There are two types of singers: those who see what amazing things they can do with a song and those who consider what a song can do to them. Kat Edmonson is no flashy vocal gymnast. Her throwback nasal phrasing is simple and tightropes jazz kitten gimmickry, but she eventually sells it with a core that resonates with lyrical empathy. She’s transportive, an actress of song with a script that comes from the soul.
The Manhattan-based singer, who was raised in Houston and claimed by Austin, has been on the verge of national breakout since she was hailed as the next Cassandra Wilson in 2009 with her deliciously mood-inducing debut LP “Take to the Sky.” But Edmonson, an only child who never knew her father, is not only an old soul musically, she’s an artist who’s in it for the long haul and so she’s moved slowly, deliberately.
But recent developments in her cautious approach look especially promising. Just last month Edmonson signed with the almighty William Morris Agency with the intent of more international bookings. Edmonson says she’s also reached an agreement with a major label that won’t be confirmed until the paperwork’s done.
Edmonson makes her return Saturday to the Paramount Theatre, almost a year to the day since she debuted at the 1,100-capacity venue to celebrate the release of sophomore LP “Way Down Low.” She financed that record, $50,000 worth, through Kickstarter, which is just one of the new tools for reaching fans that Edmonson has wholeheartedly embraced.
Where “Take to the Sky” was all covers, including a bossa nova version of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” that got her name out nationally, “Way Down Low” mixed in such Edmonson originals as “Lucky” and “Nobody Knows That” with songs by outside writers like Miles Zuniga (“Hopelessly Blue”) and Sonny Henry (“I Don’t Know”).
The album’s defining song was a version of Brian Wilson’s “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” which is not only musically mesmerizing, but fits Kat like a lambskin glove. She grew up the weird kid who’d rather stay home and watch Fred Astaire movies than hang out at the mall.
“I’d listened to ‘Pet Sounds’ before, but never really heard (‘Made for These Times’) for what it was,” she said recently in a crackling cellphone interview. “But about three years ago, I heard it and it hit me. The singer is so pure and vulnerable. He’s coming from a lonely place, and at the time I could really relate.” As 2009 became 2010, it was a time of great highs and deep lows, as Edmonson split with the Captain to her Tennille, producer/arranger/boyfriend Kevin Lovejoy. She had to find herself at a time when she was being discovered by so many.
An apartment opened up in Manhattan in 2011 and Edmonson was gone, starting over in the live living capital of the world. Along the way, she picked up a fan in Lyle Lovett, who was hipped to the fellow Houstonian by his wife, April. Edmonson opened a tour for Lovett and even traded verses of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with him on “The Tonight Show.” A studio recording of the duet was released on Lovett’s “Release Me” album and Lyle returned the favor by singing half a song on “Way Down Low.”
But it was on a show that Lovett couldn’t make where the 29-year-old Edmonson, whose speaking voice is her singing voice without music, received her biggest break to date. The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau had an event to honor “Austin City Limits” honcho Terry Lickona at the Convention Center and at first they wanted Willie Nelson. “He’s in Maui.” They asked Lovett. “Sorry, I’m booked.” Finally, Edmonson got the call. Lickona had mentioned to organizers that he really liked Kat’s first album and the new stuff he heard, so they made the offer.
“My immediate reaction was ‘please, no,’” said Edmonson, who’d been waiting tables at Cool River just five years earlier. “I could just imagine Terry feigning enthusiasm when he saw just me and not some big star like Lyle or Willie. I was afraid of being a big letdown.” But pressure is stress you’re prepared for and Edmonson killed them softly that night, with Lickona leading the standing ovation at set’s end. Stepping up to the mike, the TV producer asked Edmonson to come back on stage; he had something to ask her.
“Would you come and do a taping of ‘ACL’ this season?” he asked. Unsigned acts just don’t get a shot like that. After the show aired in January, with Edmonson sharing the hour with Norah Jones, her phone practically vibrated the finish off the nightstand. Kat had come off like Audrey Hepburn auditioning for “The Billie Holiday Story” and a bevy of managers, promoters, agents and labels wanted to let her know she got the role.
Edmonson also got an offer from the bareMinerals skin product line, which tapped her as its “Force of Beauty” for 2013. We thought she was crazy to cut her long hair after “Take to the Sky,” but Edmonson knows what she’s doing. She’s got her own look, her own style, which will help, she says, as she moves away from the straight jazz field into more of a pop sound.
The next album could be all originals — that’s the aim — as the Lamar High product has been on a writing tear since moving to the city of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. “I just love New York,” she says, “but when I write songs, I’m thinking about Texas. I’ve been listening to a lot of (‘Spaghetti Western’ king) Ennio Morricone, too. The album should have a real Southwestern feel.”
Edmonson hasn’t chosen a producer yet. Not until the ink dries on her record deal, and it seems to be that slow-drying kind. Sometimes things move in baby steps for Edmonson and sometimes her career could be headquartered only in New York, with its frantic energy. But Edmonson is ready for it all. There are two types of performers: those who wilt in the spotlight from fear and apprehension and those who shine and grow in the glow.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave.
Cost: $27 to $37