At the end of 2002, Edith Frost all but vanished from the music world. In six years she'd put out three albums, two singles, and an EP of sad, dreamy folk pop, and the last of those releases, the 2001 full-length Wonder Wonder (Drag City), sold roughly 15,000 copies--more than any of the others. But after finishing a European tour to promote it, Frost abruptly stopped playing shows. She stopped writing songs, stopped recording, and hardly even touched her guitar. Holed up in her apartment, she became, in her words, a "total hermit."
Over the past few months, though, the 40-year-old singer-songwriter has worked her way back into the thick of things. On Saturday she wraps up a 16-date national tour with a show at the Empty Bottle, her first headlining gig in Chicago in two and a half years, and in February she'll return to the studio to begin work on her fourth full-length.
Rian Murphy, Drag City's head of staff and Frost's longtime producer, thinks bad timing had a lot to do with her self-imposed hiatus. The first of her two American tours to support Wonder Wonder began in early September 2001 and reached New York less than two weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, and she went to Europe at a time when Drag City had no licensing arrangements there--fans could only find her albums as imports. "She would go over there and bust her ass for nothing," Murphy says, "just to try and get a foothold somehow. She worked really hard for a year, and then after that I think she was just like, 'Fuck it!'"
Frost agrees that the tours were hard, but takes a more philosophical tone. "I kinda let myself go with the flow of how things are going and where my instincts are at," she says. "And for a while I just wasn't feeling like making music or writing songs."
Frost didn't abandon all her creative outlets: she kept writing in her blog at edithfrost.com, which she's maintained since 1995. Its thousands of entries include photos from as far back as her christening in 1964; she covers her college years, details her marriage and divorce, and delves into the minutiae of her day-to-day life, describing everything from the perils of bathing her kitten to breakups with long-term boyfriends. (After a recent split she consoled herself with the fact that she had "69 friendsters, if not 69 actual friends.")
By mid-2003 Frost, an avid Cubs fan and a self-described "roller-skating enthusiast," was pursuing those passions as well, not just geeking out with her computer. She also kicked a 20-year smoking habit. "I was just living my life for a while and kinda slacking on everything else," she says. She didn't have a job, but her savings--including some money from her records--kept her afloat.
Her slacking worried Murphy. "She wasn't in the frame of mind where she was writing music or playing, or even picking up the guitar, for a long time," he says. That was a big change from the sessions he and Frost had done for her first full-length, Calling Over Time, back in late 1996: "She'd get up every morning and get the guitar out and start singing hours before we were to even go to the studio," says Murphy. "I'm used to her being really involved in music. She wasn't, and you really gotta pick up the guitar every once in a while or you're not gonna think thoughts that are gonna be expressed on it."
Frost reached a crossroads when she was offered a high-profile opening slot on an August 2003 Cat Power show as part of that year's Estrojam festival. Though Murphy and Drag City pressed her to take the gig, at first she said no. "I didn't feel like I was ready," she says. "I kept saying, 'I'm not in show-playing mode right now.'"
But Frost relented, and her well-received set for the sold-out Park West crowd--backed by Lindsay Anderson of L'altra on keyboards and jazz bassist Josh Abrams--breathed the first bit of life back into her relationship with music.
Early in 2004 Frost started going through old home tapes from her time in New York City in the mid-90s, and in May she made 11 of those songs available as a free downloadable album called Demos. (It's on a net-only label called Comfort Stand that a friend of hers runs in Seattle.) Murphy wrote an online introduction to the disc, comparing the tunes to the first batch of unsolicited material Frost sent to Drag City--the stuff that got her signed to the label and ended up on her self-titled debut EP in 1996. Though Frost's later recordings used a slew of backing musicians, her voice and guitar are front and center on Demos; Murphy calls it "pure Edith," with a sound that's "lonesome and unadorned." Nine of the tracks here eventually made it onto various Frost LPs in more polished versions, but the album's two slow-burning country covers--Floyd Tillman's "I Get the Craziest Feeling" and Lefty Frizzell's "Look What Thoughts Will Do"--are previously unreleased.
Compiling Demos helped get Frost excited about music again--she was also flattered that it attracted some positive media attention, since most outlets don't bother to review downloads. She played two more opening sets, warming up for Health & Beauty and Jolie Holland in September and October, and so far this year she's written about a dozen tunes. She also says she has a backlog of more than 40 unrecorded songs from throughout her career, some of which might end up on the album she'll be working on come February. On her current tour with locals Manishevitz, who've been opening for her and serving as her backing band, Frost has been previewing four or five of her new songs each night. "Usually half the people in the audience at my shows haven't heard me before anyway, so they don't know the difference," she says. "But the people that do know my stuff seem to be digging it."
For the new album Frost will again be working with Murphy, who she describes as her "producer/lion tamer." (On her blog she pretends to complain about his efforts to hold her to a practice regimen, then thanks him "for being such a fucking bastard.") He's produced all of Frost's full-length records except the 1998 disc Telescopic, for which Royal Trux did the honors--and at those sessions, Frost jokes, Murphy served as "translator." But she still hasn't decided how she'll approach the arrangements on this album. "It always depends who's playing on it," she says. "I never really know how it's gonna sound until we get in there and start doing it."
Frost expects to finish in the studio this spring, and the disc could be in stores as soon as next fall. She's itching to get to work. "I'm playing again and excited, which is good. Left to my own devices I could go forever doing nothing--my laziness is pretty much unlimited," she says, laughing. "But I've got a fire under my ass right now, and hopefully it'll stay that way."
When: Sat 12/11, 10 PM
Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
Price: $8 in advance, $10 at the door
Info: 773-276-3600 or 800-594-8499
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.