When Kat Edmonson moved to New York a decade ago after launching her career in Austin, it seemed clear big things were in store for her. She’d been drawing big crowds at downtown jazz hot spot the Elephant Room and North Austin wine bar Vino Vino. When Lyle Lovett took her on tour as an opening act, audiences beyond Austin began to catch on.
When she returns for a Wednesday concert at the Paramount Theatre, she’ll be drawing from a catalog of five albums, including the new "Dreamers Do," released this month. A concept album that follows the dream cycle of a long night’s journey into day, it features two new original songs alongside six instrumental interludes and a dozen 20th-century pop classics, most of them drawn from Disney movies.
We talked by phone with Edmonson about the new album, her memories of those formative Austin years, and a new preoccupation that likely will keep her in New York for a while. Her ties here remain strong enough, though, that regular visits are likely to continue.
FROM THE ARCHIVES: Our 2013 feature on Kat Edmonson
In addition to the Paramount show, Edmonson also will do a free Waterloo Records in-store performance at 5 p.m. Feb. 17. And she’ll appear at the Four Seasons on Feb. 23, as part of the Nobelity Project’s annual Feed the Peace Awards gala, this year honoring Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson.
American-Statesman: What made you want to go back and revisit these songs from Disney films?
Kat Edmonson: Well, I’d written "Too Late to Dream," and it rather pointedly asks the question: Is it too late to dream? Is there some point in one’s life when dreaming becomes impractical or impossible? I remembered the places where I was first encouraged to dream, and of course Disney has those really strong messages. Watching those films as children, we received the message that if we really believed and followed our hearts, that our dreams would come true. So I went back and watched a lot of these old films, and I remembered a lot of the music that I loved so much.
What I realized is something kind of ineffable, but there’s a power in merely having a dream — this wonderful quiet power, and it doesn’t even necessarily need to be a means for something else. When one is in the space of that dream or that passion, things come alive and come about, and it’s important to hold that space.
Among the album’s interesting features are several instrumental interludes that bridge some of the songs.
I knew I wanted to do interludes from the beginning. I actually storyboarded this album. Prior to even finding all of the repertoire, I knew the story that I wanted to tell. Some of the songs I chose ended up telling an aspect of the story that I didn’t expect. But I had an outline before we began, and I knew that I wanted interstitial music to connect the experiences. The story takes place over the course of a single night: It starts with going to sleep, and it ends after waking up the next morning. The whole thing is a metaphor for what we go through in life when we dare to dream.
You took some intriguing liberties here, like singing "When You Wish Upon A Star" in a minor key, which definitely changes the mood of that song.
I wanted to show how wonderfully mysterious and exciting it is to step out blindly in pursuit of one’s dreams, but also how very frightening it can be. The two go hand-in-hand, really. The frightening aspect can fuel the excitement, but it also causes a great deal of anxiety. I wanted to show that dark aspect, and how one can feel very lost in the woods in pursuit of one’s dreams.
Your other original song on the album, "Someone’s in the House," digs into that scary element, as well.
Yeah, we’ve all had the experience, I think, of waking up to a noise in the house and wondering, did I imagine that noise? Was that in my dream, or did that happen in the room? And then going through all of the possibilities of where the noise could have come from, or if there’s someone in the house. It happens in the arc of the story, so it’s like in the middle of the night when it occurs.
I actually really indulged myself in making that song. Every time I worked on it, it would be late at night, when I was home alone, so I could get myself in the mind frame of it. So it was rather frightening, but I really wanted the authentic feeling of being totally on edge.
Some of the sounds on the album are quite evocative, with instruments such as theremin, the African kora and the Chinese pipa.
When I moved to New York 10 years ago, I was discovering all these new instruments that I’d never heard before, or at least never seen played in person. People were playing them in the subway, busking. I would collect people’s cards and then go look up the artist or their instrument. So for a long time, I’ve had the intention of recording these particular instruments.
You mentioned moving to New York 10 years ago. Before that, you were in Austin for nearly 10 years, right?
Yeah, just about. For a couple years I was going back and forth between Austin and New York. But eventually that became difficult, and I just got an apartment and stayed up here.
What was it like when you were getting started with your music career in Austin?
Well, it was great. I had a series of jobs in Austin before I pursued music. I didn’t know how to pursue it, and I didn’t have anyone around me who was doing that. So it took me several years to find my way in. But just before I turned 22, I went down to the Elephant Room and sat in at a jazz jam. I was working at a bar at the time in North Austin, and this guy came in and said he was a jazz musician. And I said, very audaciously, "Well, I’m a jazz singer." And he said, "Well, you should come down to this jazz jam."
I went down there, and Mike Mordecai, who was running the jazz jam, was like, "Yeah, we’ll let you sit in, just have a seat." And I sat there for like four hours, and at the very end of the night, they invited me onstage, and I sang the song ("Stormy Weather"). I didn’t even know what key I sang it in, so we just had to kind of work it out there. And then they invited me back. They were seemingly impressed, so they invited me back the next week. And within six months of doing that, I quit my day job.
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I had one (regular) gig to my name, and I was sitting in with Ephraim Owens and Kevin Lovejoy, just finding people who would work with me. I was also simultaneously forming a band called the Cat’s Meow with the late Slim Richey and his wife, Francie Meaux Jeaux. We would play for tips. I didn’t even expect to get paid. I wanted a meal, because that seemed like a decent thing to do. A meal, and some tips, and I was good.
I didn’t have any health insurance, because I couldn’t afford it. But I could afford my rent, and I could afford my car, and I wanted for absolutely nothing. I was happier than I had ever been. Those were really, really golden times. (laughs gleefully)
Have you ever thought about moving back here?
If I do, it won’t be immediately, because I’ve just started to pursue acting up here. Three years ago, I went back to school and I studied the Meisner technique at the Esper Studio in Manhattan. I graduated, and I’ve been in a couple movies now. I’d like to do theater up here, though. I don’t know where that will lead, but there are a lot of opportunities in New York, and I’m looking for them.
Could it become your primary focus, or will music always be in the forefront?
I think it’s something I can do in equal parts with music. When I was young, I always intended to be an actress, but I wrote songs naturally, and I sang. And then when I moved to Austin when I was 19, I saw that this was the Live Music Capital of the World, and I saw musicians everywhere. So I saw an eventual path to pursuing music, and it was quite natural for me. But then I got to be in Turk Pipkin’s film "Angels Sing" (released in 2013). There I was, sitting on the movie set, and I remembered, "Oh yeah, I was going to do this too!"
And then several years later, I got to be in a Woody Allen film (2016’s "Cafe Society"). Standing on that set, with one of my favorite directors, I was reminded very quickly that, yeah, I want to do this, and now it’s time. So, shortly thereafter, I enrolled in acting school and started studying the craft. I don’t know what form it’s going to take, or how I’m going to make my way, but I know I have to do it, the same as I had to sing and write songs.