Hell hath no fury like that of Jann Arden after you’ve defied her command to steal a croissant from someone else’s catering table.
“Take one,” she whispers insistently. “Don’t disappoint me. They’re not gonna eat it!”
The moment I do, the door to the meeting room beside ours swings open and men in indistinguishable blue dress shirts spill out. “We didn’t touch the strawberries,” she tells them – cantaloupe chunk in hand – in a tone that makes firm that she isn’t sorry for ransacking at least part of the fruit tray.
And why should she be? At 56, Arden has been nominated for 19 Juno Awards, won eight of them, has enjoyed 19 top-10 singles spread across 14 albums and, in 2017, was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada. (“I called Jason Kenney a turd on Twitter and then got the Order of Canada a couple weeks later. Oh well!” she says.) She’s written several books, most recently the bestselling Feeding My Mother: Comfort and Laughter in The Kitchen as My Mom Lives With Memory Loss, which came out in November. This month, she’ll release another new album, These Are The Days.
“My parents used to sit at the kitchen table and go through my fan mail with me,” she says. “Everyone was so surprised by what started happening to a chubby, homely girl from the Prairies. ‘How is this even happening to me right now?’” she remembers thinking. “It still feels a little like that.”
Arden was 30 years old when she was signed to Universal Music Group by Allan Reid, who would go on to become president and CEO of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. (Arden has been with the label for 26 years, and was Reid’s first contract.) She’d spent much of her 20s as a self-described “train wreck of a person,” busking in Vancouver throughout the late eighties, playing in rowdy bars, drinking too much and behaving, in her words, promiscuously. She recalls her mother eventually asking what she’d been up to. “Nothing good, Noth-ing good,” she says, shaking her head at the memory of it. “I constantly thought I was pregnant. I prayed all the time.”
“By the time I got signed I’d been performing in the bars for 12 years. I had earrings pulled out of my head, I’d seen it all,” she says, her slow, serious contemplation broken to warmly scold her tiny terrier, Midi, who’s walked a little too close to the door.
“I was 10 or 11 years old when I started writing songs,” says Arden. “And I was serious about it.”
From where does a 10-year-old learn seriousness?
“My dad was a drunk,” she says. “There was always conflict in our house. No one was ever getting beaten up, but there was a lot of hollering followed by lengthy periods of silence. And my dad was someone we steered clear of. So I just went into the basement, where the record player was, where nobody was. Back in those days a basement was a basement, they weren’t walkouts with big glass panes and a garden. There’d be a string hanging from a single light bulb and you had to swing your arm around in the dark to find it. It was scary down there.”
Arden discusses the grimmest moments of her life with a sense of humour so lively it’s hard to smother a laugh even when the subject matter is painful. In recent years, Arden has been caregiver to two parents in declining conditions of health (her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease is the subject of her new memoir). A decade-long relationship came to an end. Her brother was long ago sentenced to life in prison for a 1992 murder. In person, though, Arden is witty. On stage, between songs, she’s a comedian, having hosted the Junos on multiple occasions and successfully forayed into acting and radio. On social media she lets loose – “Fear is my bitch,” she tweeted last month. But her songs, at least until now, have been sombre.
“There’s never been humour in my songs, ever. I don’t let it go there,” she says. “I don’t write funny songs. I don’t write trite songs.”
And yet, Jann Arden, you’re pretty funny.
“I am very funny,” she says, sternly, pausing, then laughing – keeping separate the indulgence of even a quick joke and the seriousness of her statement. “… I killed myself laughing, I died laughing, isn’t that interesting? We say little things all the time that indicate what humour is. It is a very serious thing. Humour and seriousness are so interlocked. That’s what life is like. One second you’re up and the next second you’re down.”
Is she up now?
“It’s a real conflict for me right now. It’s hard for me to answer that question. Bittersweet, that’s the word.”
On the morning of our conversation, Arden’s mother has lived in a nursing home for just eight days. “I feel very guilty about it,” she says. “I still cry when I go to bed, thinking about where she is.… But she’s doing great.” On the upside, Arden says that the past two years have been the best of her career. “I’m busier now than when Insensitive was zooming around the world,” she says. (The 1995 smash hit reached No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the highest ranking of her career.)
“I’ll shut it off when I hear it on the radio,” she says. “I’ve just moved on. Most artists sell their work. The painters I know don’t lament about that, they move on. They keep the picture in their mind, just as I have a picture in my mind about my songs.”
Occasionally she’ll hear a song on the radio and have to look up whether it’s hers. Others she remembers vividly. I ask her about a particular line from the 1994 song Could I Be Your Girl – “Love is a demon and you’re the one he’s coming for.” Does she remember what that was about?
“Oh yes,” she nods. “I was in a studio in Edmonton. I just started thinking about the desperation of wanting someone to admire you beyond anything else and what a dark place that is to go. If you’re going to throw yourself at the altar of being desperate, you’re going to forsake a lot of good things about yourself,” she says. “The song scared me. And I got a lot of letters about it. It made Catholics very mad.”
She’s excited about the new record, calling it her best work in 20 years.
“I’ve earned my way now,” she says. “I completely understand that. I’m not going to mince words. I have so much experience and have had so much time standing on a stage.”
Arden and producer Bob Rock intuitively zoomed through the course of writing, finishing four songs in an afternoon and 10 more within the span of a few days. “It was the weirdest, fastest process,” she says. “What we did in that room is really what ended up on the record.”
In the case of new song Not Your Little Girl, she means that literally. “What’s on the album is the first time I ever sang that song in my life”, she says. “That’s the second it came onto this planet. I didn’t even sing it on a great microphone. I was sitting! On a couch! I can’t get my head around it.” The album’s title track, These Are the Days, she says, is a prayer to herself. “Most of the stuff you do as an artist is to some extent self-serving. But through that process, other people get to benefit.”
I glance at Arden’s black combat boots – “they’re on sale now [at Browns], but they charged me $229!” – and wonder if her wild side still lingers. Although she’s had the same friends since she was a child and lives close to where she grew up in rural Alberta, I think it might. “I don’t know any famous people. I know Rick Mercer, because he keeps dragging me onto his show!”
She has one tattoo, initials from a past relationship, but says she might get Midi put on her thigh.
“I don’t try to be on the radio any more, I don’t try to cater to anything,” she says. “The biggest tool, the biggest thing that I’ve had to my advantage, and I see it clearly now, is just being myself. When you’re younger, you strive to be all these other things. You see people who inspire you and you want to be more like them. There’s all this wishing going on. For me, as an artist, what I realize now is that my uniqueness is what has propelled me forward all these years. I’m stumbling along trying to do the best I can, but God, I just have to be me.”