Jenn Grant. Photo Credit: Daniel Ledwell.

Instrumental: Jenn Grant On How She Channels the Late, Great Patsy Cline For Vocal Strength

By: Matt Williams

When I call her up in mid December, Nova Scotia songwriter Jenn Grant is getting things ready for her husband’s birthday as her kids play in the background, a carpenter friend does some work on her deck, and her dog barks in the background. The holidays, for everybody, are still busy, despite the fact that none of us are able to move around much. But it’s even busier for Grant, who just put out a new Christmas album, the candy cane sweet affair Forever on Christmas Eve.

Christmas songs, with their timeless and tried-and-true melodies, are some of the most perfect vessels for showcasing a voice. And Grant’s voice—at turns nimble, powerful, fluttering, and always richly expressive—shines in the spotlight on songs like the swaying “Downtown Christmas Eve” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which glows with the same warmth and coziness as a roaring holiday fire (or a roaring holiday fire log video loop for those unable to set fires inside their home).

Voice is what Grant wanted to talk about for her Instrumental. She’s been writing songs—a capella tunes—since she was a kid, when she’d jot them down in her diary and sing them for her parents or, “go outside in a field and sing them alone.” She was only about seven, she reckons, when she started. I ask if there’s any chance that one or two of those early numbers made it onto a record later or continue to exist in any sort of form. But no dice.

“I threw them out,” Grant says. “I had them in a book. But I decided to set all my diaries on fire. I was like, ‘Sweet. I cleansed, and now, also, if I die, nobody will be able to find any of this.’”

Thankfully, there are plenty of Grant’s songs that were not destroyed in a fire, they are all readily available in the world, and they all prominently feature her stunning voice. Below, we talk about what she does to keep it in shape, her love of and connection with Patsy Cline, and singing to her kids in utero.

Are there any artists you looked to for guidance when developing your voice?

No, definitely not. I just didn’t think about [emulating a person] as an option. I mean, I tried to be in choir in high school a couple of times, but I got really bored, so I kept quitting. And when I was a kid, I auditioned for choir and they said my voice was too swoopy. And so I wasn’t allowed to be in the choir. And so I just stuck to my own thing the whole time, which has been great.

I’m glad I didn’t [try to emulate anyone]. I do find there’s a stylistic quality to a lot of singers, younger singers than me now, that—not to put a blanket over a whole bunch of female singers—but there is a stylistic quality that I hear where I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re doing that thing that girls do.’ It’s kind of a pop sensibility, I think. But I think that comes from wanting to be like your heroes or something. I never did that. We didn’t have much music or anything. We didn’t have cable. I didn’t really have any CDs, except for my brothers’. I just kind of followed my own path.

What kind of headspace do you find it’s best to be in when performing live?

There’s a balance between being grounded and also letting go where you can kind of like… I feel like when you let go—when you’re not thinking—it’s good. Like letting yourself get transported by music. And I feel like when I feel that feeling—of an escape—the audience can feel that as well. So I think that’s a good headspace to get into. You know, when you start thinking, it’s always kind of a bummer.

How do you keep your voice in shape?

I had vocal nodules when I was 21 because when I started singing, I was also kind of partying all the time and staying up late and I was talking and yelling and just not taking care of myself. And then when I got these vocal nodules I had to do a year of speech therapy, and I wasn’t even talking to people. For a long time. I had a chalkboard. I don’t really know how I got through that. I really cared about singing, so I guess that’s why I did it.

Singing doesn’t hurt my voice, but often, like after shows, that can be the most energy sucking part of a night, because there are people to talk to, and I always really want to be present for everybody and speak to them. And sometimes my voice gets tired when I’m doing that. So it’s nice when you play in a theatre and it’s quiet. But you can’t really control your environment ever. So with us, we could be playing a beautiful theatre or it could be a dingy club. It just depends what part of the world I’m in, I guess. So I try to watch that. And definitely rest. But it feels funny talking about this stuff, since I haven’t been on tour for a long time.

It must be scary, in a kind of existential way, to lose your voice as a singer.

I’ve had a few instances where I lost my voice a little bit. It would just make me feel really uncomfortable, and really paranoid, and unhappy. It’s just a really uncomfortable feeling. It feels like it’s so connected to my sense of self and joy, you know? It’s my primary method of self expression. So if that gets messed up, then I feel like I’m kind of broken down a bit.

What does your voice mean to you at this point in your life as a tool of expression?

I feel like it’s a way for me to provide a service for others. It’s still really special for me. And I want to keep my voice healthy. I love singing to my boys. But I definitely feel like I’m at a place in my life where I’m using whatever tools or gifts I can to take care of my family and to help care for others. I feel really lucky that I get to do that. And it’s just a really nice thing to be able to make music for people when they need it.

Do you have a favourite vocal performance from your touring career?

The last live show I had was Valentine’s Day in Halifax and it was probably my favourite show ever, just because… I’ve held all different kinds of shows, solo and band, more electric and more folk, and usually a tour is just one or two representations of that, because I can’t afford to bring strings and a band and a harp and the keyboard electronic setup thing. Because we were at home, and we had this time around the show, I got to display all of the different elements of shows I’ve been putting on for the last decades, and because of that, it felt really good singing, of course. It was at the Rebecca Cohn in Halifax, which is a really beautiful room that I’m really comfortable in as well. And I was also pregnant, and singing while I was pregnant was a really great thing. I got to do it with two babies. I made a record while pregnant two times. And with singing, I’ve always found there’s a spiritual connection that’s happening that you kind of latch onto and share with an audience. And then if you add a baby in you as well, it kind of adds this other layer of magic that’s happening—you feel like the baby feels it. So I think in general, with that show, I had a good time singing. I also had just gone through a massive postpartum depression and anxiety around my first baby when we toured a record, and it was really hard, and I was finally healthy and getting excited about touring again.

Did you sing to your kids in utero?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. In the bath a lot, I would do that. I was singing Patsy Cline: “Crazy” and “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “Sweet Dreams.”

What’s your favourite song to sing that you didn’t write?

I think it might be those Patsy Cline songs that I mentioned I sang to my babies when I was pregnant. I used to take this class. It was a numerology class, and there was a part of it that was about connecting with people who were dead. And I was doing this concert at the time in Halifax called For The Dead, and it was during Halloween—a fundraiser for the In The Dead of Winter Festival. I was going to be Patsy Cline in this concert. And I got really obsessed with doing a good job of it. So I was watching The Patsy Cline Story, even though that’s not her, and just really studying the inflections in her voice. I think I did a really good job of it, I really got right into it. And whenever I was performing as her, I would try to channel her. And just kind of say in my head: ‘Patsy—I’m going to do your song now.’ And since, sometimes if I’m on stage, if I’m having one of those moments of insecurity, I’ll say it. I’ll be like, ‘Patsy.’ And I feel like she’ll send down some strength beams. I heard later that k.d. lang does the same thing. So now I feel like I have a special affinity towards k.d. lang also, but I always kinda did anyway.

I feel like there’s a spirit, like a community connected spirit amongst singers, where there’s some kind of magic shared. It’s just such a beautiful, powerful, kind of strange thing to be able to use your body to create this feeling, and for magic to come over a room of people. And sometimes when I’m doing that, I think about other people who have done that. And I feel connected to them.