Sense of Drama
Nashville-based songwriter unfolds complex tales with a twist
By Michael McCall
JUNE 26, 2000: Judith Edelman's songs often surprise people--at first pleasantly, and then with a disturbing revelation. For example, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter's tune "The Sisters of St. Timothy's" begins with a young girl explaining how she and her sister relish attending Catholic school each day. In her most girlish voice, Edelman sings, "We like the nuns, even the mean ones." The line usually gets a laugh from her audiences. But as the story unfolds, Edelman circumspectly reveals that the two girls enjoy their classes because it provides momentary escape from a sexually abusive father. By the end of the song the girl is praying that she's "still good in the eyes of St. Tim."
As Edelman explains, when she performs the song live, "I look out and, after the first verse, everyone's smiling. Then you see this recognition dawning on them. By the third verse, it's oh, no! I get this little twinge of guilt about that. But I think it's good to hook them in one way and then have them realize they're not where they thought."
Edelman's songs stand on more than clever lyrical tricks, though. Her third album, Drama Queen--released June 6 on Nashville's Compass Records--underscores her rare talent for creating complex characters and compelling stories in compact, four-minute songs. But for all their complexity, the songs on Drama Queen serve as a reminder of the struggles that run through everyday lives.
What's remarkable about Edelman's songwriting is how she captures situations with a dispassionate sense of detail that, in the end, fills her songs with potent depth. Song after song lays out a singular set of characters and plotlines, each jarring and memorable. Edelman's ability to create these distinct yarns gives her album title its resonance, which refers more to her songwriting sensibility than to her personality. "Though I will say for those who know me that I don't want to rule out that I'm a bit over-the-top," she says with a laugh.
The music on Drama Queen is similarly fresh--and tricky. Edelman is an expert acoustic guitarist, but her songs aren't constructed upon the warm, hummable melodies typical of most contemporary singer-songwriters. Instead, she fuses her lyrics to cunning, forward-thinking string-band arrangements that in no way could be easily recreated by genteel coffeehouse performers. In this sense, Edelman comes across like Janis Ian fronting Newgrass Revival: Her band combines virtuosic picking and artful arrangements that draw directly from the progressive acoustic music scene.
"I could just call it Americana," Edelman says with a shrug. "It's basically folk music with bluegrass instrumentation. Newgrass, folk, jazz, rock, blues, pop--it's all in there.
"Of the people I listen to, Tom Waits and Richard Thompson are on the same darker side of the street that I'm drawn to. Where I diverge from them is that I resonate at the bittersweet place instead of just a pure-dark place. My characters are coming from dire straits, but they're not completely over the edge into living hell. I'm less interested in living hell than in redemption."
If placing dark, urban-based stories in an acoustic musical setting sounds peculiar, that's only fitting, for everything about Edelman's entry into a music career is unusual. Now 35 years old and a recent Nashville transplant, she didn't pick up an acoustic guitar until nine years ago. At the time, she was recuperating from a severe case of salmonella that she contracted while toiling as a social worker in agricultural development in Nairobi, Kenya.
Edelman grew up in Manhattan, the daughter of a kindergarten teacher and a medical researcher who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1972. "It certainly wasn't the peace prize--not in his lifetime," Edelman cracks, intimating that her father was quite the taskmaster at home. "I didn't go into medicine for a reason. I won't lie about it. My parents definitely shaped the course of our lives. I mean, everyone's do, in one way or another. But we definitely were pressured with the whole achievement thing. Of course, I'm now a musician, so I've entered the land of notorious underachievement. But that's the forgone side of things."
Her parents insisted she study music as a child, so Edelman became an adept classical pianist. After graduating from high school, she attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania before heading off to Africa. Later, when she became ill in Nairobi, she stayed with a friend who had an acoustic guitar lying around, so Edelman took up the instrument to fight boredom. Once she recuperated, she returned to the States and moved to Oakland, Calif. It was there she heard a bluegrass band and started to develop an interest in the music. A friend steeped in bluegrass made her a cassette: One side featured classic mountain music by the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, and others; the other side included contemporary bluegrass songs by Tim O'Brien, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, and the like.
"When I look back on that tape and those artists, I think what drew me in was that they were song-driven artists," Edelman says. "They had unerring taste in picking songs. I probably didn't realize that at the time. But I did realize that the music was so infectious. I really fell in love with it."
She worked hard enough to master the intricacies of bluegrass guitar, earning a spot in a couple of West Coast bluegrass bands, most notably Ryestraw. While playing festivals with Ryestraw, she met mandolinist Matt Flinner, and she moved from California to Idaho to live with him on the Wyoming border at the foot of the Grand Tetons. Now married, she and Flinner moved to Nashville last September.
These days, Edelman strives to combine her two musical loves: infectious music and good songs. "I like writing songs that show how everyday life is hard, but that it can also be good," she says. "I honestly think that a drama queen is someone who experiences small things in a dramatic way as a means of getting by. It's something I can certainly relate with. And when I start to write songs, that's how things develop."
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