Some singer-songwriters become overnight sensations. Others take the long, hard road and perform in small clubs before gradually graduating to bigger venues. The ones who take the more difficult route tend to have more lasting power. That certainly appears to be the case with Kat Edmonson. Her first album, 2009's Take to the Sky, received rave reviews and she's built upon that success with 2012's Way Down Low and last year's The Big Picture. But it hasn't been easy.
Shortly after moving from her native Houston to Austin, she answered an ad looking for female singers. She started performing at a weekly songwriter night. She was offered a residency. Then, she went to a jazz open mic night. A booking agent liked what he saw, and she started getting regular gigs in Austin.
"It was all rather roundabout," she says via phone as she's driving to a gig on her extensive winter tour that'll bring her to Cleveland for the first time. "In six months, I could quit my job and start singing. I was in heaven. I couldn't believe it. It was a huge relief. Any job I had prior to that, I wasn't very good at. I had no dedication. My head was always in the clouds and I was thinking about songs."
One night, Lyle Lovett's girlfriend heard her singing at a wine bar where she was celebrating a friend's birthday. She asked her if she wanted to get together. At the time, she was marketing herself and managing herself and immersing herself in the business.
"We got along swimmingly," she says. "She told Lyle about me and gave him my record. He reached out and asked me to sit in with him. We started playing together a lot."
She got a big break when she and Lovett sang the Christmas classic "Baby, It's Cold Outside" together on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2012.
"He's been a great friend but also a mentor," says Edmonson. "I just mentioned him last night at my show and credited our fashion decision to Lyle and his large band. We haven't always been so buttoned-up. He does a lot of things right, and I very much admired him and how he operates."
Edmonson, who has a girlish voice, worked with Mitchell Froom (Suzanne Vega, Paul McCartney) on The Big Picture. The songs sound like they came straight out of the American songbook. That's not a surprise since she grew up listening to the classics.
"My mom is very musical," she says. "I would hear her singing along to the radio. She often sang me lullabies. I was curious at a very young age and inclined to sing myself. She showed me old musicals at a very young age, and I began to learn the music in those movies as well. That's where the majority of my musical education came from. I also listened to the oldies station. I listened to it for like 18 years. I learned pretty much every song on the station."
While she says she was a big fan of Karen Carpenter and Judy Garland, she also thought, "Peggy Lee sounded really good and so did Doris Day.
"I was very picky about female singers because I admired a lot of men singers with big robust voices who could sing deeply and I wanted to do the same," she says. "I wasn't into higher trills. I only grew to like those later on. I knew I had a small voice and I sounded like a girl. Actually, upon hearing Carly Simon, I completely fell in love with her voice. I thought she was a guy and when I found out it was a woman, I was in awe of the possibilities that a woman could have such a sound. I instantly learned all of her repertoire."
Working with Froom has reaped terrific dividends. Album opener "Rainy Day Woman" has an Amy Winehouse feel to it, and the twangy guitars give it a cool vintage vibe. She purrs her way through "You Said Enough" as a sultry saxophone solo gives the song a sexy feel. String arrangements distinguish songs such as "Oh My Love" and "You Can't Break My Heart" and give them a real elegance.
"He was a blast," she says of Froom. "I love Mitchell and his production style. He has such an extensive knowledge of music and harmony and orchestration. I learned a lot from him. We worked every day for two and a half months in California. It's one of the coolest things I've ever done. I feel like we accomplished everything we set out to do, which was make a joyful record. I sent Mitchell a number of demos before we started working together. He wanted to capture the joy he was hearing in the songs."
The album features its fair share of love tunes. So what was it like trying to bring a new perspective to the well-worn topic?
"The only way I ever know how to do that is to be honest," she says. "If you're telling the truth, it's yours. That's all. And make music from an inspired place. It's not much different from when I was a kid and I would play pretend and allow for that space and allow any idea to come and not really judge it. That was important. You have to know that any kernel of an idea is a precious one. It's a matter of not letting anything get in the way and not doubting the process.
Edmonson says she's not sure what the next album will sound like since she's only just begun to think about it.
"I'm only starting to play with context and I have several," she says. "As far as the actual songs go, I have lots of songs that have yet to be recorded and that I've written over time. I wouldn't be surprised if I go in an entirely different direction. It just depends on where I'm at at that point in my life."