Invariably, the first thing music critics want to discuss about Kat Edmonson is her voice. It’s been described as a “honeyed, light-gauge, faintly crinkly singing voice, an instrument of self-containment and reflection” (The New York Times), “a timeless-sounding voice” (NPR), and one that “regularly draws comparisons to Blossom Dearie and Billie Holiday” (Jazz Times).
And while it’s tempting to wax poetic in describing her unique vocal capabilities, it’s more surprising people haven’t noted that mostly she sounds like she’s having a blast.
“It’s not something I worked terribly hard for. It’s a talent that I’ve always had. It’s natural,” she explains. So natural in fact she says she’s constantly singing, be it in her car, cleaning the house, in the bath tub. She pulls out an analogy that sets her laughing. “It’s like a sheepdog has to herd sheep — I have to sing.”
Born in Houston, Texas, Edmonson, spent a year at the College of Charleston after being an American Idol contestant on the show’s second season. She then moved back to Austin, in pursuit of a musical career. The move paid off. Austin music lovers quickly put Edmonson on their list of favorites.
In 2009, she self-released her first album Take to the Sky which soared into the top 20 on Billboard’s jazz charts, and before long she was sharing the stage with fellow Texans Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett. She also appeared on The Tonight Show and toured with Lovett as the opening act.
While on the road with the gangly country crooner, Edmonson wrote some songs, and crowd-funded her next album Way Down Low, released in 2012. The LP brought her recognition on the national level and built on an already blazing ascent. It wasn’t long before she found herself packing up and moving to New York. But the reason she gives for that move is less about wanting to take a bite of the Big Apple than it is about pursuing a deeply rooted personal journey. Blame it on growing up watching old black-and-white movies and learning the music of the ’30s to ’50s inside out.
A steady diet of Hollywood glamor and big band singers heavily influenced her first recordings and earned her the title of jazz singer. She hasn’t seemed to mind being compared to the great vocalists of the American Songbook, (although if she had her druthers she would rather sound more like Frank Sinatra than Billie Holiday.) She notes that back in the day, the songs were important. And the songwriters, Tin Pan Alley denizens steadily cranking out gem after glorious gem, remain icons to be admired. It’s their long shadow that provided a framework for both her musical journey and her personal inquiries into her own nature. She’s even been quoted as saying that she thought of herself as being born into the wrong era.
So she went to New York, mostly, to walk where those people walked, perhaps even to draw in whatever remained of their stardust. In a way she might not have anticipated, that experience changed how she thinks of what she’s doing.
“Lately, I’ve realized that I wouldn’t have been able to have then the career I’m so lucky to have now,” she says. There’s little doubt that the music business today would be almost unrecognizable to an up-and-coming singer back in the 1930s. With new technologies and new business models, opportunities exist today that continue multiplying even as they’re tallied up. Edmonson has options open to her that allow the kind of exploration she hopes to continue.
She’s been writing poems and songs since she was a kid. With her second album, writing came to the forefront and she went into the project anxious to feature some original tunes. That project boosted her ratings among music critics further even as she veered away from the strictly jazz vibe people were beginning to expect from her.
Her songwriting today is less genre-bound than ever, but still infused with the spirit of those Tin Pan Alley songwriters. She describes that spirit as “very sophisticated, classic, and understated. Elegant. Playful, quirky, and cheeky. I hope never to define it entirely so that I can keep exploring.”
That journey is clearly what matters to her most. “The only thing I’m good at is being true to myself. And then it’s just a matter of doing that at every turn. That takes a lot of focus and attention. I’m always interested in getting to the bottom of what it is I have to offer. And I’m curious about it, too. Why am I compelled to do this?”
If past history is any indication, whatever she finds herself compelled to do, she will surely do it with her own interpretation. Her new album, aptly named The Big Picture, will be released this fall.