She could have passed herself off as Lucinda Williams' long-lost daughter or Tift Merritt's second cousin. No one would have doubted it. But Kathleen Edwards has no interest in hiding her true identity. In one pedal-steel laden tune, she name-checks defamed hockey player Marty McSorley. In another, she criticizes the racial biases of the Canadian news media. These are not traditional themes of Americana music, and Kathleen Edwards, as you might have guessed, is not an American.
"I played in Charlotte, N.C., last night," says Edwards, a native of Ottawa, Ontario. "I'd never played there before, and when I got on stage, I was just thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm in North Carolina.' You know, this is the birthplace of so many of my contemporaries—people like Ryan Adams and Tift Merritt. It's always been a hotbed of Americana and alt-country, which is something I consider myself a part of. And yet, yeah, I'm Canadian, and I don't know North Carolina very well. But all you can do is just say, ‘Hey, I do what I do and I love what I love, and it's genuine.' And I think the people at the show are there because they know that."
Assuming Shania Twain didn't demolish the work Neil Young did in legitimizing Canadian country-rock, there is no reason to question Edwards' musical sincerity. In fact, she proudly proclaims that Young is one of her heroes. "He kind of encompasses everything that I love about music," she says.
To assume that Kathleen Edwards is a Neil Young disciple is to miss the point a bit, though. What she admires most about Young is his consistent refusal to be pigeonholed or to let his music be dictated by other people's expectations. And so, fittingly, Edwards goes her own way, too. Now 30, she's released three engaging, well-rounded albums, each earning more praise and moving more units than its predecessor. Her latest effort, Asking for Flowers, hit the top of the Billboard Heatseekers chart, her biggest stateside success. The album revealed tighter melodies and lyrical leaps forward into serious social commentary, but it also set the bar even higher for whatever comes next.
"Obviously, I have a musical agenda and a feeling of wanting to succeed at what I do," Edwards says. "You know, you always kind of want to step it up another notch, so there's some pressure involved in that. I think I feel less pressure now, though, in that I feel much more comfortable listening to my instinct and knowing that that's a really good thing to do."
Edwards learned a lot about trusting her guts by taking lessons from one of her notable 2008 tour partners, punk luminary John Doe.
"John taught me how to sort of step back a little bit and not be such a control freak about certain things," she says. "He's a really hard worker and an amazing guy. But at the heart of it, he's also a punk rocker. He comes from the old school of punk rock, which is basically, ‘You don't like it? F--k you!' It's pretty cool and in your face, but at the same time, it's helped me learn to let things happen musically and not always have an expectation of things fitting into certain boxes."
Like so many artists under the so-called alt-country umbrella, Edwards seems very at home with the punk aesthetic. But she's not a clear-cut converted punk like Neko Case or Jeff Tweedy, either. As usual, Edwards has surprises up her sleeve.
"I really love the philosophy of punk," she says. "But I think I'm a bit of a contradiction, because I also grew up playing classical music." To be specific, Edwards spent her entire childhood, from kindergarten through high school, training as a classical violinist. "Classical music is very regimented and rigid and disciplined, whereas punk is almost the opposite of that. You know, the ideology is just to follow your instinct and not let anyone tell you what's right for you. You respect yourself and act as your own guide."
Fortunately, with her unique background, Edwards tends to lead herself in exciting new directions, borrowing from Neil Young, John Doe, or J.S. Bach along the way. Whether or not she winds up taking the wild stylistic left turns of former alt-country acts like Wilco and My Morning Jacket, however, remains to be seen.
"When I'm making a record, I'm not really thinking about what genre it's going to fit into," she says. "I'm always feeling like I'm ready to do something different, so even if it doesn't seem like a big change to some people, I'm moving at a pace I feel is really good.... Artists that are interesting and talented are always going to change and develop over time. It's impossible to stay where you started. So I look forward to finding out where that takes me. I'm sure it'll be very rewarding, wherever it is."