It’s summer in Peterborough, and Mary-Kate Edwards is in the middle of writing a concept album about queer love in catastrophic times. She’s not sure all of the songs will make it on to the album—“I’m a big thrower outer,” she says, “I know the first time I play a song live if I want to keep it in my set or not”—but they’re coming fast and easily, and that’s good enough for now.
One new song, “Downpour,” appeared to her just the other night at a Broken Social Scene concert in Toronto; she “figured out the chords the next day.” She writes mostly on piano, often on the small upright in the Junior Common Room at Trent University’s Catharine Parr Traill College, where she’s a student. She performs with a guitar, and does occasionally write on one, but “the more emotional songs I write on piano.”
“With piano, I often don’t feel like my body’s there,” she says, then pauses and says, “It’s weird.”
The new material is in service of an idea for which Mary-Kate has submitted a songwriting grant to the Ontario Arts Council. If it’s successful, it will pay her to work on the songs that will appear on the full-length follow-up to Blueberry Pie, the EP she released earlier this year.
The daughter of a piano teacher, Mary-Kate started out young, beginning lessons at age five, then, rebelling against inevitability, she quit at age nine. By then, though, she was already singing in the Peterborough Children’s Choir and, within a few years, would write her own songs. “There was always a lot of music going on,” she concedes.
The die was cast by the time she entered St Peter’s Catholic Secondary School, an often overlooked (because it’s overshadowed by the Integrated Arts Program that moved to Thomas A. Stewart from Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School when it closed in 2012) training ground for local musicians.
She played the flute at St Peter’s, and she learned to compose, writing a brass arrangement of a Feist song for her Grade 12 project. “I loved it a lot,” she says, reserving particular praise for music teacher Glenn Bailey’s Improv Fridays, where students would “turn off our brains” and learn to improvise.
As serious as she was about playing the flute, Mary-Kate abandoned plans to study it at university at the last minute, opting for English Literature at Traill College instead—a choice that directly affected her songwriting.
“I’ve been writing songs forever, but when I was younger, I always hated my stuff,” she says. “I’m someone who tends to overthink things,” and that self-criticism can be counter-productive for an artist. Self-aware but no longer needlessly nitpicking, she says, “I still have it enough to be critical but not enough to be stifling.”
As a songwriter, she finds “it’s better to focus on whatever I’m feeling and just purge that, and then edit the mess of it,” rather than trying to work something together from scratch. “When something strongly resonates, I let myself dive into it,” she says. “That’s what’s most important.”
Her current band also helps. Keyboardist Kyha Craig, drummer Scott Somerville, bassist Tim Hance, and violinist Emily Stewart are all singer-songwriters as well as accompanists, and they all provide constructive criticism for each other’s music. “They’re better musicians than me,” Mary-Kate claims, “but that’s a good thing.”
The band came together last winter, when Mary-Kate started making music a bigger priority after devoting the bulk of her energy to reading and writing for school for a few years. She played a bunch of shows, and began a recording with James McKenty that was originally intended to be a full-length but, through Mary-Kate’s ruthless trimming, became an EP.
Although the songs on Blueberry Pie are comfortably in a pop-folk vein, there are clear clues to Mary-Kate’s classical background, particularly in the strings. The title track, a pretty waltz featuring Emily playing with cellist Hilary Hodgins, was all charted by Mary-Kate. “I have an idea and I will chart things, but because of the way I write I don’t want things to be too robotic, calculated,” she says. “It wouldn’t make sense.”
The two approaches “fought for a while,” but doing the EP was good practice for working out a happy medium between them. “Some songs I would write sheet music for, some I just worked with the band and said, ‘What do you guys think?’” The layers of pleading violin lines on “Sophia,” for example, were improvised.
Having worked out how to adapt her classical roots into more folkie settings, Mary-Kate will apply those lessons to the next recording, a reflection on love and current events that will explore the way “friendships … function as emotional anchors that keep us safe in a sea of change.”
Even as she works on the new material, though, and determines which of it is good enough to keep, she still likes Blueberry Pie—something she, with her history of instant repudiation, reckons as “a huge accomplishment.”
Images courtesy the artist.