Alberta singer-songwriter Jann Arden catapulted to fame in 1993 with her debut album Time For Mercy and hit single “I Would Die For You”. Arden has since released 17 albums, charted 19 Top 10 singles and become a Queen of All Media, as a broadcaster, podcast host, bestselling author and star of her smash hit television sitcom JANN on CTV in Canada and HULU in America.
The beloved musical artist and personality – also admired for her wit and good humour – was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2020, her latest memoir “IF I KNEW THEN: Finding Wisdom in Failure and Power in Aging” (Penguin Random House Canada) was released in October 2020, and she recorded her new 15th studio album, Descendant, during the pandemic with producers Bob Rock and Russell Broom.
Arden headlines MTELUS in Montreal on May 20 on her current cross-Canada tour. We recently sat down for a candid Q&A.
You kicked off 2022 with a bang with your new album Descendant. Did COVID reinvigorate your songwriting?
Oh, definitely. I was so glad to get off the train even though I was scared the first eight weeks of the pandemic. Like many of us, I didn’t know what was happening, what was this thing gripping the planet. Then I kind of leaned into it: “Oh my God, I’m finally able to enjoy my house. I don’t have to pack a suitcase next week.” And I just started writing songs. My friend Russ Broom has a studio in Calgary and we really used each other as a life raft. We were careful, we did mask. Then we realized, “You’re in my bubble.” And I just started writing like crazy. Which is why there’s so many songs on this record. We probably wrote 25 songs, and 15 of them are on Descendant.
Your 15th studio album, Descendant, speaks to your remarkable longevity. Your audience is loyal and has grown with you.
It’s great growing up with people. There’s so much comfort in aging and getting older because you live your life without the absence of doubt. And I know when I perform in concert that I’m looking out at a sea of faces that are also starting to live their lives without the absence of doubt. So everyone can sit there and enjoy the night and just be listening to what I’m saying and share their experience with the person beside them. It’s pretty special. I am so filled with gratitude for the people that have been with me for 30 years. Some of them have been with me for 40 years! They tell me, “I’ve been following you since you were in the bars, in Smithers and in Yellowknife, in Dawson Creek and Churchill. I saw you in bars in Prince George.” So it’s remarkable to me that they’ve been with me for so long.
Did you ever get fired from a bar gig?
I mean, I drank so much, I was so hammered. I don’t think we ever got fired. I think we definitely got warned. A lot of times, after the end of the week, I owed the bar 60 bucks for my bar tab! I wish I was kidding. “You owe us 60 bucks, Jann.” And I was, “Oh shit.”
Not all entertainers have charisma. Did you always know you have this quality?
Well, it’s hard to stand beside yourself and think in those terms. But one thing I did realize very young is that I was eternally optimistic, which is a very essential part of human life. I’ve certainly dealt with depression in my life, but I really am so optimistic that things will get better. I was determined without knowing it was determination. And my mom was constantly cheering me on. I mean, I’m short, I’m stocky, I was nothing to look at. But I realized that in the entertainment business – and music in particular – you can monetize just being exactly who you are. Try to be somebody else? What a loss that is because you miss out on the uniqueness that is you. There’s no one else like you in the universe. You’re it! And people always say, “I wish I was more like that.” They wish their life away and that’s sad to me.
Was there ever music industry pressure for you to look a certain way?
I’ve got a great story. When “Insensitive” was big in the United States, I was at some function with the president of my label A&M Records at the time. CeCe Peniston and Amy Grant and all these people were there. I got a ride back to my hotel on Hollywood Boulevard that night with a group of people and was the last person out of the car. As I was about to step out, the president – who was a very large man smoking a cigar – he leaned over to me and said, “Jann Arden, you’re 30 pounds away from being a superstar in this country.” I was speechless. I sat there for a moment, then went upstairs and called my parents. My mom said without missing a beat, “Why didn’t you tell him you didn’t want to gain any more weight?” That made me laugh. That’s my mom – look at it from a different perspective. I don’t even think the president at the time was trying to be malicious. But I’m like, what makes you fucking think I want superstardom?
Your comedy series JANN is funny and uplifting. You’ve said that your character’s bisexuality is inspired by your own experiences off screen. What was it like for you growing up and coming to terms with your own sexuality?
I remember being in the shower one day when I was probably 18 or 19 – so, pretty late in the game because I’d had boyfriends in high school and in my first year in college, I remember kissing this girl named Leslie. I was so enamored with her. And I thought to myself, “Oh my God, there’s an option!” My whole world just opened up exponentially. I remember crying about this girl who had broken my heart and my dad, who was this conservative guy, he said, “Honey, we’d love you if you were pink with purple spots.” I was so fortunate that my parents were supportive. I know that I’m one of the very fortunate ones.
I am so glad to be me. I’m so glad that I can be part of a community that is talented, brave and resilient. I am very proud to be a queer person. And though I didn’t say much about it in my professional career, I wasn’t trying to hide anything. I was just really private. This has nothing to do with my music. But for the show, I knew it was important to be out for the kids in Prince Rupert or North Vancouver or rural Saskatchewan. I knew we needed visibility on our show and I had an opportunity to celebrate queerness and have a character who made her way through life boldly and unapologetically. I’m very proud of our writers and I’m really proud of the show.
My all-time favourite scene in JANN is when you have a battle royale with Sarah McLachlan over a hair scrunchie, and the gays, we absolutely loved your immortal line “Who’s in the arms of an angel now, bitch!” What was it like to film that scene with Sarah?
Being able to say that to Sarah, she laughed so hard! She had to okay the script and I’ll tell you, she showed up with her sleeves rolled up. I admire her so much. I mean, obviously, I’ve been a fan of Sarah McLachlan my whole life. To be able to do that with her was one of the all-time great moments of my career.
It’s an iconic scene!
You’ve done it all. You are also very engaged on Twitter where you are vocal about animal welfare. You are the Queen of all Media. What else would you like to do? How about JANN The Musical for the stage?
Oh, God, I don’t know about that! But I am having a great time. I just handed in my first novel to my editor at Penguin Random House Canada. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of editing to do there. It could be a complete piece of shit, it might end up in the garbage, but it was such a joy to work on and a huge learning curve. So I keep busy. I’m happy to keep writing music and touring. I’m very glad to be at this point in my life and be in pretty good health.
How do you feel about being called a living legend –– because you are, Jann.
That’s very kind and I’m humbled and flattered. The people that I’ve worked with are incredible. I’m so grateful. I’ve had so much help along the way. I’ll just keep trying to get it right and to do better and be more forgiving. Hopefully I’ll do more good than harm in this life.