“I have to listen to myself more than to what’s happening around me. That’s the most important thing.”
When someone is well known for excelling at something, they’re generally associated fairly exclusively with that thing; we know them as a great performer, a great author, a great businessperson. With Kathleen Edwards, it seems simpler, and also much more complex, than that. She’ll do well at whatever she turns her hand to because she’s more than just a great singer or lyricist or musician or businesswoman—she’s a great person.
Skills and abilities aside, Kathleen has human qualities that make her fundamentally remarkable. She’s kind, honest, compassionate, brave and dedicated. Sure, she’s also multi-talented. But at the root of her many successes are those essential character traits that carry with her, across industries, even when things get rocky.
If you’ve been following her career, there’s a good chance you knew all of this about her before I did. She came into my periphery gradually over the years; I’d hear the occasional song or a mention of one of her shows. Then I met her elder brother, Tim Edwards, and his wife, Amanda Putz (also a Kickass Canadian), and started tuning in more to Kathleen’s beautiful, heartfelt music.
What really got my attention was her talk at the 2012 Chicago Ideas Week. Her openness, sincerity, empathy and soulfulness come through so clearly. I realized it wasn’t just her music that was special; it was the musician herself. (And you need only follow her Twitter feed for a taste of her biting sense of humour.)
I now have the pleasure of introducing Kathleen as a thoroughbred Kickass Canadian—not that there was ever any doubt for people who know her well.
One more song you can’t help but like
“Both my parents were hugely musical,” says Kathleen. Those parents are Leonard and Margaret Edwards, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs and music teacher, respectively. They met through Cantata Singers of Ottawa, and made sure that music was always a big part of their children’s lives.
Kathleen started studying classical violin when she was just five years old, and continued with the Royal Conservatory of Music program through high school. She performed at the Ottawa Youth Orchestra Academy (OYOA) and took in countless National Arts Centre (NAC) performances with her mother.
Travel played an equally important role in her life; with a diplomat father, she spent many of her formative years abroad, living in Seoul, Korea and Geneva, Switzerland. (We were only young when we moved away / It went on and on for years) The Edwards’ returned to Canada in the mid-90s, when Kathleen was in her mid-teens, settling in our country’s capital.
Not that settling came easily, exactly.
For Kathleen, going from the private school environment she’d experienced in Korea to Ottawa’s public Merivale High School was quite a culture shock. “I went from being really nurtured and really encouraged to: You have to make it your own way in public school,” she says. She was obviously bright, but she had other interests beyond her textbooks, ones “that didn’t fit into the academic criteria that forms a good grade.”
Music, for instance. Most of her peers loved their tunes and relied on them as a crutch to get through the teen years. But for Kathleen, it was more. “I definitely remember thinking to myself: ‘I like this more than my average friend, than the average person,’” she says. “‘I’m more emotionally invested and get more emotionally out of connecting with music.’”
Into the cameras and the lights
When Kathleen graduated high school in 1997, she followed her gut and opted not to attend the universities she got into. Instead, she moved downtown, found work where she could (including as a Starbucks barista…), and kicked her songwriting into high gear.
In 1999, she released Building 55, a six-song EP. The next year, she organized her own tour across Canada and sold all of the 500 copies she’d made. No small feat at all. “I started from nothing,” she says. “No one knew who I was. (But) I was unstoppable and I was pretty fearless… Nothing was in my peripheral vision; I was just really focused.”
After the tour, she continued to thrive in Ottawa’s music scene, writing gems that would go on to form her first album, Failer. When she released it in 2003, through Rounder Records, things really started to happen, including a historic appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman that blew doors open for her.
Over the next few years, from her new digs in Toronto, Ontario, she released three more albums: Back to Me (2005), Asking for Flowers (2008) and Voyageur (2012). She earned several Juno Award nominations, including Songwriter of the Year in 2004, 2006 and 2013, and Album of the Year nominations for each of her four records. She played around the world, collaborating with the likes of Bryan Adams, Blue Rodeo, Glen Hansard and fellow Kickass Canadian Jim Bryson, and touring with Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, The Rolling Stones and other greats.
There were more big-time TV appearances: Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and repeat visits to The Late Show with David Letterman. Both Asking for Flowers and Voyageur were shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize.
From the outside, things looked pretty perfect—a near-flawless façade.
“Kathleen takes no shit from anyone. But she’s also got a very deep emotional core and connection, and her songs just cut right to the heart of it for a lot of people… She has a directness in her heart that just reaches people and shakes them and brings them in, and it’s something to behold… And she’s funny as hell. She makes you have belly laughs half the time you’re with her. She’s amazing.” —Kickass Canadian & Polaris Music Prize founder Steve Jordan
A new place to land
Voyageur was Kathleen’s first album to break the Top 100 and Top 40 in the U.S. It hit #2 in Canada and won the 2012 SOCAN Songwriting Prize. But from her greatest musical success to date came some of the greatest pressures she’s faced.
In 2011, while working on Voyageur, she got a divorce from her husband of seven years, her long-time guitarist Colin Cripps. “I was really young when I got married, I was 24,” she says. “I have no regrets, of course, and I love Colin—he’s an amazing man. But like so many couples who get married, it just didn’t work out. The one thing that was super challenging when Voyageur came out is that suddenly I was being asked about (the divorce) every day, and there was no context in the sense that he wasn’t being asked the same questions so publicly. So I felt always like I was betraying him a bit, even though I only had good things to say about Colin, and still do; I love him to pieces.”
The anxiety of the whole experience—getting through the divorce, creating and releasing such a raw and vulnerable album, feeling misinterpreted by the media, touring non-stop—became overwhelming. Eventually, it manifested as depression.
“I think for years and years I hid behind my songs,” she says. “I really did, in retrospect; I used that as my vehicle for expression.” (Out of the shadows / Out of the cameras and the lights / I’m a chameleon / I just hide behind the songs I write) “I’m open now because it ended up being years of just keeping things in, keeping things in, and I’m an emotional and communicative person, so it kind of revealed itself in these early signs of depression, which was just me bursting into sobbing fits that were completely unknown to me. I’d never physically felt that before. I was like: ‘What is wrong with me? I don’t understand, why can’t I control this?’
“I realized that I was always worried to make myself vulnerable by actually being open… Now I just realize my confidence is in the fact that we all have our own vulnerabilities, and there’s something reassuring about being open about the fact that that’s how we feel sometimes. Just accepting that that’s part of our human nature.”
It took work to get through the depression. On top of the emotional chaos, she had a lot of physical symptoms; she lost her voice and suffered from abdominal symptoms. “I was just gripping all the time,” she says. “I was trying so hard to hang on.”
She searched constantly for books and other resources that could help pull her out of it. In the end, she says, what it took was finding a great therapist—one who was recommended by chance through a music manager she knew whose client had been dealing with similar struggles. “I’m really lucky,” says Kathleen. “I ran into her almost at my worst time, at the Horseshoe Tavern of all places, and I just hugged her and I started to bawl and I said: ‘I need help, I need someone to help.’”
On stronger ice
In spite of the slippery footing and many falls, Kathleen skated through her depression. And that puts her in a special position to be able to help others. In July 2014, she joined a number of other mentors and Arctic enthusiasts (including Kickass Canadian James Raffan) on a Students on Ice expedition. She taught music workshops and gave the youth a glimpse into what her real life as an artist was like.
During one presentation, she pulled out her phone and gave a slideshow of her on the job: in a glitzy magazine spread, onstage under sensational lighting—you get the picture. Then she asked the students what each of the images had in common. They guessed “passion.” “No,” she said. “Actually, the answer is depression. I had depression this whole time.”
Her words were met with a collective gasp; it was hard to reconcile the images of Kathleen, coifed and made up, even Photoshopped to perfection, with the notion of depression. “I could see by the end of my talk that it was so real for them,” she says. “What I wanted to do was show them that it’s all fake. Yeah people buy my records; yeah I have a lot of Twitter followers. Who cares? I’m just a person and all of that stuff is a façade. When you see Katy Perry—that is completely a fabricated moment to make you think that that’s what normal is, and it isn’t. So I really wanted to tell them to be real and be themselves.”
Kathleen calls her Students on Ice trip “hugely cathartic.” Not only was it life-changing for the youth, but it was life-changing for her. “I had suffered and been unwell for so long,” she says. “(I finally saw that) that was the reason, so I could come to the other side and actually have something to give people. And I’m empowered by that experience.
“It’s easy to stand on the other side and say, ‘I’m glad I went through that.’ But I see now that the function and the purpose of my suffering during depression was so that I could be a useful tool for somebody and relate to them, and then maybe there’s a little snippet of reality or advice or just truth that they’ll hear now that allows them to go: ‘Oh, right, I don’t have to do this or that; I have to listen to myself more than to what’s happening around me. That’s the most important thing.’”
“With guitar and paddle, my friend Kathleen Edwards has chased her dreams to the ends of the earth. From Wapusk to the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York City she’s danced the distance with winsome fearlessness and lyrical grace. In the Arctic last summer, her light shone in the eyes of young people from around the world whom she coached and mentored to voice their own musical truths. Gotta love that! She’s a truly shining all-Kickass-Canadian star!” —Kickass Canadian & Circling the Midnight Sun author James Raffan
Part of listening more to herself has meant doing more to nurture her softer side, the one that craves comfort and community. With that in mind, Kathleen moved back home (well, pretty close—to Stittsville, Ontario), announced a break from music in February 2014, and got ready to open shop: Quitters Coffee.
“My life on the road for the last 15 years was finding a good coffee shop every morning,” she says. “I saw a lot of really great ones in every city in the world, and it always felt like home. So there was an element of (Quitters) that I always looked for every morning in a strange town.”
Quitters officially opened in October 2014, and it has been a boon to the town. “The response has been so overwhelmingly massive,” says Kathleen. “It’s been amazing… There was nothing like this (in Stittsville) other than a few little things, and (the positive reaction is) a pretty clear indication that we’re doing something right.” Indeed: This February, Quitters won an award for Best New Business in the Goulburn & West Carleton region.
Kathleen’s business partner is Rick Tremblay, her former boss from her Starbucks barista days, and they’re clearly a fantastic team. It’s obvious from the Quitters Facebook and Twitter pages how much fun they’re having concocting new food and drinks ideas—not to mention cheeky scribblings for the sidewalk chalkboard that stands outside the entrance.
Quitters is a charming, artful, welcoming spot that, ironically, doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word “quit.” Nearly every week brings a new development, whether it’s a liquor licence or extended Friday hours or expanded breakfast options. Doesn’t hurt that Kathleen’s two lovable rescue dogs, Red the golden retriever and Penny the labdradoodle, sweetly roam the place, making Quitters that much more accessible.
The coffee shop has the potential to change the face of Stittsville. And it has absolutely changed the expression on the face of the woman who started it all; there’s nothing fake about the smile she greets her customers with (particularly the wee ones who toddle).
“It feels really good to be part of a community,” she says. “Instead of meeting 100 people a day and then moving to a new town and meeting a new 100 people, I’ve met like 400 people and I see them every week. I’m on first-name basis with so many of my neighbours now. I didn’t have that for so long, so I’m loving that.”
For the record? Kathleen is still a singer. She’s still going to play. This August she’s performing at the Greenbelt Harvest Picnic in Dundas, Ontario, along with Gordon Lightfoot, Martha Wainwright and Basia Bulat, to name a few. And there will be other performances.
“It was called Quitters as a joke,” says Kathleen. (In fact, Jim Bryson gets credit for the name.) “People said: ‘If you start a coffee shop, you quit music.’” Not so. Kathleen is routinely asked if she’s “the person who used to sing.” But putting it in the past tense is a little off key. “(Being a singer) doesn’t just get deleted from who I am.”
That’s the thing about a person like Kathleen: She can be many things. It’s a matter of what she decides to put her hand to, where she chooses to land. At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, it’s in Stittsville. Just don’t be surprised when she takes flight now and then; she’s still a songbird, after all.
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For the latest on Kathleen, visit kathleenedwards.com, follow @kittythefool on Twitter and ‘Like’ Kathleen’s Facebook page. To hear her in action, you can buy her music through her website, and through Maple Music Recordings or Rounder Records.
You can also ‘Like’ Quitters Coffee on Facebook and follow @QuittersCoffee on Twitter. And if you’re in the area, stop on by!
Thanks to Eggplant Entertainment’s Claire Rosenbaum for helping me land this interview, and to Dave Chan for permission to use his photos of Kathleen.