Kathleen Edwards has been making music for an awful long time.
The Ottawa-born singer-songwriter, playing Montreal’s Osheaga Festival this weekend, has been plying her musical wares since the late '90s and been an international presence since 2003 when her rootsy album Failer won over the likes of Rolling Stone magazine, who dubbed her one of that year's 'ten artists to watch.'
So it must have seemed strange — sexist, even — when several records and nearly a decade later Edwards released her strongest album yet, the recently Polaris Music Prize short-listed Voyageur, only to find much of its related press coverage seemed more obsessed with her boyfriend/co-producer Justin Vernon, Bon Iver’s Grammy-winning indie-folk superstar.
"Any topic that involves Justin is a happy topic for me. His involvement has opened a lot of doors for me even after making the record and I feel really lucky," Edwards told Huffington Post Canada. "[But] one of my first big reviews was in Rolling Stone magazine and the first half was about Justin and it takes the winds out of your sail. I'm more than someone's girlfriend and Justin knows that and it's hard to feel like you have like searched and worked hard and really wanted to do something that's your best work and put your best foot forward.
"Of course, he was helping me do that, but most people, when their record is reviewed, their boyfriend isn't in the piece. So that part is hard because it makes you feel sometimes like the only reason is because they want to know what Bon Iver's girlfriend sounds like," she says.
"I have no way to control any of it," Edwards adds, "So I have to be at peace with it, which I am now, and I have to know that he's got my back, which I know he does. So I don't ever feel like that I'm trying to jump on the coattails."
This is a situation by no means exclusive to Edwards, nor is it necessarily because she's a female artist. While Jay-Z and Beyonce enjoy equal fame, it would be hard to imagine either of them with anyone else who wouldn't be outshone. Gavin Rossdale and Bobby Brown were each massively famous at one point in their careers, for instance, but both became better known as the husbands of Gwen Stefani and the late-Whitney Houston, respectively. (Perhaps the king of this category is Sonny Bono, who despite being an elected congressman might as well have had "Cher's Ex-Husband" engraved on his tombstone.)
Ideally, a relationship of equal partners is seen as just that — think Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino and Wavves' Nathan Williams or Arcade Fire's husband-and-wife bandleaders Win Butler and Régine Chassagne. Sometimes a couple of differing levels of fame but who also move in different circles, like Elvis Costello and Diana Krall, can avoid being subsumed by the other.
But for a couple like Kathleen and Justin, the media can't help but bring the latter into the story. At the end of the day, this isn't an example of sexism but simply a celebrity-obsessed culture where the more famous half of a musical couple will always get the column inches. (And, to be fair, though Vernon picked up a pair of Grammys this year, including Best New Artist, his fame was initially due to his relationship with Kanye West, having sung on the rapper's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album.)
Edwards' personal relationship with Vernon, which developed after he came on board as co-producer for Voyageur, is not Edwards' first musical coupling. She was previously married to ex-bandmate Colin Cripps, but because he was less famous than Edwards, she never risked losing top billing on her own work. (In fact, their divorce is also Voyageur's primary subject matter.)
Ironically, Vernon was familiar with Edwards long before she knew who he was.
"I've been a fan of hers since Failer, back a long time ago," he told Q's Jian Ghomeshi. "I've been a superfan. Me and [drummer] Sean [Carey] in my band listened to her records endlessly."
It was his fandom that brought the two together in the first place. Having scrapped most of her early demos for being a "redundant repetitive cycle of Americana songs," she needed a fresh perspective. "One of these people that I knew was, like, 'Talk to Justin, he knows your work. Here's a guy who has a complete context of where you've been.'"
A flurry of emails followed, though Edwards says she was never considering him as a producer.
"I was thinking more like maybe I have some songs that need help, maybe he has some ideas about how these songs could be better. The more we kind of corresponded the more it was like 'You're really awesome, let's meet.' I went up to Wisconsin and wrote a song. Then it just swelled and swelled."
For longtime fans, the success of their collaboration and Voyageur's realization of her early potential is really all that matters. And for Edwards, it's about creating genuine art, regardless of who her boyfriend may be.
"I think the numbers [of the previous albums] were consistently bigger and I sold more and more tickets, but I did feel a little bit internally like I was coasting. Looking back, even though I was really motivated to be good and to write songs that meant something, I did coast," she admits.
"Success is based on luck and I can only hope that the quality of what I do will allow me to make enough money to be able to continue to do it and everything else will just like give you an anxiety attack. I've had many anxiety attacks trying to figure these things out, you know. Which is why it's really hard [sometimes] to feel like there's hope — Oh, the authenticity of what I do will ring through.' It's the one ace I have up my sleeve, but there are times it's hard to believe. You do the best and it's all you can do."
Besides, based on the acclaim she continues to rack for Voyageur — an album that's up for next month's $30,000 Polaris Prize, which went to Arcade Fire's The Suburbs last year — Mr. Bon Iver may soon find himself being written about as Kathleen Edwards' boyfriend.