Looking at the Big Picture
There’s a certain cinematic quality surrounding the life and persona of Kat Edmonson.
Born in Houston in 1983 and raised as an only child by a single mother, Edmonson was introduced to the Great American Songbook at an early age, learning the words to the Broadway hits of George Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Later she was serenaded by the music of Irving Berlin as sung by Fred Astaire in films like Top Hat and Easter Parade, imagining she was dancing and singing along to the classics of celluloid musicals.
Edmonson, whose angelic voice has been compared to some of the greats of female jazz vocals (including Billie Holiday and Lena Horne), took her love of the music in movies as a major influence on her third album – the September release, The Big Picture. Featuring intricate instrumentation and jazz vocals reminiscent of a Henry Mancini movie soundtrack from the ’60s (think Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Charade), The Big Picture includes 12 tracks – 11 of them written by Edmonson over the span of two years. Her lyrics touch on everything from unrequited love (“Rainy Day Woman” and “You Can’t Break My Heart”) to the never-ending support of a friend (“All the Way”).
Edmonson says her nonstop writing (she’s been writing songs since she was a young child) resulted in more than 40 songs for Grammy-nominated producer Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega) to choose from. Froom, who has his own ties to cinema with a 1998 Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song for the James Bond theme “Tomorrow Never Dies,” narrowed the list down to 12 tracks, recording them over several months in his Santa Monica studio.
It’s been a long musical trip for Edmonson, dating back more than a decade to her days singing in coffee shops in Austin, TX. She appeared as a contestant on the second season of American Idol, sang a duet of the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Lyle Lovett on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and today is championed on several NPR programs.
Edmonson comes to the Sunoco Performance Theater at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg on February 27, along with fellow Texan and singer/songwriter Robert Ellis. We caught up with Edmonson by phone as she was driving from a concert rehearsal in New York.
Michael Yoder: What was it like to work with a producer that has such an extensive resume like Mitchell Froom on The Big Picture?
Kat Edmonson: With all of his experience and knowledge, Mitchell has maintained a purity about his production style. We were often talking about what I was imagining when I wrote the song, and I would talk about visual images that I had. He wanted the instrumentation to reflect that. For instance, in “You Can’t Break My Heart,” I imagined a very dramatic Spaghetti Western scene where they’d be playing the song with a showdown that was about to happen because someone had been betrayed and someone was going to die. I wanted a death toll, so we played the chimes. Mitchell was sure to have the chimes there to show the intensity and the drama of what I was discussing and the castanets to indicate the atmosphere and intensity. I was even imagining rattlesnakes, which reminded me of the inclusion of the castanets. It’s like in an old Western where you can see the extreme heat rising up from the ground with rattlesnakes, and someone’s tied up to a tree somewhere – left for dead. That song was very indulgent [laughs]. But I thought that would be a good approach because “You Can’t Break My Heart” is a painstaking song of despair and anger and fury and betrayal. And that is so dramatic; there’s almost some humor in that.
“There are certain circumstances that elicit something that my mind starts songwriting… Riding in the car by myself. Walking down the streets in New York is often a classroom for writing music. But in all of those circumstances, it really happens on its own.”
MY: How difficult is it to narrow a list of 40 songs down to 12 for one album?
KE: That was actually really difficult for me – that process of eliminating songs – because I was very vulnerable and I felt that each one was important. It was hard for me to part with them for this project. But after taking some time for myself, I very much realized that the songs that Mitchell chose were the ones that he felt like he could do the best work with and make the most cohesive album with. Many of the songs are on my list to be in review for the next album potentially, but I’m still writing. When I release a record, it’s around the time that I actually start writing for the new record.
MY: Are there certain moments that trigger your songwriting?
KE: There are certain circumstances that elicit something that my mind starts songwriting. If there’s a lot of cacophony, like really loud noise around me, I immediately – without any deliberation – start composing a song in my head. I don’t know what that’s about. Standing in the shower is always a place where I begin to write music. Riding in the car by myself. Walking down the streets in New York is often a classroom for writing music. But in all of those circumstances, it really happens on its own. I discover that I’m writing a song, and then I react and will record it on my voice memo or I’ll write it down.
MY: You’ve said in the past that you hear someone else’s voice when you’re writing a song. Is that still the case, or have you started hearing your own voice?
KE: Most of the time, I hear somebody else’s voice – someone else’s approach and style. It’s always been the case. But I’ve begun to wonder if that might change. Starting out, I’ve sung a lot of other people’s songs, although I started writing music at the age of 9. I wasn’t really doing anything with those songs – just recording them on cassette tapes and not playing them for anyone. But when I started pursuing a music career, I went and sat in with various jazz ensembles around Austin. I was singing other people’s repertoire and standards. I inherently knew how to approach those songs, and then when it came time to sing my own songs, I actually struggled a bit. I wasn’t sure how to vocally approach them. I knew what sentiment I wanted to get across, but I really didn’t know how to sing them. And I still feel like I’m learning that right now. But it’s getting easier, so I wonder if I might eventually hear myself rather than someone else.
MY: Do you still have the cassette recordings from when you were a kid?
KE: Yeah, I do. I haven’t listened to them in a long time. I think the last time I did, I cringed. They were really deep, and they were really emotional and quite vulnerable for being as young as I was. And yet, it was an adolescent approach to those feelings, so I wasn’t entirely comfortable listening to them. But maybe now that I’m older, I’d appreciate it a lot more.
MY: Have you ever let anyone else listen to them?
KE: I don’t know if I played them for my mom when I was a kid. She bought me this cassette player with the attachable microphone jack so I could record them. She bought me binders so I could write my songs down – my lyrics. But I don’t think she actively listened to them. I played them for some of my friends in school, but I don’t think anyone’s heard them in like 20 years now [laughs].
Catch Kat Edmonson at the Sunoco Performance Theater at the Whitaker Center (222 Market St., Harrisburg) on Friday, February 27. 8pm. $20, $27.50. Click here for tickets.