As a young child, Kat Edmonson spent countless hours watching classic Hollywood musicals from the 1940s and 1950s. More often than not, there would be a scene in which the male and female leads found themselves chatting over drinks or dinner in an upscale nightclub, while on stage a short distance away, a vocalist (usually backed by a well-dressed band) set the mood with a romantic tune.
Edmonson says that she imagined adulthood was really like that, and looked forward to one day taking her place across that table, or on that stage. When she got a bit older, she realized that her dream was based on an idealized version of a bygone era.
“I was really disappointed when I realized that that’s not how it was going to be,” Edmonson said in a recent telephone interview. “I was totally looking forward to it.”
Despite being convinced she was born late, Edmonson grew up to live her dream. Now 30-years-old, she is a modern incarnation of a classic chanteuse, a jazz vocalist who interprets songs by George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and John Lennon and Brian Wilson with equal aplomb. On her current “Way Down Low” album, she also writes her own material – lovely, romantic tunes that sound like long-lost standards from long ago: not dated, but timeless.
The Houston, Texas native returns to Philadelphia with her band to headline Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater on Saturday, September 14. Ginger Coyle opens the 8:00 p.m. show. Tickets are $16.00 in advance or $18.00 day of show, and are available via PrinceMusicTheater.org, TicketPhiladelphia.org, by calling 215-893-1999, or at the Prince Music Theater walk-up box office (open weekdays from 1 to 5 p.m.) at Broad & Chestnut.
The Philly show is one of just over a dozen final North American dates in support of “Way Down Low,” which she released independently in April 2012. The album was picked up in a distribution deal by Sony Masterworks and released worldwide over the summer. Edmonson will head back to Europe in mid-November to tour in support of the album there.
The distribution deal with Sony comes at the end of a long journey during which Edmonson has been a prototypical example of how to achieve success with a do-it-yourself attitude, tenacity, and hard work.
“When I was very young I knew that I wanted to be in show business,” Edmonson says. “I knew that I wanted to be an entertainer.”
Edmonson credits her mother, who raised her without a father around, for inspiring her musical tastes at a young age. She got acquainted with the Great American Songbook through her mother’s old records and a collection of old movies she would pop into the VCR.
“I have a very specific memory of watching ‘Singing in the Rain,’ and looking at myself in the mirror after watching it and perceiving myself as one of those people that I was just watching on TV,” Edmonson says. “It was just kind of a knowing that this would be the world that I would enter into. And that’s what I did.”
When she got a bit older, she discovered artists like James Taylor, Neil Young, the Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, the Temptations, and Marvin Gaye. Her mother signed her up for piano lessons, but Edmondson never showed much dedication to practicing, so the lessons stopped.
“I often say I never studied [music],’ Edmonson says, “but my boyfriend will correct me and he’ll say, ‘You may say that, but you spent hours and hours and hours listening to music.’ And I did.
“As a young girl that’s really what I did for enjoyment and to entertain myself,” she adds. “I would spend hours absorbing every intonation, every inflection – how the singer would convey a sentiment and how it would sound coming out of their head. All of those things I very carefully watched and absorbed, and so I guess I was studying my whole life, although not in any sort of conventional way.”
Edmonson’s first public performance was in a high school talent show. After graduation, she started singing in clubs and restaurants, first in the Houston area, then branching out to Austin. Eventually she became a regular at the Elephant Room, a premier Austin club.
When she was 19, she auditioned for American Idol. She made it all the way to the final 48 contestants and was flown to Hollywood, only to be cut when judge Randy Jackson told her that she “didn’t look like a star.”
While some aspiring singers might have been devastated by the experience, Edmonson was practically inspired.
“I had self-assurance of what I was going to be doing with my life when I was three or four years old,” she says. “Having all of that time to ruminate on the notion of being in the entertainment industry, one experience on a television show couldn’t have overruled all of that. I realized that there were a lot of different ways to get to where I wanted to go. That was not the way for me.
“Even before I got to the final rounds, I was already feeling uncomfortable,” she adds. “I didn’t identify with the people who were going on the show. I didn’t identify with how it was being done. It’s show business itself. It’s a reality TV show. There’s no room for artistry. Sure there’s going to be talent that supersedes anything else on that show, but it wasn’t right for me.”
What did seem right to Edmonson was to build an audience and promote her music independently, especially given the fact that her classic vocal style and jazz leanings didn’t necessarily fit with what was considered Top-40 fare at the time.
“I started growing my audience in small clubs through word-of-mouth,” she says. “I started making music that isn’t necessarily commercially viable, and it’s not necessarily marketable to my peers to a certain extent. It appeals to a lot of people who are generations older than me.”
She financed the recording of her first album, 2009’s “Take to the Sky,” on a credit card. The ten-song collection mixed fresh interpretations of both standards (“Summertime,” “Night and Day,” “Angel Eyes”) and modern tracks (the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” the Cardigan’s “Lovefool”) in a classic jazz style that meshed the disparate genres seamlessly.
The album received critical acclaim, enjoyed commercial success, and got Edmonson noticed by the industry. It led to opening gigs for artists like Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett, who eventually invited Edmonson out on tour as his opening act. Lovett and Edmonson struck up a musical kinship that led to duet recordings of the holiday songs “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Christmastime Is Here.”
In retrospect, Edmonson feels the experience she gained as an independent artist was invaluable.
“It’s such an advantage to work your way up from the bottom,” she says. “I’ve benefited so much from it. It makes me love the process more. It makes me love what I do more. You really get to know all the sides of how the business works.”
For the recording of “Way Down Low,” Edmonson turned to Kickstarter, a company that enables artists to raise funds for creative projects via crowd funding through its website. While outright donations were welcomed, Edmonson offered incentives ranging from music downloads to performances at private parties in exchange for funding pledges.
Not only did the effort raise $50,000 to fund the album, Edmonson says it further enhanced her connection with her fans.
“It has only made them more supportive,” she says. “And in turn, I’ve learned more about them. I have learned what they like, what they care about, what interests them.”
“Way Down Low” was recorded live-in-the-studio for both artistic and practical reasons.
“That’s just how I’m used to working,” Edmonson says. “I’m most comfortable singing with jazz players, improvising, and playing live. On the second album, that just seemed to work for me, especially since the nature of everything I was recording was acoustic. We wanted to capture the essence of the band and how it sounded playing these particular songs, so playing live made the most sense.
“But the predominant reason we recorded live was that we could only afford two days in the studio.” Edmonson admits with a slight laugh.
The live-in-the-studio approach perfectly captures Edmonson’s subtle vocal nuances. Unlike some singers whose bombastic style can overpower a song, Edmonson never over sings. Her sweet, melodic voice invites the listener closer, and adds to the overall beauty of the music.
Al Schmitt, the veteran multi-Grammy winning soundman who engineered Steely Dan’s classic “Aja” album and worked with Frank Sinatra and Sam Cooke, has said “Kat Edmonson is the best new jazz singer I have heard in years, and I know she will be around for years to come. You have to hear her.”
But, as more than one reviewer has previously pointed out, you don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to love Kat Edmonson.
Edmonson says she wrote her first song at age eight or nine, but “Way Down Low” marks the first time she recorded her own material. Most of the songs were written in the months leading up to the recording, but some were based in part on older material.
“I have a lot of older material that I refer to when I’m writing,” Edmonson says. “I record ideas; then, when I sit down to write, I’ll pull up all my ideas and notes and go through them and see which strike my fancy, and then I’ll begin from there. Sometimes it doesn’t get anywhere and it just goes back into the file. Other times it will develop into an entire song.”
One of the highlights of “Way Down Low” is “Nobody Knows That,” an achingly beautiful song about unrequited love that features Edmonson’s most intimate vocal on the album. Edmonson says the song originated from a melody line she wrote nearly ten years ago.
“The song started out as kind of a cutesy, quirky song about what I knew about different little traits of my own personality that nobody knew,” she says. “It was kind of a wink-wink at myself.
‘You like to daydream in the bath /
When you get nervous you tend to laugh /
and nobody knows that but me’
“I would just sing lines like that to myself for years. It never really seemed worthwhile to pursue as a song. But I really loved this notion of [the line] ‘nobody knows that but me.’ I would hear that over and over, but I would wonder, ‘What is this song about?’
“Then one day I was sitting on a plane in Colorado waiting to take off to go back to Texas and I was feeling really inspired by something I’d read that didn’t pertain at all to this song, but something dawned on me and in that moment, I suddenly knew exactly what the song was about. I sat there and wrote it on the plane.
“There was one verse left. A week or two later I was doing the dishes and I finally figured out what the rest of the song would be. The line was:
‘And you don’t know that in the end /
I was hoping we were more than friends /
Nobody knows that but me.’
“Then I knew that the song was done and I knew what the song was about. ‘Nobody Knows That’ has much more weight as a song than what I started with. That’s usually how I write a song. I usually have the hook or the chorus before anything else, and I don’t know what it’s about. And it’s like doing a crossword puzzle for however long it takes, trying to figure out the theme of the puzzle.”
Upon its release, “Way Down Low” rose to No. 1 in the United States on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart for new or developing acts. The album was named to several major year-end “Best of 2012” lists, and Boston Globe writer Steve Greenlee started his review with the line, “Kat Edmonson’s ‘Way Down Low,’ [is] one of the greatest vocal albums I’ve ever heard.”
Edmonson says that work on her third album has already begun. The as-yet-untitled album will be recorded early next year and released worldwide by Sony. As for the stylistic direction the album will take, Edmonson says it’s too early to tell.
“It’s hard to say,” she says, “but I can safely say that with every record that I put out, it will be a slightly different direction. Once I’ve done one thing, I’m ready to move on and try something new. Not to say that I won’t return to something that I’ve already done, but I’m growing as an artist and I need to keep developing.”