Drinking Canada Dry

Being the anointed one doesn't always sit well with Canadian alt-country rocker Kathleen Edwards. This past March, at South By Southwest, she bristled when asked about her then-recent Rolling Stone fashion shoot. Reminding her that her debut, Failer, was then the hottest seller in Austin record bins, or that many esteemed critics had swooned over what was in its grooves, was a sure way to get her hackles up. Her head, she insisted, was still squarely on her fucking shoulders.

"I don't have to be reminded about things happening around me to be conscious of exactly why I am doing this," she said then, disposable camera flashes popping all around the brunette it girl's head in the Club DeVille parking lot. "Regardless of whether I break in America, I'm going to be doing just what I would have done either way. I'm surrounded by really cool people, and there are no egos present. Even my friends and family at home, who play a huge part in all of this, always kept things in perspective. They never were going around saying, 'You'll be famous one day.' "

Fast-forward to this month, when Edwards calls from her Toronto home. She's nursing a cold; a pair of European tours, numerous TV appearances and interviews, and a bevy of industry parties can run a woman down.

Still, the songstress with a knack for capturing the stark underbelly of relationships in her songs, the one with the well-primed potty mouth that can sometimes seem at odds with her girl-next-door good looks, has a telling answer when asked to describe the most enduring effect of the whirlwind that has encircled her life since SXSW. She says her band sounds better.

"The band is a lot tighter now. The four of us have become such great friends and we've reached the best stride in every song. I know when to lay back and when to hit it hard," Edwards says.

Combine that with the palpable sexual tension evident on stage between Edwards and her guitarist/partner Colin Cripps, who is nearly 20 years her senior, and it's easy to see why her live shows are generating the same kind of frothy response from writers previously reserved for Failer. At the showcase, the two lovers engaged in a kind of animalistic courting ritual on stage, circling and leaning in toward each other while cranking out urgent riffs on a pair of electric guitars. Edwards's cheeks took on a reddish hue for good measure.

And she could care less about rumors that crop up in Canada about the couple. "I'm sure there are the naysayers who might think that my relationship with Colin isn't good for the band, but there are a lot of couples in a similar position who make it work," she says. "At least we can be together, without the stress that people have when they have to be apart all the time."

Edwards, the daughter of a Canadian diplomat, grew up in and around the Canadian capital Ottawa, and also called South Korea and Switzerland home when her father was posted overseas. Edwards began dabbling with songwriting in her teens, and she says that despite her solid home life, and the fact that Ottawa offers a relatively stress-free, small-town-meets-big-city vibe, she didn't feel settled growing up. When she graduated from Merivale High School (where Pat Travers had roamed the halls two decades earlier) she simply skipped the ceremony. There were plenty of heart-to-hearts with her mother that often included the questions "What about college?" and "Are you done with this musician thing yet?"

After eventually leaving home, Edwards pointed her rusty 1988 Suburban toward the nearby Quebec border and shared a cottage with a friend in rural Wakefield, the base from which she would venture forth to play local clubs and write the material that would end up on Failer.

Edwards's privileged globe-trotting youth is another sore spot. Last year, she stopped speaking to the Ottawa Citizen's pop critic after he called her music "rich-kid in a rusty-truck songs." "I know when not to place any value on what people say," the singer says.

And while Edwards has yet to face the full force of the quirky Canadian backlash that everyone from Alanis Morissette to Barenaked Ladies comes up against after conquering the U.S. market, she says she won't take it to heart should it come.

"Even among my friends there was some misconception that I had made it big in the States so I was suddenly rich," she says. "But, no, I haven't even paid back my advance yet, and it wasn't all that big. But at the same time, I have incredible support from them, and from management.

"I don't write songs by taking hours and hours to agonize over them. I kind of write impulsively, and as a result there's some kind of edge to the songs. I'm worried that I'll overthink what I've written," she says. "'Hockey Skates' was done in ten minutes, off the cuff."

Rather than packing the tune with Canadianisms that might not translate well to the U.S. market, "Hockey Skates" is all metaphor. "I am so sick of consequence and the look on your face, I am tired of playing defense, I don't even have hockey skates," she sings, with equal part disgust and dismay.

Like Toni Price, Edwards sings with straight whiskey within easy reach. "I'm a bourbon girl. We just got back from Kentucky, and I bought $100 worth of whiskey to take home."

She says Rounder Records never misses an opportunity to promote the fact that she likes a nip, while Edwards's Web site features plenty of shots of the singer amid empty glasses, bottles and other party detritus. In fact, when Failer was released stateside in January, it landed on music critics' desks with an airplane bottle of Maker's Mark attached. "I thought it was the best thing they ever came up with. Yeah, I can drink and party, but it's not like I'm some raging alcoholic. I couldn't keep up this pace if I was."

It also meant some wisecracks after opening night of Edwards's current tour with Guster, when it was suggested that the headliners would have no way of keeping up with the Canadian chick who, rumor had it, could re-create that rowdy scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Karen Allen literally drinks a burly descendant of the Mongol horde under the table.

If that's what people think of her, so be it. "I've stopped caring what my image might or might not be," she says. "The people who really matter know who I'm like."

And you could bet a big 'un of Kentucky's finest that the pop critic at the Ottawa Citizen isn't someone who matters to her.

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr