Kathleen Edwards’ ‘Failer’ at 20: A Moment in Music

Twenty years since the release of Failer, that period of time still feels surreal for Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards.

Catching up with Edwards in honour of this occasion finds her filled with gratitude. Over the course of an hour, she reflects on what her debut record means, not just to her, but also to so many. On the album’s anniversary, Edwards tweeted a photo to mark the milestone and received hundreds of celebratory comments from fans and peers.

“I’m still digesting all of it,” Edwards says about this outpouring of love for Failer, which some listeners listed as a “desert island disc” and others revealed it helped them through heartbreak.

“It’s a profound validation of what I do. Twenty years ago, when it was happening, I did not have time to realize all of the incredible moments. Over the last six months I’ve been listening to a lot of music from the late 1990s that influenced the sounds of Failer … music that made me want to pick up a guitar in the first place and write songs. It feels strange I’m part of that same nostalgic experience for so many other people.”

Failer announced a sassy new voice with a charismatic personality to match, direct from the nation’s capital to the world. These 10 laments and hook-laden compositions inspired by real-life heartbreak were both personal and poetic.

Keith Phipps, reviewing the album for the AV Club wrote:

Failer takes a hard look at a long, dark stretch of days and rescues from them a kind of hard-won nobility.”

For Edwards, the months — and years — following the record’s release remain a blur. The album led to appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and Carson Daly’s show. The U.S. press fell in love with the record. Positive reviews piled up in music mags like Blender and Mojo and big-city dailies like The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. Rolling Stone named the songwriter one of “Top 10 Artists to Watch” in 2003. Television performances combined with prophetic headlines gave her sales a surge on both sides of the border, and later led to opening for Bob Dylan and sharing stages with The Rolling Stones and Willie Nelson.

Before delving too deep into how this record landed in the right hands and resonated with the right people, one needs the backstory — the miles that not only Failer, but also Edwards, logged long before it reached our ears.

Kathleen Ewards promotional photo for her 2003 single “Money Talks.”

Edwards was born the daughter of a diplomat and spent her early years moving frequently, living in far-flung places like South Korea and Switzerland. This unsettled, yet exciting, life prepared her well for a music career.

Following graduation from high school, the songwriter got an apartment in Ottawa, a job as a waitress, and, in 1999, recorded her first EP Building 55 with producer Dave Draves at Little Bullhorn. Edwards independently released this EP, pressing 500 copies and hit the road with her acoustic guitar — driving across Canada handing out this seven-song collection to record stores and selling it at club gigs.

Once home from this tour, Edwards settled into a slacker life. Like most early 20-somethings, she enjoyed the party lifestyle … at least for a while.

“I was playing adult for the first time, but not really feeling like one,” she laughs.

Following her first big breakup, Edwards sought a quieter existence to heal and to write. The musician moved to a farmhouse in Wakefield, Quebec and honed her sound with gigs at the Black Sheep Inn. One by one, inspired by the solitude of these rural surroundings, the songs on Failer were born.

Authenticity? Edwards has that in spades. She calls bullshit bullshit. Just listen to some of these no-holds-barred lyrics: “I’m so tired of playing defense/ I don’t even have hockey skates,” from “Hockey Skates” and “Write a hit so I can talk you up/ No one likes a girl who won’t sober up” from “One More Song the Radio Won’t Like.”

In March 2002, “Hockey Skates” appeared in the Canadian comedy Men With Brooms starring Leslie Nielsen. This was an especially moving moment for Failer’s producer Dave Draves.

“I remember sitting in the theatre with my dad watching the film when suddenly ‘Hockey Skates’ started playing. I sat for a few seconds pondering why I knew the song and why it was freaking me out before it hit me. I turned to my dad and said: ‘that’s me playing the piano!’”


Dave Draves grew up in Ottawa, Ont. After years as a touring musician, he set up a studio in his backyard in the mid 1990s, calling the venture Little Bullhorn. More than two decades later, he is still busy tracking, mixing and mastering records — helping both young musicians and veterans alike get the right sound.

Of the more than 600 clients he’s worked with, Edwards’ Failer holds a special place. Talking about it brings back beautiful memories. 

“That album is a testament to a time,” Draves says. “Kathleen back then was about as raw as that album.”

Tracking Sheet for “Sweet Little Duck” by Kathleen Edwards. Photo courtesy of Dave Draves.

Draves had previously worked with Edwards on her 1999 EP Building 55 at a time when he recalls her being brash and a wee bit obnoxious. The artist was still finding her voice. But when she returned to Little Bullhorn in 2001 with a batch of new songs, they made magic.

“I found a way to get the best out of her,” he recalls. “We were just going for music moments … we had no idea that the States would eat this shit up!”

Edwards has nothing but praise for Draves. “He had no agenda,” she says. “Dave always had my back and my best interests in mind.”

Failer was recorded on a 16-track machine. Most of the first takes were the ones Draves kept and there were few overdubs. He figures the record cost less than $3,000 to make.

“I’m not one to move backwards, but when COVID-19 hit, I was cleaning the loft in my studio and found the original Failer tapes and listened to them for the first time in more than 10 years,” he says. “I could not believe the attitude Kathleen had for 2003 … not abrasive, but just how loud she was as a Canadian female rocker; yet, she balanced that with beautiful melodies and heart. Those were some exceptional studio moments. I see now she was so far ahead of her time.”

Original tape for Kathleen Edwards’ “Sweet Little Duck.” Photo courtesy of Dave Draves.


Initially, the 10-song demo that became Failer was recorded in a frenetic period with Draves at Little Bullhorn to meet a FACTOR grant deadline that ironically was not successful. One of the first people to hear the record was Erik Hoffman, an old chum of Edwards’ from her elementary school days in Nepean, Ont. Today, Hoffman is President – Music, Canada, for Live Nation Entertainment. Twenty years ago he was working as Sarah Harmer’s tour manager. After listening to these 10 songs, he called Edwards the next day and asked for five copies that he could circulate within the industry. Failer made the rounds. Next, it arrived in the hands of agent Jack Ross, who shared it with artist manager Patrick Sambrook (Eggplant Entertainment). Sambrook was struck by the songwriter’s bravado and by how good the album was from start to finish.

“There was such honesty in the songs … it just jumped off the page on a certain level,” Sambrook recalls on his first impressions and what led him to managing Edwards. “There was an instant connection. As an artist manager, you only get so many of those special records. Failer was one of those; it connected with people all over the world.”

Sambrook took Failer to MapleMusic Recordings, a new independent label and subsidiary of MapleCore (an e-commerce music site started by the Skydiggers’s Andy Maize and tech entrepreneur Grant Dexter) and the label signed Edwards. Along with Sam Roberts EP The Inhuman Condition, Edwards’ debut was one of the inaugural albums put out by this fledging label. Failer was released in Canada in the fall of 2002 and initially received little media attention.

Kim Cooke, the first GM of MapleMusic, who took the helm following more than two decades at Warner Music Canada, recalls how despite his, and the labels, excitement for Failer, promoting the album was a slog.

“As much as I loved the record, it was not easy to market,” Cooke explains. “It was not radio-friendly and did not fit easily into any category. It was not country. It was not rock ‘n’ roll enough. And, it definitely was not Top 40. It was all about trying to get some critical reviews. We were plodding along selling about 50 records a week with not much momentum until Rounder released the album in the U.S. I have to give them a lot of credit. Somehow, they cracked the code.”

In March 2022, Edwards performed a showcase during SXSW at Antone’s in Austin, Texas. In a story wrapping up the best of what their scribes saw that year, Rolling Stone gave Edwards props for “Best Stage Banter.”

These SXSW shows not only impressed the media, but Rounder Records took notice. Fellow Canadian Sarah Harmer had already signed to the independent Massachusetts’s label’s subsidiary Zoë Records with her album You Were Here (2000), and Edwards inked a five-album deal that included two records with three options.

Before the ink had dried other labels reached out, but they were too late. A&R reps were left wondering how they had missed out on this surprising new artist from Canada. There was a long gestation period for Failer before it was released stateside. Edwards realizes now the reasons they took it slow, but when you are a hard-headed 23-year-old and a week lasts forever it was challenging to remain patient and trust the process. When the album was finally released the following January, it arrived at a pivotal time in the music industry. Streaming started to gain traction and with it came the slow decline of CDs. Edwards recalls that her original deal with Zoë Records did not include digital sales. That’s just how fast the sales model changed.

On January 17, just three days after the record’s release, Edwards performed the lead single “Six O’Clock News” on Letterman. The talk show host gave high praise when he introduced the unknown Canadian songwriter:

“I listened to this whole CD this afternoon, and this is great stuff. This is the kind of stuff that makes you just want to get in your car and just drive all night. Heartbreak. Just kick-you-in-the-teeth, break-your-heart kind of stuff … beautiful music. Wonderful new CD. It’s fantastic.”

For most, playing Letterman once is a dream. It took the Canadian artist less than two months to return to the Ed Sullivan Theatre.

Edwards was touring and playing clubs in the northeast. One night, as they were driving on the I-95 to that night’s destination — a spot in the suburbs of Philadelphia, her manager called and said that she and Colin Cripps were playing the Late Show again that very night.

“I remember landing in Newark, Colin and I grabbing a cab and arriving on Broadway and the Ed Sullivan theatre with just our acoustic guitars,” says Edwards. “Regis Philbin was the guest host as Letterman had shingles. I walked into the building and one of the staff said to me, ‘weren’t you just here?’ and I replied, ‘yes, like five weeks ago,’ and her telling me that that never happens.”

Poster for a Kathleen Edwards show at Winnipeg’s West End Cultural Centre in 2003.

Looking back on these experiences, Edwards credits Letterman as a huge catalyst in her career and someone that was always really supportive of her music. One of the incredible opportunities that followed after her late-night TV appearances was one offer she almost refused. She had booked a cottage the last couple of weeks in July to find some balance and get a brief respite from the crazy six months of touring and promotion for Failer. Sambrook called her one day and tells her the vacation will have to wait: he had secured a slot for her to play Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto — better known now as SARSstock — a benefit concert on July 30 that also included The Rolling Stones, ACDC, Justin Timberlake, The Guess Who, Rush, Blue Rodeo, and more.

Following Failer, Edwards released three more records before calling it a day. The musician left the music business in 2014 and opened a coffee shop — aptly named Quitters — in Stittsville, Ont.

The time away was needed. After nearly a decade running the café, the songwriter returned with a new record, Total Freedom, in 2020, and hit the road reenergized. Once again, she’s found joy in playing music.

Kathleen Edwards released a new album, Total Freedom, in 2020 and is currently playing shows throughout Canada and the United States.

Edwards recently relearned a couple of the deeper cuts from Failer — “Westby” and “Sweet Lil’ Duck” — for an intimate club gig at The Basement in Nashville, Tenn. These were songs she had not played live in years and had forgotten how to play. Performing them again brought back nostalgic feelings and left her wondering: “Who was that person?”

“It took me a long time to unpack everything that happened with Failer and the years afterwards,” Edwards concludes. “It was so overwhelming. Think of people who go away for a weekend and come home exhausted … I basically went away for more than a year at that pace.”  

Authour David McPherson and Kathleen Edwards at Farm Aid after her performance in 2005. Photo by Ken Culpa.


Album: Failer
Artist: Kathleen Edwards
Released: 2002 (independently), September 2002 (MapleMusic in Canada), and January 2003 (Zoë Records in the U.S.).
Labels: MapleMusic Recordings (Canada) and Zoë Records/Rounder Records (U.S.) 
Recorded: Little Bullhorn (Ottawa, Ont.)
Producer: Dave Draves
Mixed by: John Whynot
Accolades: JUNO Award nominations: Roots & Traditional Album of the Year (2003); Songwriter of the Year (2004); Rolling Stone “10 Artists to Watch” (2003); NPR named “Six O’Clock News” as a Top Song of the Year (2003).
Players: Kathleen Edwards (acoustic guitars, vocals); Jim Bryson (electric guitars; banjo; vocals; Dave Draves (organ, piano, vibraphone); Fred Guignon (lap steel); Tom Thompson (pedal steel); Peter Von Althen (drums/percussion); Kevin McCarragher (bass)
Photography: Daniel Lohnes           

Track Listing:

1. Six O’Clock News
2. One More Song the Radio Won’t Like
3. Hockey Skates
4. The Lone Wolf
5. 12 Bellevue
6. Mercury
7. Westby
8. Maria
9. National Steel
10. Sweet Little Duck