Kathleen Edwards' Voyageur LP signals a fresh direction and a new working partnership with producer/boyfriend Justin Vernon (Bon Iver)
Since Kathleen Edwards released her debut album, Failer, in 2003, critical acclaim has been consistent. The roots and country vibe from this Ottawa native – the daughter of a diplomat, Edwards also spent many years growing up abroad – was irresistible to the esteemed reviewers at the likes of Rolling Stone and The New York Times, and her 2005 and 2008 follow-ups, Back to Me and Asking for Flowers, received similarly positive reviews from the media at large. (Asking for Flowers even made the Polaris Prize shortlist in 2008.)
Yet Edwards felt somewhat boxed in by the limitations that genre, and corresponding public perception, can effect. With the release of Voyageur, her latest LP, produced by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Edwards is clearly travelling into some uncharted musical territory.
"Nobody put me in a box, and I’m not complaining about where I’ve been and what I’ve been described as," explains Edwards, reached at her home in Toronto. "Everyone has been accurate [in their descriptions] and whatever, but I also felt like I didn’t want to live in this Americana neverland – this place where everyone fits and writes songs that have a little bit of country, some folk and some rootsy rock sounds. Really, at the heart of it, I felt it wasn’t the best expression of what I was capable of musically, or even how I saw myself. Also, the music that I love and identify with is far more broadly reaching than that. I really wanted to show, to myself really, that I had the capacity to make a record that didn’t just fit into this alt-country box, which is basically what every song-based band gets pegged as these days, especially in Canada."
The sense of travel implicit in the title Voyageur has parallels in Edwards’ own life of late, as well as in the process of creating the new album. In 2011, Edwards went through a painful divorce and also took on the challenge of co-writing, for the first time, with Wisconsin-based Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. The lyrics of Voyageur chart Edwards’ recent emotional realizations with a rawness that veers towards brutal honesty, while the instrumental work, and a diverse set of collaborators, demonstrate added stylistic breadth in comparison to past work.
Guests include Norah Jones, Toronto’s Afie Jurvanen (Bahamas), British alt-folkers Stornoway, experimental soul singer Francis & The Lights and Ottawa’s own Jim Bryson; all throughout Voyageur, Vernon accompanies, torques and accents Edwards’ inimitable sound. While Vernon’s music under the Bon Iver name represents some of the most popular work recorded in the last five years, his touch on Voyageur never threatens to overwhelm Edwards’ presence. Voyageur is quite clearly a Kathleen Edwards production, albeit one steeped in contemplation.
"This [challenge] was in the picture long before Justin was producing the record," explains Edwards. "I set out to make a record that was a direct reflection of the music that I listen to or how I see myself. It started with the songs, carving, shaping and writing for a long time. Some songs I would listen to and see that they were sonically like the stuff I did before, so I would go back to the drawing board. I engaged in war to find the right arrangement and feel. I kept re-referencing things to try and break this mould that I found myself in. As Justin got involved, and all the other players, the things brought to the table really helped me get there. Very early on, I was open to the co-writing challenge. I felt that I had nothing to lose; the worst thing that could happen is that it wouldn’t work."
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