Stop putting Kat Edmonson in a box Special

Posted Oct 13, 2014 by Cate Kustanczy
Singer Kat Edmonson has built a solid audience for her unique, retro-meets-future sound. But that doesn’t mean she cares a whole lot about genres. “I don’t know that anyone should,” she explains.
Kat Edmonson s latest release is  The Big Picture  (Sony Masterworks)  featuring songs that embrace ...
Kat Edmonson's latest release is 'The Big Picture' (Sony Masterworks), featuring songs that embrace a wide variety of musical styles and sounds.
Robert Ascroft
The spritely 31-year-old Texas native is making a splash with her latest release, The Big Picture (Sony Masterworks), a work that embraces a variety of new and old sounds, from country to 1960s pop to rockabilly, jazz, folk, to what NPR calls "Brill Building songcraft."
Currently on tour, Edmonson has her own term for what she does: “vintage pop.” It’s a label that’s been embraced by a variety of outlets to describe her sound, but the artist doesn’t necessarily care about easy classification. As she told recently, she settled on the term “because that can apply to popular music of the ‘40s and ‘50s – which was jazz – or the ‘60s and ‘70s – which I think are the decades of which my music runs the gamut.”
“There’s the necessity of classifying something in order to sell it, but it doesn’t apply to how I relate to music,” she says one grey afternoon, preparing for a tour stop in Toronto. “For better or for worse, I don’t feel like I fit into any given genre at this point.”
Edmonson’s sweet voice belies the steel of the woman who carries it. Her girlish, bell-like tone provides a striking contrast to the strength of her convictions. “What is all this for, if I don’t feel free?” she muses on “Avion”, the second track off The Big Picture. It could be Edmonson’s musical mantra.
The singer/songwriter started writing songs at the age of nine, introduced to a myriad of music sounds via her mother’s extensive record collection. In 2002 she auditioned for American Idol and made it to a group of 48 people invited to Hollywood, but she was quickly dismissed. (Idol judge Randy Jackson reportedly told her, “"You just don't look like a star, dog.”) She gained widespread attention after appearing on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, in a beguiling duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Lyle Lovett. That duet that would later appear on Lovett’s thirteenth album, Release Me; Lovett appeared on Edmonson’s second album, the largely Kickstarter-funded Way Down Low (Spinnerette) in 2012. Edmonson went on to tape an episode with the popular PBS program Austin City Limits shortly thereafter, and “Lucky”, a catchy pop-jazz song she penned, was featured in the 2013 romantic comedy Admission, starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. Edmonson has since opened for English jazz/rock artist Jamie Cullen and has performed at various European music fests, including the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, and toured with Chris Isaak, Michael Kiwanuka, and Gary Clarke Jr.
Edmonson’s fans thrill at the singer's unique interpretations of songs both new and old. Her debut album, Take to the Sky (Convivium), from 2009, is a collection of classy covers by some of music’s most famous and beloved names. Edmonson offers unusual takes on songs by Cole Porter, Gershwin, The Cardigans, and John Lennon. Her cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” slows the original down considerably and adds sexy, slithering bossa nova percussion; Edmonson’s Blossom-Dearie-meets-Billie-Holiday sound is used to full effect, rising gently above a tinkling piano, soaring and dipping like a lazy bumblebee on a hot summer afternoon. Never has Robert Smith sounded so sexy, romantic, or seductive.
“When I hear a song, I can usually hear it very clearly, another way, an alternate way,” she explains. “If I don’t have anything to offer it, I’ll leave it alone, but I really love doing my own interpretations of other people's songs — it’s the best way of paying homage to the songwriter and the previous artist.”
For her own work, Edmonson’s approach is the opposite: she hears other artists' works and singing styles in composing and creating her songs. A number of famous names came to mind in writing and recording The Big Picture. For instance, the spacious, dreamy “Avion” brought thoughts of The Beach Boys and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, but when it came to singing the number, Edmonson was inspired by 1990s English alternative band The Sundays. Edmonson recalled Paul Simon when she wrote “Who’s Counting”, a wry, mid-tempo piece with a clear melodious through-line and a knowing clarinet line woven throughout; more clarinets are used in the solemn opening of "The Best", a bouncy, pop-meets-rockabilly tune in which the singer thought of (and clearly vibes off of) Paul McCartney. What about the slow, old country-style ballad “Dark Cloud”? Surely Patsy Cline was the inspiration there?
“Ricky Nelson actually!” she says with a laugh. “I hear everybody!”
Along with sonically casting past and present singers in her work  Kat Edmonson extends her cinemati...
Along with sonically casting past and present singers in her work, Kat Edmonson extends her cinematic approach in her songwriting. “I’m pretty visual,” she explains, “I see scenes when I’m writing a song — in my mind I'm directing a whole scene in a film.”
Sony Masterworks
For the slinky, saucy album closer “You Said Enough”, a song which she and producer Mitchell Froom collaborated on, Edmonson says she was “imagining a cat in an alley, like, cattin’ around, a black cat, knocking down trash cans and going on peoples’ rooftops, up to no good…”
This kind of retro imagery is celebrated in the video for “Rainy Day Woman”, the lead single off The Big Picture, which references the classic 1963 film Charade starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and Blow-Up, Antonioni’s portrait of swinging-60s London. While the video nicely demonstrates Edmonson’s love of vintage sounds and styles, it also possesses a clearly modern sensibility, what with the artist’s knowing stare, playful laughing, and self-assured smile. Edmonson’s visual prowess finds more immediate expression online, with with her passionate love of Pinterest and Instagram.
“I love using Pinterest,” she exclaims. “When I discovered how to use it and what I could do with it, I became obsessed with it for a while. And Instagram is great. I’ve not been prone to doing a lot of social networking outside of visual outlets, where I feel I can really relate to people that way.”
Relating with Mitchell Froom during the making of The Big Picture felt smooth, even natural. Froom, an accomplished, longtime producer and music figure, is perhaps best-known for producing albums by a range of artists including Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, and the first three records by Crowded House.
“He was really intent on bringing out what I had already started doing,” Edmonson says with clear appreciation. “He is extremely harmonic, and very meticulous with arrangements. He is one of those great producers that … only emphasizes the artist’s sound. I think the only way you might recognize it’s a Mitchell Froom record is the depth of harmonies and orchestration, but apart from that he doesn't get in the way. He does not stamp his sound on any artist’s record.”
It is, perhaps, the freedom Froom allowed that has enabled Edmonson to continue defying easy genre classification, and instead focus on what it is she truly wants to express, in both intimate and epic ways.
“That’s the beauty of music, it means something to each listener, it suddenly belongs to everyone, and it’s songs from our lives. It’s a privilege to participate.”