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Jann Arden: Good things come from bad

Alberta singer/songwriter, actress and author talks about new music, navigating the pandemic and the difficult moments of her mom's Alzheimer's journey

If there's a theme to Jann Arden's life, it might be 'good things come out of bad things', a phrase oft-repeated by the almost 60-year-old Alberta musician. The hopeful notion sums up the humorous and thoughtful singer/songwriter's take on her whole life, one that has included growing up with her dad's alcoholism, a brother's incarceration and mom's more recent journey with Alzheimer's Disease.

On top of that, there's the shared human experience of living through the isolation of a pandemic and in Arden's case, living a rather solitary life on a 14-acre property near Calgary. And this past fall, Arden lost her beloved, long-time companion Midi, a 13-year-old Maltese-Yorkshire Terrier-cross.

But if you think any of what life has dished out to the Alberta songstress/author/actor has dampened her outlook, think again. This is one positive lady.

"I've always been easy-going, and an optimist--whatever was going on in my life," Arden said. "I don't hold grudges either, so that's helped with my career, and I'm an independent sort--been that way since my dad moved our family out to the country in 1972. It's made me well-suited for a life in music and the arts."

New album a nod to earlier generations

Arden chatted with Alberta Prime Times ahead of the release of her 15th studio album, Descendant, a 15-song collection of hopeful, sometimes whimsical and often inspiring tunes created during COVID-19 by Arden at her rural home, and through long-distance collaboration with producer Bob Rock and fellow songwriter Russell Broom. The album's title is a nod to the steadfastness and strength of all those who came before, Arden says, and the first release, Steady On is a timely encouragement from one soul to another to stay the course, and even be brave enough to take a chance amidst uncertainty.

"During the pandemic, we were forced to reevaluate our lives and our jobs and our relationships. We thought about time and how precious it was and is. We baked, walked, thought, read; we remade our lives and cast aside trivial unimportant things," Arden said, adding her pause after 28 years on the road, non-stop, was a valuable break.

In the speech accepting her 2020 induction into Canada's Music Hall of Fame, (postponed to 2021 because of COVID-19), Arden said "Everything up to now, I've been practicing for this version of myself. My 50s are a thank you." Arden says this time of reflection, and creating a new album focused on the pioneers who came before her has been a lesson on her own personal history--a look at everything through a kinder lens.

"I'm grateful for everything I am today; for all those who gave me an opportunity. But I'm also grateful for those who didn't help me along the way. They've made me stronger, way more persistent, more empathetic, more resilient," she said. And of this time of life, she added, "Something happens to women, especially as they age. We let go of constant evaluation of our physical selves--our breasts, butt, arms. It's liberating to not feel the pressure or to edit myself anymore. I'm deserving of this time in my life. I've earned it."

Such words inspire many who may believe life is on the downward slope after a certain age. But look at this gal go. Arden just wrapped the third season of her life-imitating-art sitcom Jann, published her latest memoir "If I Knew Then" and offers thought-provoking conversation about the challenges and triumphs of everyday life on The Jann Arden Podcast. Saying she feels she's "just getting started" sounds about right.

Arden's take on the challenges and triumphs of everyday life

Arden's writings, whether in song or on social media posts, likewise cover life's big issues: how she lost the mom she knew ten years before dementia finally took her, the inhumane treatment of horses being shipped from Canada overseas for slaughter, or responses to social media trolls getting on her case for everything from her trying to make a living during pandemic times (i.e. promote a new album), to her weight. And despite remarking on the worlds' countless failings--climate change, Black Lives Matter, food insecurity--Arden takes equal time to appreciate a cozy home and roaring fire or feel humbled by the trees and birds in her yard, marveling at the beauty that still exists.

"Nature reminds me constantly, to remain adaptable, to accept change and to keep moving," she writes. "Change is always the thing we fear most, but it ends up being the thing we cherish the best. Newness, rebirth, awakenings, resetting ourselves, reevaluating our lives."

Through poignant and funny posts, interviews and in her 2017 book Feeding My Mother (about the Alzheimer's journey with her mom), Arden lived that change, and its imposed re-set of her own life. 

Parenting a parent: The journey through Alzheimer's

"Alzheimer's is unique for each person going through it. I was a mother to my mother and since I don't have children of my own, it was a massive learning curve--the most difficult time of my life. None of it is easy, especially for the caregivers," Arden remembered. "But when mom was non-verbal, near the end of her life, she could still tap her foot if you played a song she recognized. Music is magic."

Arden credits music for everything in her life, something that became a teenage solace when her dad was raging and she would escape to listen to and play music in her home's basement. "I'm a songwriter because of his alcoholism. Music was a form of therapy for me. It has shaped my entire life."

Words of wisdom

The lyrics of Steady On echo Arden's hopeful life message: "Where do we go? How do we know the way? This is the time to fly your arrows. Hold your heart in front of you."

She says it in other ways too: "Eat plants. Go easy on the booze and the pot and the cigarettes. Find that balance so you're not beating yourself up every morning. Be nice to yourself. Go for walks. Keep moving. The only way through is together. WE are going to be okay."

 "There's no magic--it's life and chaos," she says matter-of-factly. "I'm not happy all the time--I'm somewhere in between serenity and panic and joy and sadness. But I've always been persistent--that's the key. Keep doing what you love and eventually you'll get where you want to go. I'm going to keep going right up until I can't."

Judging by what she's already achieved, and listening to one who's clearly comfortable in her own skin, there's no doubt Arden will do exactly what she says.