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UNLIKELY GIFTS: KATHLEEN EDWARDS ON REBUILDING HERSELF AND HER CAREER


You want a hook? You want an angle? She’s got them by the truckload.


The Kathleen Edwards story today has more than one or two “entry points”, without even touching the fact that a couple of months ago she released Total Freedom, a compellingly attractive, thoughtful and frank album of what you might call Americana, or folk-pop, or, I don’t know, just good songs.


Take for example that with four albums out at the time, a multi-award winning singer/songwriter from Canada whose songs had breached country and pop charts on both sides of the border (and garnered fans in Australia whose numbers included a very high proportion of fellow songwriters), Edwards gave up her decade-old career in 2012.


To run a coffee shop in Stittsville, in the outer ‘burbs of Ottowa. And she called it Quitters.

That’s a story already. Probably two. But wait.


She had a marriage behind her, a failing relationship with another musician (Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon) who was also the producer of her most recent album, which had canvassed some of that divorce. And, worst of all, a severe depressive episode right then was ripping away whatever sense of self the business of music hadn’t eroded.


That’s plenty. But not all. In her new post-performance life, a song or two appeared, without pressure or demand – including one about whether she could live this new, healthier life and have a relationship too – when a new relationship developed with someone who turned out to be not just a conman but a toxic, ego-destroying conman. One who shamelessly tried to sue her later for a share of her business.


Then, after nearly six years, Edwards decided that music and her new self could co-exist. That she could see herself again as songwriter, singer, artist. That if someone wanted to put out her music – and they did – she would release a new record, her fifth. In the middle of the worst pandemic in 100 years.

Wait, wait, wait, there’s one more bit. A week before we speak, Edwards married again. (“I know,” she laughs. “Who calls a record Total Freedom and then gets married?”)


There was no way some, if not all, of this wasn’t going to seep into the songs even if Edwards was inclined to lyrical circumspection. Which she isn’t.


“I think that’s entirely true. I think it is my nature to be open and to not draw the lines that that’s my private life and there are certain things off-bounds,” says Edwards from her home in Stittsville, her dog Penny by her side. “That’s not who I am and I don’t find it meaningful.”


It’s one thing to talk about the break, and the breakups, but Edwards has also been open about the state of her mental health before and during this extended absence from being a performer. She’s settled, happy even now, but as anyone who has had something like a depressive episode would know, the idea of constantly talking about it to anyone who feels like asking seems like torture.


“Well, it’s been cathartic in some ways, but it’s been exhausting in others,” she concedes. “It’s really been interesting to be six, seven years older, doing press, being really in a good place emotionally, really being proud of a record without having any lingering expectations - because I really did risk walking away forever - but putting in the energy to show up, to have something to say, to be appreciative of the opportunity of having somebody even give a shit to write about, I have such a greater appreciation of that aspect of it.


“But I am mostly realising that this actually does take a lot out of you. It is like performing, despite the fact that most interviews this time around have been wonderful conversations rather than worrying that I’m not gonna come across as interesting enough or they’re only pretending to like my record.”

Really? That still played on her mind when so much else was being exposed?


“All those things sound insecure but I know that I am in an incredibly vulnerable place when I put out a new record after all of your energy and all of your ambition is put into that. And when you talk about what it took you to get there, it’s a little daunting,” says Edwards. “But to be honest it’s also been incredibly rewarding because about 2014 when I was starting to feel well - I was medicated and I wasn’t in a constant state of not being able to get through the day - I spoke to several different groups of kids in high school and after the first one, a lightbulb went off in my head.


“I thought, this is the reason I am glad I had depression, so that I could maybe put it into context for someone who might actually have [depression] come to them and they could connect the dots through what happened to me. Because that didn’t happen for me: I didn’t even know I was sick. So for me to be able to put it into context for people who are struggling, maybe that is useful, and the one gift of depression.”


Maybe another gift, if you do come through it, is that it makes you re-examine why you do things and why the things that may have triggered elements of your depression, matter to you. And why some things don’t, not really.


Of course, you might get that insight just by taking five years off from whatever career you have, relocating to a small town, and examining yourself, but it is a gift we can often miss just doing what we have always done.


“You don’t decide or change course, or apply it to your life without finding yourself having to check the cheat sheet again,” says Edwards. “You’re constantly checking yourself with the tools that you’ve learnt that enrich your life: ‘something is off again, what is it? Okay let’s go back and check that cheat sheet. Oh right, it's that thing I was letting eat away at myself’.


“It’s not an ‘I’m better now’ thing; it’s ‘I know what this feels like, so, right, let’s get back there’.”

Does that give her confidence she can continue with a career and a life without the danger of returning to that darker place?


“Well, I’ve been told that it’s not uncommon for you to have another bout of clinical depression, if you’ve had one. Statistics are high for that, depending on how well you are treated or receive treatment or navigate your first episode. So I’ve always had that in the back of my mind,” she says. “I think what stopping music and having a coffee shop gave me, was it disempowered music entirely. It empowered it for me, but it took all the power away from having it being the only thing that I’ve ever done in my life.”


Edwards adds that this close self-examination also made her appreciate the successes she had had, the kind of recognition you don’t have time for as you work at your craft, at your job, every day.


“Before I was 30 I had some experiences that most people don’t have in their entire lives and it was wonderful to take the time to see that and appreciate I created that for myself. Other people in my life played a part, but I really was the maker of that destiny,” she says. “But to also have another life where if my record doesn’t do well, or I don’t sell as many tickets as I did last time, well, I’m going to go home and run my café.


“And if that’s what I have to do, instead of playing music, that’s a good life too.”


Disempowering the influence of industry while empowering the essence of the art. Maybe even the person. Perfect really. Maybe that really is total freedom.


Total Freedom is out now.

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