Calgary, Alberta-born Jann Arden's latest album, Living Under June, went triple platinum in Canada (more than 300,000 copies sold), and the single Insensitive hit Top 10 charts around the world, including #1 in Australia. Arden's Juno history includes two in 1993 for her album Time For Mercy (Best Solo Performer, Best Video), three in 1995 for Female Vocalist of the Year, Songwriter of the Year and Single of the Year (for Could I Be Your Girl?), and 1996 nominations including Entertainer of the Year and Single of the Year.
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Jann Arden had tears in her eyes when she accepted her three Juno Awards for Best Single, Best Songwriter and Female Vocalist of the Year in late March.
After 15 years of struggling as an artist, busking on street corners, performing in lounges and smoke-filled clubs, she had finally made it. And how. Centre stage, the Junos. No less than three awards in one night, putting her in the company of people like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Anne Murray, Neil Young, Celine Dion.
Yet success doesn't come without a price. And there are times, even now as her album Living In June begins to make its way up the U.S. charts with ``a bullet,'' that Jann again has tears in her eyes. And they're not tears of joy.
"It's scary,'' says Arden during an interview just before embarking on an arduous promotion-performance tour.
"I was just in the office looking at the schedule and thinking, how can I do this? What have I done? Did I want to do this?
"I'll tell you, every three or four months, you can ask Neil (MacGonigill, her manager), I have a good little cry in the office. I have a breakdown. I go in there and cry and they're looking at me going, `What is wrong? Did somebody die?'
"And it's me that's just scared,'' says Arden, nursing a cup of tea and lighting up a cigarette.
"It's totally those elements of fear. And it starts with everything. You internalize your appearance. You start worrying about how you look more. And thank Christ that I'm 33 and I'm not 21 because I am comfortable with myself.
"I'm probably 20 pounds overweight, in the pop world. You know what I mean? I'm sturdy. I'm not build for speed but I am sturdy and I am me and I think I used to weigh about 190 pounds when I was drinking and carrying on.
"So, you start worrying about appearance. Whatever. That's human. About 99 people are looking at you wherever you go. Washing my car the other day was a major extravaganza.
"So, you have to start dealing with recognition more. I'm pretty good at it. I'm like: how ya doin'? People start to find out how totally uninteresting I am as I'm eating my Doritos and walking to pick up my dry cleaning and probably have something hanging out of my left nostril. It's like, ooh man, is that really her?
"I'm just coming to terms with that and it's a responsibility for me to be a stand-up girl when I'm out and about.''
Arden says she never took the trappings of success into account when she was struggling.
"Like anybody else I had this grand fantasy of success, like I'd work once a year or something. Instead, I work every day, all day long.
"Things just seem to multiply so quickly. The Junos. Everything changed for me in 24 hours. I'm dealing with another level of recognition. And it doesn't mean I'm the best at anything. I don't for one minute think I'm the best singer in Canada, 'cause I ain't,'' says Arden.
"I don't want to sound ungrateful or anything but it's never been part of my motivation. I wasn't a kid singer with a brush in my hand thinking I was going to be a big star. I was a kid singer with a brush in my hand loving singing. And I have my days now where I really hate singing, where it's the last thing that I want to do.
"But you're gonna have days like that because that's what life is like.''
And if anyone can handle the pressures of major international success, which Arden is on the brink of, it's Arden. She's one tough little cookie. As she says jokingly: "I've got balls. Big Alberta balls.''
She's also got talent. Big talent. A voice that wrenches hidden emotions from a song.
Her debut disc Time For Mercy opened doors, sold 80,000 copies in Canada, earned her Junos for Best New Artist and Best Video.
Her 1994 release, Living Under June, saw Arden not content simply to put out Time For Mercy/ Part Two. Instead, the musical arrangements and lyrics were more adventurous, more powerful. The album went double platinum (sales of over 200,000) in Canada, sold over 30,000 copies and counting in Italy (where the song Insensitive was used in a TV commercial), and, of course, won her three more Junos.
Living Under June was released in the U.S. in March and it's gaining more airplay and achieving more sales every week, with 41,000 copies having shipped to stores already. And with Arden in the States doing radio promotion and showcase gigs, including one in Los Angeles recently where she was joined on stage by Jackson Browne (who appeared on Jann's June disc), things look ready to take off.
A major reason for her success, aside from her obvious talent, is the team Jann has working for her.
It starts with Calgary's Music Works Management run by Rudi LeValley and MacGonigill, who first saw Arden performing Olivia Newton-John covers in a lounge in town.
"Music Works is just a small little business here on the prairies. It's not 19 people sitting at computers with headgear answering the phones. We, from day to day, don't know what we're doing half the time. We make decisions just based on dignity and some sense of integrity. I don't want to be Celine Dion. I don't want to be anybody. I just want to be myself,'' says Arden.
MacGonigill has always been there for her, through thick and thin and the days when Arden wrestled with the bottle.
"Neil used to get calls from the Old Scotch (a now defunct nightspot in Calgary). `Ah, Neil, Jann's got a $340 tab here.' Neil would go: `Ah, no problem, I'll come down and take care of that.' That was six or seven years ago. Three days later it was: `Neil, it's Fred here from the Old Scotch. Jann's got a $270 tab down here.' Neil would go: `I just paid that.' And they'd go: `No, this is brand new.' '
Another major force behind Arden's success in Canada was a series of brilliantly shot music videos by Calgary's Jeth Weinrich.
"Jeth has a great eye and I think he shoots me well and his concepts are not wine and roses. They're edgy. And I think he really makes the songs work well.
"I call him Jim Wienerditch all the time. Working with him is sheer bliss and it's absolute bloody chaos. There are so many extras and there's transvestites and nude women and dogs and people ... for Could I Be Your Girl I walked into the dressing room and there was literally a nude woman in there with chains. And I said: `Hello,' and I left and I said: `Jeth, there's a nude woman in chains in my dressing room.'
"But no one even realized except me that she had no clothes on. People would go up to her nonchalantly and ask her if she wanted something from catering. Meanwhile, I wanted to go up to her and ask her if her breasts were real.
"I was raised on a farm. What can I say?
"Videos are strange, though. Obviously, I'm this person and I can't be Annie Lennox. I'm uncomfortable. I can't come out with my hair slicked back. I mean, Madonna looks so beautiful in all her videos. She recreates herself. We just get used to seeing her with eyebrows and hair and then she takes it all of and makes us rethink who she is.
"I don't have that courage, I don't have that persona, I don't have that sexual edge. I'm not a particularly beautiful woman.''
Arden is moving forward in her songwriting and feels her new material is developing more of an edge.
She also learned, from her first two albums, how lyrics can be interpreted so differently by people.
"Even something like Could I Be Your Girl, I never got so many letters about what a song meant and that surprised me.
"Someone wrote me and asked me if I was a Devil worshipper ... I sang: Love is a demon and you're the one he's coming for ... it was just about falling in love with the wrong person. It was a metaphor.
"I wasn't ready for that kind of responsibility. `Do you think you're Jesus?' because I said I am ashes/ I am Jesus/ I am precious/ Could I be your girl? All I meant was that Jesus was a martyr and he died. I just wanted to be someone who would do anything for someone else. I just thought I was being poetic. But people looked into that. Some radio stations didn't play it because, ah, like is she a Bible thumper?''
Arden says she's just trying to take things day by day.
"I'm very used to dealing with failure and failing. But I get up every time. I never stay down long. If I'm blue, I'm blue for a day. You can ask my parents. I never got depressed. Well, I did but I did it in my own way.
"As far down the pole that I got there, suicide was never a possibility for me. I don't know why. It wasn't part of my temperament. ...
"But life is really a messy thing. It's a dirty, ugly undertaking. And anyone who appears to me that they have this pleasantness going on, I think it's an absolute facade. We're all broken. And that is life.
"The only thing that matters is the human heart and mind. A presidential campaign is the perfect example. They go through all these checks to check their personalities out. Did they inhale the marijuana in college or not? When you think about the lives these men have led, what experiences are they truly bringing forth as far as humanity being broken-hearted, being really screwed up and being lost and coming from nothing to something and being addicted to drugs and having an alcoholic problem and impregnating 19 women and having an abortion and your wife committed suicide . . . those are the people that we need running the world. Those are the people that can look at humanity and go, you can't cut this social program `cause I've been there.''
Certainly, Arden isn't cutting any corners. She's working her butt off, aiming for even greater success and, as with Music Works, trying to do it with integrity.
"I do want to be successful because I've invested 15, 16 years in this. It is my business. If I went to university for 10 years and became a doctor, yes, I would like to be able to support my family, think about a future, getting a cat and a dog and a house some time.
"Because this is my business and because this is the arts, money and creative things are like oil and water, precarious. It's a conflict of interests, totally, but you have to make money to survive.
"I betcha I owe my parents $100,000. I'm a half-a-million dollars in debt still from this record. I mean, every video is $50,000. But it doesn't matter. For any education, you're gonna be paying through the nose. Hell, what does it cost to become anything now?''
The bottom line, though, remains the same for Jann Arden. Music.
"There are certain things that are important to me and those things are the eloquence and the beauty of music and how much other people's music has changed my life.
"Like Karen Carpenter,'' says Arden.
"As cornball as that sounds, when I was eight or nine years old I didn't think about being famous. I didn't know there were actual people that sang the music. I just thought you bought a record and the music came out. But it affected my life. It made the quality of my life better. It touched me when I was young, just as music today touches me. There are songs that have made my life richer and better.
"That's what I cling to. If my music ever makes some eight-year-old somewhere feel the way I felt when I was that age, who would have ever dreamt that?
"You can listen to something and say I've been there, I've done that. You belong to the human race. You're not this lone soldier out there feeling sexually inept or ugly or whatever. It can be an aria from Puccini, a song by Art Bergmann or Karen Carpenter. That's how diverse human beings are,'' says Arden.
"Never write anybody off. Never think you know anybody because you don't. My friends have shown me so much and taught me so much about that. I'm glad they didn't write me off. I have the same three or four friends who stuck it out with me. I was so irresponsible. I would tell you that I would show up for dinner and you would set a place for me and I'd never come.
"Never write anybody off. Be gentle with people and be forgiving with people. That's part of what music is as well. Some kind of redemption. Some kind of forgiveness. Something that's so unbiased and fair with you and doesn't judge you. You can sit there and get so much from something and give nothing back to it,'' says Arden, tears beginning to well in her eyes.
"I don't expect anything back at all. It's being able to give something that has enriched my life and changed who I am.''
She stops briefly, deep in thought.
"I've never been so grateful and thankful for music. For a while there, I was thinking that I was really quite something but, you know, now I know that I'm really nothing.
"I know what a speck I am, but somehow, somehow, I feel part and parcel of something.''
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