Published Aug 11, 2020Kathleen Edwards felt like she was on a hamster wheel. After more than a decade of grinding, she had achieved commercial and creative success as a country rock songwriter — but it had come at the expense of her personal life and mental health. Throughout the creation and promotion of her 2012 album, Voyageur, things finally came to a head.
"That whole time, I was gradually going downhill and I didn't know what was wrong with me," she remembers during a conversation with Exclaim! "It took so much out of me that I needed to just go home and get well. I don't think music made me clinically depressed — I think the lifestyle set me up to not make a transition into an adult woman and [didn't] provide me with the things I needed to be well."
We're speaking now because Edwards is finally back after a lengthy hiatus; this week, she will finally release her fifth album, Total Freedom, and she speaks warmly and openly about how she has finally managed to achieve a healthy balance between her creative output and personal well-being.
This sense of peace has been hard-earned. For the past six years, Edwards stepped back from music completely, retreating to her home in Stittsville, ON (a suburb of Ottawa). This isn't to say she relaxed; instead, she launched her own business, a café called Quitters Coffee, its name cheekily referring to how she had put music on the back burner. It was the perfect antidote to her emotionally draining music career — not because because it gave her time to recharge, but because it kept her so busy that she couldn't possibly give music any thought.
"It's like I have quadruplets, and they consume every piece of my free mental space," she says. "I'm thinking about my business because I have 20 employees and there's always things that need attending to. It disempowered the role of music in my life, but only in a good way. It disempowered the voice of ego and the voice of expectation."
Edwards stopped writing songs and set aside her instruments — literally. In summer 2015, an intruder broke into her house by walking through an unlocked door and stole a 1957 Les Paul Junior guitar out of her living room. She was so disconnected from music that it was several weeks before she even noticed that the instrument was gone.
The coffee shop was inspired by the one source of comfort and constancy during her life as a touring musician: no matter what city she was in, from Chicago to Copenhagen, she would take some time out of her busy schedule to find a local café to enjoy a coffee and soak in the atmosphere. Her first job was at a Starbucks — "when Starbucks was still cool," she clarifies — and her lifelong fondness for the service industry gave her a sense of self-identity that extended beyond performing for a crowd.
Her creative spark was suddenly and unexpectedly reignited in 2017, when she was invited to Nashville for a co-writing session with country star Maren Morris. The experience reminded Edwards of all the good things about music and none of the bad. "Oh my god, of course, that's what feels great about playing music," Edwards says of the experience. "It's this thing, where we're working on ideas and you're building something and you're surrounded by people who are like-minded in that way."
Back home in Ontario, the creative momentum continued. "My pilot light came back on," she says simply. "It was cool."
Flash forward three years, and Edwards is in a radically different place than she's ever been in before. In the background of our Zoom call, her two dogs are sleeping soundly on the floor. At one point, she swivels around the webcam to show the bright yellow goldfinches fluttering around the bird feeder just outside of the window. In every way, she's embodying the title of Total Freedom.
Now 42, she no longer feels a the pressure to hang her entire identity on her music career. She calls this an "entirely new chapter in my relationship with music" — one in which she's no longer competitive with her peers and is no longer trapped within the bubble of industry.
"I'm in such a new and uninhibited place in my life," Edwards reveals. "I'm not worried about the chatter. I'm not worried about selling a lot of records. I'm not worried about how much press I'll get. I'm not worried that I'll get a bad review."
This new perspective is all over Total Freedom, an album that channels the wry alt-country of her early days with an emphasis on plainspoken confessions and War on Drugs-style heartland atmospherics. Opener "Glenfern" pays beautiful tribute to Edwards's ex-husband (and longtime collaborator), Colin Cripps, and the singer reflects candidly on the joys and struggles of her music career: "We toured the world and we played on TV / We met some of our heroes, it almost killed me."
There's a sweetly heartbreaking tribute to a late dog ("Who Rescued Who"), a touching ballad about a rekindled childhood friendship ("Simple Math"), and one song that perfectly evokes the tableau of sleeping dogs and twittering birds from our Zoom call ("Birds on a Feeder"). The tone is one of gratitude and feeling emotionally liberated — even when that means calling out a shitty relationship for what it is, as on "Hard on Everyone" and "Fool's Ride."
Total Freedom is a gorgeous glimpse into the musician's new life — a contentment that has, at least in part, been interrupted by COVID-19. As a touring musician and business owner, Edwards has been doubly dinged by lockdowns, and with playing shows off the table, she has had to return to managing Quitters, just so she can give herself a paycheque.
"I don't know if my business will survive," she admits. "I think it will, but I won't know for a year. Because you know, the taxman has basically been called off for six months, so we'll see if I'm able to survive."
Even while conceding "this shit's scary," Edwards is reassured that her difficult emotional journey may help to inspire fans who feel overwhelmed by their own mental health challenges.
"Just from experience and recovering from clinical depression, I can hear the voices of people saying my music got them through a difficult time now in a way that it brings tremendous meaning to the struggles that I went through just to get to where I am today," she explains "I like the idea that I can bring all those difficult things I navigated and recovered from, and I can continue to have purpose in that arena for people, because it brings me a lot of joy now."