It’s late September, and being an American is complicated. Our attention is torn between an unpopular overseas war and a domestic disaster that’s anything but natural. You can’t help wondering if it’s easier to be from another country, to avoid the prickly tension spreading like a rash.
But it doesn’t seem simpler to be Kathleen Edwards. The Canadian singer/songwriter, a soul sister to Tom Petty and Neil Young whose music exemplifies the Americana genre as much as any artist born here, has just performed at Farm Aid, a 20-year-old nonprofit protecting and promoting the country’s dwindling number of family farms. There, Edwards crossed paths with a group of Canadians taking notes about Farm Aid in anticipation of starting a like organization at home, and she says she’d like to participate. “My grandparents were farmers in the Canadian prairie,” says Edwardson a call from Kansas City, where she and her band performed the night before. They were supposed to head to Texas for the Austin City Limits Festival, but Hurricane Rita is bearing down on the state’s coast, causing much travel-related uncertainty. So they’re heading back home instead. Until recently, home for Edwards meant Toronto, but she just moved to Hamilton, a quieter town an hour outside the city where she hopes to do some writing for her next record.
“I have to be in a particular situation where there’s not a lot of distraction,” she says. “If I get sidetracked from what I’m working on, it’s hard to get back to what I’m doing.”
Edwards’ new record, Back to Me , contains a song about relocation. In “Copied Keys,” a heartbreaker with a slide guitar solo, weepy violins, and lazy slaps of tambourine, the narrator laments trading her home for her partner’s: “This is not my town, and it will never be. This is our apartment filled with your things. This is your life; I get copied keys. Try and force a little smile, hold it a little while for you.” Edwards, 27, sings in a plaintiff tone, her northern accent subtly revealed in her enunciation. She doesn’t belt or wail; her voice, like her songs, burns slowly toward its emotional message. “This is not my town, and it will never be. And it will never be…ours.”
The rocked-up country songs on Back to Me and her 2003 debut, Failer , were written around the same time, Edwards says, and she’s running out of material. Toronto—the bustling city and frequent stand-in for New York City in movies—was the wrong place to try to kick-start that engine. “The TV and the Internet and checking your e-mail or the phone ringing” divert Edwards’ best-laid plans for songwriting, she says. “When I moved to the country years ago to write the songs for Failer , I took that stuff out of the equation. I was playing every day, and I kind of shed all those sorts of outside distractions. It became extremely easy to write.”
Because she just moved, heading home means settling in, unpacking. It’s a mixed blessing, just like her profession. Although this is Edwards first time playing Knoxville, she’s been on the road for the better part of the last two years. Her parents have “reluctantly adopted” her two cats (although she gets to play foster parent to adoptable kitties on loan from the Toronto animal shelter; a particularly adorable one appears on her website). In the homestretch of September, Edwards sounds weary and in need of the two-week break before going out on the road for another two months with My Morning Jacket. She perks up when describing a new addition to her vintage wardrobe: a pink chenille bathrobe to which Edwards adds the seemingly conflicting qualifiers “sexiest” and “grandma.” Once she gets home, Edwards plans to wear it for several consecutive days, as an antidote to one particular symptom of her chosen profession.
“When you’re in a hotel,” she explains, “if you want to get anything to eat, the first thing you have to do is get dressed.” You know, she says, unlike people who have weekends, people with normal workdays, who can stay in their PJs indefinitely. “There’s nothing normal about being a touring musician,” she says. But she’s a guitarist, a poet, a traveling troubadour with a record deal and thousands of fans. What else would she be? She answers without a pauseas if she thinks about it daily, dreams about this other life she could lead: “A professional landscaper.”
What: My Morning Jacket w/ Kathleen Edwards