Jann Arden. Photo by Cristina DaPonte
Jann Arden’s new memoir: If I Knew Then: Finding Wisdom in Failure and Power in Aging.
Apparently, a major Canadian TV network has a news story ready to go just in case Jann Arden suddenly dies.
The singer-songwriter, actress and author recounts this odd tidbit early on in her new memoir, If I Knew Then: Finding Wisdom in Failure and Power in Aging. One day, an old friend who works in television informed Arden out of the blue that footage had been prepared just in case she were to shuffle off this mortal coil without giving proper notice.
“She said, ‘We’ve got a whole reel of you in case you drop dead tomorrow,’ ” says Arden, in an interview from her rural home outside Calgary. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God!’ But she said they had hundreds and hundreds (of clips) that were ready because they are so hard to put together on the fly. If someone dies, it goes on the news right away. So she said there are literally thousands of death reels that are prepared for public people so they aren’t scrambling and can go on the news immediately.”
After getting past the initial shock that a ready-made Jann Arden death reel exists, the 58-year-old Calgarian admits she began thinking of more pragmatic matters. Specifically, she wondered what footage was on said reel. She hoped, for instance, that they wouldn’t show what she considers to be unflattering footage from her 2005 performance at Live 8.
Most people, of course, would not have to deal with this particular worry when contemplating their mortality. But the anecdote seems to symbolize a bigger, more universal issue that can be applied to those outside the public sphere as well: Life is short, so you should be prepared to die. More importantly, you shouldn’t be afraid to live.
Arden was nine years old and eating Cheerios at the breakfast table when her mother informed her that she would one day die so she should make sure she did as much as she could in life. It wasn’t a shock tactic, Arden says. It was common sense and a lesson that she has appreciated ever since. Nevertheless, her mother’s death in 2018 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s put even more focus on this philosophy for the performer.
“You have to put death on the table at some point,” Arden says. “I don’t know why in this culture we’re so reluctant to talk about it; that we’re going to die. Knowing that fuels my very existence: The limitations that will be put on my body and my mental capacity to remember and go forward. If anything, there’s an urgency that I’m so glad is there. I’m not sitting back and saying ‘Oh, someday …’ Everyone is so ‘someday’ because they think there’s this limitless amount of time ahead of them and there absolutely isn’t.”
This is not to say that her new memoir is preoccupied with death, nor did it come from a dark place. In fact, when Arden began writing If I Knew Then a few years back, she was in as good a place as she has ever been.
She had recently quit drinking and was developing a television series that became Jann, a hit CTV comedy that is now in its second season. Her music career was also in full bloom. Still represented by powerhouse manager Bruce Allen, a relationship that began more than two decades ago, she was continuing to work on new material with A-list producer Bob Rock. Her 2017 memoir, Feeding My Mother: Comfort and Laughter in the Kitchen and My Mom Lives with Memory Loss, had become a national bestseller.
It was during all this that Arden wrote a post on social media that was both celebratory and a touch defiant. She says it was about “getting older, feelings about my body and my life and that I just felt great and so grateful to be waking up every day in a place that was comfortable and that I knew myself and that I was trying all these new things and if you’re not beside me, get out my way.” Anne Collins, her editor at Random House Canada, read it and thought it could easily be expanded into a full memoir.
While Arden doesn’t see If I Knew Then as a self-help book, it is geared to women, particularly those who are in their late-30s or older and living in fear about what lies ahead for them. As the subtitle of the book suggests, Arden puts a lot of stock in failure as a potent, if occasionally ruthless, teacher in life. She revisits her past, often making comparisons between young Jann and current Jann. The biggest difference, Arden says, is that when she was younger she was reckless as opposed to fearless. She chronicles her early life and career and writes about her occasionally dysfunctional relationship with her family, particularly her alcoholic and “textbook bully” father. Her mother, meanwhile, was often “mortified” by the actions of young Jann, but she always allowed her daughter to fail. Arden credits her mother’s combination of cheering her on and letting her fall down as one of the reasons she is successful.
“That’s the point of the book title: ‘I wish I had known then,’ ” Arden says. “I could have said to myself, ‘Listen, you’re going to be drunk a lot. You’re going to screw up. You’re going to fail. You’re going to not get this. You’re going to be disappointed. You’re going to cry every second day.’ It’s all those things that you want to warn a young person. The thing I want to say in this book and I do say is that it’s not avoidable. It doesn’t help you to be filled with wisdom at 20 years old. You just have to have the obstacles and you have to experience things.”
At 58, Arden shows no signs of slowing down. Both seasons of Jann were recently picked up by Hulu to stream in the United States. She has written a bunch of new material with Bob Rock and plans to go back to the studio in November. Hits and Other Gems, a compilation of her music that spans her entire career, was released last month.
“As I get older, it keeps building: that ideology, that philosophy, of living and being in the day and taking it all in and trying things that are frightening or daunting,” she says. “I don’t want to have a static life. I don’t want to stand on the same chair and I don’t want to look around at the same things.”
Wordfest Presents Jann Arden will take place online on Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. Visit wordfest.com.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020