As they are in Edgar Allen Poe’s “Dream Within a Dream,” or Christopher Nolan’s Inception, dreams are a point of fascination for Houston-native jazz singer Kat Edmonson on her newest album Dreamers Do. The concept album embarks on a nocturnal journey, narrated by Edmonson’s distinct, ray-of-light voice, through a mix of reinvented mid-twentieth century Disney covers and poignant original songs that dare to ask questions as big and bright as the star you wish upon. Aligning her own output alongside well-steeped Disney fare raises the stakes of her own interrogation of the role of childhood dreams in an adult world.
The result is a timely, if not timeless, record exquisitely in touch with a grown-up audience that embraces their inner child. Ahead of her upcoming Heights Theater show, Edmonson, whose voice is as vintage and classic via phone interview as it is on record, waxed philosophical — the way dreamers sometimes do — with the Houston Press about her new album, and what it means to dream.
“[I] created essentially a metaphor for our experiences around dreaming in life, the things that we aspire to, or that inspire us, and how they are terrifying, exciting, paralyzing, and motivating. I attended them to what it is to go to sleep at bedtime and then wrestle with wonderful dreams and nightmares, waking up in the middle of the night wondering what it's all about, and the eventual peace and rest that comes. The hope of a new day, essentially,” says Edmonson, who graduated from Lamar High School.
She recalls pulling some of her favorite Disney films like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan out of the vault to help her decide which standards to include on her album. She recites the lyrics to “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” like a mantra she could say backwards in her sleep, adding that she took the song’s message “at face value.”
“It’s all in my heart,” she says. “Not every song on the record is a Disney song but Disney really led a lot of generations to believe that you can wish upon a star and your dream will come true. If you hold fast to your dreams you will see them. I know that part of becoming an adult is there's a certain cynicism that settles in, and what we call the real world, and the reality of the things that we have to deal with like dishes and taxes and everything else. So I was really excited to revisit this notion and ask the question: are the messages that we received in our childhood about following our dreams relevant in our adult lives?”
From the sounds of Dreamers Do, dreams aren’t just relevant into adulthood - they’re worth reexamining, too. Album highlight “When You Wish Upon a Star” finds Edmonson crooning through unsettling, at times eerie soundscapes in a chilling arrangement, one that occupies a darker side of adult dreaming ripe with danger and consequence. Her knack for reinventing songs in her image stretches back to her 2009 debut Take to the Sky with jazz fueled covers of The Cardigans’ “Lovefool” and George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Edmonson’s streak continues toward Dreamers’ end with an inviting, smile inducing stroll through her take on “What a Wonderful World.” For Edmonson, turning cover songs into near originals is a process similar to songwriting.
“In the same way that I'm able to write a song and I don't know where that comes from, I don't know where my ideas come from. They’re blessings, each and every one of them. I do know, for instance, if you were to ask me how to cover ‘At Last’ right now, I would be very intimidated because in my mind, Etta James has recorded the most perfect version. I know that song as that version.
“I'm often able to hold a space that comes before the recording of this song. I approach it from when the songwriter sat down and wrote it and my perceived intention of what the songwriter was conveying. I go from there and I approach it as though it's never been recorded before. Usually I have to have a feeling that I have something to offer it.”
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Near the center of the album lies its gem, “Too Late to Dream.” With an orchestration that sounds like the appearance of the evening’s first star, it’s hard to believe this Edmonson original isn’t already featured in a Disney classic. The dreamy waltz’s lyrics dare to wrestle with the notion of growing up, asking big questions like: “Can I keep on believing like I could always do? Or is it too late to dream? Am I no longer free? Am I caged by my age? Have I read the last page? Am I playing the final scene? Is it too late to dream?” Edmonson says she finds the power to explore these topics in her lyrics from within her own truth.
“I often recognize [the truth] because it's very quiet; it's very still; it's not loud; it doesn't need to be; it's in our nature. I had to write ‘Too Late to Dream’ for my own self because the reason why I started writing music as a child was to process my feelings. So I was asking this very frightening question: ‘Is it too late to dream?’ I needed to write that,” she says.
“In all of my work, it's important to me to access the truth within me because it's a point of connection to the truth within everyone else. I want what I’m doing to reflect the human condition. I want the people listening to recognize some piece of themselves in what I'm saying.”
Kat Edmonson plays The Heights Theater on Friday, February 21 with special guest Adam Levy. 339 W. 19th. Doors 7 p.m., all ages, $26. Visit theheightstheater.comfor tickets.