Why Kathleen Edwards Had to Quit Music (and Open a Coffee Shop)

“You know when you wake up in the morning and you’ve got this list of things on your calendar that you’ve got to do?” the Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards asked from the floor of her living room on a recent afternoon. (She’d relinquished the couch to her snoozing Labrador retriever, Penny.) “And there’s something eating at you, you’re procrastinating, you’re anxious because this one thing is on your list?”

She paused. “Imagine if you just … took it off. And then this wave of relief comes over you.”

Edwards, 42, wasn’t speaking about something as mundane as a nagging errand. “That’s how it felt when I was like, I just don’t want to play music anymore,” she explained.

Since releasing her acclaimed debut album, “Failer,” in 2003, Edwards has been a critical darling with a steadily growing cult following. Her sweet-hoarse holler drew countless comparisons to Lucinda Williams, but her songwriting has a droll, observant and unsparing tone that is all her own. In her best lines, Edwards has the conversational vernacular and emotional eloquence of a great short-story writer: “Asking for flowers is like asking for you to be nice,” she sang on the title track on “Asking for Flowers” in 2008. “Don’t tell me you’re too tired, 10 years I’ve been working nights.”

“I would ugly cry to her albums during my breakup,” the country singer Maren Morris wrote in an email. “She just gets to the heart of it. No sugar coating necessary if you have the lyrical stones to back it up, which she does.”

Edwards’s music always had something of an outlaw sensibility: She once released a single called “One More Song the Radio Won’t Like.” But in 2012, she seemed to be becoming more of an insider. Her career surged with the release of “Voyageur,” her first to crack the Billboard Top 40 in the United States, and shortly after divorcing her longtime guitarist Colin Cripps, she began dating the album’s co-producer, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver — a relationship that made her one half of a kind of indie-folk power couple.

But Edwards was struggling privately in ways she couldn’t yet articulate. Her divorce had been “a lot more destabilizing” than she had initially realized, she said. And Vernon’s skyrocketing career put added strain on their budding relationship. They had initially bonded over their shared experiences as no-frills folk musicians; suddenly, it was becoming difficult to find common ground.

“I don’t need that,” she said of Vernon’s success, which includes collaborations with Kanye West and, most recently, Taylor Swift. “But I’d just love 1 percent of dignity.”

When they broke up later in 2012, Edwards realized she was dealing with something even more debilitating than heartbreak. “I’d never experienced clinical depression before,” she said. “I tried to stick it out and put on a brave face, but I was really sick.”

Over Zoom, Edwards had a remarkable openness, a quick wit and a tendency to sometimes vocalize her frustration with the equivalent of a keyboard smash: “askdfjdaskljf.” In the “Voyageur” era, she had grown so accustomed to making that sound that a friend suggested she “just quit music, move home and open up a cafe called Quitters.”

For a while, it was a hilarious running joke. Then, one day after she had moved back home to Ottawa and settled in the sleepy suburb of Stittsville to recover from her depression, a for-rent sign went up in front of an old building she’d always loved, and suddenly the joke wasn’t so funny anymore.

A few months after Quitters Coffee opened in late 2014, a gruff-looking older man called Edwards over to his table. “I thought he was going to complain, like, ‘It’s too loud in here!’” Edwards remembered. Instead, he offered her a kind of riddle: “Do you know what the difference is between you and the other person who wanted to open a coffee shop in Stittsville?” She did not. He said: “There are people who talk about it, and people who do it. You are a doer, and you should never forget that.”

“I almost bawled,” Edwards said.

Quitters has a crew of regulars, a number of whom are retirees. Recently, a woman wrote Edwards a letter telling her that she had come out as transgender to her partner at the coffee shop, because she had seen it as a “meaningful and safe place to navigate this incredible change.” It’s hard to quantify that sort of success on the Billboard charts.

Though her first job out of school was working in a cafe, becoming a small-business owner was a welcome invitation to “put my big-girl pants on and learn how to handle what a lot of professional people deal with every day,” Edwards said. It got her out of her head, her funk and the “bubble” of musicians she’d been ensconced in since her early 20s. She felt so far from that world that, when someone broke into her home and stole her ’57 Les Paul Junior, it took her weeks to even notice it was gone.

Every so often, a fan would drive from Vancouver or Texas to tell the woman making their latte that her records had changed their life. She would look at her staff and shrug: “Yeah, that’s a little weird, right?” One day in late 2017, a message came from a fan with a more direct request. It was Maren Morris, asking if Edwards wanted to co-write a song

“I’ve always been a tad reticent when the opportunity to meet someone I deeply respect and admire arises,” Morris said. “Fortunately, she was the loveliest human being the moment I walked into our co-write and she was ready to hash out a song on the spot.” That song became “Good Woman,” a smoldering slow-burner on Morris’s hit 2019 album, “Girl.”

Edwards said the opportunity was a fresh start. She gave herself some time away from Quitters’ day-to-day operations and “started playing guitar every day just to see what would happen.” “And it eventually just kind of started happening,” she said. (She had by then gotten her Les Paul back, too.)

The result is “Total Freedom,” Edwards’s first album in eight years, which is out on Friday. Hearing her chatty, familiar voice again on the stirring opening track, “Glenfern,” feels like picking up a conversation with an old friend midsentence. Edwards cited a line from that song as representing the album’s title ethos: “The online street view used to crack me up/It was you standing in your slippers.”

“I would have never [expletive] written that before, because it didn’t sound songwriter-y!” she said and laughed. “But I just kind of threw caution to the wind this time around, because I wasn’t worried about what would happen. I mean, what’s going to happen? I go back to working at the cafe? OK, sounds good!”

This perspective has allowed Edwards to write the most thematically panoramic album of her career. Yes, there are love songs and a few breakup songs (“Hard on Everyone” is a scorching recollection of an “emotionally abusive” relationship Edwards extricated herself from a year and a half ago). But there are also tracks that vividly evoke quieter experiences that don’t show up as often in songs, like watching the years pass with a lifelong friend (“Simple Math”), or adopting a stray dog and drinking too much whiskey (“Who Rescued Who”), or taking a long, peaceful break from life’s busy thrum before jumping back in (“Birds on a Feeder”).

The pandemic has halted Edwards’s plans to tour, but it’s also given her an opportunity to fuse the two halves of her professional life: She and her band have recorded a few live performances from Quitters, and she’s considering hosting a pay-per-view concert series from the cafe.

The brief time Quitters was closed in the beginning of the pandemic also gave her welcome time to reflect. “I built this really special place,” she said. “When you’re working there every day, it’s hard to step back and have perspective, just like how stepping back from music has given me an incredible amount of perspective about my accomplishments. I’ve had a tremendous amount of gratitude come into my life because I can see those things now.”


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