Jann Arden Reflects On Life, Loss and Her New Sitcom

Jann Arden pumping her fist in celebration.

Photo: Alkan Emin

Jann Arden has many things to celebrate — her success as a singer/songwriter, her devoted fan base and, of course, her new sitcom Jann — but today she adds another item to that list: her 57th birthday! Here, she speaks with Zoomer to reflect on life, loss and her brand new sitcom!

At the end of last year, Jann Arden posted three simple words on social media: “Mom is gone.”

Arden’s “Good Mother,” Joan Richards, passed away after a decade in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease.

“I’ll always miss her,” the award-winning singer-songwriter said during a mid-February phone call. “I think over the next year or so I will get her back because I won’t remember the illness. I’ll recover more of who she was.”

Her father, Derrel, died three years earlier. The strength she drew from both parents is what kept her, as she sings, “Feet on ground/Heart in hand/Facing forward/Be yourself.”

The recent Order of Canada recipient has made a career singing sad songs and telling funny stories. Now, at 57, she’s at it again, using heartbreak and loss to unleash her inner Carol Burnett.

The result is Jann, a fearlessly self-effacing situation comedy airing Wednesday nights on CTV.

It’s not like people didn’t already know Arden could be fall-down funny. She killed on TV during annual visits with Rick Mercer. She has rocked the Junos and leaves concert fans in stitches.

But a sitcom star?

Randy Lennox had no doubt. The Bell Media president was well acquainted with Arden and her manager, Bruce Allen, during his years as head of Universal Music Canada.

“If you’ve ever had the good fortune of spending an evening with Jann — whether at her concerts, at an event or just a casual dinner — there’s no way to leave the experience without realizing you’re with one of the funniest people
in Canada.”

Lennox, then, was all ears when producers at Project 10 Productions and Seven 24 films pitched their big Arden idea.

“We knew Randy and Jann’s manager, Bruce, were tight,” says executive producer Jennica Harper. “We all thought this is a no-brainer; Randy’s going to want to be in on this – and we were right.” The network even agreed to let Arden and company produce the show very close to home in Calgary.
Still, expecting Arden to instantly step into character, learn lines and handle “block shooting” – all on a 19-day production schedule – is a big ask. It’s like expecting Tom Brady to start winning games in goal for the Calgary Flames.
It helped, she said, that she wasn’t trying to be “Hedda Gabler and learning 18-minute monologues. I’m trying to work within what I’m capable of doing.”
Still, a big part of the ask was that she goof, mercilessly, on herself. TV Jann is a loser, a has-been. Harper says there were meetings with the singer and the network about “how far we could go, where was the comfort zone?” All the way, they agreed, and Arden was all in.

Jann Arden staring in the photographer's direction, pulling several strands of hair toward her mouth with one hand.
Photo: Alkan Emin

Director Ron Murphy says she handles scenes funny and sad like a pro. “I think the toughest part for her is getting used to the hours and learning so many lines.”

Her co-stars praise her acting chops. “Forget singer. This is a true actress,” says Jason Blicker, who plays Todd, one of TV Jann’s duelling managers. Stratford veteran Deborah Grover (Anne With an E) says the two developed an instant chemistry playing mother and daughter. “Watching her acclimatize to this very new thing, boy, she’s come at it with everything she’s got, and it’s been fascinating to watch.”

First, however, as she tells Zoomer in a candid, wide-ranging interview, the singer-turned-actress had to work through a world of hurt. With Arden, there’s no time for small talk or breaking the ice. Instead, she fixes you with those wide-open eyes and locks you in for as much bracing truth as you can handle.

Bill Brioux: First of all, condolences on the death of your mother.

Jann Arden: It’s a blessing really. The last 10 months I was praying that she would make up her mind to go. Her life was a triumph. She’s off and running and I’m so relieved, Bill.

BB: In some ways, you must feel as if you’ve lost her twice.

JA: That’s one of the lingering things – I really missed out on my mom this last 10 years. I didn’t really have my mentor. I couldn’t confide in her, couldn’t get advice. There’s a reason they call it the long goodbye, that’s for sure.

BB: Your book, Feeding my Mother, is just out in paperback. Did you update it?

JA: Yes, I’ve written about my mother’s death. I wrote a piece 40 hours after Mom had gone because Random House needed it to be sent in. The timing was terrible, but it was meant to be.

I’m very proud of the book. People come up to me and say they hope through my mom’s story it may help their husband or their sister. That has been one of the most mind-boggling things really of my career.

BB: You’ve done comedy on television before, especially with Rick Mercer. Surely networks have been after you to give this a shot. Why now?

JA: You know, it’s all about timing. You just feel when it’s the right thing
to do. I really feel we can have a franchise that’s successful, that we can really put a lot of money into my home province and employ a lot of people.

BB: The character of your mother on the show, Nora [played by Deborah Grover] is in the early stages of dementia. What were your thoughts about sharing that aspect of your life in a sitcom?

JA: I think it’s really important. It’s much different than what my experience was. Obviously this was in a comedic setting, but it’s still very gut-wrenching discovering that your parents have a dementia diagnosis. There are just so many unknowns. A doctor can’t tell you how fast, they can’t tell you anything really. Between 800,000 and a million people in Canada have a family member
with dementia.

BB: Where do you find the lighter side of this experience?

JA: The way Nora, my TV mother, moved through scenes is f***ing hilarious. She conveniently uses her memory loss where need be. I’m telling you, Bill, if you don’t laugh, you’re not going to make it through. I cried a lot. It was extremely frustrating, but I had a lot of laughs with my mom as well. And she laughed, too. I just learned how to navigate it.

It took me half of her illness to find a way to be her daughter again. It’s made me a better person.

BB: Did you watch many sitcoms growing up?

JA: Absolutely. I loved Carol Burnett, All in the Family. I loved The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family because it was a musical family. I just thought, “Oh, my God, the Partridge Family, they’re singing!”

Plus I watched Star Trek — I loved William Shatner. He was like my first crush. I remember being 10 or 11 and watching William Shatner and thinking, “Oh, my God, I think I love William Shatner…”

BB: So the TV was always on at home?

JA: So much television. But I also grew up in the country, in Springbank. We grew up outside. We literally got our asses kicked out the back door, a Wagon Wheel stuffed in our hands and “Don’t come f***ing back here until 6:30. Play outside.” My parents didn’t know if we were alive or dead.

I asked my mom about that. She says, “Well, the dog was with you.” Think of how ludicrous that sounds. We had a big dog named Aquarius. He was like a nanny. He guarded over us.

My dad had a school bell; I still have it. His mother was a teacher in Lethbridge. They rang the bell about 6:15. Wherever we were, we could hear that bell. The dog – he would go crazy because he knew it was dinnertime. He’d herd us home, “Woof! Woof! Woof!”

BB: I want to ask about the character, Jann, and specifically her sexual orientation, which is “fluid.” How important was that element to you?

JA: Oh, I think it’s really important. I think to have a contemporary character, a woman of my age, a famous person, showing a contemporary look at what sexuality looks like … I think the LGBT community can get their feathers ruffled quite easily because when they look at someone like me, and I certainly consider myself a fluid person … I wouldn’t even say bisexual, I’m very person-specific.

You know, I’ve slept with a lot more men than I have women. But it’s part of my DNA. It’s what makes me tick.

And I had parents that were so fair. I remember being, like, in my late teens, maybe I was like 19 or 20, and they knew I’d had boyfriends, they knew I’d had girlfriends, and they sort of just went, “Oh, that’s Jann.” That really was my parents. But my dad, in particular, he was a concrete guy, he was a tough guy, and he said, “We would love you if you were pink with purple spots.”

So, I had a platform that was so kind and liberating, so I never made anything of it. I have made my way, going through my life. I haven’t really outwardly spoken about my sexuality, but I think it’s kind of a running joke. People have looked at my life, and, “Oh, she’s not married. She doesn’t have kids,” and they’ve made a lot of assumptions about me that are so far from true, and I have no time nor patience nor any desire to defend myself or to explain myself.

So, with a show like this, I mean, this character is way more out there than I am, personally. And that’s kind of fun. Because I am just gob-smacked, I am like red-faced in some of these scenes. And I finish the scene, and you don’t just have to shoot it once. You have to do it, like, 15 times. So I’m just like, Oh my God, my mouth is sore from kissing this guy!

So, yeah, I think to represent and have someone like me in a contemporary setting on a network television show is the right thing to do.

BB: Do you see yourself as a role model?

JA: There are so many kids in small towns who don’t know where they fit in. And growing up, I wasn’t really concerned with that, because, like I said, I had a supportive family that made nothing of it. And I mean that.

BB: What made your mom and dad so enlightened?

JA: I don’t know. There was never a tear shed. In my mid-20s, when I was quite wild and promiscuous, my mom said, “Well, you’re a normal person, and you’re just out there, trying to figure yourself out.” That’s who I had. And that has everything to do with the person that I am. And I wish I could give that experience to other people.

BB: Are you currently in a relationship?

JA: I’m single; I have been for two and a half years and I’m so grateful for it because I was never out of a relationship for 30 years. I just went from one thing to the other and the music and the band … I got sober and came out of this thing. I got shit to do!

BB: So getting sober was a vital step in your doing this series now?

JA: I would never be doing this if I’d been drinking. Never. I was hung over four days a week.

Yeah, I think my mother’s Alzheimer’s had a lot to do with it. I just thought, Oh my God, life is so fleeting, and why am I doing this? Get out of where you’re at.
No one is harder on me than me. And I think I was clever about my drinking. To me, it was always manageable, and it wasn’t a problem, but every night I was drinking too much. There was years of that, since I was a teenager. I remember taking that first drink [leaning in and whispering], “I like this; this is good.”
My dad was an alcoholic. I wrote something on Facebook the other day. I was just talking about being sober. I wrote that my dad handed me my addiction like it was a 20 dollar bill.

DNA just isn’t the colour of your hair and the colour of your eyes. It is centuries of time, memories, behaviour, and it is all packed into this little gene that we don’t quite understand. But it is there, so you just gotta punch your way out.

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