Kat Edmonson on covering The Cure and the dark side of Disney 

click to enlarge Kat Edmonson, Friday, Feb. 14, 7 p.m., Ent Center, 5225 N. Nevada Ave., Check website for ticket price and availability, uccspresents.org, 255-3232
  • Kat Edmonson, Friday, Feb. 14, 7 p.m., Ent Center, 5225 N. Nevada Ave., Check website for ticket price and availability, uccspresents.org, 255-3232

While Kat Edmonson’s most recent album was called Old Fashioned Gal, the 36-year-old jazz singer is anything but conventional. A Houston native who now resides in Brooklyn, she’s twice reached No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, as well as the Top 20 on its Jazz chart, two categories that don’t often converge. Meanwhile, a Boston Globe critic praised her sophomore album, Way Down Low, as “one of the greatest vocal albums I’ve ever heard.”

Edmonson’s forthcoming Dreamers Do collection will likely earn similar accolades. Combining original songs with renditions of Disney classics, the album expands traditional jazz instrumentation with an array of unlikely instruments that include West African kora, polyphonic synthesizers, otherwordly theremin, and droney electric guitar from the legendary Bill Frisell.

We caught up with Edmonson recently to talk about the new album, her love for jazz singer Blossom Dearie, and being creeped out by Jiminy Cricket.

Indy: When your last album came out, an AP reviewer said your voice has an expressiveness that puts you at “the intersection of Karen Dalton, Blossom Dearie and Eartha Kitt.” If you literally did find yourself at that crossroads, and you could only take one of those paths, which would it be?
Kat Edmonson: Blossom.

Your timbre is more like hers.
Yeah, and I came to know her because people kept saying “You sound like Blossom Dearie.” And so I started checking her out. This was when I’d first started singing in clubs in Austin — back when I was around 22 — and I just love her singing. She takes my breath away. There’s a clip on YouTube of her onstage, doing solo piano, and she sings “Sophisticated Lady.” I think it’s from the ’70s. And I watch it over and over again. I love it. She has this sensibility when she sings the song — there are great vocalists and powerful vocalists, and all of that has its place and it’s all wonderful — but I’m most interested in singers that sing the song the way that the songwriters intended. You know, the marriage of lyric and music to convey an emotion. And she just does it every time.

I’m curious about the Disney songs that you cover on the new album. How did that come about?
Well, I’d originally written and recorded “Too Late to Dream” for my last record, Old Fashioned Gal, but when I was sequencing the record, it didn’t fit in. It was one of the most important songs I’d written — there was a lot that I was processing at the time — and “is it too late to dream” was one of the questions that I was looking for an answer to. So I started listening to old Disney songs, because they were some of the first sources of great encouragement to follow your dream that I received. And simultaneously, Al [Schmitt, Edmonson’s producer and mentor] asked me to go into the studio to record, and I thought, well, great, I’m going to record some of these Disney songs.
And as I did, I realized that there was a concept behind the record, in that I wanted to make a journey from the time one goes to bed to when one wakes up in the morning. So it’s about our concepts around dreaming — what it is to literally dream in one’s sleep, but also what it is to dream in one’s life and have visions of what could be. The wonderful things around that, the struggles around that, and the frightening things around that.

Disney does have its dark side.
Definitely. And I indulged in that on some of the music, like “When You Wish Upon a Star.” We often think of it as very comforting, with Jiminy Cricket’s face and his mind, all tied up in a bow. But if you listen to Cliff Edwards’ interpretation of that song [in Pinocchio], there’s this deep echo on the recording of his vocal. It sounds creepy.
And actually, when I was a little kid, I went to Disneyland. I was like, I don’t know, 3 years old. And I was on a ride with my mom, going through a tunnel in some kind of canoe. And Jiminy Cricket’s voice was playing in the tunnel — he was singing that song — and I have a memory of just being so freaked out and crying.

Going back to your first album, you do a rendition of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” What drew you to that song?
It was one of my favorite songs in high school. I would play it really loud and dance around to it.

Did you dance like a goth?
No, it was more like Footloose. [Laughs.]

It’s a pretty radical rearrangement, probably the closest Robert Smith will ever come to being covered by Billie Holiday. Do you know if he’s ever heard it?
He has, in fact! Someone that I used to work with also did some work with him, and she introduced the song to him, and told me that he liked it.

And finally, I’ve read that you wrote your first song at the age of 9, while riding the school bus on a field trip. If I promise not to put it on YouTube, do you recall enough to sing it?
Yeah, okay. It’s called “Mystery Man.” [Begins singing with a Carter Family twang:] I went dancing on a Saturday night / With the cutest boy at Ashford High / His great smile, his hand in mine / There’s no doubt about it, he’s so fine / Didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what to do / My hand shaking hard, my face turned blue / A girl cut in and he danced away / Hey, I didn’t get to see him till the very next day / Sing a song about a mystery man / When God made him, I think he had a plan / To fool all the girls like he did me / Never did ask him to leave me be / Oh, why did he go away / Mystery man, come back to me someday.” [Laughs.] That’s written by a girl from Texas. Houston, Texas, y’all.

And that was at the age of 9? Do you realize how bizarrely precocious that is?
I do, and I did. Actually, when I’d present my songs, people would say, “You should be a singer!” And I was like, “There’s no money in singing, I’m gonna be in songwriting.”

Not much money in that, either.
It’s true. But my uncle would send me books that got published, you know, like three decades earlier. Books about the Brill building and Tin Pan Alley. And so he was like, “Katherine, you can go into songwriting, you can make a lot of money. This is how the great American songwriters have done it.” So I was figuring that would have been my path, but it went a little bit differently.


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