Talking Tough With Kathleen Edwards

"Back to Me" Singer-Songwriter to Open Shows for Nelson, Prine, Mann

Kathleen Edwards is getting into bourbon these days, and it’s no surprise how she prefers it.

“Straight,” she says, not even a half-second after asking her. “That’s it. Pretty easy.”

Bartenders, take note: Edwards is back on the club circuit promoting her second album, Back to Me, playing for audiences who appreciate her hard-knock lyrics as much as her rock star swagger. The first lyric of the title track (and video) tells it like it is. “I’ve got ways to make you sorry,” she sings, and you damn well better believe it.

Edwards’ first album, 2003’s Failer, offered stories about a lover being shot by a cop, motel room trysts with a married man and other not-so-happy endings. On that first major tour, with electric guitar solos raging, her fierce gaze remained solely fixed on sideman Colin Cripps. At times, it was impossible for the slightly uncomfortable crowd to predict whether she was about to tear off his head off — or his clothes.

Edwards, 26, left her rural home and married Cripps in August. They now live in Toronto. She reflects on the merger of their personal lives and daily routines in the song “Copied Keys,” one of Back to Me’s most vulnerable tracks. Without being angry or judgmental, she wonders what would remain of his identity if he were the one who had to leave behind his friends and familiar surroundings.

“All of the things that have happened since I met my now-husband have been awesome,” she explains, “and I feel like a very different person out of my own natural evolution of getting older and stuff like that. But it was really hard to make that transition and to close the door on living day-to-day and not having to talk or answer to anybody.”

Professionally speaking, she still likes to stand her ground. That much is clear — or unclear — by glancing at her album covers. She takes the title of Back to Me literally, sitting in a field looking away from the camera. Meanwhile, Failer features a faraway shot of Edwards leaning on the front bumper of a broken-down Suburban. She did all the album artwork herself before taking it to the record company. They preferred to use a gussied-up headshot, but she refused.

“A lot of women in this industry do that out of pressure from their record company, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that the way you look really sells half the albums off the shelves,” she says. “You know, I think that obviously is true. Why is it that men don’t have to do it as much? I’m not that kind of artist. I don’t want to have that whole vibe.”

Being such a headstrong young woman, is it any wonder that one of her all-time favorite songs is “Harper Valley P.T.A.”?

“I can’t get enough of that song,” she insists. “It’s so dirty and nasty. Talking about affairs, people being drunk, being on the P.T.A., short skirts and running around with men and being a single mom. That’s pretty abrasive stuff to be talking about.”

Although she grew up mainly in Canada, Edwards’ parents worked for the Foreign Service, so she spent part of her childhood in Korea and Switzerland. While living abroad, her older brother turned her on to singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. A longtime student of classical violin, she skipped college to kick around the live music scene in Ottawa.

In 2000, she hit the open road in her Suburban, booking gigs and selling an EP off the stage. A year later, fueled by a bitter breakup, she wrote most of the songs that would surface on Failer. Before long, she was singing on Letterman and Leno, opening for AC/DC, Dylan and the Rolling Stones and headlining dozens of clubs across the U.S.

Asked about her favorite country artists, she rattles off outsiders like Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Gillian Welch and Shelby Lynne. She’s a huge Tom Petty fan, too. But when it comes to her describing her own music — and her do-it-yourself attitude — simply notice who has invited her to open their summer shows: Aimee Mann, Willie Nelson and John Prine.

“I couldn’t have even picked those three any better,” she says, still in awe at her good fortune. “Those three are perfect representations of people making music to an audience that appreciates individuality — not the schtick or the gimmick or the crazy pants I’ll be wearing when I open for them. People don’t expect you to come out with a disco ball or, like the Motley Crue tour, with a midget contortionist or whatever.”

Experience has made touring easier, obviously, but so does good health. She fought a cold for about half of her last tour but hasn’t been sick yet on this one. To keep her voice from giving out, she tries to keep the volume at her shows at a reasonable level “so I don’t have to ruin my voice in order to hear it,” she says.

She also avoids meals too close to show time and singing for five or six nights in a row. But that doesn’t keep her completely away from the bottle.

“I try not to drink too much before a show because I find it really hard to sing after, because your voice dries out,” she says. “I try to do stuff like drink tea. I do have a good shot of bourbon before I go on though.”