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Kathleen Edwards On Taking A Break From Music And Finding 'Total Freedom'

When she quit music eight years ago, Kathleen Edwards says she felt "a huge sense of relief." After taking time for herself (and opening up a coffee shop), she's back with a new album, <em>Total Freedom</em>.
Remi Theriault
Courtesy of the artist
When she quit music eight years ago, Kathleen Edwards says she felt "a huge sense of relief." After taking time for herself (and opening up a coffee shop), she's back with a new album, Total Freedom.

Kathleen Edwards had devoted fans and a successful career, with hits on the Billboard Top 40 charts and songwriting awards. But after her last album in 2012, she walked away from the music business. In fact, she opened a cafe in the suburbs of Ottawa, Canada, called Quitters Coffee.

"It was hard," Edwards says of her decision to quit music. "I knew that I would feel guilty and that people would be disappointed or think that I'm doing something really stupid by walking away, but I had lost so much of my perspective and my happiness in music and in writing."

After years off the road and with time to heal from singing about her troubles every night, Kathleen Edwards is back with a new album, Total Freedom, which comes out August 14.

"I really love now that I'm actually probably a far better musician and songwriter, given that I've taken time to have some life rather than be a singer," she says.

NPR's Scott Simon spoke to Kathleen Edwards about taking time off from music to tend to her mental health, the song on her record inspired by the death of a cafe patron and her professional opinion, as the owner of a coffee shop, on pumpkin spice lattes. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for a transcript of their conversation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Scott Simon: Those are very powerful lyrics in the first song on your record: "It almost killed me / And I will always be thankful for it." What happened?

Kathleen Edwards: Well, I think like many people and at a certain point in their life, they commit to something so fully they don't come up for air often enough, and I think I probably just didn't do that. I committed myself to playing music and to having a life on the road. But I think I just needed to stop for a while. You hit a certain age when you're looking for maybe more in your life. I had not invested the time I needed to to give that time and space.

What did you find when you stopped?

Well before I stopped, I discovered the wonderful world of clinical depression, which I'd never experienced in my life. It took a while to really figure out that was what was at the root of my issues, my well-being. But when I stopped, I found relief. I think I just felt a huge sense of relief when I said "I'm done — and I'm done with music." And it just gave me an opportunity to not have this guy on my back kind of going, well, the next show is this, so get that suitcase out, have it ready, be prepared to stand up in front of people and feel vulnerable all the time. And it just gave me a chance to really build myself up again.

Now that I'm well and now that I'm excited about playing music again and I'm reestablishing my relationship with it, I felt like — people are feeling incredibly vulnerable right now. There's so much uncertainty. Why don't we just return the favor of all the kindness that people gave to me to empower me to keep going and put something out in the world during a time in which maybe someone needs it?

A song that's getting a lot of airplay from this new album is called "Options Open." Is this song about a person or some other passion?

Well, it's about a person for sure. I think it's also about the accumulation of life experiences that bring us into adulthood.

Someone I gave my heart to ended up being somebody who is incredibly hard on me and really made me have to defend all of my decisions and my choices, even though at the core of myself, I do know that I'm a good person and that I don't do things to hurt others intentionally.

And then when I had a friend tell me that that sort of is an unacceptable way to love somebody or to be treated, it really kind of reminded me that I had allowed my boundaries to slowly be eroded. [The song is about] me being the person who gets to determine what's right or wrong for me.

What can you tell us about the song "Ashes to Ashes"?

Well, it was at a funeral for a man that I didn't know terribly well, but had come to meet through him being a regular at my cafe. And I just had a great connection with him; he was a big music fan and loved Wilco. Where I lived, I didn't feel like I had a lot of people sort of show up and be like, "Hey, I totally get the world of music you live in and here are all the people I love and here's how many shows I've been to." So we had this wonderful connection about music that I really cherished. He was a gentleman who is — I think he was 42, which is actually now the age that I am. He was out shoveling snow; we'd had a heavy snowfall. And I guess he got out to clear his driveway and he died suddenly of a heart attack and left behind three children, one of whom was, I think, maybe two.

I went to his funeral and when you lose somebody so suddenly without any sense, you're at such a loss to understand the moment. We rely on funeral homes and we rely on ministers and priests to kind of guide us through these moments. But I just sat there seething because I just felt like all of the God messaging was just such a betrayal of what was really happening, which was it was completely unfair that this family lost their father and their husband and in such an abrupt way. I was just so angry about it. And I went home from that funeral and wrote that song "Ashes to Ashes" — I think because mostly [the funeral] didn't bring me comfort, and I thought, "Well, it doesn't give me comfort, imagine how it felt for them sitting there not being able to understand what was happening."

Does songwriting help?

Incredibly. I mean, my God [laughs] I saved so much money in therapists in the first 20 years of my life as a songwriter, I just used it as my outlet.

Total Freedom is out August 14 via Dualtone Records.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ned Wharton is a senior producer and music director for Weekend Edition.