LAST month, on the day Kathleen Edwards was to take the stage at Toronto's Massey Hall for a special concert honouring Joni Mitchell's 70th birthday, she experienced a moment of panic when the show's organizers told her they were short a song in the evening's program and wondered if she might be able to help them out.
In the weeks leading up to the Luminato Festival event, a two-night affair which also featured performances by Herbie Hancock, Rufus Wainwright and Glen Hansard, Edwards had been rehearsing "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" and "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio" from Mitchell's 1972 record For the Roses. Under the gun, she realized she had just the song: "Big Yellow Taxi," which she'd been singing since age 12 at summer camp.
"To stand on Massey Hall stage and sing that song and have a crowd of people who also have had Joni Mitchell be the soundtrack to their lives sing along with you is kind of a crazy moment," says Edwards, reached Monday from her Toronto, Ont. homebase.
That moment is among the many career highs the singer-songwriter has recently been celebrating in light of marking an important milestone this year, the 10th anniversary of the release of her debut album, Failer.
Edwards is revelling in the achievement, counting her blessings, and moving forward with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to her craft as 2013 comes on the heels of what proved to be a tumultuous year in her personal life.
Last year saw the release of her fourth record, Voyageur, which was critically acclaimed and shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize (Edwards' second time receiving the honour); however, behind the scenes, Edwards, who was on the road constantly, was struggling.
"I was really proud of the record I'd made, you know, but I was really depressed and felt like I hadn't achieved what I'd hoped to. And then I sort of started the new year feeling a lot better for a few reasons and was recovering from depression and suddenly had this far happier outlook and realizing, wow yeah, 10 years ago I put out my debut record and I'm still here and I'm still in it and my name means something to people. I've done good work and I haven't compromised and I haven't done everything right, but I'm still going and I'm ready to keep going. Last year I felt like, well, I should just quit, so it feels like a nice anniversary."
Like the Mitchell concert, exciting opportunities are continuing to come Edwards' way. For example, it was announced Tuesday that she and Shad will host the Polaris Music Prize Gala set for September. And, Edwards is pleased to be making her debut appearance
at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, which runs tonight through Sunday at Jericho Beach Park.
"Playing festivals is kind of a dream, especially when you see who else is on the bill and they end up being friends of yours," she says.
Artists featured over the course of the weekend include Steve Earle and the Dukes, The Cat Empire, Natalie Maines, Cold Specks, DeVotchKa, Laetitia ZonzambÃ© and Loudon Wainwright III.
Edwards will take the stage tonight along with Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, The Littlest Birds, Lena Anderssen, Hayden, Aidan Knight, Mo Kenney, Delhi 2 Dublin and Hannah Georgas, a close friend and collaborator of hers. "I might get up with her and do a song and I'm going to get her to come up and sing with me.. .. I think the world of her," says Edwards.
The women will get another opportunity to share the stage tomorrow morning at a workshop entitled Songwriters' CafÃ© at 10 a.m., also featuring Justin Rutledge and Del Barber. Edwards is slated to perform at a second workshop at 1:30 p.m. Saturday with Sam Baker, Reid Jamieson and Whitehorse's Melissa McClelland, entitled The Story Behind My Song.
"I obviously am a really emotional and sensitive person and songwriting has been my outlet for dealing with things - from pain comes art," says Edwards. "I struggled a lot in my young life with a lot of upheaval and my parents moving around a lot. In retrospect it really weighed on me, it was hard. I just fell in love with songs, they became like my companions and I
just wanted to be with them all the time, not just mine, but other people's."
Over the years Edwards has learned the importance of staying true to herself, citing Neil Young as inspiration. Young has faced harsh criticism for albums at different times in his career but has remained steadfast in his artistic vision. "I think that's really brave and that's the kind of artist I hope I can be."
Some of the challenges Edwards faced last year were the result of her honesty and openness, leaving her feeling extremely vulnerable at times. Parts of Voyageur were inspired by her divorce to Colin Cripps, a longtime collaborator, including on her third record, 2008's Asking For Flowers. Voyageur was produced by Edwards' boyfriend at the time, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), with whom she's since parted ways.
The situation led to the constant question of, "'So you made a record about your ex-husband with your new boyfriend,'" she says, that while fair, left her feeling, "embarrassed. You're just like, 'Wow, I sound like a total asshole.'" When asked whether she plans to be more protective of her personal life in the future, Edwards says no. "It's the people who are honest and upfront about the struggles of life or the complexities of the unpredictable ironies and the hilarity of our own stupidity and our
own humanness that I find to be the biggest comfort," she says.
One of the greatest compliments she's ever received and that's helped her heal is to know that her songs have helped other people when they've faced hard times.
"Maybe my job in life is to write music that brings other people comfort," she says. "I don't know, that's what music did for me when I was young so maybe that's what keeps me going."
These days, Edwards is taking it easy, staying close to home and relaxing in her current relationship, lying in wait for the madness associated with an upcoming move into a new house at the end of the summer.
In terms of her next music project, she has few ideas percolating, potentially releasing a 'cover album. She's recorded a few tracks so far, including a version of Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love," which aired on a recent episode of Private Practice.
As well, she hopes to one day put together an all-female Canadian supergroup with Georgas, Jenn Grant and Rose Cousins by her side, calling themselves Modern Beaver.
"I feel really lucky that I'm a 10-year survivor of touring in a van with boys and being the boss and having to navigate going from being green. .. to holy shit, I'm one of the survivors of this route I've chosen," she says. "I don't have all the answers, but I have a shitload of experience."
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