Jann Arden on becoming the voice of a generation

Elio Iannacci in a moving conversation with the pop star about her father's death, her mother's Alzheimer's diagnosis, and grown-up celebrity

Jann Arden. (Charla Jones/GetStock)

Jann Arden. (Charla Jones/GetStock)

Jann Arden has had a tough year—her father passed away in August and her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s shortly thereafter—but the 53-year-old singer-songwriter and author is in remarkably good spirits. Part of this is that she’s been able to share her challenges in life online, with Facebook posts that have been read by millions around the world. Her work of late­—including a just-released holiday album, a Christmas special that airs Dec. 13 on CTV and a slew of concerts—continue to highlight her knack for draw inspiration from of all things tragic. Her wit and homespun wisdom remain as heartfelt as her hit choruses.

A song of yours called Unloved was played on the radio after news of the Paris terrorist attacks was announced. Do you feel lines such as People crying hallelujah / While the bullet leaves the gun / People falling, falling, falling / And I don’t know where they’re falling from are much more applicable to these times than when you wrote the song?

I can’t believe I recorded that in ’94. Not much has changed, has it? That verse in particular is about the randomness of violence. You don’t have to be doing anything wrong to get yourself killed these days. All you have to do is take your kids to school, or go to work, or walk across the street or be sitting in a movie. Terrorism has been with us a long time but as North Americans, we were always used to it happening in Europe or the Middle East. Those bombs in cafés we heard about, we thought it had very little to do with us. It’s moved so much closer to us, it’s become part of our world.

Do news headlines inform your lyrics?

Once in a while I’ll have lines in my songs that refer to something overtly political. I remember writing about Matthew Shepard [in a song called Into The Sun]. I wrote about him in the same breath as Jesus Christ and other historic figures that died because some did not accept their messages. Time for Mercy was a song about Rodney King and the L.A. riots. He was beaten so badly and thankfully someone had videotaped it. Mostly I stick to the politics of love, romance and personal relationships. That’s what I tend to naturally go to.

On stage you sing about love, at home you write about love, but you seldom talk about your personal relationships. Do the songs come from memories of dating?

I have not been single for 30 years. I’m in a relationship. I think you write about love in an abstract way… wanting something you can’t have and losing it and looking for it. In my novel, I’m writing about a very disturbing love between two mean people, these grandparents who have been married for 35 years who are horrific people, and I write about their strange, complicated grotesque love. They are very devoted to each other but also so horrible.

What books do you tend to reread every couple of years?

Not Wanted On The Voyage by Timothy Findley. It should be made into a movie. The story simply asks the question, “What if the devil is the good guy?” and God shows up one day and gives up and says “I quit!” It’s a fantastic book. I like Henry Miller, John Steinbeck and Jackie Collins as well. Any of Collins’s Lucky Santangelo books. She just passed away but during the time she had stage-four breast cancer, she wrote five novels and had all these outlines made for others. I also loved Lucky Bitches!

Your memoir, Falling Backwards, touches on the celebrity world as well. I’m interested in hearing about your thoughts on comedian Rebel Wilson. She recently refused to share a stage with the Kardashians because she felt their message was too superficial.

At the end of the day, it has to be about what drives an individual. When we start generalizations—like, they are going to inspire a whole generation to go out and get a nose job, a boob job—I disagree. I think when young people have great foundations, good parents and friendships, they are going to understand that [the Kardashians] are not reality. There’s a really small percentage of people who actually want Kylie Jenner’s nose. I don’t think people are that gullible. If that is what they want to do, to make themselves feel better about who they are, then [they should] go for it. I’d be cautious as parent…because I hear of 16-year-olds going in for a boob job, so I hope you’d need consent from your parents.

Did you feel pushed to get surgery or change your appearance when your hits started to chart?

People have been constantly on me about weight. In a roundabout way. When Insensitive was huge and had gone crazy everywhere, the American president of the record company at the time was giving me a lift back from a function. He was a 300-lb. man, a total cliché, and he looked at me and said “You’re 30 lb. away from superstardom in this country.”

How did you react?

I didn’t know what to say. I was speechless. I knew it was a mean-spirited comment but I also was enough in myself to think, “You’re an idiot.” I just wanted to get out of the car so I thanked him for telling me. Then I got up to my hotel room, phoned my mom, told her what he’d said and she said, “Why didn’t you tell him you didn’t want to gain any more weight?”

This happened to Alanis Morissette as well. She got into some crazy dieting and excessive workouts. Did it affect you the same way?

I went to Popeye’s the next day and got some fried chicken and bought some Doc Martens. That wasn’t who I was. I didn’t sign my record deal until I was 30 years old. I had long been a person. I wasn’t 17 or 18. I also didn’t sign in the age of social media madness. People communicated with me by paper letters! Email didn’t come into the picture until years later. When Zuckerberg launched Facebook it was the beginning of the end and the beginning of the beginning.

Yet you’ve done so well with gaining fans through Facebook and Twitter. Has your base has grown dramatically since you opened up on Facebook about dealing with your father’s death and your mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis?

The first day I wrote about mom, I didn’t know where I was headed. My management office called and I thought I was in trouble. They told me more than a million people read it. I just think I’m in a boat with many other people in their 40s. Many people’s parents are spiralling. There’s so much dementia, Alzheimer’s, so many heart attacks and so much cancer. It became a forum.

Did you read through the reactions?

I was naive to think I could read through the comments. I did try a few times, for hours. I can’t carry it all. I was bawling my head off in bed and the dog would be looking at me like, “I’m trying to get some sleep here.” I thought, “I’ll let the [commenters] communicate with each other.” Some people will make a comment and hundreds have liked or commented on their comment on the post. I just felt it was common knowledge. Now I do a piece a month. My mom has no idea that I write about her.

What’s changed since that post?

I rarely talk about music now! If I’m wandering through Costco, people will come up to me and say, “I’m so sorry to hear about your Dad,” or start a conversation about something I wrote about my Mom. The interest as far as media requests is overwhelming but I’m not a professional and I don’t have any data on Alzheimer’s and couldn’t tell a person what they should or shouldn’t do to care for their parents.

I should write a disclaimer on the top of the posts. Something like: “Don’t you waterboard your 80-year-old mother unless you have to!”

One thing that struck me in these posts is that you conveyed that it was such an honour to care for them. This isn’t a popular opinion.

I just want to. I don’t have to. I’m so glad that I fed my Dad over the course of five or six years. We had dinner every night when I was home, which was quite a bit. My parents gave up a lot for me to pursue what I wanted to pursue. They didn’t have easy lives. They worked hard and didn’t have a lot.

You have this holiday disc out now. What songs did you absolutely not want to record for it?

Deck The Halls. I didn’t see what I could do to make the “fa la la la las” any more interesting. I wanted to record things I was sincere about. You don’t have to sell yourself down the river to do a commercial holiday record. You have to choose songs that you can have some conviction about. For me it was about childhood memories. I remember learning Silent Night in primary school in church.

Your cover of Happy X-mas (War Is Over) is a very different song from the original. What made you want to completely change the vocals and instrumentation so much?

The producer [Bob Rock] was quite intent on making that a little more aggressive and he wanted a wall of acoustic sound. At one point he had six of us playing guitars around the microphone—even the drummer. We wanted it to be more textural. Not one of my favourite songs.

Why? Too sad?

I heard it ad nauseum while growing up! When Yoko Ono got to her part, I always found it a little hard to get my head around it. It wasn’t the most beautiful-sounding thing. I think it just has a few chords like [José Feliciano’s] Feliz Navidad and that song [by Paul McCartney] Wonderful Christmas Time—there’s nothing much to it. There are a few songs that are like that—it’s like one giant chorus.

You must have received some pretty questionable Christmas presents through the years. What are some of the best gifts?

Well, I’ve been given some questionable underwear over the years, that’s for sure—lots of underpants that look like the female version of a guy’s tighty-whiteys. We always got hockey sticks wrapped up when we were kids. I loved getting those books of lifesavers as a kid. Just simple things were the best. My mom likes to buy me random lamps she finds at Winners, some of them damaged. The last lamp she gave me had a turtle at the base of it… which was cute but it was missing a leg. But, it works! If you turn it a certain way, you can’t tell it’s missing anything.

I know you are a big fan of Adele. So many people are trying to guess the reason behind the massive sales of her latest album. What is your take on her continuous rise?

It doesn’t surprise me she sold millions of records. She writes about simple sentiment, not dancing in the club. At the end of the day, people don’t give a s–t about that. Do you know where you want to be as a musician? In somebody’s bedroom—with the door closed—and they are laying on their bed with their head in their hands and they don’t know how to say one single word themselves. I’m glad I’ve been that to some people. You’ll never hear me at a rave, but to be in somebody’s van—while they are driving their kids home from soccer practice—and the kids are complaining about it the whole entire time? I want to be that person.