Kathleen Edwards only wants to sings songs.
"Somebody asked me the other day if I had met Kanye," spits Edwards, amazed at the perceived intersection of her path with that of the outlandish rapper West. "Really? That's what you want to ask me? Who cares if I met him? Why is that even important?"
Edwards, the gifted Ottawa-born singer-songwriter and feisty, green-eyed daughter of a diplomat, fields curious questions these days. Her expressive new fourth album, her new sound and her new friend are the reasons why.
Arriving from New York (where she appeared on Late Show With David Letterman), Edwards is in the middle of what she calls a "hurricane," a media hubbub she's been through before, on her debut album Failer in 2003.
As we sit down to talk at a downtown Toronto restaurant, her suitcase and publicist are nearby. Edwards, in jeans and a graceful black blouse, seems a bit winded, but not tired. "The last two weeks have been excessively positive and really validating," she says, after ordering water and a white wine ("whatever the bartender is loving," she tells the publicist, "but nothing too sweet."). "I know what it's like when the phone isn't ringing as excitedly."
Voyageur is a post-divorce album, one co-produced by Edwards's famous new boyfriend, Justin Vernon, the American artist known by many as the indie folk-rock sensation Bon Iver. The two, admirers of each other's work, initially hit it off through a series of e-mails related to an album fuelled by Edwards's marriage breakup with Colin Cripps, her long-time guitarist and collaborator.
Her association with Vernon – OMG, he knows Kanye – has become a talking point with Voyageur. Edwards sees it as a double-edged sword. "The nice dull side is that people will listen to me for the first time because his name is on the record," says the fresh-faced 33-year-old, her curled red hair swept back. "The bad side is that you feel as if you didn't exist until you started dating someone. And that doesn't feel good."
There's a third (very practical) side to Vernon's involvement in Voyageur, and that is having a new producer working on a record that Edwards saw as chance to break out of the alt-country songstress mould she'd been squeezed into. Her deft songwriting on forlorn themes is recognizable, as is the high, fragile voice that delivers the intensely personal lyrics. But the sound is shimmering and warm, and the pop-rocking Mint recalls vintage Sheryl Crow, and the catchy Sidecars is as radio-friendly a track ever recorded by Edwards.
In a word, Edwards sees Vernon as a "wizard," for his nuanced production touches.
All told, the album is an adult portion – a breakup record that is neither scathing nor moping. "It's about growing up," says Edwards, softly but firmly, making direct eye contact as she explains her motivations. "It's about trying to figure out how to do it."
A few days earlier, at a CBC Radio taping with the musician and her band (and guests like Sarah Harmer, Hannah Georgas and the singer-guitarist Afie Jurvanen), Edwards' long-time manager was trying to keep an even keel. "It's crazy," Patrick Sambrook said. "I wish I was sleeping more, but when you get these little opportunities you have to take advantage of them."
Voyageur was completed quite some time ago, which gave Sambrook and Edwards's U.S. label Rounder ample lead time for the campaign. In addition to a tour with Bon Iver in Europe – new markets for Edwards – and the United States, there would be song placement on taste-making prime-time television shows like Grey's Anatomy months before Voyageur even came out. Then came the Letterman spot – her fifth appearance – and love from NPR and Rolling Stone magazine. CBC Radio is fully on board as well.
"One thing leads to another," said Sambrook. "The phone started ringing early on, and we started hearing good things." Where does Bon Iver's prestige come into all this, one has to wonder. "It's undeniable, of course," admits Sambrook. "He couldn't be hotter.
"But we tried to be as subtle as we could about it. We knew it was going to happen anyways."
Before my interview with the singer-songwriter, a photographer described Edwards as "delightfully symmetrical." I thought it an odd remark, but, sure enough, as Edwards talked about her fears – "before this album I was worried I would become some lost alt-country songwriter from the early 2000s who now lives in Pickering, Ont., never to be heard from again" – I found myself staring at a very balanced face.
The thing about records such as Voyageur (and Adele's 19, Nick Cave's The Boatman's Call or Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend), is that you're only getting one side of things. "I feel like a [jerk] to be honest," says Edwards, aware that her former husband hasn't the same forum she has. "Colin doesn't get to answer questions, and he's entitled."
Edwards says she didn't set out to make her business everyone else's, but what is a songwriter to do, except to sing "I'm going to hell, in a basket I made" and "calling it quits, you think this is easy?" or "change the sheets, and then change me."
On the album's minor-key ballad For the Record, Edwards issues her final statement on the matter: "So hang me up on your cross," she sighs resolutely, in her soft, touching way. "For the record, I only wanted to sing songs."
She's getting her chance now, no question.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this online article incorrectly spelled the name of singer-songwriter Hannah Georgas. This online version has been corrected.