Speaking with Kat Edmonson over the clack of cutlery and the not-so-dull roar of conversation at Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse on a day running from overcast to all-out rainy, we keep coming back to classification. The scrutiny and resultant typecasting of Kat Edmonson by labels, critics, and radio stations frustrates her.
"The world is flat now. It's foolish for us to operate within genres these days," she says, firmly but kindly. "We're all influenced by a plethora of things."
What some call jazz, she calls "classical pop," and her neatly ensnaring voice is a joy to examine and even dissect.
"As long as I can remember, I knew that I could sing as well," she says. "It was imparted in me, like I knew that I could walk or have a conversation. It was never a discovery."
Edmonson, 28, is soft-spoken and diminutive, and by cutting her long, blond hair, she looks even more self-contained. She asks for a warm-up for her hot tea and smiles kindly at the waitress who passes her a love note. "You do my favorite Cure cover," it says. She's an Austin celebrity, for what that's worth, poised for much more of where that came from.
Set for release Tuesday on her own Spinnerette imprint, Way Down Low is Edmonson's second album and it's a world more self-aware and whole than her 2009 debut, Take to the Sky. Whereas her first disc was all covers, Edmonson composed or co-composed more than half of the songs on Way Down Low. Though she doesn't play an instrument, she's been composing full songs ("with chords and everything") since she was nine. The first song she wrote was on a school field trip, on the bus – a country song called "Mystery Man."
"And it's a good song, still," she says. "It had a verse and a chorus and a bridge, and it was hooky."
Raised in Houston, Edmonson's gateway into music began, as these things do, at home. "I was an only child and I grew up with a single mom. I spent a lot of time alone. She was a paralegal and very busy trying to raise me and support us. It started with old movies that she would put on to keep me preoccupied and peaceful."
The music followed suit.
"One of my friends listened to Tony Bennett and Sinatra and Ella [Fitzgerald] and Nat King Cole. I kept it under wraps that this is the music I listened to, save for a few close friends, because at that age my concern was really just being like everyone else as [much as] possible. But the passion was there and I couldn't deny it."
The first, tentative chapter in her career was a no doubt frustrating if perhaps retroactively amusing series of auditions in Austin and Hollywood for the second season of American Idol in 2002. It aired the following year.
"I wasn't particularly comfortable in that environment, and it probably showed," she shrugs. "They weren't sure what to do with me. I was singing 'Fever' by Peggy Lee, and 'These Boots are Made for Walking' by Nancy Sinatra, throwback stuff. They couldn't classify me. Randy [Jackson] said I didn't look like a star."
Why, because you were nervous?
"No, he just said, 'You don't look like a star, dog.'"
He said "dog," too? Like he does all the time on the show?
Edmonson moved back into the college routine alongside her peers, now an Austin resident, but on the way back from registering for classes at ACC, she decided to give up school and concentrate on singing. For good.
"I was driving home, and I had the realization that I didn't want to study anything. I wanted to be a singer," she recalls. "If you're looking for an 'ah-ha' moment, that was one."
Persistence moved her career forward, acquainting the singer with integral characters while sitting in at the Elephant Room, including keyboardist Kevin Lovejoy, who partnered with the singer to release Take to the Sky and tour it. Edmonson keeps her collaborators close; that the new Way Down Low was funded on Kickstarter means she has 372 financial collaborators (see "Kickstart My Heart," Feb. 24). Al Schmitt, whose fingerprints are all over a nest of great LPs (and 20 subsequent Grammys) from Steely Dan to Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, recorded, mixed, and co-produced Way Down Low, a process that began last February. Legendary producer Phil Ramone committed time to the project at Avatar Studios in Manhattan, and Edmonson duets with Lyle Lovett on the song "Long Way Home."
"Kat isn't only a jazz singer; she writes really good songs, and she's a really good singer-songwriter," offers Lovett by phone. "But her voice reminds me of a classic jazz voice. It has a timeless quality."
Lovett became acquainted with Edmonson when his girlfriend saw her at Vino Vino here in town and suggested to him that he'd like her ("Sure enough, she was right"). A man without a set genre, it makes sense Lovett was drawn to Edmonson's singing and repertoire.
"Labels matter and they don't matter," he says. "The thing that's most important is getting to sing songs that you love and play music that you love."
Even with all this help, it's another name alongside co-producers Schmitt and Danton Boller that raises questions – that of Kat Edmonson. Why, with this roster, did she feel the need to get involved with the nuts-and-bolts operation of how the album sounds? Surely the recording stars Edmonson reveres gargled salt water and smoked cigarettes between takes rather than worrying about the snare drum sound.
"I couldn't help it," she says. "I had the vision of what I wanted, and I had to see it through that way."
Her person is evident throughout Way Down Low, right down to its gradual downward slope from buoyancy to near-melancholy. Second track "I Don't Know," a cover popularized by Latin supergroup Malo, is so giddy it almost skips. When it's revisited at the end of the album, the song's become a dirge. When she sings, "I'd be lost without you," one gets the feeling she already is.
"The title is actually pointing toward the mood of the record, which had a double meaning for me. Way down low from the bottom of my heart, just like, the essence of the feeling. And then the record literally gets pretty low toward the end, and sorrowful.
"I can't say much more than that ...."
Edmonson seems determined to effect the changes she can and ignore the rest.
"The issue with American Idol where they haven't been able to classify me, it hasn't gone away," she states. "The issue still stands. People don't know what to call it. They're not sure where to put it, and they don't know how to market it.
"But the thing I've discovered, and especially in Austin – which could be a microcosm of everywhere else – is if it's considered good music and good quality, people accept it for what it is."
We talk about one of the covers she chose for the album, the Beach Boys track "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times."
"I relate to that sentiment so much, and growing up I was always questioning: 'Why was I born in this era?' It's really so cliche of me to ask that, and I'm bored of that question now. I now think I'm perfect for this time. This is my time. I am here, and I believe this is where I'm supposed to be."
Kat Edmonson plays the Paramount Theatre Friday, April 13.
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