Kat Edmonson Tells Us How She Went From American Idol Hopeful To Legit Badass.
It’s relatively early morning on Wednesday when I catch up with Kat Edmonson, who just last year released her first big-label record, The Big Picture, through Sony. Already, though, she's on the road, traveling from one gig to another. In this particular case, she's driving from one former hometown of hers (Houston) to another (Austin) for a performance at ACL Live.
Performances like this one are becoming par for course for the singer-songwriter, who describes her music as “vintage pop” and whose fanbase is growing fast. Deservedly so, too: With songs that conjure up a '60s soundtrack sung and a voice that recalls up a little Billie Holiday blended with the sass of Eartha Kitt, hers is a refreshing catalog.
To that end, the 31-year-old's performance this coming Friday night at the Kessler Theater should prove quite the treat — much like our conversation, wherein the engaging conversationalist explained how she made the transition from Texas to New York and, eventually, onto the world stage.
Did you always see yourself as a professional musician? If so, did you drive yourself to realize that career? Or were you just blessed with a voice and, through a set of happy accidents, you found yourself able to make a living with music?
I always knew that I would be a performer of some kind. I started to sing at a very early age, and I started writing songs at a very early age. But I didn't really know that I would be a singer. I thought I might be an actor. So I didn't have a plan other than to be on a stage. It wasn't until I moved to Austin when I was 19 that I set a goal in my mind to start singing and make a career out of it.
What did you do to get started? Open mic nights?
Well, the first thing I did was audition for American Idol, and I got picked to advance [but cut before the final 50]. When that was done, I came back home. I did start doing a few open mic nights and answering ads looking for singers. One day at my cocktailing job, one of my customers said he was a jazz musician. I told him I liked and sang a lot of jazz. Maybe he was just making a pass at me, but he told me to come down to where he was playing an open mic and sit in. And I was invited to come back. Pretty soon, I was doing that week after week, networking the whole time, singing with other bands. Within six months I quit my job and was singing full time.
I saw that you had written or co-written almost all of the songs on The Big Picture. These are quite sophisticated songs! Can you tell me a bit about your songwriting process?
Well, I actually hear most of the music in my head, and then it's a matter of finding it on an instrument. Sometimes someone accompanying me helps with that, and sometimes I tap it out on a piano. I find that when I am going through something in my life, a melody and lyric will form in my head, and I'll usually capture it and write it as a refrain. Then I keep working with it until I figure out what the song is actually about, and work on it until it feels true to me. That's when I know its finished.
Let's talk about recording The Big Picture. Mitchell Froom is a legendary producer with such a diverse and successful career. Given that this was your first big-label release, was this a marriage arranged by Sony?
My Sony A&R guy suggested Mitchell to produce. We had a long conversation on the phone while I was touring in Europe, and it went really well. And when I got back, we got together and I found him to be just brilliant and easy to talk to. He's become a very dear friend.
Looking at the liner notes to the album there are a lot of musicians contributing to the album. Did you feel like you had the right balance of control and trust in the studio?
Yes. It was such a comfortable environment, recording in [Froom's] home studio, and just relaxed. It's not that everything went perfect — we'd sometimes find ourselves down a blind alley on a song and have to start over — but it was a golden time to me.
I saw your performance at the North Oak Cliff Music Festival, where you introduced the song “All The Way” that you co-wrote with your guitarist Steve Elliot. It's basically just you singing and Steve on guitar, but I think it's the most revealing and insightful song on your album. Was that something that you presented fully hatched to Froom with just the simple need to record it?
Yes. I think that song is the turning point of the album. Steve allowed me to add to a song that he had shared with me some time back when we were spending several days in London. It was one of those situations where I was exhausted from travel, far from home, and asking myself what I was doing. The portion of the song I wrote was actually was a consolation to myself that everything was OK. Because, if you don’t have that for yourself, then you really can’t have it for anyone else.
Cover photo image by Robert Ascroft, courtesy of the artist. Kat Edmonson performs Friday, February 13, at the Kessler Theater. Head here for tickets and more information.