Judith Edelman does more with less

Clarissa Sansone, July 2000

"I've learned to be pregnant," says Judith Edelman, calling between gigs in Colorado, laughing over the phone. The 35-year-old native-Manhattanite-turned-Nashvillian recently gave birth to a drama queen.

Her third cd, the self-produced "Drama Queen," was released in June on Compass, and its spare songs reflect the "pregnancy" she's talking about: the pregnant pause, the tellingness of words unsaid.

"The more space you can give something," she says, "the more it will breathe."

By the time Edelman recorded "Drama Queen," a bluegrass-flavored collection that followed the 1998 release "Only Sun" and her 1996 debut "Perfect World," she "got more comfortable with…doing less."

As an indication of how her sound has evolved, look to Edelman's hairstyles. The woman wheeling her guitar case in a laundry cart on the cover of this year's release sports a spare, close-cropped 'do made more dramatic for the excess it's rid of.

Compare this to the shaggier, face-framing haircut on "Only Sun," an album in which glimmers of minimalism are present in some songs, while others are filled to the edges with sentiment and instruments.

"Perfect World," a cd of long lyric lines and ever-present background sound, sports a wistful back-cover portrait of Edelman with thick dark locks that smother her shoulders.

While "Perfect World" contains the compact image "Tired sunrise on our table/Turning our sleeves heart-red" (in "Morning People") - indicative of the specificity of her later lyrics - the album also has her singing mouthfuls like "String the words together like beautiful beads/Or let them crash and tumble like a train wreck on your tongue" ("Pass It On").

Although her albums share some of the same musicians - Edelman's husband Matt Flinner on mandolin and bouzouki and Ron de la Vega on bass and cello have appeared on all three - the instrumentation on "Perfect World" is decidedly distinct from her later efforts. Though skillfully played, the music seems cloudier, less controlled.

Edelman's musical philosophy - "Let people play their well-chosen notes and

not a note more than they need" - is more closely approached on "Only Sun," a transitional album in which the music is more line- and lick-driven and the lyrics more narration than explanation.

Edelman has said, for example, that the tune "Some Will Run," about a teenager who flees his rural Southern home for the big city, grew out of a Taj Mahal-esque lick that reminded her of running. The song's story and its repeated guitar phrase demonstrate the beginnings of a musical distillation that came to fruition on "Drama Queen."

"My latest (album) definitely is the truest representation of what my sound is," Edelman says, pointing out that the songs on her new album most closely approximate her live shows.

"I've been playing with the same instrumentation (guitar, mandolin, cello, fiddle, percussion and the occasional banjo) for so many years now…. It's a sound that I feel comfortable with because it's been a long time in evolving," she notes.

"I think my writing has become sharper, a little more focused and certainly more story-driven."

"Factory Men" effectively cuts to the quick with the first lines "Whose smokes are these?/They're not my brand," a directness echoed in the simple, rhythmic background beat of the guitar.

That beat, incidentally, had an interesting origin: "What it came from was the Sesame Street theme….I just love that groove," Edelman says.

The songs on "Drama Queen" are ones of short lines and space, with an emphasis on "letting things be unsaid - intelligently unsaid," in Edelman's terms. Since she first began writing songs at 28, Edelman has learned that "You don't have to cram every damn poetic image into the line" to create a good lyric. The lesson paid off in "Do I Shine," a song whose lines "One bare bulb/One crooked chair" possess the careful detail of a haiku.

Edelman's voice on that song, and all the songs on "Drama Queen," is potent and deceptively clear . In fact, when asked how her new album differs from "Only Sun," Edelman is quick to point to the evolution of her singing.

"I can really hear the change in my voice, for one thing," she says, and has in the past described the development of her voice as the opposite of Bonnie Rait's: instead of getting rougher and more textured, Edelman's singing voice became more bright, clear and precise.

How did it get that way?

"There's just no substitute for performance," she admits, and notes that after several years of performing live, "My voice and I came to an understanding."

Edelman came to the understanding that she'd be a musician while convalescing from an illness in Nairobi. She grew up in Manhattan, the youngest of three children, and, after attending Swarthmore College, began to work in Third World development, a career that took her to Africa.

Of the music, she heart during her time in Kenya and Zimbabwe, Edelman says, "I loved it; I really loved it….I would love to go back now that my musical horizons have broadened."

It was bluegrass, however, that piqued her musical interest. After falling ill while abroad, she occupied her time playing a guitar, and once she returned to the States - to San Francisco - she began bluegrass guitar lessons.

Prior to going to Africa, Edelman had been involved in bluegrass music "not at all."

"I'd done singing a little bit in bands," she notes, and she had friends who were bluegrass musicians.

After Edelman took up the guitar, she says, "One day I got a call from a banjo player," who wanted to know if she wanted to tour, and that began her touring stint with the band Ryestraw.

Edelman says she "cut (her) teeth on the hardcore bluegrass festivals," but feels that with her current sound, "I really don't fit in at traditional bluegrass festivals (any more)."

She still gets labeled a "bluegrass" musician, a distinction she finds both beneficial and restricting: "It does help to include me in…bluegrass radio format…In other ways, it definitely limits, because (my music) isn't traditional," she admits.

Bluegrass' influence continues to be present in her music, as evidenced not only by her band's instrumentation and sound, but also by the musicians who have been featured on her albums, including Jerry Douglas, Alison Brown and Tim O'Brien.

Just as Edelman has applied what she learned from playing bluegrass to developing an original sound, she used her touring experience in starting her own band and her recording experience to produce her own album.

In 1995, Edelman formed the Judith Edelman Band. "I was sort of on the cusp of recording at that point," she explains, "and I needed to develop live…(to) take that leap into the void."

"Before we even had a sound," she goes on, "we had gigs." After gaining experience fronting her own band, Edelman was introduced to Nashville producer Bill VornDick, who produced "Perfect World" and "Only Sun" two years later.

Of her first time in the studio, Edelman says, "I had not the faintest idea what I was doing...I left it in the hands of the producer."

After another album was released, however, she became more confident and comfortable. She decided to co-produce "Drama Queen" with Flinner because "When you get so comfortable with something, it's time to kick yourself in the ass." And kick she did: "(Producing) the album was such a lesson in so many ways, my learning curve was vertical," Edelman says, adding, "The minute it's in the can, you're like, 'I could make 20 times a better album.'"

And she'd like to produce that next album "all by (herself)."

Edelman takes what she's learned about life and applies it to songwriting. "You learn what you need and you sort of cut out what's extraneous in life and in general," she says.

With this approach, she eschews the self-indulgent, and instead gives the listener spare, carefully colored portraits of ordinary people in simply significant lives. "I don't feel like confessing my heart," Edelman says, "except as it pertains to other people's dramas."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com