Kathleen Edwards (photo by Remi Theriault, PR)
For many years, fans of singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards feared that they might have heard the last from the Canadian artist. After releasing four acclaimed albums, her last one being her most successful, Edwards suddenly and willingly put down her guitar and stepped away from the music machine. She ultimately stayed away for the better part of eight years. But her muse eventually began stirring again and her self-imposed musical exile has now ended with Total Freedom.
Total Freedom is Edwards’ fifth studio album and her first in eight years. It builds upon her strengths as a passionate and forthright songwriter and no-nonsense singer. At no time do the years of inactivity reveal any rust on her skills. Rather, Edwards is rejuvenated by her time away and Total Freedom is confirmation of her emancipation from emotional demons, demons that began to take hold nearly a decade ago.
Following her 2002 debut album, Failer, Edwards married guitarist and collaborator Colin Cripps, formerly of Crash Vegas and Junkhouse, and today part of Blue Rodeo. Their marriage took place in 2004. Her albums Back To Me, from 2005, and Asking For Flowers, from 2008, were issued during their time together, but after seven years the marriage ended. Edwards then began a new relationship with Justin Vernon, best known as the frontman of Bon Iver, who co-produced her fourth album, Voyageur, from 2012.
But all was not well with Edwards in the wake of Voyageur. Something mentally and emotionally was amiss. For starters, her divorce had taken a toll and then her budding relationship with Vernon quickly derailed. As if these matters weren’t enough, Edwards realized she was dealing with clinical depression.
Returning home to the Ottawa area, she settled in Stittsville, Ontario where she began contemplating her next move. That’s when she realized that music was no longer a positive force in her life. In fact, it had become a stone around her neck, so she walked away. She quit and in 2014, chose a new career path — she opened a café in Stittsville called Quitters.
Quitters gave Edwards the opportunity to step away from her music career and, most importantly, her anxieties and despair. She was able to cleanse her inner being. Then a few years after opening Quitters, Edwards picked up a guitar again.
When discussing her time away from music, Edwards told NPR, “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.” This "new and improved” Edwards shines through on Total Freedom.
Total Freedom opens with “Glenfern,” a song Edwards wrote for Cripps. It’s a fond reflection on their relationship and Edwards’ way of expressing gratitude for the role he played in her life. Conversely “Hard On Everyone” was written in the aftermath of an emotionally abusive situation. Edwards directs her anger at this individual, stating, “Everything in this house is afraid.”
“Feelings Fade” focuses on the heartbreak and pain of a relationship that’s run its course. Edwards’ words deliver a crushing blow: “I could teach you five words to close a door/I don’t love you anymore.” That anguish again comes through at the album’s end in “Take It With You When You Go.”
Not all of the heart-wrenching songs on Total Freedom deal with the death of relationships. “Ashes To Ashes,” featuring Courtney Marie Andrews on backing vocals, expresses Edwards’ sadness and anger over the untimely death of a regular customer at Quitters. She tries to make sense of the fact that this person died young, while shoveling snow, leaving behind a broken family.
Then there’s “Who Rescued Who,” which is about the death of Edwards’ golden retriever, Redd. The lovely “Birds On The Feeder” reflects on the total freedom Edwards has attained during her time away from music — no responsibilities and no one to account to, except the dog and the birds on the feeder. Another poignant moment is “Simple Math,” a song that reflects on a lifelong friendship: “I’m just one and you’re one and we’re two together/I’m okay being friends forever.”
Edwards wrote all of the songs and co-produced Total Freedom with Jim Bryson and Ian Fitchuk. The album was recorded in Whites Creek, Tennessee and Kingston and Stittsville, Ontario.
It was a long, eight-year silence for Edwards, but it proved to be essential for her emotional and mental well-being. Eight years ago, she stopped making music because it was no longer bringing her joy, but now it feels right. Total Freedom is the sound of her starting again.
Listen to a new "Marquee Live from Home" session with Kathleen Edwards on Tuesday, August 18, at 9 p.m. ET on 90.7, also streaming online and available on demand.