David Eugene Edwards has children to support, and a wife, so he turned the songs that had been floating around in his head into a solo project called Woven Hand. The members of 16 Horsepower, the band that had, if not exactly catapulted him to fame seven years ago, at least paid his bills, weren’t getting along very well, and they had decided to go on hiatus.
“We took a year off, and we all had a lot of other things to deal with besides making music,” Edwards says. “But I don’t have another job and my wife doesn’t work, so I can’t take a year off. I don’t have the resources. I need to keep working. That was what got me into using the music that I had, and writing songs of my own. It was partly out of necessity, I guess.”
In past years, Edwards’ Christianity reportedly led to tensions in the group, which has been through enough lineup changes and tour cancellations to impress the Supremes. Certainly it’s unusual in modern musical history for a band to be sidelined by religious differences. To what extent these differences have ruptured 16 Horsepower is hard to say; Edwards is famously tough to read. There’s something about him that seems to invite hyperbole: Previous interviewers have compared to him to everyone from a “somber Jim Morrison” to David Carradine’s traveling priest in Kung Fu.
Though Edwards’ conversational manner is earnest and polite, there’s an odd remove to his work, an antiquated, 19th-century formality alongside the ever-present dread. Spend half your life studying the Bible and the other half immersed in Nick Cave records, and David Eugene Edwards is pretty much what you’re going to get.
More than any of Edwards’ recent works, Woven Hand’s self-titled debut plainly references both Cave (a big influence, Edwards admits) and Dostoevsky, whose profound religious conversion, and stint in a Siberian prison, deeply impresses him. “I get a lot of inspiration from him,” Edwards acknowledges. “He was a believer and a preacher in a sense, and also kind of an outcast. I like the way he approaches his belief, how he incorporates it.”
Even at his gloomiest, it’s unlikely that Dostoevsky was as abstruse or as dark as Edwards. For all its rough beauty, there’s scarcely a leavening moment on Woven Hand, which, in addition to nine reliably mordant originals, contains a cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” sure to induce suicidal depression in anyone who hears it.
Anyone familiar with the mournful gothic-folk of 16 Horsepower will instantly recognize the same constructs at work in Woven Hand: the same emphasis on traditional instrumentation, sparsely applied. The same somber, Old Testament preoccupations and antiquated phrasing. If the timing had been different, most everything on Woven Hand, just released in the U.S. on indie label Sounds Familyre, could have wound up on a 16 Horsepower record.
“It’s all just music that I make,” Edwards figures. “It’s no different to me. I don’t separate it like a lot of people do. I have never written something specifically for anything. I just write. Maybe it’ll be used for 16 Horsepower, or maybe it won’t be used for anything. It all depends on whoever I’m with at the time.”
The grandson of a traveling preacher, Edwards was raised a Nazarene (which forbids dancing, drinking, and women in pants). He married young, left the church, and played in a series of punk and alt-rock bands before forming 16 Horsepower with occasional bandmates Pascal Humbert and Jean-Yves Tola. The group released a striking full-length debut, Sackcloth ‘N’ Ashes, on A&M in 1995, and spent the intervening years touring, arguing, and issuing an impressive series of albums both before and after being dropped by A&M.
Edwards began working on the Woven Hand material at home in Denver in 2001. He wrote, produced and recorded most of the album by himself, playing drums, keyboards and bass. After almost twenty years of playing in various bands, being on his own wasn’t as difficult as he thought it would be.
“It was a little scary, but fun,” he remembers. “I knew what I wanted, and I just did it. I didn’t have to communicate a lot of things with people, though I did have [to compromise]. You always compromise, even with yourself, or you have to compromise with machines. It’s endless, what you have to compromise with.”
Edwards enlisted his friend (and ex-16 Horsepower member) Steve Taylor to play guitar on a number of tracks, and a rotating cast of musicians has joined him for various forays overseas. “I do like to play with people, especially from my hometown, and that’s basically what Woven Hand is,” Edwards says. “It’s me playing music with people from my community who live close to me.”
Woven Hand was released on German label Glitterhouse a year ago but is only now seeing U.S. release, though it did modestly well in European countries such as France and the Netherlands, where 16 Horsepower have long had a modest commercial foothold.
As with 16 Horsepower records past, Edwards drew on his long-running fascination with indigenous folk music for inspiration. “I was listening to a lot of medieval music and Renaissance music and folk music from all over, not just Appalachian bluegrass music,” he says. “That’s what I was interested in at the time, and that’s just what came out.”
These sensibilities also informed Folklore, 16 Horsepower’s austere 2002 release, though Edwards says the group would have made a stripped-down album even if the then-recent Woven Hand record hadn’t been very much on his mind. “For everybody in 16 Horsepower, our musical interests and direction are very similar. We’ve [made rock records] in the past, and we probably will in the future. There’s so much music that we like and so much that we want to do. We don’t want to be limited.”
Despite the hiatus, “we’re still writing music. I write music knowing that we’re going to keep playing, and they’re writing music as well.” The other 16 Horsepower members are working on solo projects, and Edwards, who has also collaborated with Daniel Smith of the quirky indie/Christian outfit the Danielson Familie (with whom Woven Hand now shares a U.S. label) on an as-yet unreleased project, is currently busy with Blush Music, a Woven Hand-inspired project created for a modern dance company in Belgium. Woven Hand will tour Europe in early 2003 before Edwards reconvenes with 16 Horsepower to write, and most likely to tour, in April.
Edwards doesn’t think Woven Hand is his most depressing outing, mostly because he knows 16 Horsepower has made far darker records. “I don’t think it’s bleak; I don’t think it’s [my] bleakest album at all,” he says. “Within each song there’s elements of bleakness and fear and guilt and joy and thankfulness. Every song kind of incorporates every kind of emotion that I go through, I guess.”
In the past, 16 Horsepower made tentative forays into cheerfulness that did not always go over well, mostly because fans of the group, especially the Europeans, have tended to object. Edwards claims it’s only generalized unhappiness, not fear of commercial repercussions, that prevents him from being more upbeat. “I believe in God, and however God wants me to be, I want to be,” Edwards says. “If I do go through a time of just complete joy, which would be nice and could happen, I really wouldn’t care what anybody else thought.”
The name Woven Hand is meant to suggest, among other things, hands clasped in prayer. While Edwards’ religion has always been a recurring motif in his music, Woven Hand, from the first line of its first track (“I am nothing without/His ghost within”) puts a greater emphasis on religion than even 16 Horsepower has. And while there’s nothing about Edwards to suggest a man in the grip of irresistible urges, it can’t be easy to reconcile the carnality inherent in rock ‘n’ roll, even on his comparatively ascetic level, with the constrictions of religious faith.
Edwards doesn’t even try. “I don’t think I can reconcile it,” he says. “I don’t think it’s possible. I think God can. The only reason that anyone listens to me is because of Him, anyway. Making music is what I’ve been given to do. I just try to do it as best as I can.”