KATHLEEN EDWARDS with JASON COLLETT at the Mod Club Theatre (722 College), tonight (Thursday, April 7). $15. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Austin - There's a packed house in Caribbean Lights, a club near the end of Austin's main drag. I'm standing in a smoky sea of industry hawks and seasoned roots music fans who are clutching their laminates like they're Willy Wonka's Golden Tickets.
The dim, dingy bar with scaffolding and sticky floors feels like a low-rent strip club, but the seediness seems perfectly suited to the trash-talkin", hard-drinking alt-country Canuck sweetheart whose Failer debut charmed the Americana scene back in 2003. Her follow-up, Back To Me (out on Rounder in the States, MapleMusic Recordings in Canada) has just hit store shelves, and there's loads of pressure on this, the 26-year-old roots diva's first South By Southwest appearance in two years.
But when Kathleen Edwards hits the stage around midnight, she couldn't be more Zen. In place of the boozy anecdotes and raunchy bravado, Edwards exudes phenomenal focus. Dwarfed by her 12-string, which she attacks with precision, the slight singer moves from plaintive ballads to raucous, venom-spitting rock with quiet, wordless efficiency.
What happened to the brash, cussing spitfire who used to regale crowds with her drunken debauchery? Has the wild child from Wakefield, Quebec, who once called Carolyn Mark a "fucking slut" in an infamous Radio Mondays fiasco, been domesticated?
"Nah, I just grew up," sighs a tired-looking Edwards the next morning. We're drinking tea on the roof of the Hotel Intercontinental, looking out over the streets of Austin.
"I was a very different person three years ago than I am now. I'm happy with all the changes I've made in my life.
"Yeah, I don't drink as much any more. I look back and I think, god, I got way outta hand so many times. I was this crazy, potty-mouthed country girl, and I'm glad I have the experience to look back on, but I don't wanna drive drunk to the fuckin" Vesta Lunch anymore."
A whole whack of shit has happened since Failer catapulted Edwards from the Formica counters at the Vesta to the international roots-rock scene. So what if the album only sold a disappointing 20,000 copies in Canada? Baby got rave reviews in Rolling Stone. Coveted spots opening for legends like Bob Dylan. An unprecedented three appearances on Letterman. And a sizzling performance where she proved her rock "n" roll mettle in front of thousands of AC/DC and Stones fans at 2003's SARSstock.
For your average 20-something upstart - particularly one with a natural proclivity for excess - all that might"ve been a licence to indulge her inner hotel trasher. Instead, Edwards took a break and got grounded.
"I think having the time off, even though I was working on a record most of the time, made me step back," she says carefully. "The phone stops ringing because there's nothing to talk about, and you start wondering if people are even gonna call when the next record comes out. I've realized that I can't take that stuff for granted any more."
Luckily, Back To Me got the phone ringing again. It's an assured sophomore release that shows off a much more mature and developed artist than the tentative singer/songwriter who made Failer.
You can see the effects almost two years of touring have had on Edwards. Physically, she looks a bit worn around the edges, a bit wan and more like, well, a lady than the flannel-shirted tomboy I first saw trying to win over moms and pops with her goofy charm at a 2001 Taste Of The Danforth gig.
Sonically, she's managed to move beyond the Lucinda Williams comparisons into her own voice. Where she used to deliver nearly every phrase with the same reedy, defeated sigh, Back To Me finds her ably jumping from a seductive femme fatale sneer on the title track to a dreamy hopefulness on the bouncy Summerlong to the languorous, slow-motion purr of Pink Emerson Radio.
She's also become a much stronger songwriter, employing deft double-entendres and economical metaphors to enhance spare but cinematic narratives that hinge on themes of displacement, doubt and determination. Edwards used to spell everything out; now she invests subtlety in the characters she writes about, from hardened drifters to sly, vindictive vixens who"ll take you home and kick you out before the sun comes up.
She says she was trying to move beyond lovey-dovey singer/songwriter stereotypes.
"I consciously tried not to make another record that was all about relationships," she groans. "I still wanted it to have that sexual energy, the raw emotion and sincerity. But I didn't just want he and she and breakup and fucking and all that shit."
She pulls it off, which is especially impressive since Edwards also fell in love and got hitched - to her producer and guitarist, Colin Cripps - while making Back To Me.
That detail is more complicated than it seems. The producer-artist dynamic is intense and psychologically gruelling under the best of circumstances, and Cripps and Edwards had already been working together for a while before they hooked up. And while she insists she tried to block out the expectations resting on her sophomore release, Edwards grudgingly admits going back into the studio for Back To Me was tough. She seems a bit uncomfortable when I ask about rumours that Cripps pushed her hard during the sessions.
"I think I had this romanticized memory of what being in the studio was like." There's a long pause. "I'm one of those people who has a very short attention span. If I don't sing the song right the second or third time through, I've gotta leave it and come back again another day. Colin got that right away."
Edwards admits that trying to separate personal and professional relationships was rough.
"With any other producer, we probably would"ve just talked it through. When you're involved with somebody, you rely on emotions rather than trying to be practical and talking things through. He was always really calm and good-tempered, and I was a nutbar. I'm a bit of a control freak."
A chain of fire trucks suddenly tears down the street below the hotel. You can't hear anything over the sirens, and Edwards looks really, really relieved at the opportunity to change the subject.
In the meantime, I'm searching for a way to explore the even trickier issue of Failer's poor Canadian sales. You could blame it on feeble radio support and our country's lack of infrastructure for country-leaning artists, both of which are unfortunately true. Nevertheless, even Edwards admits in retrospect that Failer was relatively juvenile and shaky.
"That record did so much good stuff for me, but when I listen back it's a lumpy record. It doesn't sound amazing. At the time, I'd never really toured those songs. I hadn't played them and I hadn't even sung them that much. Hockey Skates was one of the first things I ever wrote.
"I'd like to think this record is proof that I was able to stretch my wings a bit and show that I'm better - or more established as a songwriter and a singer. I certainly don't think I'm fucking Elvis, but I also don't think I'm, y'know, just some chick singer/songwriter."
Kathleen Edwards and Colin Cripps may have discovered their collaborative chemistry was more than just artistic, but there's a fine tradition of production gurus who've helped their proteges make beautiful music both inside and outside the studio.
While not widely known as a producer, the Roi de Suave was notorious for using the studio's vocal booth as his own private casting couch, scoring with both Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin on the hit Je T'aime Moi Non Plus. According to legend, Marianne Faithfull got wise to his shady dealings and turned down Gainsbourg's production propositions.
After helping turn partner Shawn Colvin 's debut into a Grammy winner, Leventhal left her for Rosanne Cash (whose 10 Song Demo and Rules Of Travel discs he produced), the ex-wife of former client Rodney Crowell , who called his Leventhal-produced album Life Is Messy. Whew. Leventhal made nice with Colvin by producing 1996's A Few Small Repairs album and co-writing the album's big hit, Sunny Came Home, both of which scored Grammys.
If it weren't for AC/DC producer Mutt Lange, Shania Twain would still be called Eileen Edwards and be playing for Deerhurst resort patrons and miners in Timmins bars. Instead, she now lives in a castle in Switzerland, and, like, two out of every three households with a pickup truck own one of her albums. The sparkly sweaters remain the same.
Prior to hooking up with Brian Ahern for 1975's Pieces Of The Sky, Emmylou Harris was best known as Gram Parsons's chick singer sidekick. But once she got cozy with Ahern, they recorded a string of eight incredible studio albums that made Harris a roots-country icon. After they split, her career went cold till she connected with Dan Lanois for 1995's comeback album, Wrecking Ball.