There are perks to being a music writer, one of them being that stars occasionally sing just for you. Jann Arden did just that, crooning a bit of Aerosmith’s Dream On during a Zoom interview from the kitchen of her home outside Calgary. “Every time I look in the mirror, all these lines on my face getting clearer, the past is gone,” she sang, making a point melodiously about aging, listening to music and connecting to lyrics.
Arden, 59, was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame last year. Her new album, Descendant, is her 15th. The record, released Friday, is co-produced by long-time collaborator Russell Broom and Bob Rock, who has worked with such heavyweights as Metallica, the Tragically Hip, Bryan Adams and, yes, Aerosmith. It’s an eclectic listen, from the Alanis-like anthem Unbreakable to the brooding Good For Nothing (”There’s something about a maniac that makes up for the things you lack”) and the towering, swirling baroque moroseness of I Belong to Nobody.
Arden spoke to The Globe and Mail about self-esteem, the men she made the album with, backstage undergarment maintenance and all those lines on her face getting clearer.
It’s her album, her story, her call: “When we mixed this album, [co-producer Rock] said he thought there were two completely different records – that the songs he and I did together were completely different from the songs Russell Broom and I did together. I said, ‘Bob, the reason I’m going to disagree with you is I write everything. I’ve written all of this music. Me. You guys are my collaborators, but you don’t write lyrics and you don’t write melodies.’ Bob wasn’t keen on me putting all 15 songs on the record. But I told my manager, Bruce Allen, that I absolutely didn’t want to go forward unless all the songs went on the album. This is my work. These are my stories.”
On crowdfunding albums: “I wouldn’t do it personally. I would finance my own record if I had to. I don’t ever want to be beholden to anybody. Even back in the day, I was very reluctant to take publishing advances. Because if I take $100,000 in a publishing advance, I’m going to be beholden to them until I pay it back. Yes, it’s your money, but the companies never make you feel that way. I’m in a different position than other artists, though. I think with crowdfunding it’s cool that fans are so ready to help. They want to participate in the process. It’s no different than raising money for any other entrepreneurial initiative.”
On the newly renovated Massey Hall: “I’m in Toronto’s Massey Hall for two nights in May. My dressing room better be nice. I did enjoy putting my brassieres on the radiators in the old dressing room. And the indoor-outdoor carpeting was really fantastic, too.”
On personalizing music: “I think people see themselves in my songs. I don’t listen to any of my favourite artists and try to interpret what they mean. I make it my own. That’s what people do. When I was a kid growing up, music was a balm for my soul. When you’re an adolescent and you don’t have the tools to express yourself, you can put on a record on repeat. I remember listening to Aerosmith’s Dream On over and over. ‘Every time I look in the mirror, all these lines on my face getting clearer, the past is gone.’ I mean, they were young men at that time. I don’t think they even had any lines on their faces. But when you listen to a song, you make it your own, and I think my fans do that with my music, too.”
Happy Jann, sad Jann – the songwriter’s dichotomy: “You have to split the art away from the artist. I’m a very funny, gregarious person. My shows are very funny. But I can’t make trite songs. I like songs in minor keys. I love songs about unrequited love. I like a dark, mysterious story.”
Steady as she goes: “I’m an even-keel person. I’m not up, up, up, and I’m not down, down, down. I’m not a worrier. I’ve been with the same record label all these years. I’m reliable. I’m a good person. I’m really sensible. I’m possibly the antithesis of everything you equate with an artist in the music industry. I’m just not flighty, you know?”
Self-esteem and self-confidence are not the same: “When I was young, I had very little self-esteem. But I had confidence. I may not have thought much of myself, but I could still stand in a room and sing a song. I knew I was good at what I did, but I didn’t necessarily feel pretty or attractive or desirable. None of that was part of my 20s. When I came into my 30s, as a woman you slowly begin to empower yourself in different ways. I could never lean on having the bathing suit body and the long flowing hair. I think all women deal with trying to establish power and how to be fair with themselves. I certainly dealt with my fair share of that. But on the business side, I was a very unstoppable person. If you told me, ‘No,’ it was fuel. In my mind, the wheels were turning.”
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