I’m not sure there’s a space in Canadian culture that Jann Arden has not occupied. In fact, I bet this multi-platinum award-winning artist even has a secret side career in the NHL nobody knows about yet. You know Jann as a singer, songwriter, author, public speaker, broadcaster, actor, philanthropist or a combination of the above. And if she’s given enough time, you may witness her debut in the field of archeology. In short, the stone that is Jann Arden gathers no moss. And that’s how she likes it. I had the privilege of interviewing Jann.
The second part of your career is really just taking off, isn’t it? I have a lot of girlfriends who are in their fifties and many of us are experiencing this phenomenon of coming into our strength and maybe a greater sense of self-confidence.
Yeah. That’s what my new book is all about. It’s about finding that place. We all become these crones – and I always loved that word – which means it’s all about being unapologetic for your opinions, for your voice, for your place in society, for your everything, really. It’s just becoming unapologetic. And that comes with time. Young women are not able to do that because there’s no way of skipping the hard part. You have to go through it all.
I’m old enough to know this, but I think it’s important to remind people that you didn’t have your first recording contract until you were 30. And between the years of 18-30 for you there was a lot of struggle. I wonder if you could put into words what kept you going?
I think on a really basic level I just wanted to live. I was never ever suicidal; my struggles never involved anything like that. I just never sort of gave up on the idea of getting somewhere. I was very practical; I expected to fail.
And I was really good at failing. And I either didn’t have the sense to stop, or I was too naïve to stop, but some small little good thing would happen and that would spur me on.
So, you held onto that hope, but you must also have had a vision?
Never. I wasn’t a planner. I didn’t have vision. I didn’t think I was going to get anywhere in music. I didn’t know what I was going to do… Sometimes life just chooses you and it gives you a task.
Like, good things really do come out of bad things and the only reason I started singing was because of my dad’s alcoholism. So, I would never have found myself in the family basement making up songs if I had never really, really wanted to cut a wide swathe away from him and around him. In a real simplistic way, that’s what it was.
I’m a very, very optimistic person. So was my mom. When I think about what she was faced with in her life, she was very optimistic. My dad was very pessimistic. The world was never quite enough; he wasn’t a joy-filled guy. It was just his nature and I think he felt, when I look back on his life now, depressed and I think he drank to fight that. He worked hard, he was a good provider, but he wasn’t a good parent. Having said that though, was he a good parent? Because I would never be what I am now if hadn’t had that contentious relationship with him.
My dad was just a guy trying to do the best he could.
One of the things that I found really surprising in your book was how you learned to play guitar and how you learned to sing. It was completely private; nobody in your family knew that you were doing this in the basement for hours and hours and making your own songs. Can you understand now why you kept that private?
I think I was a very funny, gregarious person. And I think it was very polarizing when I started writing, like the content and the nature of the music I was composing when I was very young. I started writing when I was 11 or 12.
I guess I just I surprised myself because the songs were such a serious nature. And I was just a funny kid… but obviously I was very affected by what was going on in our house with this quiet storm brewing all the time. And I obviously, upon some kind of inner reflection, started writing down things I just didn’t want anyone to know. It was like writing in a diary, that’s what I liken it to.
That makes sense to me. So the basement music became like your diary. I get that.
Yeah. It really did save me, Silken. Music has just continually been such a force to be reckoned with. It has always seemed to be picking me up and carrying me along.
You said in some ways it felt like music chose you. In the book it seems like it emerged and there was no turning your back on it or denying it a big, huge place in your life.
I still am baffled by all of this to be honest. It’s funny because it’s been so many years, but I have learned that in life, whatever it is, there are these things that push you and prod you in a direction. But I was never a planner – there was no endgame. I didn’t think I’d be a singer/songwriter ever in a million years. It still makes me smile.
When you’ve gone through a period of writing and creativity do you feel a release? Do you feel clarity?
I feel a great sense of satisfaction. I really enjoy writing music even though I tend toward the morose side of things, more of a confessional style… I am still surprised my music was received as widely as it was. I don’t even know if I’m the type of music people would want to listen to in groups; I think I’m the kind of music that you want to listen to by yourself in your car or your bedroom. I’ve always been proud of that. It’s just a personal exchange. My music is very one on one.
Speaking of the personal exchange, I was thinking about how storytelling in itself, whether you’re writing books or music, where is the importance of that personal relatability?
People come up to me and say, “Thank you so much for sharing that” because for them it always seems very private. Like, Oh gosh, this is so private. I can’t believe she’s actually saying these things. I remember when I was writing about my mom and I suddenly looked down at the page and thought, I don’t know if I love this version of my mother. I don’t know if I love her. Because Alzheimer’s is horrible because they’re so changed and so unrecognizable and I thought Should I delete, delete, delete, delete? But I left it. So when I wrote about her disease and how I felt and how it was just changing me and how it made my mom a stranger to me, I think people don’t expect that kind of candor and I always think it’s important to write that stuff down. I liken it to a little piece of my life through a keyhole. I don’t think I’m giving up secrets; I’m just being honest.
Do you think you move to humour to deflect the intensity of the emotions?
Oh very much so. In fact, it’s always been part of the way I operate. Even in my live shows which are very conversational, there’s always the darker, more personal stuff – it’s in my music too and I always tell funny stories in between. People get it, they laugh and they leave feeling like they got something real. Life is not a beer commercial where we’re all just gaily running on a beach with a cold drink in our hands. Most of life is difficult.
It’s not easy being a person.
It’s NOT easy being a person. I love what you said recently about grief – and I’m so sorry you lost your mom at Christmas time.
Yeah, even when you see it coming, Silken, from a hundred miles away, it doesn’t make it any easier when it happens. I don’t know what’s worse: sudden death or watching someone die over 10 years. Even in my mom’s sickness – and both my parents died of dementia and Alzheimer’s – I’m still so glad I had the time with her to say the things I wanted to say.
My mom taught me so much and prepared me so well. Even when she was sick she was able to communicate things to me that were so important.
You talk about grief as something that gave you courage and gave you your “bravery muscle” back. Can you speak to that a bit?
Well, you don’t think you’re going to be able to manage because you can’t fathom. You worry because it’s something that hasn’t happened and worry is this emotion that humans have, and so many people worry an inordinate amount. And with my parents, it really lifted that worry because it was like, well what’s the worst thing that could happen? Even their death is not that terrible.
I’m not a religious person. I don’t picture God on a white marble throne being a petulant 4-year-old handing out punishments. It’s just not what I think. And I am a very spiritual person and I do have faith; I do believe in something more than this and I believe my parents are fine; they’ve just changed. My mom used to say that her soul was her pilot and her body was the spaceship. I think the energy just changes and I can deal with that.
I know that a lot of our readers might feel like they’re not very courageous people or they’re struggling with their courage. Has fear been a big factor in your life or would you say you are naturally pretty fearless?
I think I’ve been afraid of a lot of things. I think that’s pretty standard. I don’t think of myself as fearless in any stretch of the imagination, but I think I’m spontaneous and… I’m certainly not afraid of failing. It’s why I try so many things. That’s why I get my hands in so many pots. I’d like to be an archeologist. Maybe I’ll still have time.
I want to run the clock out. I can’t imagine just stopping and I also really admire anyone who does just want to stop… But for me, I want to die on my feet. I want to be doing things.
My mom always talked about having a purposeful life. Even in the full-blown part of her Alzheimer’s, she wanted to be given a task even if she forgot what that task was within moments. And I can’t tell you how many times she mopped! I would ask her when she needed something to do if she’d like to mop and she’d say, “I’d love to mop!” and often times I would see her in one spot and I knew she didn’t know why she was there. Then I’d say, “Oh my gosh, Mom, the floor looks so nice thanks for mopping.”
I love this idea of being purposeful – no matter how old you are. My husband’s mother is 99 and she still has the spreadsheets of his company out in front of her. She was a bookkeeper and she still pointing out that he’s spending too much money on toilet paper in his fitness clubs. It’s pretty cool to still be that engaged when you’re 99.
[Laughing] I like the idea of mentoring and inspiring younger women – and men, but it’s mostly younger women who ask me the questions about being in music or the arts… I always say to them that so much of it is relationship-driven and you’ve probably found that in your career too. And you and I as women of a certain age recognize that. As we make our way through, community becomes everything. Like I can’t do anything without a lot of people helping me. Some I’ve known for 25 years and here I am working with them again and it’s because I have a good relationship with them.
Jann, do you have any words of advice or encouragement to anyone reading this who may need it?
I think when we’re in the middle of crap it’s hard to see any way out of it. But it does lift…it’s all part of just being a person. And I don’t know about you, but I think that all my troubled times have really made me an empathic person and at the end of it all, that’s gold. To be able to have compassion toward others and feeling the tolerance… you just think it’s always going to feel this bad, but it won’t.
And reach out to people: if you have a friend you haven’t heard from in a while, reach out to them. Call and tell them you were thinking about them. We’re all learning…there’s so many great things and opportunities going on in the world, we just have to make sure that we make the effort to be part of it. Don’t wait for life to come to you. Go to it. Go to life.
Thank you, Jann, for talking to me today and for supporting everyone involved with Unsinkable by sharing a bit about you.
It was my pleasure, Silken.