Kathleen Edwards: 5 songs that changed my life

Find out what English band gives the singer-songwriter her ‘armour music’ — and which John Prine song she learned at canoe camp.

Find out what English band gives the singer-songwriter her ‘armour music,’ and which camp song sticks with her

After completely stepping away from music for years, Kathleen Edwards is back with a freeing fifth album and a new perspective on life. (Remi Theriault; design by CBC Music)

When Kathleen Edwards quit music six years ago, she didn't know if she would ever be able to come back.

"I was really sick," she remembers. "I was clinically depressed and it took me quite some time to actually figure it out." 

As far back as 2012, Edwards had been feeling sick for at least a year, if not more, fighting to finish her Voyageur tour. Her symptoms showed up as "a chronic state of anxiety," she describes. "And eventually your body just starts being exhausted from that. And I think it just went into clinical depression."

Edwards remembers heading to Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern around the end of that year to see a show, after having talked herself out of going about 30 times, and running into a friend she felt safe around. 

It ruined my relationship with feeling vulnerable all the time, which was a way in which I used to connect with people. And suddenly I just did not have the strength to connect with people anymore because I just was so hollow from it."- Kathleen Edwards, talking about her experience with depression

"I said, 'I really need help.' And I started crying. And within two days she had me in to see a psychiatrist. And it saved me. My whole life got better after that."

"You know, I have a pretty strong work ethic," Edwards continues. "And I think my parents did a really good job of instilling [that] ... you just have to get up the next morning and put one foot in front of the other. And hopefully it'll get better. And I did that over and over and over again and it never got better. But I'm really proud of myself that I persisted as I did but yeah, it really ruined my relationship with performing. It ruined my relationship with feeling vulnerable all the time, which was a way in which I used to connect with people. And suddenly I just did not have the strength to connect with people anymore because I just was so hollow from it."

Edwards moved back to Stittsville, on the outskirts of Ottawa, in September 2013, the same month she co-hosted the Polaris Music Prize with Shad. By then she'd been taking medication for her mental health "for a little while," and she made the move back home to get her "feet back on the ground again." The space away from her Toronto music bubble gave her what she needed: she decided to open her Stittsville café, Quitters, and step away from music. 

"It was easy. I mean, I hated it," she says, of quitting music indefinitely. "It was easy to say I don't really want to do that anymore." Any song Edwards tried to write was "rooted in a place that I was trying to heal from," she remembers. "And I thought well, what the f--k am I doing writing about this stuff only to spend the next three years singing and talking about it?" 

She wanted it to be over.

Edwards officially stopped making music in 2014, and it wasn't until American country singer Maren Morris unexpectedly called her up in 2017 that she returned to writing. Morris, a big fan of the Canadian singer, wanted Edwards to travel to Nashville for a songwriting session. Edwards said yes, but didn't expect much of it. The result is the song "Good Woman," from Morris's 2019 album, Girl

"I was actually very shocked at how immediately I felt I was in such a natural state of being," says Edwards, of the session with Morris. It pushed her to pick up her guitar again when she got home. She had to step away from the café a bit, as the day-to-day operations — cleaning floors, replacing appliances, managing employees — demanded such a different part of her that she couldn't fully reach the creative side while the administrative side was working. But once Edwards gave herself that space, the song "Glenfern" came pouring out, a song of thanks and reminiscence about her marriage with ex-husband Colin Cripps. 

"It was exactly the sentiment and the energy that I was searching for ... in a sense of intention," she says. "I wanted to write about something that expressed the gratitude I have had for the time I've been able to take so I could gain all this perspective of all these experiences that were incredibly good and bad and challenging and easy and exhilarating and demoralizing."

Edwards also felt that the critically acclaimed and Polaris Prize shortlisted Voyageur, co-produced by her then boyfriend Bon Iver, has long been held as her divorce album — even though she wrote songs for it while still married — and she felt that to be unfair to Cripps. 

"He didn't get to go and do interviews and he didn't get to go and put his experience of our breakup on a record and then do press about it…. But there are private, nuanced experiences as a couple. And so to be able to write a song like 'Glenfern' that kind of resets that narrative where I could say I was so incredibly lucky that he was in my life and we have so many wonderful memories together that were so important to me."

"Glenfern" set the tone for where Edwards wanted to go with her new and fifth album, Total Freedom. Songs dedicated to her late adopted dog ("Who Rescued Who") and a lifelong friendship ("Simple Math") sit alongside more painful lessons like "Hard on Everyone," which describes Edwards realizing she was in an emotionally abusive relationship and needed to get out. 

"I remember very clearly it was listening to the documentary about Dirty John," she says, naming the true-crime podcast about John Meehan, who abused and manipulated his wife at the time, Debra Newell. "I was driving home and about four episodes in I just was like, 'Oh my God,' this podcast is about me. This is my story. I've heard those lines. ... I was gripping the steering wheel and my stomach was in a knot. And that's the moment I woke the f--k up and I went, holy shit, I have to get out."

Each song on Total Freedom is an important piece of Edwards' life, mostly stemming from the last eight years, when she released no music at all. Co-produced by Edwards along with Ian Fitchuk (who won two Grammys for his work on Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour album) and longtime friend and oft band member Jim Bryson, Total Freedom draws from new lyrical material while leaning on Edwards' Americana sound, a full band rounding it all out. Edwards' thoughtful, matter-of-fact delivery shines on the quieter moments ("Birds on a Feeder") and the ones that build from that quiet space to an emotional, musical release ("Take it With you When you Go"), reminders of classics like "Change the Sheets." But razor-sharp rockers like "Hard on Everyone" bring things into focus: this album, which was almost called Quittsville, is a picture of a life fully lived — and fought for.

"It was so freeing because I had really just done it in a way that felt — it was challenging," adds Edwards. "And there are lots of times where I had to go back to the drawing board on many things that I felt exasperated by it. But in the end I persevered … I f--king did it! Woo!"

I think I'm ready to start, to totally have a clean slate.​​​​​- Kathleen Edwards

While Edwards waits out the pandemic before she can see how her relationship with touring will go — "I think I'm ready to start, to totally have a clean slate," she says — we talked to the songwriter about the songs that have shaped who she is: from canoe camp to working her first job in Starbucks to backstage, waiting for her shows to start. 

Below, five songs that changed Kathleen Edwards' life.

'That's the way the World Goes Round,' John Prine (Bruised Orange, 1978)

"I started going to canoe camp when I was 12. And it was the first song that I learned paddling in a canoe. And I had no idea it was a John Prine song, it was just the song that I learned from listening to other people sing it. And years later, when I was starting to get into music, I knew that song inside and out, I could play it any day. But I thought it was just this Canadian folk song that you learned when you go to summer camp. And it ended up being my first John Prine song, and of course he became a huge influence of mine."

'Avenues,' Whiskeytown (Strangers Almanac, 1997)

"This is going to maybe be a little controversial [because Ryan Adams was the lead singer], but I think it's important that we honour the music that changed us.… One of my first jobs was in Starbucks, but I was like 18. And back then, Starbucks had these mixtapes but they wanted to be a really cool music-forward company so they put together incredible mixes like the Cuban [mix] or the '60s folk [mix]. And this one was like an Americana [mix]. And it was the first time I heard Wilco, Whiskeytown, Steve Earle, all these things that I wouldn't have necessarily listened to before. Like, I would have thought they were country and twang. And suddenly my mind was blown by this music that I love so much. 

"I remember people if you got a CD into Starbucks, it guaranteed you were gonna sell like 60, 70,000 copies of your album, like in the first month, it was like this golden ticket, you know. Anyway. That didn't happen to me [laughs]. Whiskeytown would come on through that mixtape, and I would just listen to that, and every time I didn't know it was Whiskeytown. And every time that song came on in the mixtape, I was just stopped in my tracks and I just f--king loved it. It was my favourite song. And then I finally was like, I've got to figure out who that is. And I went back to look at the mixtape credits and I was like, Whiskeytown, who the hell is that? And then I became a songwriter who loved Americana music. And then I found Wilco. And then I found all these other acts because of Whiskeytown. It just opened my mind to the pedal steel and this rootsy American-style folk singer-songwriter thing — it shifted my ear entirely."

'Eden,' Talk Talk (Spirit of Eden, 1988)

"Colin, my ex-husband, was actually the first person who played Talk Talk for me. And I had never heard of that band. And it just gave me such a new idea of what mainstream music could sound like in a very orchestrated and ethereal way. There are some sounds on that record that I totally was influenced by. It changed everything I thought about the organ, like the Hammond organ. As soon as I heard Talk Talk, the Hammond organ became one of my favorite sounds ever. 

"No Doubt did a really cool cover years ago, it was a huge hit. 'It's My Life,' which was one of their songs. And they did a cover of it, it's a great cover. And their stuff's so f--king cool. That was probably their biggest, most sort of mainstream song. And then a lot of their stuff was far more sort of obtuse than that. It's beautiful."

'Don't Need a Reason,' Beth Orton (Trailer Park, 1996)

"It was at the same time I discovered Whiskeytown and the record was so cool because the production is incredibly simple on the record. And her singing, you know it's funny, I listen to it now and I'm like, she's not a great singer. But the spirit of these songs and the idea of this folky — she epitomized that moment in the U.K. where folk re-entered with this fun Chemical Brothers subculture underneath it. It's so cool. I just loved it." 

'Your Time is Gonna Come,' Led Zeppelin (self-titled, 1969)

"That has been my anthem for so, so many years. And I'm a huge Led Zeppelin fan. It's just my armor music, And I remember the first boy I ever made out with when I was in high school and I was like 14, he put on Led Zeppelin. I don't think of making out with him when I listen to Led Zeppelin, but it has this incredibly urgent teenage [feeling of a] first intense experience. It's sex and it's rock and roll. When I listen to Led Zeppelin, it's the way I feel when I stand in a stadium and I watch Tom Petty or AC/DC or anything like that. 

"Funny enough, when I opened Quitter's, I listened to a lot of music. Again, because the café is open all the time, you're cleaning stuff, you'd shut down and you'd be cleaning the shop for an hour mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms. And I would put on Led Zeppelin for my clean-up music. It was just like, here we go and f--king crank it up. But it was years ago when I would prep for shows or I'd try to get pumped up for something. I would put that on."


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