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Thirteen months ago, Kathleen Edwards was staring down the sophomore slump, awaiting the release of her new record, Back to Me. It would follow Failer, the scrappy alt-country debut that pulled her out of rural Quebec and pushed her into the world for 18

February 3, 2005

Kathleen Edwards calls from home in Toronto. She hates it there. She moved to the city for love, from Wakefield, Quebec, to live with her guitarist and new husband, Colin Cripps. Lately she’d been coming around.

But then.

“Some asshole backed into me in a parking lot and left!” she says, like she still can’t believe it. “It was Colin’s car and I had to come home and be like, ‘Baby I’m sorry, someone smashed your car. And we’re fucked.’ I’m losing a little bit of faith in Toronto. I had sort of gotten my head around parts of it and now I’m like, ‘Where’s that asshole? I’m gonna kill you!’”

It’s six weeks before her sophomore LP, Back to Me, becomes available for consumption. There is a palpable appetite for this follow-up—Edwards, after all, was a 23-year-old waiting tables in Ottawa when Failer, her independently recorded debut, unexpectedly caught some influential ears. Rolling Stone named her one of 10 artists to watch in 2003, and David Letterman invited her to appear on his show. Twice. Suddenly she was the Canadian queen of Americana, hailed as the kindred spirit of Lucinda Williams, a brassy alt-country heir fond of bourbon and swears.

Life changed, fast. Edwards spent 18 months on tour, got married in August of 2004 (a couple weeks before, as guest violinist—she’s classically trained—for Jim Cuddy at a drizzly show on the Garrison Grounds, she instructed the Halifax audience to thank the Blue Rodeo leader for introducing her to Cripps) and went right back into the studio.

She made the tough, narrative-laden Failer—which opens with “Six O’Clock News,” about a pregnant girl seeing her boy shot dead in a police standoff—in 2002 with no expectations at Dave Draves’ Ottawa studio, Little Bullhorn. In the fall of 2004 Edwards found herself in Toronto’s Reaction Studios with a new, unfamiliar weight on her shoulders.

“It was tough getting my head around the idea of ‘OK, now I’m making a record, and this is the first record I’m making where I have a record company, and I have a manager and I have people who are counting on me to do something that’s maybe bigger and better than my last record,’” she says. “Includ- ing myself, you know. But it was good. After awhile I was able to zone that out and focus on doing something that I thought was really good and doing it for myself, rather than for other people.”

The speed of the process clearly troubles her still.

“My last record, I had my whole life to write those first 10 songs,” she says. “Then suddenly you have six months to put another record together.”

The stress doesn’t show on Back to Me, a slick 50-minute collection of 11 songs that think quietly before reacting, where the songs on the scrappy Failer responded with a string of expletives and a hurled drink. It reflects Edwards’ unease with her new world, about all she’s missing so she can try for success. (She almost called it Nostalgia until friends convinced her it was lame.) Back to Me is a multi-faceted concept—in the direct title track, she sings of how she can make an ex jealous enough to return (“I’ve got ways to make you mad, laughing at the girl sitting on your lap/I’ve got ways to make you sing my songs, the ones I ain’t written yet”); it acts as a personal mission as she talks of driving “through the old neighbourhood, all the corners where we stood”; and she reverses it on the album’s cover, where she sits in a field, farmhouse in the distance, head down, away from the camera, back to us.

“I think it’s more about absence. The last thing I would ever wanna do is, you know, have a record where the theme was about being on the road and how it sucked,” she says. “Because it didn’t, it was really awesome. But the hardest part about being out on the road for so long was knowing that when I was coming home I wasn’t actually going back to my old life anymore.”

A pair of stunning tracks late in the album express her difficulty, as well as her remarkable ability to say much with little. She handily breaks a heart in the spare “Away” with a personal call and response: “Do you think I’ve changed? I swear I never tried.” On “Copied Keys,” which also features the record’s most anti-Toronto sentiment (opening line: “This is not my town and it will never be”), she delivers her entire dilemma in nine syllables: “This is your life/I get copied keys.”

March 20, 2006

Kathleen Edwards calls from the road in New England. She loves it there. Three eastern US dates, with Jim Bryson and opener Joel Plaskett, are behind her. She has 10 to go. Last night the show was in a 17th-century church in Newmarket, New Hampshire.

“We’ve been playing all these amazing rooms that I probably wouldn’t play with a full band,” she says, “just because they’re smaller clubs that, you know, it would be too hard to have five people on the stage and not go deaf every night.”

It’s been a year, minus five days, since Back to Me was released.

“Things just happened in a really roller-coaster kind of way,” says Edwards. “Where you wake up some mornings and you think that you’re exactly where you want to be and then you wake up some mornings going, ‘I am not succeeding in any kind of way,’ and then days when I go back to Ottawa and 10 people stop me and go ‘Are you Kathleen Edwards?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh fuck, that’s surreal.’ And I’m so glad I’m not hugely successful because I can’t imagine that happening all the time.”

But success creeps closer with each tour—Edwards has racked up a varied slew of opening spots in the past year, for Josh Ritter, Aimee Mann, John Prine, Willie Nelson and My Morning Jacket, her favourite gig of the year.

“You’d think that Willie’s audience would be really cool—and they are—but I remember opening for Willie at GM Place in Vancouver. And some yahoo literally was like, ‘Show me your tits.’” She pauses, like she still can’t believe it. “And I’m like, ‘Fuck dude, can you not come up with a more original heckle? If you think I’ve never heard that before?’ You know? There are moments where you don’t let that stuff bug you but you kinda think, ‘Oh yeah, I’m always gonna have to deal with stuff like that.’ And, you know—fuck it, who cares. But it’s nice to be in front of a crowd like My Morning Jacket’s, who are much younger and that’s not a heckle that you hear, you know? How ironic is that?”

Edwards, who hasn’t played her own show in Halifax save a Khyber appearance with Jim Bryson way before Failer, will open for Bryan Adams at the Metro Centre on April 6. Though her current tour will keep her out of town on Juno weekend, she is nominated for Songwriter of the Year and Adult Alternative Album of the Year for Back to Me.

“I think it’s easy to say that awards and nominations don’t mean anything—on a certain level, they don’t mean anything. But you know what, it is very nice to be recognized. I think anyone would feel that way,” she says.

Pregnant pause.

“Having said that, I would be embarrassed to win.”

Back to Me is up against a little effort called Prairie Wind.

“Like, can you imagine Neil Young, one of your musical heroes, being nominated in the same category as you and your name is called? I would be so embarrassed. But even if he wasn’t in the category—I’m filled with terror at the thought of having to go up and stand in front of people with an award.”

Though she has misgivings beyond idol worship—“They’d rather televise Artist of the Year and I don’t remember the last time certain artists who are in that category even performed in Canada”—Edwards recognizes the value of the Junos.

“You really have to take it with a grain of salt,” she says, her shrug almost audible from Massachusetts. “It’s kind of like the Oscars—I think awards are great for the industry, because they’re another way of promoting music in Canada. And I think that’s fantastic and healthy and totally necessary. It’s like going into a bookstore and you tend to pick books that say ‘Winner of Booker Prize,’ ‘Winner of Pulitzer Prize.’ And there are great books that don’t get recognized, but it promotes reading. And it gets people excited about reading books. And it gets people excited about listening to music when they see something that they think might be cool on an awards show. I think if there’s anything good about awards, that’s it.”

She’ll have two weeks between the shows with Adams and the rest of the US tour with Bryson and Plaskett in late April. Then she’ll be back home for awhile, taking as much time as she needs on her third record. And the best part: She won’t be going back to Toronto.

“We were home for three weeks last year, and that’s the three weeks we moved,” she says. “We found this amazing little house in Hamilton, and when we go home it’s quiet and I don’t have to do a thumb war just to get a parking spot. I just want to be somewhere quiet when I come home.”

Kathleen Edwards w/Bryan Adams, April 6 at the Halifax Metro Centre, 8pm, $45.50-$60.50, 451-1221.

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