Jann Arden is not nostalgic. Despite the singer-songwriter admitting she’s sometimes “gobsmacked” by the passage of time, she lives in the present. Her mantra: keep on keeping on.
Case in point: In 2022, as the global pandemic lingered, Arden released her 15th studio record, Descendant, and hit the road across Canada — isolating herself before and after shows in order to safely keep moving forward.
This fall, between a hectic schedule of shows, speaking engagements, and acting gigs, as autumn’s embrace returned, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame member took time to pause and reminisce about the making of Happy?
Released 25 years ago this month, Arden’s third studio album has since gone two-times platinum in Canada. To celebrate, Universal Music Canada is offering a deluxe version that includes three never-heard-before acoustic versions of “Saved,” “Ode to a Friend,” and “The Sound Of.”
Pride arrives when the award-winning singer-songwriter remembers the making of Happy? This record is still one of her favourites, and it was a turning point in her career.
The album was released three years after Living Under June — Arden’s sophomore release, which included “Insensitive” — the biggest-selling single of her career. Ironically, this is one of the few songs Arden has recorded over the past quarter century that she did not write. Rather, Calgary songwriter Anne Loree penned the song. Arden, working with Grammy-award-winning producer and engineer Ed Cherney (Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Lenny Kravitz), contributed to the song’s style and arrangement. The result: “Insensitive” reached number one in Canada and Australia and peaked at number 12 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts.
“When I wrote Happy? it was such a dream because there was no pressure,” Arden recalls via an early morning Zoom call from her rural Alberta home, west of Calgary, while her dog Poppy makes her presence known in the background. “My record company at the time [A&M] was terribly disappointed because they wanted the follow-up to Living Under June.”
The 60-year-old reflects back on the success of “Insensitive,” how she really felt about this notoriety and the ensuing expectations from record company execs.
“I was miserable,” Arden says. “My management was ill-prepared for the single’s success and I felt unsupported. It was an impossible situation and I left them shortly after that album came out.
“I was travelling through Europe, along with a bass player, with 30 bucks in my pocket playing ‘Insensitive’ in shopping malls for people who are looking at me and wondering what the hell they were listening to,” she continues. “They would hear my song and then there was a big exodus.”
HAPPY WITH HAPPY? 25 YEARS LATER
Happy? leads off with the pensive, poetic, and introspective “The Sound Of,” which was a No. 1 hit in Canada.
“I always thought Happy? was such a successful record,” Arden admits. “The fans loved it and I loved making it. I’m so proud of it and think it’s something that will stand up for itself long after I’m gone.”
Unfortunately, Cherney, one of the album’s key architects, is now gone. The Los-Angeles’ based producer and engineer passed away in 2019. Arden reflects on working with this musical genius at Jackson Browne’s Santa Monica studio, Groove Masters, and the imprint he left on her recordings, especially Happy?
“He [Cherney] made timeless records,” she says. “The stuff he worked on over the years always sounded so good. When you stick to just piano, bass, drums and guitars, there is nothing dated to those recordings. You can’t listen to that album and find a time stamp.”
Happy? reflects Arden’s answer to commercial success and is stamped with storied tunes. Working once again with Cherney, she wrote these 11 songs one at a time. They arrived organically from the heart over the course of a year. First and foremost, the compositions resonated with her. She was not trying to write a hit single. She planted her feet in the sand and made the record she wanted, not what her label expected.
And, thanks to this stance she took early in her career, Arden has continued to make a living — her way — ever since without much interference from A&R reps or record company execs. Nearly four decades on, Arden’s raison d’être and approach to her art is still all about the songs.
Celebrity was never Arden’s end game. She admits “Insensitive” was an anomaly and she was not keen on something like that ever happening again.
“It was not where my true north was, or is,” she explains. “I never aspired to be famous. I just wanted to carve my life on this planet in the arts, as simple as that, and be a working musician. These days, you hear a lot of kids say, ‘I want to be famous!’ But, I never uttered those words … I felt quite the opposite. That goal was off-putting and disingenuous somehow for the kind of person I was. Instead, if you work long enough and do the work, you get to be known.”
GETTING IN THE GROOVE
Besides records by Jackson Browne, Groove Masters has also birthed albums by iconic singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan and David Crosby.
Arden recalls these late 1990s Santa Monica days before sophisticated home recording software. Players were brought in specifically for each part, each instrument, and each track. Records, like hers, were made meticulously one take and one instrument at a time. Famed session players, hand-picked by Cherney, to lay down Arden’s songs for Happy? included percussionists Kenny Aronoff (Bob Seger, Smashing Pumpkins, John Fogerty) and Jim Keltner (the Beatles, Ry Cooder), bassist James Hutchinson (Bonnie Raitt, BB King, Ziggy Marley), and many more.
“They were just all of Ed’s friends,” Arden says. “Back then you had a person standing there with their tabla, chimes, and their congas … they would spend four hours just recording a triangle!”
At its heart, Happy?, Arden says, is “a love letter to Ed.”
“I remember recording ‘Ode to a Friend.’ It was such a pretty afternoon,” she concludes. “We recorded it on the studio floor. I can still hear the two-inch tape machine going around and around and rewinding to do another take. To me, Ed is still alive and floating around. I’m so happy for him putting those people together and taking my crazy little songs and turning them into something that seemed good to me and a good thing and helpful thing for other people to hear.
“Happy? got me back on track,” Arden adds. “The record was very much aligned with who I wanted to be and what kind of music I wanted to make. After that, I never looked back. I’ve never felt I had to sit down and write a three-minute song that is a smash. I just didn’t. That is not my way.”
RECORD FAST FACTS
Album Title: Happy?
Released: September 23, 1997
Recorded: Groove Masters, Santa Monica, CA
Producers: Ed Cherney, Mark Goldenberg, Jann Arden
1. The Sound Of
2. Leave Me Now
3. I Know You
4. Holy Moses
5. Wishing That
7. Ode to a Friend
8. Shooting Horses
10. Hangin’ by a Thread
11. To Sir With Love
12. Saved (Acoustic Version)*
13. Ode To A Friend (Acoustic Version)*
14. The Sound Of (Acoustic Version)*