If you ask Kathleen Edwards, the best thing she ever did was quit.
By 2014, the singer-songwriter had released four studio albums and amassed widespread critical acclaim. She had been touring since the release of her 2012 album, Voyageur, and the prospect of returning home—only to start writing her way toward another album, and another tour—felt impossibly daunting. She put her guitar away, at least for awhile: she moved back to her hometown of Ottawa and settled down in Stittsville, an old village on the western edge of town. A running inside joke with bandmate Jim Bryson about opening a coffee shop and naming it “Quitters” became reality. For years, the only new music she heard was playing in the background while she served her regulars at the shop, where she slowly started to fall in love with music again.
“I had no desire to write, no desire to play,” she says of what she refers to as her “working sabbatical.” “It allowed me all the time and space I needed to even just enjoy listening to music again. There were so many times where, if I was thinking about my own writing or playing, my heart just wasn’t in it. Opening a cafe gave me such a clean break from the weight of what I was carrying, I worked my ass off building a shop, I didn’t have to be ‘just a singer’ anymore.”
But in 2018, she received an unexpected phone call that changed that. Maren Morris, a longtime fan, invited her to Nashville for a songwriting session. Edwards accepted, and “Good Woman,” their collaboration, wound up on Morris’ 2019 album, GIRL. “It reminded me that writing and creating music is entirely my wheelhouse, and it was so easy to just jump back in and do that,” she says of her fortuitous time in Nashville. “Funny enough, the third person in the room for those two days was Ian Fitchuk, and [we] ended up starting the process of producing a record.”
Edwards will make her long-anticipated return to music with Total Freedom, her fifth studio album out August 14th via Dualtone Records. Written and recorded in Canada and Nashville with longtime collaborator/guitarist, Jim Bryson, and Grammy-winning songwriter/producer, Fitchuk, Total Freedom is both a return to form and a “hard reset,” one that empowered Edwards to write and perform entirely on her terms.
“I didn’t want to write songs that were going to keep me in a dark place on stage every night,” she says. “I didn’t have to carry a lot of the pressure of whatever course I was on previously… There’s a pressure sometimes to keep that ball rolling, and that’s what was so freeing about stopping altogether. I have this whole other experience now that grounded me and helped me rebuild my relationship with myself, and writing music. I’m entirely in control and deciding what my course of action is.”
For inspiration, she turned to Bob Seger, whose “Against the Wind” struck a chord with her: “The song just reveals itself in such an effortless way. I was like, ‘That’s how I want to feel on these songs being written: that’s how I want it to feel when I play it start to finish.’” Edwards’ cloud-grazing voice and strumming achieve that as she revisits old loves, losses and heartaches in a fresh context, from nostalgic notes of appreciation (“Glenfern,” inspired by her relationship with ex-husband, collaborator and friend Colin Cripps) to treatises on grief (“Ashes to Ashes”) and slowly disintegrating romance (“Feelings Fade”). Unhesitating in her willingness to confront life’s toughest challenges, Edwards finds the beauty in it all — a radical optimism that isn’t lost on her as she prepares to release her first album in eight years, and navigate a complete shift in how she runs Quitters, in the midst of a global pandemic. Total Freedom proves that she’s ready to adapt—and that she’s got staying power, too.
“I finally had this exhale from a year that was really hard,” she says of the forces shaping Total Freedom. “I went through a scary experience, extricating myself from someone, and it was this wonderful moment of resilience when I finished the album. I am super resilient. I’m always finding ways to adjust what’s not working. I’m not gonna let someone take me down in the process. I think that calling [the record] Total Freedom was a reminder that I am a really strong person.”
John Paul White
With The Hurting Kind, John Paul White has crafted a stunning album that draws on the lush, orchestrated music made in Nashville in the early 1960s. Yet these songs retain a modern feel, whether he’s writing about overwhelming love, unraveling relationships, or the fading memory of a loved one.
White grew up in tiny Loretto, Tennessee, and now lives in Florence, Alabama, not far from Muscle Shoals. He has cultivated his career in Nashville for two decades, first as a songwriter for a major publisher, then as half of The Civil Wars – a groundbreaking duo that won four Grammy Awards before disbanding in 2012.
Because The Civil Wars were so hard to categorize, White has earned a fan base among indie rock listeners, folk audiences, Americana outlets, and AAA radio. So, what will happen if people hear The Hurting Kind and call it country? “Well, that doesn’t scare me in the least,” he says. “As a matter of fact, it kind of thrills me.”
What was on your mind leading up to the sessions for The Hurting Kind?
I wanted The Hurting Kind to be a much more complex record than I’ve made before. I wanted it to be a more thought-about, arranged record. I had been burying my head in ‘countrypolitan’ stuff like Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline and early Roy Orbison, and a lot of Chet Atkins and Bill Porter records. I think I was doing that because I was looking for that style of music in today’s world, and for any artist doing that type of thing. Then I decided to make the kind of record that I wanted to sit down and listen to – one that I’ve been looking for and can’t find.
Where did you record it?
I have a little studio next to my house called Sun Drop Sound, and this is one of the first things we recorded in it. We converted an old, turn-of-the-century home next to mine in the historic district of Florence, Alabama. It has high ceilings and big rooms. We were able to cater the space to what we wanted this record to sound like, and then captured it the way we heard it in our heads. It was a lot of work and a lot of head-scratching at times, too, because of the complexity of the songs.
What makes the songwriting on The Hurting Kind different from your past work?
I approached this album differently on the songwriting side before I ever got into the studio. I really wanted there to be a torch song quality to it, the classic, timeless quality. To not be afraid of the big note, and not be afraid of the drama. A lot of times, without even thinking about it, I pull back the reins, especially when the lyric is pretty sad. When the lyric is pretty heavy, I’m a little more careful about taking it too far. After conversations with people I’ve met on the road – talking to them about songs that I’ve written and how they say my songs have helped them – I felt like I could say what I wanted to say on this record. And not worry that it was too maudlin or too heavy-handed. I thought, “I’m just going to go there.”
So I had this idea. My publisher, BMG, had been very kind and patient waiting for songs from me. I knew I wanted to write some new songs and I thought, “You know what? I’m going to use their Rolodex and find my heroes and see what they’re doing. See if they’re still writing songs – and see if they’re willing to write songs with me.” One of the first phone numbers I got was for Whisperin’ Bill Anderson. He’s a huge hero of mine. He has this boundless energy, this excitement! It was inspiring to see his eyes light up when a great line would come out or a melody would happen. I just ate it up and fed off it.
Why was it important for you to seek out those classic writers?
It played into the type of record I wanted to make. Bill is definitely from that era – writing and recording songs like “The Tips of My Fingers” and “Still” – and for me it’s canon. I thought, “Well, if he’ll answer the phone, let’s see who else will.” So I called Bobby Braddock and he was up for it. He told me a million amazing stories about writing songs like “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Golden Ring,” but also his time playing piano with Marty Robbins. It was the best! We wrote a song in maybe an hour.
It was so rewarding in other ways, too, because I got immediate feedback from them on whether I was writing country classic songs or not. I told them right off the bat, I really want to make a record that isn’t dated. I don’t want it to be retro. I don’t want to make it sound sonically like those classic records, but I do want it to have that same aesthetic. I do want it to have that same thought process and to be as deliberate as those records were. Coming out of each and every one of these situations, I got a resounding thumbs-up that I was on that right track. I didn’t need anybody else’s approval after that.
You built a sizable international audience with The Civil Wars. What do you hope those fans will hear in The Hurting Kind?
I’ve always had the same mentality with everything I’ve been a part of – just writing something that moves me. If it moves me, then I think it will move others. Then we’ll try to get the subject matter down to a specific moment in time and really dissect that moment instead of trying to write an epic. To get at the heart of something that’s bothering me, or makes me happy, or confuses me – I feel like I’m still doing that same thing. At the heart of all this, it’s me and a guitar. There are other things going on, but at the heart of it, it’s really about the song, more than anything else. That’s always been the case, with my solo stuff, or with the Civil Wars, or with anything that I’ve written for the Nashville market. The core is always the most important part.
What made you choose “The Hurting Kind” as the title track for this album?
I titled this album The Hurting Kind because these are typically the types of emotions and ideas and songs that I deal in. The things that consistently come to the front of my brain every time I sit down to write a song. Every time that I listen to records, the songs that I gravitate toward are the hurting kind. Those are the emotions that I think are the most powerful. They’re the ones that are the most lasting. They cut deeper and they stay with us.
“The Good Old Days”
It’s really me wondering, what era of America are people wanting to get back to? I’m having a hard time thinking of one we haven’t progressed from, or shouldn’t progress from. As a father, I see the world through their eyes and I’m wondering what we’re leaving for them, what they’re heading into, and how it can be improved upon – and how it can be improved upon for every single person on this earth and not just a select few. This song is my counter-argument to Making America Great Again.
“I Wish I Could Write You a Song”
This is me putting the rose between my teeth and trying to write a romantic song. Trying to measure up to this feeling that I have in my heart and not being able to get it on the page is the most endearing part of the sentiment. I’m a huge fan of Roy Orbison and always felt like he allowed himself to go as big and grandiose as the song wanted him to be. I don’t think there are a lot of people in popular music, especially men, who allow that to happen. So I was fully willing.
“Heart Like a Kite”
I’ve written a lot about being a flawed character — and more often than not, that’s the truth. But I wanted to take the perspective of somebody who was in love with someone with a wayward soul, and loved her way too deeply to walk away from. He knows what he’s in for and he doesn’t look at it as a negative. This person isn’t pointing fingers and saying she’s a bad person or a good person. She’s like a puppy that sees a butterfly and can’t help chasing it, and that’s part of why he loves her.
That’s Lillie Mae on fiddles and harmonies. I knew I wanted twin fiddles on this one. It’s funny, when I sing this song live, sometimes I’ll even make a comment during the song, like, “Wow, this is pretty heavy.” (laughs) And I try to sing it in an endearing way, like, “Honey, let’s just don’t talk. It’s over, just come here and hold me.” Kris Kristofferson’s influence shows up a lot on this record and he made a living of writing those kind of songs, like “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” This song was actually written for Beulah, but didn’t seem to fit. It does now.
“The Long Way Home”
It’s the one song that has the distinction of making my kids cry. I didn’t see this song as tugging at any heart strings, but when I played it, especially for my 11-year-old, he was tearing up. Especially the line, “Don’t you dare kiss me goodbye” in the bridge. That’s the one that always gets him. I didn’t see that coming, but he knows how much it hurts to leave. My kids know I have to play music, and they love that I do it. They’re very supportive, but thankfully they don’t want me to leave.
“The Hurting Kind”
I wrote this song from a female perspective. I wasn’t trying to do that, but every word of it sounded more real and heavier coming from a female perspective. It’s really a song about abuse. I asked my wife, “Is this still as powerful coming from my voice?” She said 100 percent, and that people are going to use their own voice when they listen to it anyway, so don’t overthink it, and don’t hand it off to somebody else when it’s something you really want to say. I took that advice.
“This Isn’t Gonna End Well” (featuring Lee Ann Womack)
Lee Ann straddles that line between the country world, the Americana world, and the crooner thing. I don’t think she’s super easy to pin down. With her voice she can make anything sound country if she wants to. I did not envision it as a duet at first but once it was done, and I was playing it down and thinking about it for the record, it made perfect sense. I loved the idea that it wasn’t just a one-sided conversation. Both people knew it was a horrible idea and neither one could pull out of it.
“You Lost Me”
That’s as close to a honky-tonk song as I get. When I play it live, people will giggle because they hear the wordplay and they don’t know where it’s going and how bad things are in that situation. I’m always looking for those twists and turns. I like to take something that seems obvious and look under it and over it and around it. Then I can explain it in a way that others haven’t, because then I can still use words and phrases and thoughts that people are used to, that are conversational.
This song was inspired by Glen Campbell. I’ve been a huge fan from early childhood. My mom says the first song she remembers me singing is “Rhinestone Cowboy.” When I found out that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it was heartbreaking. But I didn’t use Glen’s name or his life story; I used my dad’s. My dad is perfectly healthy and strong as a bull, but I wanted to use the details of his childhood. This song is like multiple short stories, all telling the same story in little flashes.
“My Dreams Have All Come True”
There’s something I love about positive titles that are sad songs, a twist in and of itself. If Elliott Smith and Kris Kristofferson got together and made a country record, that song is what I think would come out of it. It’s got the falsetto parts that I learned through osmosis from my dad. He never yodeled around anyone else, but he’d do it around the house. I look forward to singing that song every night, I won’t lie. I feel like it encompasses everything on the record in a really good way.