Sometimes people make it to the top by mistake or by chance. After talking to Jann Arden for less than an hour, I knew this wasn’t the case for her. She has done a radio program on CBC. She’s a co-host on The Social. She is a TV star, a motivational speaker, and she is about to go back into the studio to record her 13th album in Vancouver this spring (she has been a professional musician for 35 years). She is also working on her fourth book. Jann said that when filling out forms asking her occupation, she says “writer”, but obviously she is a lot more than that.
Most of us know Jann Arden as one of Canada’s most popular artists, but she isn’t at all caught up in her own ego. She says she never thinks of herself as a star, just someone who is passionate about writing music and lyrics. What was refreshing about our phone interview is that even though she has had a lot of success, she is still the down to earth hilarious woman I met when I was young. Jann and my Auntie Linda sang together for years, and when I, a little kid with a mullet and a passion for music, asked her to play I would Die for You, she did–without hesitation. I remember thinking, “This star is so cool and so real,” and it seems nothing has changed.
Jann had an Alcoholic father that she doesn’t actually remember having any conversations with because all he would do was yell at her. Until she was a teenager she thought her name was Jesus Christ and her brother’s name was God Dammit because that’s all he would call them when in his rage. Jann would sneak down to the basement when she was a kid because it was the only place she had to herself that was safe, even though the basement was slightly creepy and dark. Down there was her mother’s guitar and a book to help her place her fingers properly on the guitar. After about three weeks of learning the basics, (she was 11-years-old then) she started writing music. Some of her early music was horrific, she admits, but she got the itch and was completely obsessed.
It was interesting listening to Jann talk about music; it’s similar to the way I talk about soccer or art, and her appreciation of musical genius is very evident. The process seems to be what she loves the most. She mentioned Mozart a number of times and admires the way he wrote music. Like putting words together, the simple action of “writing dots and lines” and how it transforms into a musical masterpiece is something quite incredible, especially because Jann doesn’t know how to read music, which obviously hasn’t been a hindrance to her success. Mozart’s writing was largely influenced by his melancholy, something Jann sees as necessary when creating her own music. One of his most famous pieces is his Requiem in D Minor, which he wrote on his deathbed. If you hear it, it will rip your heart out. The piece is unfinished because he died before it was completed. In a way, it is sadly inspiring that he was doing what he loved right until the end.
As a teenager, Jann was part of the Columbia Record Club, where if you paid a penny they would send you 10 records. This was the beginning of her musical education. She listened to Frank Sinatra, The Supremes, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Bassey, Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson, and Shirley Horn– all for the first time. These musicians, who helped shape her own sound, “saved her” as she created a world of peace and harmony away from the turmoil upstairs.
It was inspiring hearing how Jann’s path, although straight uphill, shaped her character and taught her to value the relationship she has with herself. “The longest conversation you have with someone is the conversation you have with yourself,” she said. I asked Jann about self-compassion and her reply was, “It’s important that you Champion yourself.” It’s about giving yourself credit when it’s due and appreciating all the steps along the way.
I asked how she knew music was the fit for her, and she said, “Music just picked me.” I smiled at this answer because my favourite YouTube video is a Mateusz M’s inspirational video that has a similar quote in it, “This dream that you have, this dream has been given to you.” It’s not the first time I’ve heard someone say this. With a lot of highly successful and passionate people, their path, to them anyways, seems to have been their only choice, almost as if it was given to them by destiny or God or whatever you believe in– as if it was built into their DNA.
Although Jann agreed with being compassionate towards oneself, she admitted to not being that hard on herself anyway. She credits her mother for being selfless and also for constantly encouraging Jann to do whatever she wanted because her mother believed she could do anything. Jann’s mindset is clear when it comes to taking risks. She said simply, “I just think other people can do this, so why not me?”
When doing speaking engagements, Jann often focuses on failing: How failing is essential for any growth and success. She finds so many people don’t try new things “because they are afraid to fail”. She admitted to having hard times, as all of us do, but she never got stuck on the hard times for too long. She has always been resilient in that way. The simplicity with how she sees the world almost caught me off guard, “Everyone can sing. If you can sing, then you’re a singer. Then it’s about finding a job where you can sing.” The more we spoke, the more I realized Jann doesn’t seem to be focused on outcomes. Her focus is simply the process and having the guts to just do what she wants to do.
Jann, although known for her humour in concerts between songs, shows a different side in her lyrics that can be somewhat gut wrenching. She claims she was dramatic even at the age of 11. There is a scene in Little Miss Sunshine, one of my favourite movies, where Steve Carell’s character Frank is listening to his nephew Dwayne complain about high school and the amount of suffering he has to go through because of others. Dwayne says he wants to basically go to sleep and wake up when he is 18 so he can miss all the misery. Frank’s reply, “Marcel Proust. French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he’s also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he uh… he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, those were the best years of his life, ’cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn’t learn a thing. So, if you sleep until you’re 18… Ah, think of the suffering you’re gonna miss. I mean high school? High school-those are your prime suffering years. You don’t get better suffering than that.” Jann said, “I don’t mind being depressed or anxious” because those places are real and where her creativity stems from. She claimed to not even feel like a human until the age of 40 but now seems to be comfortable in her own skin. She has this fairly clear-cut view of the world, that today society is obsessed with becoming famous in three minutes. Jann didn’t get her first record deal until she was 30, and with her upbringing, she hasn’t always had the easiest path, but I think it’s fair to say that she hasn’t made any excuses for herself. She has continued to do what she loves and makes an incredible life out of it. She has worries and fears, and like all of us, she has wrinkles and lines “that (she) has worked hard for”, and she thinks it is so important to be kind to yourself. One of her favourite words is mindfulness, and she thinks that is an idea we need to start teaching in our schools.
Coming back from injury, I’ve had a lot of frustrating days. There have been many times when I have wanted something to click immediately, like I haven’t been out of the game for eight months rehabbing. During those times, I needed to remember there isn’t anything wrong when failing, so I can appreciate the process, no matter how easy or how hard it is. I’m going to try and fail more because, like Jann suggests, if we don’t fail, we won’t ever succeed.