Voyageur is less of a departure than it is a journey, and like any transforming trip, it demands that we let go of any preconceptions about the destination. These songs are the perfect travel companions to their own haunted landscape. Edwards guides us through a house full of empty rooms, revealing the sadness behind a public smile and the numbness that follows broken expectations and the casual cruelties of love, until we find ourselves softly drifting down to hell with her. And yet, this isn’t a bummer ride at all — it’s elevating. The Romantic poet William Wordsworth said that poetry is born in “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and Voyageur evokes a spectrum of overwhelming feelings within the atmosphere of a lucid dream. Edward’s characters speak to the grief, loneliness, shock, and confusion that come with endings as well as the hope and irrepressible joy that accompany new beginnings, but the stories are told with a seductively quiet strength. The album celebrates the many pleasures of survival and reinvention, suggesting that an acceptance of life’s changeability is what will allow us to face the hardest of hard times — as well as the exhilarating longing and dislocation of the unknown — head on, with grace.
Voyageur was recorded between August 2010 and May 2011 in Fall Creek, Wisconsin and Toronto, Canada.
All the guests on the record have been playing on stereos nearby or in the background over the last few years. Francis and the Lights, Norah Jones, Stornoway, John Roderick, Phil Cook (Megafaun – piano/organ), Sean Carey (Bon Iver – drums/percussion), Afie Jurvanen (Bahamas- guitar), Brian Moen (Peter Wolf Crier- drums), and Justin Vernon (guitar/vocals/piano/organ/bass/banjo/xylophone).
Backed by Kathleen’s touring band, Gord Tough (guitar), John Dinsmore (bass) and Lyle Molzan (drums), and her longtime friend and musical partner, Jim Bryson (guitars, keys).
“I knew laying the foundation for this record would start with the songs. For the first time I was open to the idea of co-writing, and what had previously been an intensely private process became a challenge to see what would happen with an open mind to a different approach.
John Roderick of the Long Winters was someone I sought out to work with. I spent a few weeks over the winter of 2009/10 going to Seattle. I would sit at his piano in his living room and play the songs I had, knowing they were incomplete and he would offer ideas where I had reached an impasse. He helped carve more clarity in some of the songs, sometimes he even knew what they were about before it actually occurred to ME. He’s annoyingly smart like that. He challenged me. Meeting John was a major turning point in my life. I was ready for change and he helped me see it.
In the following months, my band spent many hours trying out ideas, arrangements, and we even started tracking the record in Toronto in September of 2010. Of the five songs we recorded, “Mint” and “Empty Threat” are the only songs that still exist on the album. It was clear that I needed to re-work the feel of some of the others, but I also needed to find a producer. Someone to help build these tracks once I’d found the right feel for them.
Then came Justin Vernon. A friendly “Hi, nice to meet you in an email” evolved into a conversation about music (Him: “I don’t really co-write”. Me: “I don’t really co-write either”. Him: “I have two cats” Me: “I have two cats”…..). Soon afterwards I made a trip to Wisconsin to see his studio. Talking to Justin about making music confirmed every sentiment about what was missing for me. He set up some mics one afternoon and I played “Wapusk” live off the floor. He added piano, we added some vocals and then we conceptualized how the rest of the song would develop musically. And it just became obvious that we were going to co-produce this record together.
He was the sounding board for ideas, he tinkered with sounds, he threw a new musicality at the songs and allowed them to grow into the direction they so badly needed. He directed other musicians, he directed me (mostly to fetch some snacks, but without his direction I would not have stuck with “Pink Champagne”). He’s an unpredictable mix of bold strokes with crunchy guitars and soft eloquence in his signature falsetto vocal harmonies. So much of a producer/artist relationship is the willingness to trust each other, but also to push the boundaries of familiarity. Even if it feels scary. Especially when it feels scary. I give him credit for getting me where I needed to go, never feeling like I was betraying what I sound like, or who I am, but taking a massive leap forward in the right direction.
Some songs like “House Full of Empty Rooms” and “For the Record” came together in one go, but others eluded me for a long time. “Chameleon”, “Going To Hell”, “Change the Sheets” were songs that I re-recorded several times. I kept going back to the drawing board because they hadn’t yet found the right structure, the right feel, the right key… it was painstaking and frustrating because it was months of knowing the seed of the idea was good, but it was always a work in progress. Lyle Molzan, my drummer, deserves gold-plated drum set for his uncompromising focus in getting us there. Jim Bryson saved “Sidecar” and turned it into the synth-pop feel-good song I was desperate for. “Going to Hell” almost ended up on the chopping block; it currently stands as my favorite track of the album.
“Ultimately, I wrote these songs. But I had a lot of help along the way. And without Justin at the helm, my band and the other musicians who contributed to helping me work through the false starts and re-worked parts, I would have never gotten them right.
So. Yeah. I’m fucking done.”
— Kathleen Edwards