Kathleen Edwards On Taking A Break From Music And Finding 'Total Freedom'

Aug 8, 2020
Originally published on August 8, 2020 7:56 am

Kathleen Edwards had devoted fans and a successful career, with hits on the Billboard Top 40 charts and songwriting awards. But after her last album in 2012, she walked away from the music business. In fact, she opened a cafe in the suburbs of Ottawa, Canada, called Quitters Coffee.

"It was hard," Edwards says of her decision to quit music. "I knew that I would feel guilty and that people would be disappointed or think that I'm doing something really stupid by walking away, but I had lost so much of my perspective and my happiness in music and in writing."

After years off the road and with time to heal from singing about her troubles every night, Kathleen Edwards is back with a new album, Total Freedom, which comes out August 14.

"I really love now that I'm actually probably a far better musician and songwriter, given that I've taken time to have some life rather than be a singer," she says.

NPR's Scott Simon spoke to Kathleen Edwards about taking time off from music to tend to her mental health, the song on her record inspired by the death of a cafe patron and her professional opinion, as the owner of a coffee shop, on pumpkin spice lattes. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for a transcript of their conversation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Scott Simon: Those are very powerful lyrics in the first song on your record: "It almost killed me / And I will always be thankful for it." What happened?

Kathleen Edwards: Well, I think like many people and at a certain point in their life, they commit to something so fully they don't come up for air often enough, and I think I probably just didn't do that. I committed myself to playing music and to having a life on the road. But I think I just needed to stop for a while. You hit a certain age when you're looking for maybe more in your life. I had not invested the time I needed to to give that time and space.

What did you find when you stopped?

Well before I stopped, I discovered the wonderful world of clinical depression, which I'd never experienced in my life. It took a while to really figure out that was what was at the root of my issues, my well-being. But when I stopped, I found relief. I think I just felt a huge sense of relief when I said "I'm done — and I'm done with music." And it just gave me an opportunity to not have this guy on my back kind of going, well, the next show is this, so get that suitcase out, have it ready, be prepared to stand up in front of people and feel vulnerable all the time. And it just gave me a chance to really build myself up again.

Now that I'm well and now that I'm excited about playing music again and I'm reestablishing my relationship with it, I felt like — people are feeling incredibly vulnerable right now. There's so much uncertainty. Why don't we just return the favor of all the kindness that people gave to me to empower me to keep going and put something out in the world during a time in which maybe someone needs it?

A song that's getting a lot of airplay from this new album is called "Options Open." Is this song about a person or some other passion?

Well, it's about a person for sure. I think it's also about the accumulation of life experiences that bring us into adulthood.

Someone I gave my heart to ended up being somebody who is incredibly hard on me and really made me have to defend all of my decisions and my choices, even though at the core of myself, I do know that I'm a good person and that I don't do things to hurt others intentionally.

And then when I had a friend tell me that that sort of is an unacceptable way to love somebody or to be treated, it really kind of reminded me that I had allowed my boundaries to slowly be eroded. [The song is about] me being the person who gets to determine what's right or wrong for me.

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What can you tell us about the song "Ashes to Ashes"?

Well, it was at a funeral for a man that I didn't know terribly well, but had come to meet through him being a regular at my cafe. And I just had a great connection with him; he was a big music fan and loved Wilco. Where I lived, I didn't feel like I had a lot of people sort of show up and be like, "Hey, I totally get the world of music you live in and here are all the people I love and here's how many shows I've been to." So we had this wonderful connection about music that I really cherished. He was a gentleman who is — I think he was 42, which is actually now the age that I am. He was out shoveling snow; we'd had a heavy snowfall. And I guess he got out to clear his driveway and he died suddenly of a heart attack and left behind three children, one of whom was, I think, maybe two.

I went to his funeral and when you lose somebody so suddenly without any sense, you're at such a loss to understand the moment. We rely on funeral homes and we rely on ministers and priests to kind of guide us through these moments. But I just sat there seething because I just felt like all of the God messaging was just such a betrayal of what was really happening, which was it was completely unfair that this family lost their father and their husband and in such an abrupt way. I was just so angry about it. And I went home from that funeral and wrote that song "Ashes to Ashes" — I think because mostly [the funeral] didn't bring me comfort, and I thought, "Well, it doesn't give me comfort, imagine how it felt for them sitting there not being able to understand what was happening."

Does songwriting help?

Incredibly. I mean, my God [laughs] I saved so much money in therapists in the first 20 years of my life as a songwriter, I just used it as my outlet.

Total Freedom is out August 14 via Dualtone Records.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Kathleen Edwards had devoted fans, a fabulous career, hits on the Billboard Top 40 charts and songwriting awards. But after her last album in 2012, she sort of walked away from the music business. In fact, she opened a cafe in the suburbs of Ottawa called Quitters Coffee.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLENFERN")

KATHLEEN EDWARDS: (Singing) We had a tour bus with a bed in the back. We had a rock 'n' roll dream. It was total crap. Well, we toured the world, and we played on TV. We met some of our heroes. It almost killed me, and I...

SIMON: But at least we're happy to say that Kathleen Edwards' artistic muse stayed on her shoulder. This is music from her new album, "Total Freedom." It comes up on Friday, August 14. Kathleen Edwards joins us now from Chelsea, Quebec.

Thanks very much for being with us.

EDWARDS: Well, thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Those are very powerful lyrics. Always be thankful for it, but it almost killed me. What happened?

EDWARDS: Well, I think, like many people at a certain point in their life, they commit to something so fully, they don't come up for air often enough. And I think I probably just didn't do that. And I committed myself to playing music and to having a life on the road. But I think I just needed to stop for a while. I mean, you hit a certain age when you're looking for maybe more in your life. It just - I had not invested the time. I needed to give that time and space.

SIMON: What did you find when you stopped?

EDWARDS: Well, before I stopped, I've discovered the wonderful world of clinical depression, which I'd never experienced in my life. And it took a while to really figure out that was what was at the root of my issues, my well-being.

But when I stopped, I found relief. I think I just felt a huge sense of relief when I said, I'm done. And I'm done with music. And it just gave me an opportunity to not have this guy on my back, kind of going, well, the next show is this, so get that suitcase out. Have it ready. Be prepared to stand up in front of people and feel vulnerable all the time. And it just gave me a chance to really build myself up again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPTIONS OPEN")

EDWARDS: (Singing) For 39 years, I've been keeping my options open.

Now that I'm well and now that I'm excited about playing music again and I'm reestablishing my relationship with it, you know, people are feeling incredibly vulnerable right now. There's so much uncertainty. Why don't we just return the favor of all the kindness that people gave to me to empower me to keep going? Put something out in the world during a time in which maybe someone needs it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPTIONS OPEN")

EDWARDS: (Singing) I swore I wouldn’t go near you with a 10-foot pole. It’s not my fault that I wasn’t sure. But I’m holding up a mirror. We look so sweet. You make me stronger. I’m wanting for nothing...

SIMON: A song's that getting a lot of airplay from this new album is called "Options Open." May I ask - and it's profoundly none of my business - but is this song about a person or some other passion?

EDWARDS: (Laughter) Well, it's about a person, for sure. Someone I gave my heart to ended up being somebody who was incredibly hard on me. And then when I had a friend tell me that sort of is an unacceptable way to be treated, it really kind of reminded me that I had allowed my - it allowed my boundaries to slowly be eroded and me being the person who gets to determine what's right or wrong for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASHES TO ASHES")

EDWARDS: (Singing) Ashes to ashes. I'm just dust. All the animals that I've loved will die someday and so will I. I get scared to say goodbye...

SIMON: What can you tell us about the song "Ashes To Ashes?"

EDWARDS: Well, it was at a funeral for a man that I didn't know terribly well but had come to meet through him being a regular at my cafe. And I just had a great connection with him. He was a big music fan and loved Wilco. And just where I lived, I didn't feel like I had a lot of people sort of show up and be like, hey, I totally get the world of music you live in and here are all the people I love and here's how many shows I've been to. And so we had this wonderful connection about music that I really cherished.

And he was a gentleman who was - I think he was 42, which is actually now the age I am. And he was out shoveling snow. We'd had a heavy snowfall, and I guess he'd gone out to clear his driveway. And he died suddenly of a heart attack and left behind three children, one of whom was, I think, maybe 2. And I went to his funeral. And, you know, we rely on funeral homes. And we rely on ministers and priests to kind of guide us through these moments. But I just sat there seething.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASHES TO ASHES")

EDWARDS: (Singing) Because the line out where the sea meets sky is where your soul goes when you die. The world isn’t flat. God is not in the clouds. Everything in this world comes around.

All of the God messaging was just such a betrayal of what was really happening, which was it was completely unfair that this family lost their father and their husband and their - in just such an abrupt way. And I was just so angry about it. It didn't bring me comfort. And I thought, well, if it doesn't give me comfort, imagine how it felt for them sitting there not being able to understand what was happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF KATHLEEN EDWARDS SONG, "ASHES TO ASHES")

SIMON: Does songwriting help?

EDWARDS: Incredibly. I mean, my God, it's - (laughter) I saved so much money in therapists in the first 20 years of my life as a songwriter. I just used it as my outlet. That writing found a place that was of great comfort to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD ON EVERYONE")

EDWARDS: (Singing) Everything in this house breaks. What wouldn't under the weight...

SIMON: I inferred just in the course of this interview is that running Quitters Cafe (ph), this is not just a turnkey business where you say, OK, I'm going to make the investment somebody else run it. You're there all the time it sounds like.

EDWARDS: I'm there a lot. I mean, I opened that place on a $50,000 line of credit and some savings from my music career. Before COVID, we had upwards of 20 employees, and it really blew up (laughter). And it's an incredible community hub. And I'm there a lot.

SIMON: So as a coffee shop owner, do you have an opinion about caramel macchiatos?

EDWARDS: (Laughter) I don't have a strong feeling about caramel macchiato, but I will tell you that I believe the Wi-Fi password to my cafe is no pumpkin spice.

SIMON: (Laughter) All right. That's the question I was asking, essentially.

EDWARDS: (Laughter).

SIMON: Oh, mercy. Kathleen Edwards, singer and coffee shop owner (laughter). Her album "Total Freedom" comes out on Friday. Thanks so much for being with us. And may there be no pumpkin spice in your future.

EDWARDS: (Laughter) This was a huge thrill, and I'm honored to have been speaking to you today.

(SOUNDBITE OF KATHLEEN EDWARDS SONG, "HARD ON EVERYONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.