the grace and elegance of the Hollywood queen, while still managing to stay completely straightforward. Edwards’s songs tell poignant and poetic tales of everyday life, each delivered in a clear-cut fashion. It is exactly how good music is meant to be. Having spent her childhood roaming the world with her diplomat parents, Edwards found refuge in music, and the tunes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty became the soundtrack to her life. So when it came time for Edwards to set out on her own, it seemed only natural for traveling and music to once again combine. And, as her latest album, Asking for Flowers, once again affirms, they have done so with affecting force.
Your last visit to Santa Barbara was part of the Gram Parson’s Tribute Concert. That is not a bad introduction to the place. Yeah, I got really spoiled. I now have very high expectations [laughs]. I think that’s a good thing, to have very high expectations, so I’m very excited to come back to Santa Barbara. But that was a pretty unbelievable night for me.
What made it so unbelievable? Was it the people you were keeping company with? The songs you were singing? Everything. I got asked to do that show, and that alone was mind-blowing. Then, when I showed up, John Doe asked if I was gonna come sing with him. I was on the bill with Keith Richards and Norah Jones. I’m this Canadian girl, and I felt like I had landed at Ground Zero of California’s country rock scene. It was a pretty wild trip!
Was that what led you to your friendship and collaboration with John Doe? Yeah, that’s when we met, and since then we’ve become great pals. I love him to pieces.
It’s quite an interesting connection you two have forged. You have sung on his records and he has acted in your videos. There have been a lot of cosmic meetings-for lack of a better word-here and there, having mutual friends and not knowing it. It was just meant to be. We were meant to meet each other and be friends. I’m hoping he and I will be able to do a tour together this fall. I was hoping the two of us could just go out and play each other’s songs and back each other up and have fun. I think we have a long friendship ahead of us.
Talk me through the birth of Asking for Flowers. Firstly, I didn’t book any studio time. I stayed at home for a while and worked on songs without a deadline. I didn’t know when I was gonna make my record, so I really made a point of just allowing it to appear before me.
In the period between albums, did you take time off or do you find yourself always picking up the guitar? I definitely left my guitar alone for a while. I needed a break from it, and I needed to do stuff that wasn’t music-related so that I could enjoy making music again. I wanted to spend my summer at home, which I hadn’t really had the chance to do in a long time. So I spent a lot of time in the garden and doing little things that get taken for granted until you don’t actually get the time to do them. I sat on the patio and drank white wine and worked on my garden.
Before you turned 20, you were out on the road, sleeping in your car, managing yourself, and booking your own shows. What planted the desire to adopt that type of lifestyle? I think I just knew that if I didn’t take that step I was destined to be a local singer/songwriter and play a random gig here and there. I was ready to bite off more. Looking back now, I realize it was a turning point for me taking control, and I was actively saying, “Yes, this is what I wanna do,” not “Oh, this is fun and I enjoy doing it, but on Tuesday I have to go back to my job.” Looking back, there were a lot of stupid things that I did, like going on tour with only enough money in my pocket to pay for gas to get me to the next gig. I had no backup plan, and it just ended up working out.
Given that Sings Like Hell is a singer/songwriter series, can you tell me a little about your approach to songwriting? What inspires you? I think that, for me, it just arises from something that’s real and human. Lately, a lot of the stuff that gets me thinking about songs is sometimes the most innocent of interactions between people. I find that sometimes you can have a conversation with somebody and they tell you something about themselves and that then leads you somewhere. I like the idea of writing songs that fill out all the holes of all the things you imagine that people just don’t get around to telling you:
Is there a conscious balance in songwriting between art and commerce? I’m not re-inventing the wheel. There is a commercial sensibility to what I’m doing which allowed certain doors to be opened to me in my creative life. I choose to walk through those doors sometimes, and other times I choose not to. I don’t know how else to explain it, except to say that at some point listening to music became such an intense experience for me that I haven’t really thought about how else I would live my life except to participate in it.
What was it that led music to become such an intense experience for you? You traveled around a lot as a child; did music provide a sort of safe haven for you? Absolutely, I think that’s a major part of that. I wasn’t a dysfunctional teenager, but I definitely lived a life that was not what I wanted for myself. In a way, they were great experiences, and I was very privileged to have those experiences. I recall [that] wherever I ended up, music was my companion through it. So that plays a part in where it comes from.
Kathleen Edwards will headline this month’s installment of Sings Like Hell at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Saturday, May 17, at 8 p.m. Visit singslikehell.com for ticket info.