Kathleen Edwards: Coffeehouse Music

Music Features Kathleen Edwards
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Kathleen Edwards: Coffeehouse Music

It was a grand-opening proclamation that pretty much said it all. “We serve coffee, and No, we don’t have an open-mic night,” read the October, 2014 announcement for Quitters, a new cafe that was opening in the Winnipeg suburb of Stittsville, and its proprietress—famed folk-rocker Kathleen Edwards, who had essentially quit show business after four albums and a final nerve-wracking tour that nearly destroyed her, had sworn off music forever at the time, and was determined to maintain a conversely low entrepreneurial profile selling java to locals, not songs. Hence the site’s droll moniker, and its strict no-busking policy, despite folk music’s historic association with nurturing coffeehouse-scene venues.

But this Friday, August 14, Edwards is breaking her own steadfast rule by headlining a show at Quitters herself, with a band including her ace-guitarist ex-husband, Colin Cripps, to celebrate the release of her first album in eight years, the chiming, diary-honest new comeback Total Freedom, which thoughtfully analyzes everything from her failed relationship with Cripps (the bouyant “Glenfern”), the breakup’s ensuing solitude (“Birds on a Feeder,” with the telltale verse “I’ve got birds on a feeder/ Dogs and they’re sleeping/ I’ve got total freedom/ No one to need me”), other pets that have filled the interim gaps (“Ashes to Ashes”), and one favorite animal in particular, her late beloved golden retriever Redd (the jangling tearjerker “Who Rescued Who,” which Edwards still has a tough time playing live without getting choked up).

It’s a comeback that the recluse herself wasn’t expecting, until she received a surprise call from country up-and-comer Maren Morris in 2018, inviting her to Nashville for a songwriting session with the red-hot young starlet. Their collaboration, “Good Woman,” made it onto Morris’ last disc GIRL, and edged Edwards back into recording again, courtesy of the third person who was in the room with them that day, writer/producer Ian Fitchuk, who oversaw Total Freedom.

So Yes, she sighs—there was bound to be some dual-career crossovers of late, like Quitters Coffee’s new Total Freedom Dark Roast brand available on her website, and the upcoming Live From Quitters Coffee gig streaming on tomorrow, Aug. 14, at 3 p.m. EST, via Facebook, playing every album track in running order. And Edwards is so proud of the album, she says, “That I just had to break my own open-mic rules…at least a little bit!”

Paste: Where are you right now?

Kathleen Edwards: I’m at my coffee shop. And it’s actually closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but I’m getting ready for this thing on Friday. I lost track of time there for a few minutes.

Paste: You have digital clocks, right? Weird question, but have you found yourself glancing at them at weird times, like 12:34, or 3:33? It’s this weird synchronicity thing.

Edwards: Yeah. 11:11 is always my time, because my lucky number is 11. So I’m always noticing it when it’s 11:11. And you’re bound to look at the clock some times when it says 11:11, but the worst part is, I watched that movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose 15 years ago, and there was this scene in there where they said, “Why do I wake up at 3 a.m.?” And it was like, “That’s because it’s the devil’s hour, the hour in which all of the negative energy gets to come out and play.” And it was like, “Noooo!” And when I wake up at 3 a.m., I’m practically shitting my pants, going, “No! Don’t take me!”

Paste: Do you follow any belief systems, spiritual or otherwise, that can make sense of what we’re all going through? Even a book like The Little Prince?

Edwards: I found The Little Prince a bit obtuse—there was too much room for guesswork with a little boy out in space. I always loved Winnie the Pooh because it was all animals, and I could just relate to that a little better. But I only have two dogs, currently. I had two dogs and two Siamese cats, but both of my cats I think got picked off by a neighborhood predator late last year, because they both have not returned home in seven months. And now I have a dog named Fred, but I did have one named Redd, that the song is about. And it’s supposed to be a happy song, although I guess it’s a little sad. But now I have a dog named Fred, and he came from the same place Redd did—I have a lovely relationship with this golden retriever rescue based out of Ontario called Golden Rescue, and I was supposed to just foster Redd, this golden retriever—someone had moved away and left him in the yard, and I went and picked him up. And with Penny, my other dog, we took him home and cleaned out his ears and and fed him. He was just skin and bones. And I called the rescue after three weeks of declaring every day that I couldn’t have a second dog, I couldn’t afford a second dog, I didn’t want a second dog—I called ’em and said, “What do I need to do to keep this dog?” And then he passed away—he was quite elderly, and and really not able to move very easily, and then he went blind, and he’d already been deaf for six months, so I knew it was time to let him go. And then about six months later, the rescue that had me in their thoughts said, “We got another Redd-type golden retriever in our system, and he’s a lovely, lovely dog, and we thought you might be ready.” And I was. So I got Fred, who was about five when I got him. I have had the privilege of skipping all puppy years with my dogs—I don’t need puppy time. I would rather acquire my dog as an adult, even if they’re quirky in their own way.

Paste: What is your personal philosophy on our coronavirus crisis? What’s going down, exactly here?

Edwards: I dunno. I probably have a very unpopular perspective on Covid-19. I run a small business, and I know that I am the person who created these jobs, and I am the only person who will suffer financially if I don’t pull through at this time. I mean, the public and the general well-being of everyone in my community is far more important than my little coffee shop. But we’ve been open since May, and 200 to 300 people come through my door every day. And we’re careful and cautious, but we’re not in the hazmat suits from “E.T.,” either. And no one’s getting sick from coming to Quitters, and my staff isn’t spreading the disease to each other. And I notice what’s more important is that people are really struggling to feel okay. And because I’m also somebody that struggles with mental health, when you ask people to stop going outside and you limit their access to public spaces, like parks, and you basically force people not to have ant outlet when they need it to stay well, it’s really not in their best interest, regardless of Covid-19, frankly. So that’s my unpopular view of Covid-19. And it’s because I’m on the ground, every day, and I’ve seen how much better people are since I reopened. The first week, I had people who were in tears, saying things like, “Oh, my God—it’s been really hard. I’m so glad I have a place to go now! We would walk by, and wish that we could just be here again for five minutes.” An, having said that, I don’t know anyone who’s gotten sick from Covid-19, and I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a deadly virus out there. And maybe I would feel differently if if one of my parents had contracted Covid-19 or been really compromised in their health and well-being by it. So I also know that there are two sides of that coin.

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Paste: But it was your last grueling tour that made you decide to ditch showbiz and open Quitters?

Edwards: Yeah. And I got through that tour, and I was really sick the whole time. And I knew something was really, really wrong with me, but I just assumed that it was actually my ego that couldn’t take it, that I was just going through a period of low self-esteem. But I actually made it through that tour, and I actually did get up onstage every night when I felt that way, and I put on as good a show as I could. So I was actually compartmentalizing something else that was fundamentally wrong with my body chemistry, and I was eventually diagnosed with clinical depression. And once somebody said, “Here’s what I think you have, and here’s what I would prescribe for you to get well,” and it worked, two months later I felt like a different person. I felt like myself again. But I wasn’t ready to go back up to bat the next day—it had really ruined my relationship with music. And when you have to go backstage every night and look at yourself in the mirror, you’ve got to find something nice to wear, put some makeup on, do your hair, be a bandleader, keep your spirits high, carry all these people who are away from their families, and you just feel like you want to crawl under a rock and die? I have to say, I feel so bad for my former self, who didn’t have the knowledge or the experience to understand “You’re not well, and you don’t need to keep doing this.” So now I know that I persevered through something that I will never ask myself to persevere through again.

Paste: There was an old cartoon that depicted a barista informing her customer that the wifi code was Pleasedontsithereallday. Did you have loiterers working on their great American novel at Quitters?

Edwards: Ha! Our wifi password is Nopumpkinspice. And we’re not kidding. But it was a growing pain for our staff, for sure, when we had people just sit in the shop for hours. But it was a growing pain of being successful, of more people wanting to come to our coffee shop than we had seats for. So it was a good process. But it was definitely one of those tricky times, where you have to start re-educating your customer base, like, “This isn’t really a fair thing for you to impose on us, because we won’t be able to stay here if you can’t use better judgment.”

Paste: What kind of music did you broadcast? Starbucks had it down to a science, with playlist CDs available at the counter.

Edwards: I know. They were so masterful. It was such a cool thing that they did. In fact, my first job was at Starbucks, and the first time I heard Wilco and Whiskeytown was because, back in ’96, I worked at Starbucks in Ottawa, and the mixtape was all roots and folk. And I remember hearing a Whiskeytown song that would come over the P.A. every four hours, and I was like, “Fuck, I love that song! Who is that?” And then I went and got the record and that was it for me—my new trajectory had been selected. But at Quitters, initially it was a lot of records that I personally loved, like David Bazan and former tourmates like Hannah Georgas, this beautiful Canadian psych-folk artist. And when Joe Cocker died, I played his entire catalog, whatever I could find, for two days straight. It was a nice way to be reintroduced to music. Because when you’re a musician, and you’ll put something on and listen to it in the mode of being the maker, producer, and arranger, so you’ll think, “Oh, that’s a cool bassline, and I like the way they modulated the mix.” You start by thinking about it in such technical terms that you stop thinking about what it is when you just hear it. So I found that indirect listening was such a good thing for really appreciating music.

Paste: Then you were contacted, out of the blue, by Maren Morris?

Edwards: Yeah. Maren’s manager just called mine, I guess. Or her team called my team. And I’m sure she put a ton of feelers out, because she had an opportunity to do whatever she wanted because she’d had this great catapult into mainstream music. So she knew a lot of people would return her call if she reached out. And Maren had started out as a songwriter, and she she really liked my early records, so I was flattered. And the truth is, I knew she didn’t need me, she certainly didn’t need my help, so I figured, “Maybe I’ll have something to contribute, maybe I won’t—but she’s not gonna be pissed off if I show up and she doesn’t really like my ideas. She’s gonna have a multitude of other ideas to work with.” So meeting with her was an easy “yes,” and it ended up being entirely fun. And it really sparked this memory of, “Oh, yes—this is what it feels like to create—this is what it’s like to be around creative people all day. And Fuck! Is it ever nice!”

Paste: Lyrically, the songs on “Total Freedom” all seem to be making peace with something in the past. Or at least some sort of handshake agreement.

Edwards: I’ll tell you, therapy was a wonderful opportunity for me to let go of things that I either took personally, or struggled to make sense of, or felt like they were open wounds. And I had a great doctor who really helped me reframe some of my approaches, or some of my perceptions about about some of these relationships, friendships, romantic involvements, and even my parents. And I just didn’t have as healthy a sense of boundaries as I do now, so it’s still a work in progress. But now I can say, “Why are you even involved in this? It’s not about you, so you don’t have to fix it.” And my life has benefitted greatly from acknowledging that. And it’s a wonderful thing to learn, especially when you have young employees who you care about, and who you want to nurture and mentor. And that makes a lot more space in your life for positive energy, rather than being mired in this negative, everlasting shit soup.

Listen to Kathleen Edwards’ Daytrotter session from 2012:

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