Kathleen Edwards’s Voyageur remains a confident, complicated, and vulnerable album.
One of my most profound life lessons came during a conversation in which I was lamenting how one of the most influential relationships in my life had petered out to the point where phone calls weren’t returned, birthdays no longer acknowledged, and friending on Facebook felt pointless and a bit humiliating. I thought this friendship was clearly in my past even though I had no idea how or why that happened. In the most comforting voice you can imagine, the person I was talking to said: “All relationships have seasons and it sounds like this one is in its winter.” And he was right. So, so right in fact, that less than two months after that watershed conversation, out of the blue, I reconnected with this friend I thought I’d lost for good. It’s been a long drawn out thaw, but winter is slowly starting to turn to spring.
It’s been a spell now, but I believe that Kathleen Edwards’s relationship with music is also in a long thaw, moving from its self-imposed, very public winter to a renewed and much-welcomed spring. Though I can’t speak with authority, I predict that aside from reconnecting with her musical muse, Edwards also needed time, space, and distance from her last — and most highly affecting — album, 2012’s Voyageur. She’s now Stittsville, Ontario’s favourite barista, but in 2014, after whirlwind attention for the Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted Voyageur, Edwards looked back on an emotionally wrought few years that saw her cycle through a series of seasons (divorce, new musical relationships, new partners, new fans, and an abrupt break-up) and decided enough is enough. “There’s a side of me that’s very creative and ambitious,” she told the Toronto Star in 2014, “But there’s another side of me that wants to feel quiet and settled. I don’t take care of that side enough.”
In the traditional context that most Canadian kids have hammered into their heads, the Voyageur conjures images of a skilled and confident traveller who knows the intricacies and pitfalls of getting from Point A to Point B with their cargo safely intact. While Kathleen Edwards’s Voyageur is both skillfully executed and confidently performed, it is also a complicated and vulnerable album. Its ten songs either step tentatively into delicate, emotional territory or jump head-first and get carried away by impassioned, fast-moving rapids. “Sidecar”, a spry, wind-swept ride around the first flush of new love, offers a counterbalance to “House Full of Empty Rooms”, a mournful ode to a relationship past its best-before date. The album’s opening number bristles with a sense of wanderlust even if its title suggests moving to away and starting over is just an “Empty Threat”. The bluesy, dirge-like “For the Record” makes for a striking contrast at Voyageur’s end; there is bitterness and finality to Edwards’s singing that suggests that, even though she may be better off alone, the solitude still stings.
At the time of its release, it was easy to infer Voyageur’s narrative dealt with Edwards’s recent divorce from Canadian journeyman guitarist Colin Cripps (Crash Vegas, Junkhouse, Blue Rodeo) and subsequent relationship with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who co-produced the album with her. So much of the press coverage focused on the albums context more than its contents, that it felt as if each album review and interview would reopen the emotional wounds Edwards was trying to exorcise by writing and recording these songs. It’s no wonder that, in the aftermath of Voyageur’s release cycle, Edwards found she needed to take an extended breather. The signs were all there on “A Soft Place to Land”, the album’s mournful, most affecting moment. Her exasperation is palpable in the song’s very first line: “Calling it quits / You think this is easy / I swear I hurt / You call in the jury”. It’s as if Edwards already knew and was anticipating what was coming next.
Seven years on from Voyageur’s release, only Edwards can say for certain whether her season of musical silence has brought the quiet and sense of settledness she was searching for. Based on her hilarious Twitter feed, the intervening years slugging coffee and connecting with another side of herself have eased some of the transitional pains so evident on Voyageur. She’s also suggesting that her season of hibernation is coming to an end; here’s hoping that’s not just an empty threat.