Singer-songwriter Kat Edmonson is back with Old Fashioned Gal, an album that really couldn’t be called anything else.
Rich in affection for the past but bracingly alive in the present, the 11 original songs on Old Fashioned Gal tell a story––actually, a classic Hollywood “movie” that took shape in Edmonson’s imagination as she began to write them. These songs have all the feeling and the craft, even the entertaining bounce, of the Great American Songbook, from Irving Berlin to Joni Mitchell but they are unmistakably Kat Edmonson’s songs, taking the full measure of her own voice, literally and figuratively. The inimitable voice in which she sings is a musical prism, crystalline and precise, refracting and transforming what shines through it. The voice in which she writes is clear, intensely aware and to the point––an “old fashioned gal” in the here and now.
Edmonson describes her process, “The main ingredients I used to make this record were piano, bass, guitar, and drums; however, there is a 13-piece string orchestra on the album as well as background vocals, horns, woodwind instruments, vibes and other percussion, organ, celesta, harp, ukulele…even a saw! I was trying to achieve the lushness of an MGM musical. In “Canoe,” my lyrics talk about mosquitos and katydids around a lake so, for that song, I went outside one evening and recorded the ambient sounds of insects and frogs. THAT was really fun!”
In little more than a decade, Kat Edmonson has emerged as one of the most distinctive performers in contemporary American music. The Texas native forged her sound performing in small rooms and clubs, then touring worldwide and performing with the likes of Lyle Lovett, Chris Isaak, Jamie Cullum and Gary Clark Jr. Her three previous albums revealed a singer discovering, in her own songs, a repertoire only she could imagine. A critic for the Boston Globe called Way Down Low, her second album, “one of the greatest vocal albums I’ve ever heard.” Her third, The Big Picture, took greater advantage of her songwriting abilities. The Austin Chronicle’s critic noted she “employs lessons gleaned from the Great American Songbook while creating an aura unmistakably her own,” adding that the songs emerge “fresh and dewy … Edmonson’s voice swells and dips and weaves with effortless precision, arresting without belting.”
The “movie” that drives Old Fashioned Gal took shape while Kat Edmonson––at a pivotal point in her young career––was fighting a bitter cold in a Brooklyn apartment during the winter of 2016.
“I was sick in bed for days watching old films on Turner Classic Movies and, eventually, I got inspired and began to write,” she says. “I would watch one movie and then stop to work on a song and then turn on another movie … I wrote the majority of the album this way. At some point in this process, I started imagining scenes for a film that corresponded with my music and I envisioned my songs being sung by these certain characters––a young man who was a songwriter, a young woman who was a singer, and an older gentleman who was a Broadway producer––
and I ended up writing an entire outline for a musical.”
Edmonson describes the heroine of her story as “a young woman in showbiz struggling with her personal definition of success and what it means to be an artist.” The story has a romantic sub-plot involving the songwriter as well as a helper-type character, the elderly Broadway producer, named Bruce. The all-knowing producer is Edmonson’s tribute to the late Bruce Lundvall, a legendary record executive with a fabled ear for the next big thing and a mentor to Edmonson in his last years. She pays affectionate tribute to Lundvall on the new album’s wistful track “Goodbye Bruce.”
Another figure dances around the aura of Old Fashioned Gal––Fred Astaire. Astaire is not a presence in the album’s story, but everything about him has loomed large in Edmonson’s imagination since, as a little girl, she first saw his movies on TV. For a time in those years, she and her mother lived in Los Angeles and attended the same church to which Astaire belonged. Sometimes, Edmonson recalls with relish, “he would wave to me from the back pew.”
“Sparkle and Shine,” which opens Old Fashioned Gal, began for her as a bit of self-motivation in a tough moment. She imagined Astaire singing it, embodying it. “Even though he never considered himself a singer,” she says, “in my book, he was one of the best because he conveyed all the sentiments of a song.” Deeper into the album, “With You” was inspired by the deep longing and the sublime grace of Astaire’s performance of “One for My Baby” in the musical The Sky’s the Limit.
Elsewhere, Edmonson’s inspiration recalls the vocal trio The Fleetwoods (in “I’d Be a Fool”) and even The Ink Spots (in “If”). There’s a flash of New Orleans jazz in “With You,” and the tang of a Hammond B3 organ in “Canoe,” in which Edmonson remembers her live-wire godmother, who liked to dance and to play “Alley Cat” on the organ. “Please Consider Me” came into being as she endured a hellish working trip to Paris that ended in 24 grueling hours at Charles de Gaulle Airport. “The music was in my head,” she says, adding with a laugh, “and I ended up writing this beautiful tribute to Paris – as everyone always does.”
The title song on Old Fashioned Gal is shot through with fresh irony, at first a clever protest against the conformity it takes to be “liked” in the Facebook era but, on a deeper level, a longing for the elusive personal connection in these very fast-moving times. Edmonson says that the voice and the drop-dead wit of the great American singer/songwriter Blossom Dearie were in her head as she wrote “Old Fashioned Gal.” Nostalgia, however, is the farthest thing from Kat Edmonson’s mind and restless imagination.
“I feel very fortunate to be living in these progressive times. Many, many circumstances have changed for the better now. I’m not under an illusion that old days were better days nor am I caught up in the novelty of old things but I do love the romance of a lot of old things… the time and care that people took to make them… the attention to detail and the appreciation of nuance. These are the things that last. This is what inspires me.”
Edmonson produced Old Fashioned Gal with that very attention to detail and appreciation of nuance, but also with that love of the romance in those old things. When she talks about the songs she wrote and realized for the album, she makes it clear that the vintage influences are a means to getting her closer to what she wants to express––nothing less than “the importance of following your heart and your dreams and being true to yourself no matter what.” In the album’s final track––“Not My Time”–– she embraces who she is, here and now.
“This is me, take it or leave it, a humble sentiment,” Edmonson says of the wry but determined song. “Things I anticipated would happen, that haven’t––it’s a funny sort of comment on that. It’s a happy ending.”
Getting to this particular happy ending has been its own hard-won reward for Kat Edmonson, a realization that drives perhaps the most personal song on Old Fashioned Gal––“A Voice.” It was not intended for the album; for a time, in fact, she was reluctant even to sing it. But “A Voice” answered a moment of self-doubt, when other forces in her life and career had led her to wonder about the value of that most essential, literal-and-figurative Kat Edmonson quality––her voice. It is a bolder statement than it may seem at first. This is an artist finding herself, knowing at last what she wants, understanding how the whole of her art can be greater than the sum of its parts.
“I wrote it because I needed to,” Edmonson says of the healing, transformative song. “I’ve been generally self-assured in my life, but I recently found myself feeling very self-conscious, full of doubts. I was quite literally saying ‘If I had a voice …,’ because I felt I didn’t have one anymore. This song is about why I matter: because I’m me. I can’t be anybody else.”