Jann Arden. Image courtesy of Bruce Allen Talent.

Great Moments In Canadian Music (Track 6): Jann Arden Learns How To Write Hits While Living Under June

By: Bob Mersereau

Living Under June was the album that made Jann Arden a star. It was her second release, coming in 1994, a follow-up to the debut Time For Mercy, and included a whopping six Top Ten Canadian hits. The biggest of them, “Insensitive,” was a hit around the world, going to No. 1 in Australia, No. 12 in the U.S., strong showings in Italy, Scotland and New Zealand, and three weeks at the top of the charts in Canada. She won Songwriter and Female Artist of the Year at the following Junos, two of the eight she has in total.

There really was someone named June, and Arden really did live under her, for several years starting in the late ’80s. The person she immortalized on her biggest album was hardly her best friend. At the time she was more of a nemesis really, but despite their rocky relationship, June was there for the creation of Arden’s early and most enduring hits. And, she wasn’t too thrilled about it.

It all goes back to the time when Arden was still Jann Richards, playing the bars in Calgary, and living back at her parent’s house outside of the city. She noticed a stranger showing up at her gigs, who eventually introduced himself. Neil MacGonigill said he was impressed with her voice, and his credentials impressed Arden; he had worked with Ian Tyson and k.d. lang, Alberta’s favourite stars, and wanted to work with her. MacGonigill became her manager, and told her it was time to get serious about her craft.

“Neil had wanted me to get out of my parent’s house and really concentrate more on writing, and just immersing myself into that,” recalls Arden. “He lived maybe 600 yards away from this street in downtown Calgary, and he said, ‘There’s a little basement suite with a sign on the door saying For Rent.’ And it was cheap, $325 a month, which seemed astronomical at the time in the late ’80s. So he moved me in there. It was owned by a woman named June Dyson, who had an antique store on 17th Avenue. So I wrote songs all day, seven days a week. It was really quite a magical time for me, I’ve never written that much in my life, and not since then. Sometimes I’d write four or five songs a day. Terrible ones, but none the less I was honing in on what I felt I needed to.”

If it sounds idyllic, it wasn’t. Arden’s goal was to get a record deal, and MacGonigall said it was possible, but it would take a good five years for her to get there. That meant five years of hard work and very little money. And as it turned out, a landlady who was regretting haven chosen her newest tenant. The biggest problem was the surprisingly thin ceiling in the basement apartment.

“Old June was upstairs and she was … amazing,” Arden chuckles, attempting to be diplomatic. “She’s passed away now, and her daughter Jill would be mortified, but she was cranky. She was cranky with me, but I was always late with the rent. It must have been maddening to hear me playing guitar and singing 10 hours a day. That would get to anybody. And she just didn’t like it, eventually, she put the boots down and said, ‘You can’t do it after this certain time, and you can’t do it early in the morning, and I can hear your TV.’ I had a tiny little six-inch television that I just coveted in my little kitchen. It had aerials, and I could get maybe two stations, very poorly. And when I had my Ichiban soup or my Kraft Dinner in the kitchen, because I was broke all the time, to think that that TV caused her problems still makes me laugh.”

Of course, thin floors go both ways, and Arden could hear everything June was doing as well. The whole scenario played out in the title track of the album, with Arden singing about the little TV, her corduroy couch, the sick cat she’d adopted, the leaking shower, and even what she was hearing from above: “I can’t believe the things I hear, falling from the atmosphere/Sexual atrocities are happening right over me, and I can’t sleep.”

Poor June, it seems she was the victim of a little artistic embellishment. “She certainly wasn’t having sex with anybody, that was absolutely fictitious,” admits Arden. “I mean she was well into her ’70s at that point… not to say that 70-year-olds don’t have sex, I think elderly people are having sex like crazy, but that’s just me. Anyway, I could hear every nuance, I could hear every step, I could hear her TV, I could hear conversations like I was listening through a sheet of paper.”

It might have been a different relationship if she was Jann Arden, Canadian Music Hall Of Fame inductee, but at that point, she wasn’t impressing June.

“I think everybody thought I was a crazy young girl living in the basement suite who probably wasn’t going to get anywhere,” Arden says.

As it turned out, this was the crucial time in her career. “I think it was paramount,” says Arden. “I wrote hundreds of songs. Neil would get together with me once a week and have a yellow foolscap pad of paper in front of him, and he would critique the songs to the best of his ability, he was a real music guy. Then he would have me play these gigs, he put a band together for me, and I would play this place called The Old Scotch Monday nights. They’d put tables on the dance floor, and he’d helped me curate the setlist, and half the set would be my own original material. It was a real learning process, trying to figure out what I did.”

The other key decision for Arden was choosing to stay in Calgary. It kept her near and close to her parents, her best support system. “I worked a little bit at my mom and dad’s video store during that time,” she says. “They had bought a small one, VHS, and I think Beta was still around. I went in there and worked two, three, or four shifts a week. It put 40 bucks in my pocket every now and again, so I was grateful for that.”

Her manager felt instead of shipping her off to Nashville or Toronto, Calgary would do just fine. “Neil didn’t think you had to go anywhere, the music had to go somewhere, but you didn’t physically have to. And I wasn’t in a rock and roll band, I was a singer-songwriter. He was very right and correct to focus on that. I wasn’t looking for gigs by standing in front of people. He knew certainly that it all laid within the magic of the song, he really believed in it being one song that was your passport to anywhere. And he’s not wrong, he’s still not wrong.”

It was the novelty of being from rural Alberta that lead to Living In June‘s biggest break, when the album became the subject of a glowing article from Billboard Magazine’s Editor-In-Chief, Timothy White. “I don’t know where he heard the record, I don’t know how it ended up on his desk,” says Arden. “He just opened his heart up, there was something that he really understood. I remember talking to him on the phone, and him asking about my parents and what they did. He was so perplexed about where I had come from, and that this kid from the Prairies, without a big life up to that point, could be writing these songs. But I always have just written about things that I know, and I think that’s been my saving grace. I didn’t venture into a make-believe world. I wrote love songs, and I wrote about unrequited love, and simple human sentiment. That’s what I wrote about because that’s what I knew. It doesn’t matter if you’re from a small town or feel it on the top of the Statue of Liberty.”

Staying home has continued to be a source of strength for Arden, who still lives in the woods west of Calgary. “That’s been big for me. I do so much work out here. I have neighbours half a mile away who are excellent neighbours. There are four of us on this road, and they’re just really good people. They help each other out, and I’m really lucky that way. I live in the trees, I have a lot of time to write, and it’s a really great place to work.”

She laughs at being described as Canada’s Queen of All Media, but that’s just a fact. In addition to her music and stage career, she’s published four memoirs, with a fifth due this fall. She has a podcast, has hosted various radio programs and events, acted on stage and now even stars in her own TV show, Jann, which has just begun production on a third season.

Arden says staying in Alberta, near her parents, made that all possible. “I think the idea of having to go somewhere to be an artist is confusing for young people. I think one of the worst things you can do is remove your family from the equation of trying to become something. I would never advise that. When people want to become singers, I always say to the parents they don’t need to pack up and go anywhere. To take away your support system is so precarious.”

Even if it means enduring a cranky landlady for a few years.