Living

Jann Arden On Life, Death And Her Joyous New Album

“It’s a reflection of how we need to behave in the world as it is right now. We have to overcome, we have to stick together.”

Jann Arden laughing in front of a white background wearing a black blazer and layered chain necklaces.

(Photo: Alkan Emin)

Jann Arden’s singing voice is one most Canadians would recognize anywhere: smooth with soulful edges, easy to listen to, hard to forget. But as we sit down to talk—she in her eclectic rural Alberta living room, where she tells me she does most of her song-writing; me in my book-cluttered study in Toronto—I’m hungry for her other voice, the one I hear when I read her books or interviews. I’m searching for the kind of compassion-laced pragmatism my late mother used to dispense. Jann tells me that while we’ve had a rocky few years, we have still not endured a fraction of the hardships our ancestors did to build the lives we now lead—and we should be grateful for this, even in the face of loss. We talk about life, death, the ever-expanding universe, her approaching milestone birthday—and what she managed to create, even in the midst of a pandemic: an album filled with lyrics about strength and resilience, with its eyes on a bright future. “Where do we go?” she sings in “Steady On,” the first single from Descendant. “How do we get there? How do we know the way? The road is hard to follow… Steady on.”

MS: Tell me more about the women you’re descended from, the ones you’re choosing to honour with Descendant.

Jann: My mom’s mom was one of 17 kids, that’s where this journey started. As a little girl I was fascinated with how that was possible. How a person, one woman, an immigrant named Ernestine Zado, came over on a ship from somewhere in the Eastern Block… [in order to build a life]. I used to lay in bed and think about the difficulty of this. And then imagine it, a hundred years before that and a hundred years before that, everything that had to happen. It’s a miracle you and I are sitting here having this conversation. Everything had to go right for the last tens of thousands of years for us to be sitting here. And add to that, we’re on this little marble, blasting through infinite space, which we’re told is always expanding. You look at your grandmother, and your great-great grandmother, and your great-great-great grandmother, and everything they did—you just take that in, and then everything you’re doing in your life becomes to honour them.

Jann Arden looking into the camera, standing in front of a white background wearing a black blazer and layered chain necklaces.

(Photo: Alkan Emin)

MS: What do you think our ancestors would think of us right now?

Jann: I think they’d be saddened, baffled. And especially baffled by modern technology, seeing us all sitting here, staring at screens. Sometimes I think art and painting and music and writing and sculpting are the last frontier of our humanity. It’s our only way of being able to express the raw emotion of being here.

MS: You lost your mom to Alzheimer’s a few years ago. Does releasing an album about the strong women you came from relate back to her, too?

Jann: I hope she can see it. I’m not a particularly religious person but I feel my mother’s presence now even more than when she was alive. This is what human life is and we somehow put death into a separate category away from our humanness. [We think] that it’s somehow not included in being a human being. That it’s the period at the end of a sentence, and makes everything forfeit. That all of our accomplishments in our life come down to how we died, that we died. I think that is truly a shame and a product of modern society. It’s just mortality.

Jann Arden rests her head on a ledge while looking into the camera, in front of a faded cityscape background.

(Photo: Alkan Emin)

MS: I lost my mother to cancer in 2020, and have spent a lot of time since trying to sort out, logically, where she is and if she’s still with me.

Jann: It’s impossible. Why waste your time trying to understand it, it’s just not part of what we’re doing here. My mom used to say, “Your soul is your pilot and your body is your spaceship.” And that was when she was unwell. I just thought, “Wow, you have got one foot on the other side of the veil and things are so clear to you.”

MS: These new songs reminded me of why my mom and I have always loved your music. You’re at the top of your game. At this stage in your life and career do you feel you have to fight against anything to stay where you are? Because as women get older, it can feel like the expectation is we’re supposed to disappear. You’re clearly not going anywhere.

Jann: I think because I never was the type of artist that overtly sexualized myself, I’ve escaped that narrative. Not even in the youthful part of my career did I objectify myself for men, for women, for whoever. I was at various weights during my career, and I wasn’t super self-conscious. And look, women can do or say or be whatever they want, but as far as the trajectory of my career, I’m not in a place now where I’m struggling to keep telling that story, because it was never part of me. It was always about the music. This isn’t to say I wasn’t a sexual being within my own sphere. I had that power, but I didn’t have to wear a sexy outfit. I think humour is a part of my sexuality. At 59—I’ll be 60 in March—I know how that has worked for me throughout my life.

Standing on the sidewalk at nighttime, Jann Arden wears a long white dress with subtle detailing and a cream blazer.

(Photo: Courtesy Universal Music Canada)

MS: What was the writing and recording process like with the world in the state it was these past few years?

Jann: I think the music that’s on here has everything to do with where we were in our lives. And I was actually really happy to be home. I wrote the music in this room we’re sitting in right now. This was a joyous record to make. I learned a lot about myself. I wrote more about my family than I thought I would. It’s a reflection of how we need to behave in the world as it is right now. We have to overcome, we have to stick together. Why this has been so divisive is beyond me. The end game is to keep each other safe and well.

MS: I wrote a book and a half during various lockdowns, and friends and colleagues were often mystified that I just kept going—but I didn’t know what else to do with myself. Is that how you felt as you continued to be creative?

Jann: It seemed like the easiest thing in the world. Because I was home, I wasn’t getting on a plane, I had all this time. I learned… I needed to slow down. I like working, but when you slow down you’re like, “Holy shit, this is too much.” Now I’m much more conscious about [travel]. And I think this is here to stay. I can get the work done at home. This is one of those tipping points… and all the art that was made and what people did and how they coped was amazing. I leaned into all the arts, listened to so much music, watched so many shows. I loved it. I got caught up on things I should have watched ten years go. People were like, “You never watched Six Feet Under?!” But I was too busy on the road, I guess. Now I can’t imagine going back to the way things were.

Marissa Stapley is the New York Times bestselling author of Lucky, the first Canadian book to be chosen as a Reese’s Book Club pick. She co-authors holiday romcoms—including the national bestseller The Holiday Swap—under the pen name Maggie Knox. Learn more about her books by following her on Instagram @marissastapley.

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