'It was very liberating': Jann Arden on her lifelong attraction to music

From playing records in her parents’ basement to getting inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, Arden’s music continues to inspire Canadians.

The singer-songwriter will be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame

Update March 13, 2020: The 2020 Juno Awards have been cancelled due to concerns surrounding COVID-19. The Junos will no longer move forward with its March 15 broadcast and related Juno Week events in Saskatoon.

Original story runs below

It's hard not to feel overwhelmed by Jann Arden's achievements.

The 57-year-old Calgary native has released more than 40 singles across her nearly three-decade music career, including 16 albums.

For her efforts, Arden has won eight Juno Awards from 19 nominations, was awarded the 2012 Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal and was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2017.

Next month, she will also officially be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. She's the first Albertan-born artist to be inducted into the Hall of Fame since k.d. lang in 2013.

Yet, despite her achievements, Arden doesn't see anything special about her journey. 

"You know, I don't have a big bang. I don't have a discovery story for you," she said in an interview with q host Tom Power. "I have thousands of seemingly insignificant events that, as I look back, just knot together. And that's what's made my career. It's not any big thing."

But Arden's talent and appeal can't be denied. Twenty-seven years after the release of her first album, Time for Mercy, she's still going on cross-Canada tours — her next one kicks off on May 7 in St. John's — and her albums are still being listened to by Canadians coast to coast. 

Arden is also being praised for her non-musical talents. The 2019 debut of her comedy television series, Jann, drew more than one million viewers. She played the starring role — a fictionalized version of herself. She's also authored several books, including a national bestseller.

While other artists might avoid venturing out of their comfort zone for fear of failure, Arden uses that risk to move her career forward.

"I don't worry about failing ... I am sitting here because of failure," she said. "I'm sitting here because, you know, you dare to try things and dare to do things."

It's a testament to the singer-songwriter's character and determination. It's also a testament to the respect those involved in the Canadian music industry have for her. 

"I think I'm a nice person. I just tried to be a nice person," she said. 

Starting from the basement

Now near the top of Canada's music industry, Arden's journey started quite literally from the bottom. The bottom floor of her parents' house, that is.

Arden notes that her dad was a "big drinker," and the 10-year-old Arden would go down to her parents' basement to escape any conflicts that might arise as a result of his drinking.

"It was quite safe down there," she said. "There was always a storm going on, but I knew he would never go down there."

The award-winning singer-songwriter will be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, joining an exclusive club of iconic Canadian artists such as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. (Alkan Emin)

Arden's older brother kept the family record player in the basement, and because her family was receiving records from the Columbia Records club every month, Arden had a plethora of content to consume. 

She popped in a record from the music duo The Carpenters called Ticket To Ride ⁠— her first record ⁠— and couldn't stop listening.

"I just burnt up all these hours after school down there," she said. 

Arden was exposed to a variety of music choices, from Sammy Davis Jr. to Uriah Heep to ABBA. Her family was "listening to everything."

It was around this time that Arden also started learning how to play the guitar. Her mother was taking beginner guitar lessons at the local church, but she gave up after her fingers started hurting her. Arden picked up right where her mother left off. 

"She gave up, but I remember this big orange book, this binder filled with all these folk songs, and I just picked up this guitar — that I still have — and just learned guitar," she said. "I didn't even know what I was doing. I just started making up songs." 

Through her record listening, guitar playing and songwriting, the young Arden was hooked to music, and more than 45 years later, her love for music hasn't died down.

"It was something that made me feel great. It was very liberating," she said.

'I started crying'

Arden admits to lamenting the "lost time" in her 20s and 30s, most of which she was "more or less drunk and rolling through the Prairies on a tour bus." But if there was one good connection she made during that time, it was meeting Allan Reid.

Then a young music executive at A&M Records (now dissolved into Universal Music Group), Reid was looking for his first signing. He was introduced to Arden and her music in the early '90s by Doug Chappell, then head of Virgin Records. Arden became Reid's first professional contract, and Reid became Arden's door into the world of professional music.

Jann Arden in the q studio in Toronto. (Vivian Rashotte/CBC)

Almost three decades later, their paths have crossed again. This time, instead of offering her a contract, Reid — now president and CEO of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences — was offering Arden a spot in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

"I thought we were just going to this charity gig with my manager Bruce Allen [and] my road manager Chris Brunton," she said. "And Allan came in. He says, 'Just wait a minute, you know, I have got to talk to you about something.'"

"He got down on one knee … and he just said, 'You are being inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.'"

Arden was overcome with emotion.

"I started crying," she said. "Like, what is going on?"

Arden's induction will be made official at this year's Juno Awards on March 15. It comes five days before the launch of an exhibit in her honour at the National Music Centre in her birthplace of Calgary.

Watch the full interview with Jann Arden near the top of this page. Download our podcast or click the 'Listen' link to hear the full conversation.

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Jennifer Warren.

Miss an episode of CBC q? Download our podcast.



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