Kat Edmonson is experiencing a homecoming of sorts.
The singer-songwriter from Houston, Texas, is returning for the first time since 2002-03 to the Holy City and her former school, the College of Charleston. Performing in the Cistern Yard in her Spoleto Festival debut, Edmonson arrives as her career is burgeoning.
"That's where I used to study, hang out and eat lunch," Edmonson said. "I used to live on Coming Street and work at the Starbucks on Calhoun." Though she has fond memories of her time in Charleston, the singer left town after one year of school to return to the clubs and coffee houses in the Lone Star State in order to foster her own brand of music education.
After journeying to the indie music mecca of Austin, Edmonson began focusing on her sound and sharpening her voice.
"There is something alive in Austin," she said. "The patrons are loyal, and they really stand behind their musicians. You can become very famous in Austin and not be known anywhere else in the U.S., and you can have a solid career and take care of yourself."
Amid the sea of punk bands, hipster folkies and commercial-ready rockers, Edmonson nested within the small but stable jazz contingency in Austin. She created her own style, inspired by sounds of her childhood. Just as she returned to her Texas roots, Edmonson returned also to her musical origins: the Great American Songbook.
Often defined as the popular music written from the 1920s until the advent of rock and roll in the late 1950s, the tunes considered part of the Great American Songbook were written mostly for musical theater and Hollywood. The genre is dominated by giants of songwriting: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the brothers George and Ira Gershwin, and countless other men and women who cemented what is regarded as America's sound.
"It's America's classical music," said Philip Furia, a professor of literature at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, who has written about Tin Pan Alley, Gershwin, Berlin, Mercer and others. "Popular songs are not supposed to endure. It's popular for a while, and they go away. It's amazing that a group of popular songs from the 1920s and 30s have lasted."
Edmonson was immersed in classic American pop at an early age.
"I learned a lot from old musicals," Edmonson said. "My mom would rent videotapes for me while she was preoccupied with work as a single mom. I enjoyed the old musicals of Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. I always have been drawn to that kind of music, and I started writing songs around 8 or 9 and could make up melodies in my head."
Her rearing on classic pop standards would lead eventually to her first two albums. Edmonson's 2009 debut, "Take to the Sky," features covers of songs by the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Henry Mancini, as well as takes on songs from contemporary artists such as the Cardigans, The Cure, Carole King and John Lennon.
It is this broad swath of inspiration from the well of 20th century popular music that feeds the diverse melodies of Edmonson's compositions. "Way Down Low," her 2012 sophomore effort, which was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign, reflects Edmonson's love of a good story wrapped in a hypnotic melody. The album mostly features original tunes.
Edmonson's music is reminiscent of the Great American Songbook: universal and inviting.
"My favorite part in the songwriting process is how natural and even magical it is," she said. "You don't think about genres and I don't identify with one particular genre. You explore all the possibilities without thinking of limitations. I love a well-written song. It turns me on."
Nick Reichert is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.