“I’m moving to America,” Kathleen Edwards sings over and over in the chorus of “Empty Threat,” the lead track of her new album, Voyageur. Thing is, it wasn’t an empty threat: The Canadian singer-songwriter recently relocated to Wisconsin, leaving behind a marriage to a former bandmate and finding a new beginning both musically and personally with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
It’s an auspicious new direction. Voyageur, her fourth album, is brimming with exploration and confidence, perhaps the full bloom of an artist who first surfaced a decade ago with a self-released recording that became the little album that could (2002’s Failer). While Edwards was recognized primarily in Americana circles with her debut, she’s always had a steadfast indie streak, and so Voyageur—co-produced by Edwards and Vernon—sounds less like a departure than an arrival long in her sights.
“Some people have been saying, like, ‘This is a big departure for you,’” Edwards acknowledges, “‘but, well, no, not really. It still sounds like me. Although there are things I set out to achieve in making this record—a different style of production, a different approach to some songs—it still sounds like me, in the end.”
The record was indeed made in an entirely different manner than her last one, 2008’s Asking for Flowers. That was recorded in Los Angeles with ace producer Jim Scott and a first-rate cast of studio musicians; Voyageur was more homegrown. “This was the first time I’d done a significant amount of work in a home studio—Justin’s studio [in Fall Creek, Wis.]—which allowed for a certain amount of trial and error, without having to be careful that you didn’t waste time that you wouldn’t get back,” she says.
Working outside of the pro studio environment presented another opportunity for Edwards to push herself to be more involved in the process of actually making the record.
“It’s really hard when you show up in the studio and you’ve got Jim Scott, the best engineer, and [studio aces] Bob Glaub and Don Heffington and Greg Leisz,” she says. “You can’t help but just barely participate, because those guys are just so incredible. It was an amazing experience … but in retrospect, it didn’t push me to step out of my comfort zone in trying things.”
On Voyageur, though, Edwards is credited with playing 11 different instruments, more than twice as many as she’d handled on any previous record. Many were variations of keyboards—piano, organ, Wurlitzer, B3, Rhodes—and if her new record stands apart in some respects from her earlier work, it’s probably this shift away from guitar twang toward keyboard atmospherics. Part of the credit for that goes to Durham musician Phil Cook (of Megafaun and Vernon’s former bandmate in DeYarmond Edison), who contributed various piano and organ parts to seven of the album’s 10 songs.
“Phil played a huge role in the early stages of the record,” Edwards explains. “He came back to Eau Claire to work on it at Justin’s recommendation, and some of the things he did transformed the early direction of the record.”
The bedrock foundation of Edwards’ touring band—guitarist Gord Tough, bassist John Dinsmore, drummer Lyle Molzan and especially multi-instrumentalist Jim Bryson, whose ties with Edwards go back to before she even made her first record—complemented the newcomers. Bryson and Edwards co-wrote “Sidecar,” which is one of Voyageur’s standout tracks, even as its more straightforward rock ’n’ roll delivery contrasts with the broader sonic palette on most of the record.
If Vernon and Bryson bring different elements to the mix, Edwards says she’s often struck by their common ground. “There have been moments when Justin got credit for things Jim did, and vice versa,” she says. “It’s funny, because I really think they have a similar aesthetic and a similar ear. They’re the two people in my life the most willing to try things; they’re always thinking about new approaches and new treatments, and just throwing stuff up against the wall. And that’s so important.”
Kathleen Edwards performs Tuesday, Jan. 31, at Cat’s Cradle, with opening act Hannah Georgas. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $20 in advance—$23 day of show. Visit www.catscradle.com.