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Jann Arden revisits the Calgary basements where she kicked off her career

The singer thought she'd be in her basement apartment for three months but it took her five years of playing and writing music to get a record deal and get out.

The singer thought she'd have a deal within months. It took five years of work.

Jann Arden is shown performing in High River, Alta. in 1996. (Canadian Press)

The 2020 Junos have been cancelled since this article was first published.

"This is it. Oh my God," singer Jann Arden exclaims as she walks down a flight of stairs in Calgary's Smuggler's Inn. She enters the dim lounge area for the first time in more than 30 years. 

"This is one of the first rooms where I started playing original music," Arden says. 

At the Juno Awards on March 15, Arden will be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in recognition of a musical career that started in a basement. To mark her induction, Arden spent a day with CBC Music and visited locations that have been meaningful to her, and important to her career. 

Arden started playing long, late-night sets at Smuggler's in the '80s with musician David Hart as part of a duo called Hart and Soul. "He would introduce us, 'I'm Mr. Dave Hart. Mr. D. Hart. And this is Ms. R. Soul,'" Arden recounts. "Get the joke? Arsehole?"

CBC Music takes Jann Arden back to Calgary’s Smuggler’s Inn, one of the first places she played original music. Arden's story will be featured alongside the stories of four more Hall of Fame inductees in the CBC Music special Inducted: The Road to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. The special will feature extensive interviews with Canadian music legends Cowboy Junkies, Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, Andy Kim and the family of singer Bobby Curtola. 1:37

She worked with Hart for about three years and says he taught her a lot by introducing her to to the music of artists like Shirley Bassey, Aretha Franklin and Etta James. 

"I was in this milquetoast world of pop music where I really hadn't heard these unbelievable singers," Arden says, adding that soul and R&B singers taught her "you can write about real things and real emotions and things that happened to you in your life that are not pleasant." 

When Arden was playing with Hart, she met Neil MacGonigill, the man who would become her first manager and shape her early career.

"I think when [MacGonigill] started hearing snippets of my original material, he just really loved it," she says. 

MacGonigill convinced Arden to work with him, and helped her get a basement apartment close to where he lived. That apartment would be immortalized in Arden's song "Living Under June," named for the woman who lived upstairs.

CBC Music takes Jann Arden back to the house where she wrote her biggest hits. Arden's story will be featured alongside the stories of four more Hall of Fame inductees in the CBC Music special Inducted: The Road to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. The special will feature extensive interviews with Canadian music legends Cowboy Junkies, Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, Andy Kim and the family of singer Bobby Curtola. 1:53

The song describes what Arden's then-home was like: "I've got a black-and-white television. I've got an indigo gas oven. I've got holes in my head. I've got filthy rotten wall to wall. I've got a couch made out of corduroy," she recites.

That apartment, where Arden wrote hundreds of songs including all the music for her first two albums, Time For Mercy and Living Under June, was another stop on her nostalgia tour.

"I thought I was gonna be here for three months and I was here for five years," Arden says. "I'm thinking, yeah, I'll get in there. I'll write some songs and we'll get a deal and I'll be out of there. But that's not how it works."

The basement that singer Jann Arden lived in when she wrote her biggest hits including the song "Living Under June", which was about the woman who lived upstairs. (Neil MacGonigill)

Arden says she'd spend most days at home reading books and writing music. At the end of a typical week, she'd bring cassettes of what she'd written to MacGonigill, who'd critique them. Arden would also perform at local venues.

Eventually, the two started recording demos to send to record companies. At first, nothing was taking. Arden and MacGonigill wanted to go to Nashville to record more demos, but they needed money.

One night, Arden went out for dinner with her parents. She said her father was nervous throughout the meal. He pushed an envelope to her from across the table. In it were five $1,000 bills.

"So I'm like, 'What is this?'" Arden remembers. "And he goes, 'This is just so you have a chance. Your mom and I want you to have one.'" 

“I don't even think I realized at the time the amount of affection that was behind that gesture and real love and appreciation." Arden's story will be featured alongside the stories of four more Hall of Fame inductees in the CBC Music special Inducted: The Road to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. The special will feature extensive interviews with Canadian music legends Cowboy Junkies, Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, Andy Kim and the family of singer Bobby Curtola. 1:41

"My parents obviously knew that I was quite determined. From the time I was 18, I never looked back. I sang in clubs, horrible places. I just never stopped," she says.

The night her dad gave her the $5,000 was significant to Arden because it showed that her parents believed in her dream.

"I don't even think I realized at the time the amount of affection that was behind that gesture and real love and appreciation," she says. 

"We used that money to go to Nashville and make a demo tape that eventually did get me my record deal with A&M. So it did give me a chance."

Jann Arden signs a record deal with Allan Reid and Joe Summers. (Neil MacGonigill)

"It's super weird to be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame," Arden says. "Because I feel like I'm just getting started in so many ways." She plans to keep making music as well as continuing to act and write books, two more passions she's developed professionally.

"I'll probably be scribbling something down when I drop off. And it's OK," she says. "I mean, if I was to go tomorrow, I've had such a good run of it."

Arden's story will be featured alongside the stories of four more Hall of Fame inductees in the CBC Music special Inducted: The Road to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. The special will feature extensive interviews with Canadian music legends Cowboy Junkies, Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, Andy Kim and the family of singer Bobby Curtola. 

Inducted airs on CBC Television at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 15. You can watch it via CBC Gem now

​​​​​​​With files from Reuben Maan. Videos produced by Reuben Maan, Dennis Chan, Justin Chandler and Ryan Gassi. Mike Southworth and Dennis Chan on camera.

About the Author

Justin Chandler

Associate Producer

Justin Chandler reports and produces throughout the CBC in Toronto. He's worked as an associate producer for CBC Radio shows Cross Country Checkup and Day 6, as well as for CBC Music and CBC Arts. He previously worked as an editor for The Eyeopener newspaper and he co-hosts/produces the Radio Free Krypton podcast. Follow Justin on Twitter: @mr_lois_lane

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