Sometime in the past year or two, Kathleen Edwards stopped caring about what you think. Stopped caring if a song might seem too long; stopped caring if her subject matter might "piss someone off." And, with a little help, she stopped worrying about whether her voice -- balanced and smooth, with just a bit of North Country bite -- was too "pretty."
One of the first songs recorded for her new album, Asking for Flowers (Zoë/Rounder), was the title track. "I remember taking it home, and it was still a rough mix, but I thought, 'I sing this too pretty, and it's not raw enough,'" she says. So she called up her producer, the legendary Jim Scott, who told her, "Well, everything sounds really good, and the performance is just what came out of you. You want to sound less girly? You want to sound less pretty? That's what your voice sounds like."
The 29-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter got her start in 1999, self-releasing an EP and booking her own gigs; her 2003 album Failer earned high praise from all the big mags, and 2005's Back to Me followed suit, on the backs of gritty folk-rockers like "In State." She'd gone from waiting tables to world tours, a "rollercoaster ride" that, by the spring of 2006, left her feeling the burn.
As she navigated the touring-musician life, the experiences and stories her songs drew upon slipped further and further into the past. She likens herself at the time to a burned-out Grady Tripp, Michael Douglas' character in Wonder Boys, struggling "to see that he was having real-life experiences, to be able to draw on them for something true and real in his own writing."
"I just wanted to go live life and write songs that were about that, that were real," she says. "And I think the only way to do that is to go and be living life at home, like a lot of people do, and hear the stories that inspire you to write songs again."
Whatever she did in her break from performing -- she mentions learning to play the piano, gardening and working in a winery -- it worked. Asking for Flowers takes Edwards' direct songwriting and voice into a more powerful yet meditative space, with touches of subtle strings, swirling Hammond organ (courtesy of Heartbreaker Benmont Tench) and pedal steel.
There's some upbeat country-rock -- like the lightweight but fun "Cheapest Key" and "I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory" -- but the overall tone is elegiac, tending toward narrative. "Oil Man's War" tells of a young U.S. couple fleeing the Vietnam draft into Canada. While the title seems overtly political, the song is more about setting out on a new life and leaving home. "I don't really believe it's my place as a Canadian citizen to tell people what's right and what's wrong about American politics," Edwards says. "Canada has its own deficiencies and triumphs, and those are what I like to recognize and talk about and think about."
Indeed. The album's hard-driving centerpiece, "Oh Canada," is Edwards' own bleak "Rockin' in the Free World," tackling Canadian complacency, a tendency to see no evil. "In the valley below / There is crack and young girls," she sings in the final verse, "But you don't have to believe / What stays out of your world." Her voice breaks in anger as guitarist (and hubby) Colin Cripps unleashes his own kinder, gentler machine-gun hand on an explosive Youngian solo.
"There was a shooting in downtown Toronto, and this young white girl was hit and killed," Edwards explains, "and her face was on the cover of all the national newspapers the next day." The Canadian media's take was that Toronto "lost its innocence," which angered Edwards. "It had actually been two years of record gun-related deaths in Toronto, and a lot of those deaths were black kids living in neighborhoods that weren't downtown Toronto.
"I think what really pissed me off was like, 'Wow, it takes the face of a white girl to bring attention to a problem that has been around for a long time -- what about all the black girls who have died, innocent bystanders? Their faces weren't on the national papers.' I just got pissed off, thinking, 'Where are all the people who are supposed to stand up for these kids?'"
It's hard to say whether Edwards could have written a song like "Oh Canada" a couple of years ago. "I've let go a lot of the idea that I'm supposed to sound like this or I'm supposed to be doing that, and kinda just grew some -- for lack of a better word -- balls in that department, and decided that if something felt good to me, I was gonna go with it."
Kathleen Edwards with Justin Rutledge. 7:30 p.m. Tue., April 8. Rex Theatre, 1602 E. Carson St., South Side. $18. 21 and over. 412-381-6811 or www.rextheatre.com