Petals and Thorns 

Kathleen Edwards and her new album, Asking for Flowers, have room for tough talk and soft spots

by Jewly HightA quick scan of the track listing for Kathleen Edward’s new album Asking for Flowers won’t offer many clues about where the album’s most romantic moments are found.

A quick scan of the track listing for Kathleen Edward’s new album Asking for Flowers won’t offer many clues about where the album’s most romantic moments are found. That’s because they’re hidden in a song titled “Sure as Shit.” Against gentle finger strumming, Edwards sings, “I sure as shit do love you / And I cuss because I mean it”—her voice sounding sweet and reedy like Mindy Smith’s, if a hair less angelic. (Edwards, it should be noted, doesn’t always sing that sweetly.)

Rough-edged, tenderhearted expression isn’t out of character for the Canadian singer-songwriter. “My worst fear is to write the sappiest love song that was ever written,” says Edwards. “I’m writing this love song and I guess I hide myself behind profanity when I’m fearful of being vulnerable.” When she played the Grand Ole Opry, her song selection criteria became “ones without swear words.”

On all three of Edwards’ albums—2003’s Failer, 2005’s Back To Me and Flowers—she tells stories in a very direct way. A case in point: “Westby” on Failer sums up an affair without mincing words: “If you weren’t so old I’d probably keep you / If you weren’t so old I’d tell my friends / But I don’t think your wife would like my friends.”

Sometimes Edwards’ toughness is front and center. “I’m kind of aloof the way a lot of men tend to be stereotypically in relationships,” she says. “I think that ends up being why I have a lot of guy fans, because I’m writing these relationship songs from my point of view, which tends to be a little more masculine, which probably is why I don’t have very many female fans.”

At other times people comment on her femininity. “The other day I stumbled on a review of my record by a guy,” she says. “He really didn’t write anything about the music. Instead he criticized everything about me that makes me female, the fact that I wear makeup, the kind of clothes I wear. I was like, ‘These are comments that you would never make criticizing a male artist. You just wouldn’t. And I actually wrote the guy, ‘You’re fucking sexist. Judge me for my music, and I don’t care if you hate it. Criticize me out the ying-yang, but don’t criticize me because I put on mascara.’ I just write songs that I think are real. I’m direct because I don’t know how else to be.”

Edwards’ hard-and-soft tension yielded a new batch of songs that take up for underdogs and victims of all sorts. “Asking for Flowers” portrays a trampled soul. (“That song’s about a lesbian relationship, about a friend of mine who suffers from manic depression and has physical disabilities and is always trying to fight the current of her fate to try and make her life better.”) Carried by keening guitar notes and string sighs, bruised and swelling epic “Alicia Ross” re-imagines the ordeal endured by a young Canadian woman of the same name, who was abducted, raped and killed by a neighbor.

“Oil Man’s War” and “Oh Canada” have more sonic bite. The former empathetically depicts a blue-collar draft dodger, and the latter takes on her country’s racial, environmental and economic transgressions. Edwards even manages to fold the image of the gaping, accidental gunshot wound on her father’s boyhood cat into a sort of lullaby (“Scared at Night”).

Despite the higher-than-average number of songs about men and violence in Edwards’ repertoire (“Six O’ Clock News,” “In State” and others), she decries the assumption that she has it in for men.

“I’m surrounded by really amazing guys all the time,” she says (one of them being husband-guitarist Colin Cripp). “I’m not one of those people that just is anti-guy. I was looking through my setlist last night and I realized, ‘Oh, I have a lot of songs with death and violence.’ It’s not an intentional thing. I’m not trying to be the female Tom Waits, murder ballad after murder ballad.”

Another Tom—Tom Petty—is her musical idol. It’s not just his melodic hooks, big guitar sounds and freewheeling yet down-to-earth songs that inspire Edwards’ own country-laced roots rock approach. The way he’s stuck to his guns professionally impacted her too.

“This is a bad pun—but, yeah, he didn’t back down,” she says. “How many times did I get a phone call saying, ‘The label really wants you to put your face on the cover of your album?’ It’ll be a topic of conversation for two months. It’s like no, no, no, no. How many times do I have to say no?”

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