With the major label release of her second album Way Down Low, Houston native Kat Edmonson is poised to surpass the impressive success of her first release Take To The Sky.
That 2009 debut brought praise for the Houston native from major music media like The New York Times, which found her “fresh as a spring bouquet,” and NPR’s All Things Considered, which hailed her “timeless sound.” It also brought her to the attention of fellow Texans Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett, with whom she shared the stage. In fact, Lovett even enlisted her for a duet on the Christmas classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which they performed together on tour and on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
But Edmonson was also able to attract the support of industry legends Al Schmitt and Phil Ramone. This, along with a successful Kickstarter campaign, allowed Edmonson to complete an ambitious sophomore project that is now taking her to an international audience.
Initially self-released by Edmonson last year, Way Down Low was recorded at the historic Avatar Studios in New York and Capitol Studios in Hollywood with Grammy-winning producer/engineer Schmitt (Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Neil Young) and input from the late Ramone (Billy Joel, Paul Simon). Her first album to showcase original material, it was co-produced by Edmonson and quickly declared “one of the greatest vocal albums” ever by The Boston Globe, as well as “a welcome antidote to these frantic times” by her home state’s Texas Monthly.
Way Down Low debuted at the top of the Billboard Heatseekers chart, garnered a feature on All Things Considered and led to Edmonson’s January appearance on Austin City Limits.
“It generated such a buzz that everything started to snowball,” says Edmonson. “I was on NPR so much I gained a wider audience, and after doing so many opening tour slots and one-off shows, I did my first national headlining tour at the start of the year.”
The continuing praise for Way Down Low (it made “Best of 2012” lists including Downbeat Magazine’s, and was cited in WNYC Soundcheck’s “Best Live Performances” and Daytrotter’s “Best Sessions of 2012”), along with Edmonson’s increased visibility (she made her Prairie Home Companion debut in April, opened for Chris Isaak and Gary Clark, Jr., and headlined shows at The Paramount in Austin, New York’s Joe’s Pub and Boston’s Sculler’s), has now climaxed with her signing a worldwide deal with Sony Masterworks, which is relaunching Way Down Low on the OKeh/Masterworks imprint to coincide with Edmonson’s tour dates this spring and summer in Europe.
Kat Edmonson was determined to be a singer after her mother introduced her to the “Great American Songbook” of pop standards. Living in Austin, she decided to audition for the second season of American Idol as a means of jumpstarting her career. Although she didn’t make the finals, she did get a taste for a different music scene, and after returning to Austin, moved steadily forward by singing all over town seven nights a week (sometimes twice a day), becoming a regular at the renowned Elephant Room, and building a devoted local following.
She recorded Take To The Sky in Austin, then submitted it to Schmitt in Los Angeles for mixing, hoping to get something beyond a local-sounding production. Sure enough, the resulting release, which was championed by Austin’s NPR affiliate KUT, reached the Top 20 on the Billboard jazz charts.
But Take To The Sky also brought Edmonson a new and valued friend.
Al and I became very close and stayed in touch, and he wanted to record my next album with me—not just mix it,” she recalls. “So he invited me to be the ‘demonstrating recording artist’ for the annual gathering of METAlliance [the Music & Engineering Technology Alliance]—the producers and engineers group including Al and Phil and George Massenburg and Ed Cherney and Elliot Scheiner and Chuck Ainlay. It’s a rare honor: People come in from all over the world to see the recording of an album from start to finish, and they were all there to watch me and Al record.”
Most of the recording of Way Down Low took two days at Avatar. “Danton Boller, my bass player, had worked with me for several months doing pre-production for the album, to enable us to record it in its entirety over the brief two days we would have in the studio recording for the METAlliance. So we just walked in and played live for two days with no overdubs. But we still needed to mix it and manufacture it, and I wanted strings and horns, so I went to Kickstarter to get the funding.”
Funding accomplished and production completed, Way Down Low displays a mature writing style grounded in Edmonson’s early love of American popular song. “I write music that I want to hear, that evokes the popular music of past eras,” she says. “I toy around with the term ‘vintage pop,’ because the term ‘popular music’ is so limited. But my music is never about one era.”
Indeed, Edmonson thinks of songs as “scenes of movies,” she notes. “That’s because I became familiar with ‘the Great American Songbook’ through films before hearing them on records,” she says. “In fact, when I was a little girl, I thought you might go into a supper club, like in an old Fred Astaire movie, recognize the person singing on stage, and then something might happen that would compel you to walk on stage and sing a song! That’s how I began writing songs—carrying out my romantic fantasies from old movies–and whenever I experience an emotion, it seems to cue the song.”
Way Down Low also includes songs written by others, notably including a most melancholic interpretation of Brian Wilson’s “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” (“It expressed a profound sentiment that I understood when I first heard it, and had to sing it”) and “Whispering Grass,” the 1940 hit for The Ink Spots, a “no-brainer” which was suggested for her by the legendary record company executive Bruce Lundvall.
Lovett returns the duet favor on “Long Way Home,” and Edmonson also includes “Hopelessly Blue,” by her friend Miles Zuniga. “He hadn’t recorded it, and I thought it was phenomenal and perfectly written and needed to be sung by someone—so I took it upon myself,” she explains. “But I just wanted to make good music because I love good music: I could have tried to fill up the album with lesser songs by me, but I felt compelled to record songs that I heard that I thought were wonderful.”
Now living in Brooklyn, Edmonson recently became one of the faces of the makeup brand bareMinerals, and performed across the country as part of their “Force of Beauty” campaign–for which she also composed the original song “Bottom Of Your Heart.” She will now be going back and forth between the U.S. and Europe through the fall, as Way Down Low is being released worldwide.
Meanwhile, she already has enough songs on hand for two or three more albums. “I’m narrowing down the list for the next album, but I think there are still some gems out there that haven’t been unearthed—original or not,” she says, promising, “I won’t put anything in an album that doesn’t belong there, or feels less than I can do.”