Kathleen Edwards: ‘I became terribly depressed and needed something to change’

Kathleen Edwards: ‘I was basically in a constant state of vulnerability’
the singer-songwriter took a break from music for the sake of her mental health to run a cafe called Quitters. But now she’s back with a fresh perspective

On the phone from her base in Stittsville, a suburb of Ottawa, Ontario, Kathleen Edwards isn’t saying be careful what you wish for. She really doesn’t need to. It was there, in autumn 2014, that she opened up a coffee shop, hopeful that some of the 40,000-plus residents would pop in to say hello, buy a brew and a homemade cake from the new business owner.

The new business owner, however, had a past: following the release of her fourth album, 2012’s Voyageur, Edwards had ditched her previous life as a moderately successful, critically acclaimed roots/rock performer and songwriter. In the months preceding the release of the album (on which she had worked with Justin Vernon, then her partner), she “navigated clinical depression”. Along the way to full health, she experienced a life-changing spike of self-awareness. “Playing music,” she recalls, “was not going to be helpful in my recovery.” 

Cue a full withdrawal from music, a return to Canada to work in a small town close to her family home, and to open up the drolly named Quitters. The change in lifestyle was as far removed from her frame of reference as she could get. From a very young age, Edwards remarks, there was nothing else on her radar but to play songs, play guitar, be on stage. It was, she underlines, all-consuming, omnipresent. 

I realised I had made a huge commitment detrimental to all the things many people have in their lives that I did not make space and time for

“I knew, however, that if I was going to try to be a songwriter, then I would have to be unrelenting in my pursuit of it. I guess ‘ambitious’ is the word you could use, although I didn’t have an end game, as such. All I wanted to do was to write a song, make a demo, make an album. All of those things happened sequentially but I think what was particularly hard about the life I had built around myself – and I fully admit that it was myself who had built it – was that no one else was to blame for the state I was in. I had created this environment and had pursued it without anything else on the horizon.” 

Success arrived quickly, with her debut album, Failer (2002), and follow-up, Back to Me (2005), swiftly marking her out as the songwriting lovechild of Lucinda Williams and Tom Petty – crunchy Americana/pop with confessional, conversational lyrics that packed a potty-mouthed punch. Juno and Polaris award nominations followed, and by 2010 it was taken as a given that the new batch of songs she was working on for her next album, the more experimental, more emotionally charged Voyageur, could have been career-defining. As it turned out, the album was her most commercially successful, yet “as I got older, I realised I had made a huge commitment detrimental to all the things many people have in their lives that I did not make space and time for. There was no stability, no routine; I couldn’t even schedule a doctor’s appointment because there was no point – I’d be off at a moment’s notice to do this, play here, record there.” 

Bare facts

Along with the residual emotional fallout of a five-year marriage (to musician Colin Cripps) and the short-lived relationship with Vernon, Edwards’s relentless pursuit of a life in music got the better of her. Her tone throughout the telling of it is even, thoughtful, extremely clear-headed. There is no therapy-speak cover-up, just the bare facts of a fractured life. She admits she was “totally defeated.” 

Returning home, she visited nearby Stittsville a few times, and chanced upon a boarded-up building on the town’s main street. Within days she had signed a lease on the property. Then she bought a sledgehammer and set to work. It took about a year, she relates, to fully process the decision she had made. At the end of every day, the boss took out the rubbish, mopped up the floor and pulled the shutters down, but Edwards had no desire to write songs. 

“Every stab at it felt incredibly miserable and forced,” she says. Her guitars were put into a room she never entered. “My life became more about living in a community, having a routine, getting up every day to walk the dog, open the shop and make coffee and bake cakes – and not have to get to an airport twice a week and to live out of a suitcase. I was able to invest in my home space, my own time, in a way that was not constantly being threatened by a tour or a gig. It was the opportunity to let life in far more than I ever had before.” 

I knew then that whatever songwriting touches I had were still there, that I could pick up from where I left off

A few years passed. Being the owner of a now-thriving business in a suburban town seemed like a reasonable way to continue, but in 2017 Edwards received a phone call from the manager of hugely successful American country singer Maren Morris, a fan. Morris was throwing out a hook to see if she could catch a couple of fish. With little hesitation, Edwards bit hard. 

“I was glad because for a few days it provided an opportunity to remove me from the cafe into a room where I got to stand alongside other creative types, and to realise that writing a song could be fun again. It was also a reminder of how easy a thing it was for me to do; that was validating because I knew then that whatever songwriting touches I had were still there, that I could pick up from where I left off.” 

New balance

Before too long Edwards signed to a respectable indie label. A typically pointed new album, Total Freedom (her fifth, and her first in eight years), is on the way. She no longer has concerns about lack of stability or perspective in her life or lifestyle choices.  

“The balance is there now,” she says. “I get overwhelmed and stressed, and we all have moments where we lose perspective of some of the bigger issues that people go through and which make our days seem like nothing. But Quitters has given me that incredible gift of having a life outside the music bubble. I have changed and grown immensely since I started it because it gave me so many learning opportunities that I could never have fathomed.” 

It has empowered me in many ways and now, in a very healthy way, my life has perspective

It has also added to her understanding of herself. Her identity had been purely and simply a singer, songwriter, musician. Such a view, suggests Edwards, was little more than a one-dimensional snapshot. In the past six years, she says, she has learned to do things that have given her a whole new sense of self-confidence. 

“I realised for a long time that I played music and then I became terribly depressed and needed something to change. While I was recovering, I started a business that has not only turned into a wonderful community hub, but which has also allowed me to be someone with a definite plan B. It has empowered me in many ways and now, in a very healthy way, my life has perspective.” 

It is a rewarding and a wonderful thing, this most resilient coffeeshop owner and whip-smart songwriter concludes, to create and to be surrounded by other artists, “but I was basically in a constant state of vulnerability. Having something to remove me from that has grounded me in a way that I did not see coming.”

‘ONE OF MY MOST FAVOURITE TOURING MEMORIES WAS OTHER VOICES’

“I have very fond and still vivid memories of playing Whelan’s in Dublin about 16 years ago, but one of my most favourite memories of touring was doing Other Voices in Dingle in the mid-2000s. I will never forget that. It was one of the most interesting weekends of my life. I don’t know whether it was the people or the place, but it was one of those few days I look back on and can’t really believe I got to do it. When it was happening it was special, but when I look back, I realise how wonderful and unique it was, and what the magnitude of it was for me.

“Actually, I was reminded of Other Voices recently because of their Courage series online, during which I saw Mick Flannery play at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. His latest record, the self-titled one, is the best I’ve heard this year – it’s so impressive. And watching the Courage shows reminded me of how rich Ireland’s propensity is to honour not just the music but also the spaces in which musicians get to do their work. That gets undervalued at times. It made me realise that some people actually know how to get that kind of stuff done!”

Total Freedom, by Kathleen Edwards, is released via Dualtone Records, August 21