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Kathleen Edwards on quitting music, falling for a conman – and her comeback

When Kathleen Edwards opened Quitters coffee shop in Stittsville, Ottawa, in late 2014, customers would ask if she was the country singer. Yes, in a manner of speaking, she was. “Great!” they would say. “I’ll have a coffee.” Edwards laughs. “It was a wonderfully freeing experience where I didn’t have to be so precious about who I thought other people should think I was.”

Edwards is not really a country singer, but rather a Canadian songwriting star of two decades whose wry, openhearted Americana brings to mind that of Tom Petty. Six years ago, expectations around who she was crushed her, prompting her to quit music and start the cafe. A new album, Total Freedom, marks a fresh start. Her brother suggested she put a bald eagle on the cover to emphasise the title. “I know it sounds a little ‘doo doo-doo!’” says Edwards, mimicking a military bugle as she FaceTimes from her bed, her red hair tied back. “But it was the essence of where I’ve got to.”

Among fans, Edwards is beloved for her sharp lens on relationships and mounting feelings of discontent, and for putting a Springsteen-ish spin on Canadian lore, naming hockey players and domestic murder victims in her songs. Her 2012 album, Voyageur, attracted a different kind of attention. It was produced by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, then on his own skyward trajectory. He was also Edwards’ boyfriend, following her divorce from the Canadian musician Colin Cripps.

That became the whole story: critics asking “if this was my divorce record produced by my new boyfriend”, Edwards says bitterly. “The reason that I had a record deal must have been because my work was OK, not because I made really good choices in my romantic partners.” She had hoped that Voyageur would elevate her career – not that that was why she made music, she clarifies. Yet Vernon’s mammoth success became a stark point of comparison: “It was hard getting a call saying: ‘I’ve just played to 20,000 people in Melbourne,’ and I can’t even sell 200 tickets in LA.”

When they broke up, she struggled not to feel devastated by the sight of loved-up couples at her concerts. She became aware that something was wrong: maybe she needed to exercise more, or take deep breaths, or stop feeling insecure. “It was a very foreign feeling that showed up and lurked and then didn’t go away,” she says.

She tried to hide it from her team, although she fantasised about phoning Joni Mitchell for advice. (That was not as far-fetched as it sounds: she had played with her fellow Canadian at her 70th birthday celebrations, catching her smoking in the strictly no-smoking backstage area.)

Edwards attributes that compartmentalisation to her divorce. She had played with Cripps from her open mic days to performing on David Letterman and touring with Willie Nelson. “He was the person who helped me stay grounded,” she says. When their marriage ended, she had to prove to everyone that she could go it alone. “And I did, at great expense.”

By the end of 2012, Edwards was besieged by hopelessness. She would go to bed thinking that she would wake up and start afresh. “And then tomorrow comes and, ugh, it’s still there. You’re weighted down by something you can’t even identify and it makes you feel like there’s no reason to live.” She cries as she recalls a period in which she often contemplated her death. “I knew that I did not have the desire to physically harm myself, but everything else was there. When you’re in emotional pain for that long, it’s a terrible suffering and you just want a reprieve.” After some doctors dismissed her, she was eventually diagnosed with clinical depression. She says it “was a revelation”.

Edwards’ guitarist knew she was miserable and had often dared her to quit and start a cafe called Quitters. When she did, the move prompted as many headlines as the Bon Iver connection had, suggesting a degree of awe at an artist walking away from her career when her profile was higher than ever. Edwards felt only relief. She had feared that her decision would disappoint her manager, her bandmates, her family. “But, really, I was slugging it out because I was already trying not to disappoint people. I could not conceive writing music any more until I was better.”

Running Quitters brought a new kind of satisfaction. No longer buffeted by a “protective shield” of management and agents, she was in direct, daily contact with regular people. “Their lives were about commuting to work, taking kids to school and navigating real life,” she says. “I realised I was giving them something, which was a place to come and just escape for five minutes and have a coffee: that is a wonderful thing that I can do.”

She felt part of a community for the first time, having grown up moving around the world with her father, a diplomat. She relished her garden and her dogs, enjoying spontaneity after the heavily scheduled existence of a touring musician. In 2017, she was surprised when the country star Maren Morris asked her to write with her. It felt good, so Edwards started writing for herself again. Her first song, Bird on a Feeder, was about her fear that her new, easy existence was incompatible with a relationship. She started one anyway, with a customer new to town. He turned out to be a con man. “I gave all my trust and leveraged myself financially entirely to a man and his children,” she says. “Then I realised it was going to ruin me.”

It took Edwards a year of legal proceedings to escape this “emotionally abusive” individual and the distorted reality he imposed: “That I was the reason all these things were happening, that I didn’t manage my money properly. It was classic: they project on to you all of the things that they’ve actually done.” She inhales deeply. “There was a period where I was really afraid. I couldn’t trust myself. He tried to deconstruct my own sense of self.”

Quitters saved her a second time, as her regulars reminded her of who she really was: “That I am a good person, I do treat people well,” she says. “I am not this person who’s exploited people or done these terrible things.” Her ex attempted to sue her for his “contributions” to Total Freedom – and failed. Edwards’ left hand occasionally flashes in front of her camera, a silver ring on her finger: she is now engaged to someone “who doesn’t feel threatened by a single thing that I am”.

The pandemic has put many people into the position that Edwards was in when she quit music in 2014: questioning what fulfilment is; doubting the concept of the lifelong vocation. “It doesn’t allow us to consider that we have multiple things that end up being part of our life’s history,” she says. “My life is so enriched for having more things. Even if they’re small potatoes, I don’t need the big fucking potato as the trophy that I get to hold up, going: ‘I did it!’” Edwards laughs when I mention arrival fallacy: the illusion that reaching a goal brings happiness. “I think that’s probably why I got depressed. That exact thing.”

Quitters is open for takeaway and Edwards has converted one corner into a stage for live-streamed performances while touring is not possible. But she has also considered selling up. “I love the idea that I could wake up and not go: how am I gonna solve a problem today?” she says. “One of the things that I’m really liking about getting older is the idea that I would choose true quality of life – to actually make the things that are important to me my priorities, rather than the work that will one day facilitate me having those things.”

That gratitude rings through Total Freedom. Edwards describes the idea guiding the record as “grief is everywhere and love is everywhere”. She sings warmly about her divorce and mourns the premature death of a Quitters regular – loss being a consequence of investing in community. There is a thankful, self-explanatory song called Dogs and Alcohol. She says writing again felt like regaining muscle memory, yet also like a new process, thanks to the expanded sense of self that came from building a life in Stittsville. “Now, when I see myself, it’s as somebody who has a much bigger picture holding them up,” says Edwards. “And I really don’t give a fuck how the music industry responds to me.”

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