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'I survived it all': Jann Arden on writing through the most difficult time in her life

Holly Gordon

Stream Jann Arden’s new album, These are the Days, before its release via our First Play series.

It’s been 24 years since Jann Arden sang, “Oh, I really should have known, by the time you drove me home,” breathlessly reeling in fans with “Insensitive,” her biggest hit to date.

A year later, in 1995, Arden’s song “Good Mother” was featured on the Dawson’s Creek pilot episode, while her track “Run Like Mad” was the show’s season 1 theme song (before being replaced by Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Wanna Wait” for the remaining seasons). Arden was a regular musical contributor to what would become the biggest teen drama of the decade.

Combined with the release of “Could I Be Your Girl,” the message was clear: Arden didn’t hook a demographic with her songs; she hooked generations.

Fourteen albums, four books and 19 Juno Awards later, 2018’s Jann Arden has narrowed her songwriting focus on herself for These are the Days, her new album out March 16 via Universal Music Canada.

“I wrote about a time in my life that’s probably the most difficult time that I’ve ever been through,” she tells CBC Music of These are the Days, which was recorded with producer Bob Rock. “My mom and dad both were diagnosed with basically dementia and Alzheimer’s and a litany of other things. My health wasn’t great. I was floundering. And so a lot of these songs came out of a really difficult time. But they're very triumphant to me. Coming out of the other side of that has been liberating, and I’m so glad that it’s on record, so to speak; that it’s actually been recorded. Just to remind myself 30 years from now that I survived it all.”

Arden has been outspoken about her relationship with her parents via social media, sharing stories of their illnesses — and, later, news of her father’s death — through heartfelt posts on Facebook that are widely shared.

Arden says her posts have opened an avenue for her fans to share their stories with her, which she’s found cathartic.

“There's a lot of healing to be done and when people talk to each other about what they're going through it just makes it so much easier to deal with the stuff that's happening in your life,” she says. “I think people have helped me more than they could ever possibly know by just being open about their own situations. “

We talked to Arden about writing about her parents, what's cathartic for her (hint: it's not songwriting) and why “Save me from myself” should be printed on a T-shirt.

You've said These are the Days is the culmination of the best of both you and producer Bob Rock's work. Could you tell me more about what that meant?

Well we've just been doing it for so long, Holly. He's produced hundreds of records and it really does come down to being a culmination of experience. I mean we kind of laughed, I said, "Bob, I think we almost have like 80 years of experience between us." But it's just, you know, you don't question what you're doing. You just write it down. You don't worry about radio, you don't worry about any kind of repercussions of who's gonna like what or — you're just able to work without any boundaries, any borders. You just do the work and not worry about how it's going to be perceived or accepted. And I think that's very liberating.

Was this the first time it felt that way for you?

Certainly the last few years, as I've gotten older and I'm not — you're not going to hear me on the radio. Those days, I think, are long since past for me. Radio has changed a lot. But I think probably this is the first time where it's not that I don't care, 'cause I care a lot, but I was just able to focus on what we were doing and Bob felt the same way. We didn't have to worry about the length of songs, or what the songs were about, or if we were servicing singles to Universal. We just wrote what we came up with.

I wanted to ask about the lyrics for “Everybody’s Pulling on Me,” as they’re really heavy. You sing, "Save me from my life/I've been living way down low and nothing's right." Can you tell me where that came from?

When I wrote with Bob, we did things very quickly in studio. We got together three times and we wrote four, five songs, six songs in an afternoon. And that was one of the songs we wrote in the afternoon and Bob had the template for the song. And that's just what popped into my head was the "save me, save me" refrain, but I think all those things are always a reflection of where you're at in life. All you're doing is just capturing a little piece of time. And I had a lot of turmoil the last few years. I mean everyone's got frickin' turmoil. My life is not any different than anybody else's.

But just as far as, you know, my mom having Alzheimer's and my dad passing away and just wondering what's next as we all do, and I think sometimes you get in the way of your own best plan. So I liked how the songs had such a fun, poppy kind of old R&B groove, and the falsetto part of it. But yet the lyrics were about somebody who was just like really sinking. But if you don't find humour in that then you're really screwed. Yeah. So save me from myself. I mean God, that should be a frickin' T-shirt in my life.

And is songwriting something that helps you get back up?

Songwriting is just fun and interesting for me. I don't think too deeply about it, Holly, I really don't. I'm not a super cathartic person as far as using music to heal my wounds and things like that. I really don't understand the process, and it's something that I don't think about too much because I just don't understand it. I don't understand how it works, I don't understand where the songs come from. I don't read music so I don't have any kind of a technical idea of it.

It's interesting that you say that too because I feel like this album sounded like a cathartic album.

And it should be for the listener. And I think in a lot of ways — I love writing music, music is the love of my life. It takes precedence over my relationships, over everything in my life. Music is always number one. And believe me, that's problematic because nobody wants to be in a relationship with somebody who doesn't choose them first [laughs]. And that's just how it's been, it's been like that since I've been 11 or 12 years old ... and I hope people find salvation and comfort. I mean I was one of those kids in the basement that laid on the indoor/outdoor carpeting and listened to a Carpenter's record for six hours straight. So I think my music is much more cathartic for other people than it is for me.

What's your relationship to songs like "Good Mother" and "Insensitive" nearly 25 years after their release?

Oh they're so dear to me. I mean I've sung them thousands of times. Every artist is very lucky to have one or two songs like that. That really identify an entire three decades of work, and for me those songs really fit that bill. I just never get tired of them. They've really paid my way in my life and put clothes on my back and fed my dog, put me in a house and all kinds of things. You know I've travelled around the world just singing those songs, which is really kind of nutty when you think about it. I just never grow tired of it. I love singing them, I'll never not sing them.

To go back to the new album, what was it like to write the song "A Long Goodbye," about your mother's life with Alzheimer's?

That was not an easy thing to write down. My mom — if anyone has been following me on social media — she has Alzheimer's, and not 10 days ago she actually went into a memory care nursing home because we couldn't keep her at home anymore. I've had full-time help for her for a couple of years but just writing down the words was really, you know, it just really puts it in black and white what the situation is, and the futility, I think, with memory loss and when you lose somebody just an inch at a time....

I mean some people suffer with Alzheimer's for 10, 15 years. And they don't know anything. They don't know how to speak. They don't know how to feed themselves. They're just kind of in this limbo. So it's very difficult to watch. And my mom is obviously going to get a lot worse. And I'm not looking forward to that. But you also have to kind of let go. You just have to let go of the past and you have to let go of how people were. And just go where they go. But I'm glad I wrote the song. I think it really says so much with saying very little, if you know what I mean.

Yeah, it's so heartbreaking to listen to. I know that you are really outspoken on social media about your relationship with your mom and how everything's going. It seems like it would be so hard to write that for everyone —

— but it helps me. It helps me a lot because people respond so openly themselves. I think when I started writing about my mom like five years ago it was, you know, apparent very quickly that thousands and thousands and thousands of people are suffering kind of the same day-to-day events that I was … when people share their stories, there's a lot of common ground there.

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