Kathleen Edwards's mind is back in a small town.
There's not much more than a main street and strip mall, the kind of place that's enough to make some folks in town pine for life somewhere else. There are probably some bars out by the highway where people go to spend a few hours away from their houses, which are filled with one man's junk, another man's treasure. Picture an old Valentine's card stuck in the corner of a mirror, a pair of motorcycle boots and a record player playing Tommy by The Who, all things that Edwards sorts through in her song Pink Emerson Radio.
Mainly, the town that her new album, Back to Me, evokes has Lucinda Williams-like gravel roads with couples living at the end of them goading one another to leave or quietly pleading to stay another night. In Edwards's light voice we're hearing it from her perspective, one that is often conflicted, as her voice thins with longing or when it strains against a lover who is stuck in his own ineffectual dreams.
"Life could be cruel/Life could be sweet, if I want it to be," she sings in a cover version of singer-songwriter Jim Bryson's lament to small-town life, Somewhere Else . The line perfectly sums up Edwards's persona on the album: caustic one minute, longing the next, revealing herself with songs couched in small-town stories.
"I heard Shania Twain say once that she doesn't write about her personal life," Edwards says, sitting in a Toronto pub. "I forget what the quote was. But it was something like, 'I don't put my personal life in songs. That's my private life and I just write songs separate from that.'
"And I thought, what a joke. What's the point of writing songs if you have none of your personal life to give within them?" Edwards asks.
Still, her recent popularity has given her a new appreciation of how hard it is for a big act like Twain to make it.
After exhaustively touring her 2002 debut album Failer, Edwards, who is now 26, would have liked to retreat to Wakefield, Que., a town that's an hour's drive from Ottawa where she lived for a while before Failer became a hit.
But the album took her on the road for months, building wide acclaim,which, rightly or wrongly, lumped Edwards in the same category as Sarah Harmer, whose depiction of small towns is more settled, a little dreamier.
Edwards's persona is more assertive, and it plays to audiences well -- particularly when she played an opening set at the 2003 SARS mega-concert in Toronto. Her appeal is that, however beautiful her voice, she tells it like it is. "It's probably the Irish blood in me," she jokes.
But the irony is that for all her plain-spoken hurt and small-town desires, Edwards isn't really a small-town girl. Despite her attachment to Wakefield, Edwards grew up in Ottawa, the daughter of a high-ranking civil servant, Leonard Edwards, and spent some of her childhood in Switzerland and Korea.
Now living in Toronto with her guitarist, producer and husband Colin Cripps, her itinerary regularly keeps her on the road.
Part of the reason Back to Me is full of songs about being home or in a small town, Edwards says, "is because I knew secretly that when I did finally come home from the [last]tour, I knew I wasn't going to go back to what I knew was home [Wakefield or even Ottawa] It was going to be here [in Toronto]" The songs are based on a sense of longing for small-town life, she says.
She makes it plain that she is only living in Toronto because of her personal life. She would love to return to Wakefield or a similar-sized town. But Toronto has been kind to Edwards. While we talked, a fan, who introduced himself as a candle-maker, presented her with an enormous candle. Later, a woman stopped to tell Edwards how much she loves her music.
The compliments broke the intensity of Edwards's conversation. She seemed at a loss for words and responded with girlish thank you's.
A small town is easier. There aren't those kinds of surprises. Yet, for all of her songs inspired by Wakefield and other imagined towns, she says she'll stay in Toronto for her husband's sake, at least for now.
"I wish he'd get it! He produced the record. You'd think he'd know what I'm trying to tell him!" she jokes.