Kat Edmonson gehört einer schützenswerten Spezies an. Wo andere junge Sängerinnen dem neuesten Trend hinterherjagen, um baldmöglichst berühmt zu werden, macht sie eigentlich alles falsch, was man auf dem Weg zum schnellen Ruhm falsch machen kann. Sie schmiss ihren sicheren Platz bei American Idol – der US-Entsprechung zu Deutschlang sucht den Superstar hin, um 2009 in Eigenregie ihr Debütalbum Take To The Sky aufzunehmen – eine Sammlung ihrer Interpretation von Great American Songbook-Klassikern wie Summertime, Night and Day oder Just One Of Those Things.
Anscheinend hat Edmonson mit ihrer unpopulären Entscheidung dann aber doch alles richtig gemacht. Ihr Debüt erreichte einen Platz unter den Top 20 der Jazz-Charts in Billboard, und bald schon wurden die Country-Größen Willie Belson und Lyle Lovett auf sie aufmerksam, die gemeinsam mit ihr auftraten. Mit Lovett ging sie sogar auf Tour, wo sie das Vorprogramm des Stars bestritt – und jeden Abend vor tausenden Leuten gemeinsam mit ihm das Duett Baby It’s Cold Outside sang. Der Song schaffte es auch auf die aktuelle Platte Lovetts. Hiernach fühlte sich Kat Edmonson endlich selbstbewusst genug, ihn zu fragen, ob er nicht auf ihrer neuen Platte singen wolle. Er wollte. Das Duett Long Way Home gehört zu den Stücken ihres neuen Albums Way Down Low, auf die Kat Edmonson besonders stolz ist, denn es stammt aus ihrer eigenen Feder. Es war tatsächlich ein langer Weg nach Hause, aber, wie die sympathische Sängerin im Interview verrät, “es wird mit jedem Jahr besser”!
KLangverführer sprach mit Kat Edmonson über erste Einflüsse, die einen nie verlassen, über die Popmusik vergangener Zeiten und weshalb die auch für heute genau richtig ist, wo ein Wettbewerb allein ob des lautesten Masterings zu herrschen scheint, weshalb es nicht funktioniert, wenn man versucht, etwas anderes darzustellen, als man ist, und warum sich die Sängerin darauf freut, endlich dreißig zu werden.
Klangverführer: One of the songs on your new album is called I Just Wasn’t Made for these Times. Listening to the music on Way Down Low and especially your vocal style, one could really start to believe that he’s listening to a record of his father’s or even grandfather’s collection … What’s the story of your fascination with these retro sounds?
Kat Edmonson: It’s the first music that I came to know. I learned music through old movies that I’ve been watching and the songs that were written for these movies that would later become the American Songbook, Harold Arlen and Cole Porter and George Gershwin and all these great writers, and of course all those artists like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra … And I fell in love with the songs. So that was my first influence and your first influence never leaves you. It will stay the most prominent. My mother was a single mom, working all the time; and she needed something to preoccupy me, so she would put a VHS on and I would sit and watch it. And I was enamored with them, so it worked!
There’s even not a single electronic sound on Way Down Low – and sometimes you even go without any drums, like on Lucky. Why did you decide to make a purely acoustic record and how to you try to make it accessible to the younger audience who is used to electronic dance music from the radio and the clubs?
Let me reply to the latter question first, how do I make it accessible: I believe that if you try to be something that you’re not, then people will realize it. It never worked for me. When I’m honest, I have the most access. I feel fortunate that a lot of magical things have happened, that the musicians I have met in my life, some really famous musicians that I admire, like Lyle Lovett or Willie Nelson, have shown me their support. They appreciate what I’m doing, musically, because they feel it is authentic. I made an acoustic record because it mirrored where I was at that time. My next record will have electronic instruments on it. It won’t be like Dance, Techno or anything like that, but it may sound more … modern, if you will. But I think anyone will argue that it’s going to be very retro sounding, I can’t stray from that, it’s the music that I love the most: popular music from past eras.
Is there also any contemporary music that you love?
I’m not listening too much to the mainstream radio, actually. The only thing I’m … well, not the only thing, but … I was really into the Gotye song that recently came out, a really cool song called Somebody that I need to know, and then I always love checking out whatever Radiohead is doing, whatever Björk is doing, but she’s not mainstream. And a lot of old artists came out with new albums, so I buy them: Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan … You know I’m a bit of an old folkie. It’s a bit embarrassing, but it is what it is.
And it’s even kind of hip, considering the folk-pop revival … it’s a giant wave! You have all these guys with their beards looking alike and stuff … But let’s keep talking about I Just Wasn’t Made for these Times that we’ve just touched on in the first question. This song is one of the few cover songs on your new album, more precisely, it was written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher for the Beach Boys in 1966. What kind of connection do you have with the Beach Boys, musically speaking?
Well, that Beach Boys album was one of the first albums that I’ve got. In fact, I think it was the first CD I’ve ever received as a gift, when CDs came out. Until then I used to listen to tapes, and I will never forget my first CD, it was Beach Boys Greatest Hits, I think it was called Made in the USA. I listened to it constantly and then I really got into Pet Sounds …
… the Beach Boys album from 1966 …
… the year when the Beatles came out with Yesterday and Today in the States, and Paul McCartney was obsessed with it! I loved the album and never really stopped listening to it. And then, one day I was sitting all by myself, listening to the album again and I heard the songs and then I … completely knew it! It was like it spoke to me. I heard it and I never felt so strongly about … covering a song. I felt I needed to express my interpretation because I felt I could have written it, I identified so much with it feeling like I’m in the wrong era.
I believe Brian Wilson wrote it to express he felt to advanced for his times … Is that what you are trying to say, too, or do you rather feel you would have better fit in the past times?
I think I was saying that I would better fit in the past times, perhaps, but the thing is what I’ve learned through this process is that perhaps I’m perfect here in this time because I have a niche, you know, not many people are doing it. So perhaps that’s just right for me. And maybe no one would have noticed me if I were in Brian Wilson’s time or before that. That would have been a pretty tough competition. I mean, from what era would you prefer to be from? You’ve got Billie Holiday, Etta James, Frank Sinatra – all these fantastic singers, and I think I would have probably simply disappeared in the fog. So it’s probably better for me know.
You’ve just mentioned names like Billie Holiday or frank Sinatra … Do you think that these artists were better than nowadays artists?
They are definitely my preference. But indeed I tend to think that people were more musical, I tend to think that they were better on their feet … at improvising, going to play a live show. I think it took a lot more. I mean, in every era it’s just show business, people coming in and trying to do something with the trend, trying to get famous as quickly as possible – this has always been the case. Maybe the landscape is just broader now, and the speed is higher.
So it’s not something like a … let’s say: devotedness … that you miss in nowadays music?
No. Things that are popular now are super overt. It’s like … it’s loud. I mean, just on a technical side, when they master a CD these days they master it so much louder than they used to. It’s a competition of who gets the loudest track which can be heard from further away, you know? And the thing I love in the music that I make is that it’s very settled, full of nuance and I’m begging the listener to notice things. They might be hard to notice if you’re not listening, so I’m not necessarily making it easier for on self when it comes to marketingness, but what can I do? It’s like I said, trying to be anything else would make me come up like a fool.
Yeah, it’s all about authenticity … Well, apart from that Beach Boys song you recorded a version of Whispering Grass (Don’t Tell The Trees) which was written in the 1940ies and became quite popular in 1975 through the interpretation of Windsor Davis and Don Estelle – and of course through Ringo Starr who featured it on his album Sentimental Journey in 1970. What does this song mean to you?
Well, the version that I knew very well was The Ink Spots version, I think it was late-30ies. I know it became very popular as a theme song for a television show in England, but I never knew about that. I knew it as a song that The Ink Spots sang and that was very ambiguous, I really didn’t understand it. And The Ink Spots were the first band that I ever heard live. I saw these very old men play – and then, much later, I happened to run into this wonderful former head of Blue Note Records, named Bruce Lundvall, and he said you know, you should actually sing that song. And so I did. I did my own interpretation and Danton Boller, my bass player, arranged it. And he would have this (sings) bom-bom, bom-bom, which sounds very intensive, almost dark. So I totally went into that brooding, dark direction and instructed the band to play it as if it was a very cold, snowy, isolating experience. And this is what we came up with.
Well, lastly the Gershwin classic S’Wonderful lets the album fade away with a lively, almost cheery mood which kind of counteracts with the record’s folk pop spirit and especially that of the two preceding songs … How would you yourself describe the music on Way Down Low? Is it Folk? Is it Jazz? Is it Easy Listening? Singer/Songwriter? Something in-between? Something else?
I don’t know! I don’t know what to call it. It’s folk, it’s Jazz, it’s Acoustic Rock, it’s Pop, it’s Country … It’s popular music of bygone eras! You know, when they used to turn the radio on in the Fifties, you would hear a country song and a pop song on the same station. Even the very same song would be sung by a Jazz vocalist and a Pop singer, and you would hear a Folk singer as well. And it all kind of went together. And now, things are labeled differently, but those are my influences and that’s how it comes out.
Obviously you’re not an apologist of nowadays genres, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres …
Oh, I created my own genre called “Vintage Pop”!
Nice, I like it! And while we’re on the subject of like and dislike: I really do like Hopelessly Blue and I Don’t Know on your album. Do you have something like a favorite tune, too?
Thank you. My favorites keep changing every single time, but I love Hopelessly Blue. My friend Miles [Zuniga] wrote that song. We had one hour left in the studio – the session was already paid for, so we didn’t want to waste the time and that’s when we pulled out Hopelessly Blue. And I … I just love that song. I’m definitely going to record some more of Miles’ songs on my next record.
Did he write Hopelessly Blue for you or did you do a cover version?
It was originally written for his solo records, but then he called me from the studio and said, I left it out because I hope that you would record it. And I didn’t think that I would get there, but in the last hour of the entire session I could finally say, oh good, we ca do it! And then I called Miles and told him that I did it, that we recorded it.
That’s amazing, because for me it’s the most touching song on the whole album, sad and heart-breaking just like a classic torch song … and that’s why I’m not sure whether to be glad about the mood-lifting and cheery Gershwin or to be a bit disappointed for it destroys the feel that Hopelessly Blue and the I Don’t Know reprise leave behind …
Well, I would have preferred the album to end with the I Don’t Know reprise, but Sony added S’Wonderful.
It actually feels like some sort of bonus track …
But though it’s not part of the actual album, I think I like the idea to dismiss the listener with this spirit-lifting song.
Of course, when you work with a team, you make some compromises and it’s all hopefully for your benefit, so it’s not how I designed the album, but I did record that song and it had to go somewhere, and I like the notion of a happy ending. I’m a romantic. And also an optimist. Regardless of how sad it’s getting and how incapable I seem to be, I always see the silver lining.
Did I get it right that only your album’s version for the European market comes up with this happy ending?
Yes, the American version ends with I Don’t Know. S’Wonderful is for Europe only – ’cause you are so special! You get an extra track! (laughter)
I heard about people putting an extra track on the vinyl version to animate the crowd to buy them …
I’m usually recording so many songs that in the end I have to take something off in order to release a record … I didn’t release this album as a vinyl, but my previous album I did, and it was a labor of love. I also released it as 180 gram audiophile vinyl pressing, but you know, it costs so much money doing it! But as soon as I will have the opportunity releasing my current album on vinyl, I will.
I think it would fit your music like a glove and I would definitely think about buying one!
Moving towards the last question, there’s another very special song on it: I’m thinking of Long Way Home, a duet with Lyle Lovett. How did you get to know him and how did it feel to work with him on an song that you’ve written?
Huge honor! Massive honor! This is actually my first album to present my original music. My previous album was all covers. And it gives confidence to present my own songs. I wasn’t sure if they worked, but with every bit of participation from my band, from the listeners, my confidence grew. And to have Lyle want to come and sing that song with me was a great affirmation. He told me how much he enjoyed it in the studio what meant so much to me! He sought me out upon hearing my album and hearing me live …
Your previous album?
Take to the Sky, yeah. And he asked me to come to sing with him. In Austin we played a show for several thousand people, perhaps. At that time it was the most people I’ve ever played for! And … (whispers) I was so nervous!!! He ask me to sing Baby It’s Cold Outside, so we did it. And then, shortly after that, he asked me to go on tour with him and open for him, and every night we would sing Baby It’s Cold Outside. And then he asked me to record this song on his record, so … at that point I felt comfortable enough to ask him if he might record on mine. And he’s been a great friend and primarily mentor. He’s been such a great mentor to me, very generous with what he has.
Apart from him, do you have other heroes, maybe whom you have never met yet?
Oh, Tony Bennett! He really appreciates the song in the way that I do. Because the song – and the songwriters – is where my love of music really lies. It would make my whole life to meet him … and sing with him, maybe. And there’s tons of others. I had the chance to meet Eric Clapton. That was huge for me. I’ve become friendly with Willie Nelson, gotten to know him well. He’s very sweet and, again, another great songwriter! It doesn’t get any better than just meeting the people that I admire, that’s really my greatest aspiration.
Among your heroes – are there also women?
Oh, you’re right, everyone I mentioned is male. But I, I don’t’ know, I’m almost more afraid to meet women, I don’t know why. Carly Simon – oh my Gosh! Barbra Streisand …
… Oh, I’ve just seen her show that she played here in Berlin a few days ago. Have you ever experienced her live?
I think she’s seventy-one by now, and she has brought her son with her and her sister, she had a sixty man-strong orchestra, a big band, a huge choir … it was truly an overwhelming production.
Wow. She’s incredible.
Definitely! And she was playing a lot of songs from the American Songbook …
She knows the songs! And then, of course, Björk. She’s inspired me a lot.
Really? I don’t really seem to find access to her music …
I can understand. I’m more fascinated with her. Have you seen her MTV acoustic performance?
If you can ever … I think you can watch in on YouTube, it’s MTV Unplugged …She has a crazy instrumentation and just beautiful arrangements of her songs. I love to see people that embrace their uniqueness. I still keep learning how to do it because that’s the thing I admire most in people. It could be in music, but anything and anyone in the world who has that is an inspiration.
I think to really accept your own uniqueness and not trying to be like others want you to be, you have to become thirty. The twenties are, especially for women, a time of great insecureness … It’s a long way.
Perhaps, and I’m turning thirty next year. People keep asking me if I become nervous on turning thirty, but – no! With every year it’s getting better. I don’t wanna go back.