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Life According To Jann Arden

The multi-platinum songwriter and TV personality talks genealogy, technology, and eating her brassiere. 

by Dust Cwaine

When I woke up at eight in the morning to interview Jann Arden, I was not expecting a lesson in biology and Mormon genealogy. But hey, those are the kind of expectations you can count on to be shattered when talking with the iconic Canadian singer-songwriter, someone who is known for her candid nature. Not so coincidentally, this is also the essence of her 15th studio album, Descendant, an honest offering that looks back without fear while firmly planting itself in the present. “It’s a warm, soft place that I’m at right now,” Arden says. “I’m not trying to achieve global domination — not that I ever was — but the hunger to constantly somehow seem relevant and all of those things, it’s just not part of my story.”

Sitting atop yet another career high, releasing an album just makes sense right now for Arden. She has a number one sitcom on Canadian television with the self-titled Jann, released a memoir titled If I Knew Then in 2020, and is planning an upcoming tour in May 2022. Without the drive for world domination or relevancy, Arden just candidly exists. Today, she’s melding practicality with the spiritual to gauge a critical view on modern knowledge and technology. “Our biology is fascinating in that the idea of soul and biology is fascinating,” she says. “I think as time wears on and we get more modern, it’s funny; the more technology we have, the more we want to be grounded in where we came from and simpler times.”

The lack of calculated sharing is just the shot of ingenuity we need right now with the rise of curated social media personalities. Arden doesn’t care about fabricating an online persona. If you follow her on social media, you know she says what she wants, something that few have the courage to try. Throughout Arden’s decades-long career, she has always chosen vulnerability, from both a personal and a lyrical standpoint. Descendant, as an album and a fragment of her extensive career, carries us even deeper into her true being. “You’ll find as you get older, there’s so much strength in vulnerability, telling the truth and just being yourself,” she says. “I enjoy just writing things down without giving too much thought to what people would think – or even what I thought sometimes. I’m like, I’ve got to get out of my own way.” 

I wait on bated breath for her to elaborate on her process, ready with the question if it’s not answered. Arden continues to explain that the frivolous spontaneity of her writing process and keeping edits to a minimum has always been important to her, resulting in the open, deeply human songwriting that has persisted throughout the years. To Arden, the uncertainty is what makes things special – even when it comes to her own raw thoughts. “I don’t spend two weeks on something. If I spend an hour, I’ll eat my own brassiere. So it’s always been very quick,” she says. “I’ve been like that since I was a kid. Making up songs at 11 or 12 years old, I remember writing with a Bic pen that I kept having to suck the end of to get the ink to come down. And I’d always end up with ink on my lips because I would be writing on a little piece of a two-by-four that my dad had chopped into a junk pile.

The title track of Arden’s latest project, “Descendant,” offers a glimpse into her lineage – which sparks a larger conversation about genealogy at large. Arden’s observations into the great lengths that go into life being formed and sustained are fascinating. She observes the thousands of little moments that culminate into our existence in the present, the moments that build on each other to make life happen. “I mean, most of us can only go back four or five generations, a lot of people have never even done any genealogy. But I come from a Mormon background on my dad’s side, and the Mormons are the people behind ancestry.com,” she says. “The Mormons’ look-back into time is biblical, and it was part of the Mormon religion. So on my dad’s side, I can go back 600 or 700 years.”

Knowing these moments is powerful. Writing about these moments is art. Descendant as an album is a paradisal soundscape for Arden to mystically reflect on her life, taking stock of those little moments and giving them life and meaning in the present. Understanding her past gives her the toolbox to do everything she can to fully live in the moment. “Writing new music is always surprising,” she says. “Every time you write something you always feel like, ‘oh, is that the last thing I’m ever going to write?’”

Descendant was created by Arden and her long-time producer/collaborators Bob Rock and Russell Broom over the span of 18 months while the pandemic raged on. The mysticism of the album is driven by vivid lyrical specificity: themes of love lost in “I Belong to Nobody” are all but faint memories when “Loving You is Like a Job” grabs you by the throat with its realness. “Moonbow,” “Was I Ever 13,” and “Pink” all dive into those critical moments of the past that set us on a course towards our dreams of the future, while “Steady On” keeps us pushing forward. The whole thing culminates in the closing track, “Glass Jar,” a song that reflects on Arden’s relationship with her father. It’s a raw outro that will live in the ever-growing list of “Jann Arden Songs to Cry To.” This theme of pulling in the past to reflect on what’s happening right now makes sense when you consider the acclaim Arden is currently receiving in her career. 

Of course, it wasn’t always as easy as it seems to be now. Another running theme on the album looks back on Arden’s beginnings, as she prepared to take the first steps in the journey towards her iconic modern-day status. All of Arden’s scattered temporal “little things” conceptually align with this album being about where we come from. According to Arden, our place exists regardless of how we relate our worthiness to what we see. She shares that on this album, what you want is there and there is always room for it, even if you have to make it yourself. Descendant moves everything from the past into the future, where it can live as a strength. “I think there’s so much hustle in this game,” she says. “You know, when you’re starting out, gosh, I think back to being in the bars in the 80s. Even just busking on the streets, going back that far. I often have said to friends, if I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t. And I mean that in all earnestness. I never really wanted to be — I didn’t think I could be — in the music business.”

If you listen to Arden speak, you will notice how effortlessly she shares her wisdom – wisdom that seems hard earned, patiently cultivated and practical. She is relatable, themes in her writing are accessible, and yet she carries this mysticism, a twinkle in her eye. As we wrap up our time together Arden mentions her mother, sharing that even in the depths of Alzheimers, she was positive and proclaimed that she loved her life. This certainly implied to me that love, joy, and all those lovely emotions don’t live anywhere outside of this present moment. I look at Arden on the screen in front of me, and I feel gratitude for the generosity of her spirit. Her honesty and vulnerability are what I always turn to when I talk about her to people who are unfamiliar. She is a testament to living and being the way you want the world to be. Change will come, get involved when it does, and never, ever forget to laugh. 

“I’m not much of a looking forward kind of person,” she says. “I’ve never been a planner, I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow. I don’t know what I’m having for lunch, but I always believed the best is yet to come.”

Listen to Dust Cwaine’s cover of Jann Arden’s “Could I Be Your Girl”