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Dressed for success
Rounder readies Kathleen Edwards
BY JONATHAN PERRY

The thing about classic albums is that, more often than not, you know one the instant you hear it, and rarely is anything the same afterward. After all, thatís what makes them classics. For Canadian-born singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards, who grew up the daughter of a diplomat and whose formative years in Korea and Switzerland were spent listening to American Forces radio, discovering Whiskeytownís 1997 sophomore outing, Strangers Almanac (Outpost), changed everything. She had come to love music much earlier, having studied classical violin for a dozen years, and had put the training to good use by teaching herself guitar and taking some early stabs at singing and searching for a voice. And she heard something close to what sheíd been searching for in Ryan Adamsís Whiskeytown narratives.

" What I loved so much about Strangers Almanac was that the melodies, the lyrics, and the overall arrangements, in some ways, seemed so simple, " Edwards says over the phone from her home in Ontario. " Suddenly, I was thinking about writing songs in a totally different way, where maybe I used to sing more aggressively or not sing with my natural voice, or force notes I couldnít sing. There was a brutal, perfect simplicity to that album that just connected with me. "

Much the same is being said about Edwardsís Zoë/Rounder debut, Failer, which came out last month. Given that itís the work of an unknown female artist who writes in a mostly melancholic country-rock vein and sounds older ó rather than younger ó than her 24 years, the pre-release hype that greeted her was totally unexpected. But with the album barely in stores, Edwards already had a rash of television appearances lined up, from The Late Show with David Letterman (on January 17) to CNN Headline News (on January 18) to Last Call with Carson Daly (on January 23). Since then, sheís popped up on Billboardís " Heatseekers " and Internet sales charts and has found steady New England airplay on Bostonís WBOS 92.9 FM and WXRV ( " The River " ) 92.5 FM. Sheís on a national tour thatís expected to keep her on the road promoting Failer for much of the year. With the possible exception of her record company, which has worked hard to get the buzz going but appears genuinely astonished at the volume and rapidity with which it has traveled, no one is more gratified, or dismayed, by the attention than Edwards herself.

She shouldnít be that surprised. Against a gliding, uncluttered backdrop of acoustic and electric guitar, bass, drums, organ, and the occasional hint of horns and strings, Edwards unfurls pastoral, evocative tales about ordinary folks caught up in various stages of creeping distress and dirty desire, flagging relationships and fumbling rootlessness, and, yes, as the discís title alludes to, far-gone failure. Thereís a dark depth and candor to her stories, but light and wit and terrific pop instincts, too.

" You spend half your life trying to turn the other half around, " she sings in the opening " Six OíClock News, " in which a young pregnant woman vainly tries to talk her armed, distraught lover down from a building surrounded by police. That this track is slated as Failerís first single tells you something about Edwardsís knack for submerging a tragic scenario inside an engaging pop melody. As in the best of Lucinda Williamsís work, the sadness sneaks up on you and the heartbreak reveals itself with an accumulative wallop.

" I definitely was sad and dark when I wrote these songs, " acknowledges Edwards, who had just ended a romantic relationship and moved to rural Quebec around the time she penned most of Failer. " It wasnít so much the breaking-up thing [that inspired the songs] as it was where I moved to. Suddenly, I had no distractions. I didnít even have a TV. I didnít have the coffee shop down the street. The bar wasnít just around the corner. It was in the middle of nowhere, and I ended up becoming incredibly hermitish. With all that free time, I just picked up the guitar and stuff came out that I had always wanted to come out. " By her own appraisal, the album is a huge leap forward from a demo-quality EP called Building 55 she self-released and sold from the stage at gigs several years ago.

Asked to offer her own assessment of why Failer is striking such a strong chord, Edwards hesitates. " I canít speak for why people like the record, but I think maybe the reason is because it doesnít come off as artificial. Itís not fake in any way. I will say that this record was initially recorded as a demo to get arts funding to go and record an album. And I went in and started recording and just kept on going because something clicked and I stuck with it. I donít know how I am where I am right now, to be perfectly honest. "

On reason might be that Edwards wrote with an audience of one in mind and made exactly the album she heard in her head. " I donít necessarily think I wrote the songs for other people. In some respects, I wrote entirely for myself, and that might sound a little selfish, but I certainly donít write to please other people. Some people are surprised that I would be so open about certain subjects or experiences. But I wasnít writing for anybody except for me, so I really didnít think of it that way. "

In an effort to entice the public to take a chance on an untested independent artist, Zoë/Rounder held off releasing Failer until January to avoid the crushing competition from corporate superstar acts that traditionally command the holiday-season dollar. The disc is also, for the moment, being sold at a $9.99 " developing artist " price. And glowing press in mainstream music magazines ó Rolling Stone recently named Edwards as one of its " Ten Artists To Watch in 2003 " ó shouldnít hurt either.

" I donít think we could have asked for more in terms of people reacting to the record, " says Rounder president and CEO John Virant. " In an uncertain climate, as far as the music business goes, itís nice to have something like this [album]. " He acknowledges, however, that the tastes of pop critics and those of the music-buying public are often totally different. " Weíre not expecting it to blow up out of the box, and we want to develop her gradually. But I think itís safe to say that our expectations for the record are increasing every day. "

Jeff Walker, Rounderís head of publicity and artist development, views the critical and commercial success accorded such newcomers as John Mayer, Jack Johnson, and Norah Jones last year as an encouraging sign that Edwards can break through to listeners. " I think the record is instantly accessible. But at this stage, people donít know who she is, so weíre doing our best to make sure Failer is in every listening station. The media response has been overwhelming, and itís one I havenít seen in many years of doing this. But what will bring it to the next level is radio airplay, and thatís going to take a lot of effort on Kathleenís part. Weíve told her not to expect to have a life for the next 12 months. "

Whatís ironic about the clamor surrounding Failer is that until now, according to Edwards, sheís been virtually ignored in her native country. She claims she finished the album roughly two years ago but couldnít get anyone to put it out ó itís since been released in Canada on Maple Music, a Universal Music subsidiary. The bitter broadside of " One More Song the Radio Wonít Like " is directed at nay-sayers who refused to take a chance on one of their own. " No one in Canada knows who I am. Music-business reps all loved the record and said, ĎWe havenít heard something like this in a while,í and that was flattering. But it was always a loaded comment ó they loved it but didnít hear anything that was going to make it on the radio, so there wasnít much they could do for me. They werenít willing to take me on as a developing artist because it was too risky. These people are so scared to take chances on Canadian artists for fear of being Ďlocal.í Artists in Canada call that the ĎCanadian Curse,í and I really didnít want it to be true. But itís been really tough. "

She continues, " I think ĎOne More Song the Radio Wonít Likeí is a perfect response to ĎDo you have any singles?í If anything, I think questions like that made me more determined to prove them wrong. And even if I donít prove them wrong, Iím still getting an opportunity that a lot of people probably didnít think I was going to have. As much as Iím not a vengeful person, I also feel validated by that. "

Virant says Edwards first came to Rounderís attention through her manager, Patrick Sambrook, who also manages Rounder artist Sarah Harmer. " We didnít exactly have to beat the bushes to discover her, " admits Virant, who recalls Sambrookís urging him to check out the batch of songs his newest client had written. " I thought it was a tremendous record. The songs speak to me on an emotional level. They really resonate in a way that not that many records do, and I just thought it was special. She came up with a gem. "

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Issue Date: February 6 - 13, 2003
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