On the therapeutic value of songwriting: “It’s like writing everything down in a journal, or even praying; I can get all my thoughts out, sort through things in my mind, move forward and come to a place of peace with everything.”
Multifaceted. This word describes many aspects of Jillian Edwards’ life. She is a singer, songwriter and guitarist; her personality can be characterized as focused and determined while being relaxed enough to laugh at herself and be comfortable in her own skin; and on her latest EP, Headfirst, Edwards proves herself adept at writing happy pop, sad folk, epic pop rock, ambient folk, hopeful country songs, and ballads that are perfect for twitterpated lovebirds. The album’s variety of genres is just one example of how this Dallas native refuses to take the easy route or follow convention when it comes to her music.
“I’ve always wanted to be the kind of artist who’s able to put out music that’s true for me,” Edwards says. “These seven songs, all these different sounds…those all spring from different emotions that I have and they are all very true for me.”
In a time where popular music and artists are becoming increasingly homogenous and creatively watered down, Edwards knows she could have made different choices with her songs if she had wanted to increase her chances for success at the expense of quality songwriting. She knows full well how all this variety could be received by listeners, but she does not regret her decision to mix things up sonically.
On co-writing: “It’s always a good co-writing session when you walk away thinking, ‘I couldn’t have written that song alone. It’s better because of that other person.’”
“It could be looked at in a less positive light,” she admits. “Some people could say that maybe I should have chosen one sound and done all of it as more of a folk album in order to be more commercial or marketable or whatever. But I would love to excel at all of those different types of sounds that come out of me, so I guess [the Headfirst sessions] were just me wanting to work towards all of those sounds.”
Two tracks in particular on Headfirst demonstrate her willingness to go all the way with her writing. “Birthday” and “Once Should Be Enough” are tracks that Edwards classifies as being “100% autobiographical,” and once she began writing these songs (both are about failed relationships – she tried to be strong for her ex in the former, while she struggled to let go in the latter) there was never a doubt in her mind that she had to complete the songs regardless of how personal they were. She found that telling these difficult stories was actually more therapeutic than painful.
“For me, the more personal it is, the easier it is to write. The quicker it comes,” Edwards says. “It’s like there’s not even a choice. I’m definitely going to start it and finish it because that’s just how I am. I would have written those songs whether I recorded them or not, or whether I ever played them for anyone, just because it helps me. It’s like writing everything down in a journal, or even praying; I can get all my thoughts out, sort through things in my mind, move forward and come to a place of peace with everything.”
And here is where Edwards shows more of her colors. She could easily have allowed herself to fly off the handle and tear apart the subject of her song; instead, she exercised restraint in a way that fortunately does nothing to lessen the impact of either song. Such artistic levelheadedness and personal maturity are part of what makes Headfirst such a strong release.
On discipline: “You have to show up every day and if you don’t have inspiration then you live off discipline and plan on the inspiration to meet you there.”
“It’s definitely easier to write songs that are 100% autobiographical, but there are times where in the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘People are going to hear this and it’s extremely personal,’ and in that sense I sometimes think about the need to choose my words carefully. I wouldn’t want to write something that I would regret saying,” Edwards laughs.
Sometimes she gets help in respect to this last point, as she occasionally will run a song by a few trusted confidants who can help steer her in the right direction. Edwards’ humility and grace shine through in moments like these because she embraces the fact that she cannot always write songs on her own instead of fighting against this idea. She is not above getting help from someone else, and as a matter of fact, she even enjoys doing so from time to time.
“I write by myself more because that’s what I’m used to and what comes most natural to me,” Edwards says. “But it is really exciting to find someone to write with who I feel is a good match for me. It’s always a good co-writing session when you walk away thinking, ‘I couldn’t have written that song alone. It’s better because of that other person.’ I have a few people like that who I can count on, where I know if I sit down with them I’m gonna like what happens.”
For further proof of her ability to write with someone else, one need only look at her upbeat pop rock duet with singer-songwriter Johnny Stimson, “Keep You Here With Me.” The track features charming melodies, complementary vocal pairings and the rare feat of having unabashedly cute sentiments expressed throughout without making the listener want to vomit. The friendship they share seems to be a great one.
“Johnny is one of my very best friends,” she says. “He’s from Dallas as well and we wrote that song together. We’ve written several and so we kind of just help each other out. If he writes a song that needs a girl vocal then I’ll sing it, and he’ll do the same for me. It’s fun to have someone else’s voice in there to add texture and some variety. I really enjoy writing with him.”
Despite the range of sounds and genres that are represented on Headfirst, Edwards’ live shows are often acoustic deals because logistically it is too difficult to bring a full band on the road with her. But, during a recent tour through Texas, she was able to perform some of her songs with a full band – courtesy of her willing tour partners in the band Caleb. Tours like these are some of the ones she loves most because of the increased familiarity and comfort level each successive show brings.
“It’s been really fun playing with them and getting in the groove,” she says. “We’ve had five shows on this tour, and it’s been nice to have the same set every night, to know what’s coming and to be extremely comfortable with it as a whole.”
If there is one drawback to touring with a band, it’s that having a group backing her up does affect her ability to improvise on stage. She will be the first to admit that she is not out there every night trying to wholly reinvent her own tunes, but she does like having the freedom to do so if she desires.
“If I’m with a band then I definitely keep the tracks normal. I don’t switch them up on anyone, especially if we’ve talked about it ahead of time. But if it’s just me and the guitar then I give myself freedom to kind of do a few tweaks, usually just vocally to make the performance feel more live. I don’t like to change them up too much, though, so that’s about as far as it goes,” she says with a laugh.
Edwards’ willingness to invest herself in her craft – no matter where it takes her and regardless of what the songs sound like in the end – bleeds through in each song she writes. Part of this has to do with her willingness to let the music tell her what needs to happen, while the other can be chalked up to good old-fashioned discipline.
“It’s definitely easier when inspiration strikes,” she says with regard to her writing process. “But you have to show up every day and if you don’t have inspiration then you live off discipline and plan on the inspiration to meet you there.”
And once she has written a song, she tries her best to never completely give up on it even if it does not make it onto an album. She might forget about a song or two for a while, but she recognizes and even appreciates the fact that mental triggers are everywhere.
“With unrecorded songs, I still sometimes play them to myself or sometimes I just forget they exist,” she says. “Then a few months later I’ll have some experience or I’ll see someone or something and then remember I’ve already written a song based off a similar experience from long ago, so it just kind of reappears again.”
As an artist, and specifically on this aptly titled record, Edwards demonstrates the benefits of diving headfirst into her music. You never know what will happen, so you might as well go big or go home.
Photos by Shaun Menary