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Jann Arden Brings Gorgeous Voice, Twisted Pride to Coach House

August 01, 1996|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jann Arden isn't one to mince words. After years of paying her dues on the fringes of the music scene, the Canadian singer-songwriter is starting to get a foothold with American audiences via the hit pop ballad "Insensitive." But she keenly remembers the lean years with a mixed sense of amusement and twisted pride.

"I was in really, really bad rock 'n' roll bands for years, playing Led Zeppelin covers five sets a night, seven nights a week, to [audiences of] eight loggers," she said during a recent phone interview.

And bad bar bands are only part of the story. Arden--who plays Friday night at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano--did a little bit of everything. Leaving her home in a rural ranching community west of Calgary at age 18, she hit the road to sing and never looked back. She has retained that young rocker's biting humor and rebelliousness.

"I just stayed hammered for the largest part of my career. That was a godsend in a way, because when you're drunk all the time, it doesn't hurt as bad to be hungry. You can't make chicken salad out of chicken [droppings]. You do what you have to do to get where you're going.

*

"I busked in Vancouver and got punched out. Some guy beat me up and stole all the money from my guitar case. About a month after that, I found myself playing on a fishing boat for a while. My band drove around in a van with the bottom rusted out, and we'd have to pull over for fresh air because we were all getting carbon monoxide poisoning from the fumes.

"Then I ended up doing lounge work for two or three years, singing Carpenters songs, Shirley Bassey songs, 'To Sir With Love,' 'Moon River' and God knows what else."

Fortunately, perhaps, the influence of neither Led Zep nor the Carpenters is apparent in Arden's music. At 34, she writes hooky, energetic pop songs and lush, intelligent ballads with a keen eye for observation and a finely honed sense of sarcasm. Her voice is a gorgeous instrument, recalling Heart's Ann Wilson minus the affected melodramatics.

Arden's debut album on A&M Records, "Time for Mercy," made her a star back home in Canada in 1992 and netted her two Juno Awards, northern equivalents of the Grammy.

The follow-up, "Living Under June," was released almost two years ago, but it wasn't until recently that American audiences began to pay any attention, with the success of "Insensitive," the album's second single.

"A&M has been working the album very slowly, letting people know about it in microscopic increments," Arden said. " 'Insensitive' has certainly helped the cause. Radio hits don't always do anything for sales, but in our case it's helped people figure out who I am.

"It was hard for A&M's field staff to find a place in the schedule to work my album, between the Stings and the Bryan Adams and the Sheryl Crows and the Soundgardens and what have you. But they waited and waited, and once they found the spot, they've been relentless ever since.

"The thing I admire most about the company is that from the outset they said, 'You're not a priority at the label right now, but one day you will be. Be patient and bear with us.' They've always been upfront, so I never felt any animosity."

Arden may have one foot in the door now, but the other foot seems still firmly planted on the ground. She realizes that fame is fleeting and is about luck as much as anything else.

"I don't want to be an overnight thing," she said. "I want to be Joni Mitchell, not Celine Dion. I don't want to jump on any bandwagons. My entire life has been spent trying to get out of the in crowd. I do what I'm gonna do. If I don't have my dignity at the end of the day, I don't have anything.

"I'm not music for the masses, and I've always felt like the day I catch on is probably the day I pack it in, because that would mean I sold myself down the river. So whether I sell six records or 6 million, I always have fun, and I could walk away from it all tomorrow."

* Who: Jann Arden.

* When: Friday. Billy Mann and Patti Griffin open the show at 8 p.m.

* Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

* Whereabouts: Take Interstate 5 to Camino Capistrano and go left. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza, on the right.

* Wherewithal: $25.

* Where to call: (714) 496-8930.

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