Editor's note: This feature originally ran in April, when Edwards postponed her show at the Varsity Theater due to throat issues. We reposted it to preview her makeup date Friday at the Varsity.
Even before she moved to west-central Wisconsin to be with her suddenly famous boyfriend last year, Kathleen Edwards knew enough about canoeing and French pioneers to get away with calling her new album "Voyageur."
"I did some pretty intense remote paddling trips when I was younger, so yeah, I come by it honestly," bragged the Canadian singer/songwriter, originally from Ottawa.
Thanks in part to those north-country roots -- but more to her Dylanesque musical leanings and "A Prairie Home Companion" appearances -- Edwards has enjoyed a sizable Upper Midwest following going back to her acclaimed 2003 debut, "Failer." As of last year, though, she has also enjoyed calling our area her part-time home.
The 33-year-old songstress took up residency in Fall Creek, Wis., near Eau Claire. As is now known by every music fan with a Pitchfork.com bookmark on their laptop, Fall Creek is where Edwards' beau Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame built a studio in a rural house.
"I really love it out here," she said by phone from the house during a break from touring last month. "When you come here after being on the road and constantly moving at a frantic pace, it's great to come here. Everyone is very warm, and it feels very wholesome in a way that feels opposite of touring life."
One thing that's harder to get used to, however, is being at the Fall Creek house by herself. That has been the case more and more in recent months following Vernon's multiple Grammy wins and skyrocketing career (he was performing in Australia when this interview took place).
"It's really hard," she admitted. "I'm his biggest cheerleader. I'm like, 'Go and do whatever you have to do.' He is that way for me, too. But the hard reality is, well, what's left for us to be together?
"We are still figuring it out. We still get to do what we want to do, but I miss him a lot, and he misses me."
Edwards, too, has been busy since the January release of "Voyageur," a disc that put her more on the map among indie-rock fans -- thanks in large part to the Vernon production credit -- without betraying the lovers of rootsy folk and Americana music who always sang her praises.
A four-month tour that took her across the United States and Europe was scheduled to bring her to the Twin Cities a week ago. But symptoms of vocal strain caused her to postpone that concert (rescheduled for Sept. 28 at the Varsity Theater) and several others.
The making of "Voyageur" started in Toronto, where Edwards still has a home. She wound up finishing it at Fall Creek, however, which had more to do with the professional benefits than the personal connection, she said.
"It was great to not have to look at the clock, and to be able to go for walks in the country to take a break and come back refreshed," she said. "Justin introduced me to a lot of his friends from around here, like Brian Moen [of Peter Wolf Crier], Phil Cook, Sean Carey and Brian Joseph. Those are four people who absolutely changed the scope of this record."
She had plenty to say about Vernon's own impact on the recordings, too, but she saved her highest praise for something he's not exactly known for: "His bass playing! I can seriously pinpoint that as something very specific that was crucial. Most interesting bass playing I've ever heard."
As with any singer/songwriter record, though, the strength of "Voyageur" lies mainly in Edwards' songs and the emotions she poured into them -- in this case, nearly a flood.
Most were written in the aftermath of her divorce from Colin Cripps, a musician and producer who worked on two of her previous three records. The lyrics don't dwell on what caused the breakup so much as they find Edwards struggling to get past it, like the voyageur of the album title on an especially rocky, long portage.
"Change this feeling under my feet / Change the sheets and then change me," she sings in the single "Change the Sheets," actually one of the record's more lighthearted songs.
Although she has landed in a new relationship and "grown more self-aware" (her words), Edwards said that many of the songs on "Voyageur" still carry weight when she sings them.
"Time is a wonderful way of getting distance and perspective on things like this, but there are days when I still feel like I failed in a certain aspect of my life," she said. "A divorce feels like a failure. And there are still so many things I haven't figured out, like, 'Where am I going in my life? Why didn't the marriage work? How can I be better?'"
While acknowledging the drastic changes in her personal life, Edwards underplayed the musical alterations on "Voyageur."
"It's still a singer/songwriter record, and it still sounds like me," she said with a laugh. "I just decided not to use any pedal-steel guitar this time."
Should she need a capable pedal-steel player next time around, Edwards won't have to go far. We have plenty of those around these parts, too.
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