In 2014, just two years after the release of her critically-acclaimed album Voyageur, Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards announced that she was taking a break from music to focus on an entirely different career. She opened Quitters Coffee, a coffee shop and cafe in the Ottawa suburb of Stittsville.
"Being on tour all the time, I went to every coffee shop between Stockholm and L.A. I went to so many places because... it was the one thread of commonality I could find being on tour, waking up in a different city every day," Edwards tells Wide Open Country. "I was in a period of time when I was recovering from having clinical depression. I was just hitting such a wall with the idea of writing again, because everything [I was healing from] was still really just barely under the surface."
Since the release of her 2003 debut Failer, Edwards has earned praise from fans and critics alike for her gripping lyricism. But she realized playing music as a career was no longer making her happy. So she transformed an old building in Stittsville into Quitters Coffee and found a community.
"It helped me reset in an incredibly different way because my focus was so shifted into an entirely different type of thing," Edwards says. "I learned so much that I had not ever had to deal with or hadn't come across as my life as an artist. It was such hard work, but it was such a gift because it was such different work. It gave me a lot of time and space to just not be consumed by music. As an artist, sometimes there's a lot of ego work that goes into being a writer, being a performer, being somebody who has their picture taken. You're always in a state of trying to kind of muster up your own strength to be in front of people. And even though I was a cafe owner and I served customers all the time, it was such a different type of existence that it was just such a relief. It was a nice break from that feeling of having to always be ready to put up a brave front."
Edwards says stepping away from the industry side of music was intimidating, but a necessary eye-opener.
"I lived in a bubble," Edwards says. "This isn't about whether or not we're self-centered, lazy artists who think of ourselves in a bigger way than we truly are. [Musicians are] in a bubble. Once we get to be part of that bubble, I think we work so hard to become part of that community. We can't imagine a life outside of it, or we fear to leave because what happens if we're not let back in? And there is that subconscious suggestion that that will happen."
The result of Edwards' musical hiatus is Total Freedom (released August 14 via Dualtone Records), a stunning collection of songs about self-determination ("Options Open"), starting over and finding peace ("Birds on a Feeder").
It was a phone call from Maren Morris that jumpstarted Edwards' songwriting. The "My Church" singer called Edwards to co-write for her album. The writing session led to the ballad "Good Woman," written by Edwards, Morris and Ian Fitchuk, featured on Morris' 2019 record GIRL. Edwards says the experience "turned my pilot light back on."
"What was a surprise to me was how comfortable I felt participating in creating something for someone I didn't necessarily know because Maren was comfortable. And because we hung out at Ian Fitchuck's house and he's extremely comfortable. We worked in his home writing room, which was not what I thought it was going to be. I pictured Nashville and the writing scene to be this silly stereotype of a bunch of bros who meet at Starbucks with their laptops and try to find something that rhymes with Budweiser," Edwards says, laughing. "It really disarmed me... I wasn't asked to be anything but myself in those few days. Those two people really reminded me of who I was that I'd sort of put away into a keepsake box for later. I put [myself] in a time capsule for a little while and they let me like look back in and see what I'd put away."
Time spent focusing on her cafe and coffee shop (and away from the music industry) gave Edwards space for the quiet reflection showcased on songs about past relationships ("Glenfern"), re-connecting with a childhood best friend ("Simple Math") and "Who Rescued Who," an ode to her dog Redd, which reflects on the day she picked him up and the experience of having to say goodbye. ("I picked you up on the other side of the river," Edwards sings. "Dogs and alcohol, they go so good together/ You were so sweet, immediately.")
"It took twice as long to demo it because I couldn't get through the first chorus without crying. Even though when I wrote the song on my sofa I was happy -- thinking about the happy memories of what it was like to have that dog in my life," Edwards says of "Who Rescued Who." "It's actually this sweet sort of happy spirited song...I didn't want it to be the saddest song about a dead dog. I wanted it to be the thing where you're like, 'Isn't having a [expletive] dog amazing?'"
Edwards says Total Freedom represents a transformative era of her life.
"I think what's good about this record that I made is that it was made from a really true place of feeling like I had come through something. I came through clinical depression. I came through some difficult coming of age things, like being a woman who went from being on a rock 'n' roll chick who drank bourbon out of the bottle to this woman who's like, 'That is not fulfilling me. There's something missing from my life' and going and looking for it and realizing that I was always putting myself in positions where I was really hard on myself. I was really hard on my body. It was really hard on my heart... I didn't give myself the things that I needed to really thrive as a person."
The album, co-produced by Edwards, Jim Bryson and Ian Fitchuk, celebrates resilience and finding peace in the present -- a welcome message at a time when an ongoing pandemic has left countless souls racked with anxiety and uncertainty over the future.
"I think that is a hard thing for people to accept because it's the foundation of how we put one foot in front of the other -- we make plans and then we get up and we do them," Edwards says. "I think that's really what the hardest part of [quarantine] is. Hopefully, the record that I made is rooted in a joyful [message] to just take the time to appreciate what's in front of you today. The present has delivered all these wonderful things to me and hopefully that translates."