From the new wave scene of 1970s Montreal, to platinum selling albums, Sass Jordan is unquestionably part of the Canadian rock canon. Thanks to her raspy blues rock vocal stylings, she now has a total of four JUNO Awards sitting on her mantle—in case there was any doubt. Her hit album Racine exploded across the continent in 1992 and led to touring with artists like Aerosmith and recording with Joe Cocker. With more than a half-dozen albums to her name, she has firmly cemented her legacy as one of Canada’s top female vocalists of all time.
Twenty-five years after her rise to the top, Sass Jordan hasn’t slowed down a step. Her voice is full of fiery energy, channeling the same youthful spirit as if she were still a 17-year-old rocking the bars of Montreal on a school night.
“In the late ’70s I was in a band called The Pin Ups and we played lots of new wave stuff like Blondie and the Police,” Jordan explains. “We were kind of doing our own thing because we weren’t a typical rock band, we were really just kids. We weren’t really hip with the old guard, we were the upstarts in the scene, but we would have lineups around the block to get into the bar to see us when we played because it was the new thing.”
Named for the David Bowie album of the same title, Jordan and her band ran against the grain from popular local bands at the time like April Wine, who channeled the popularity of the blues rock movement into a Canadian sound of their own. From the infamous Maples Inn in Pointe Claire, the Moustache Club across from the old Montreal Forum, to tours across eastern Canada into the maritimes, she earned her stripes on the road and on the stage. But as time went on, Jordan saw the need to develop her own sound.
“I decided it was too difficult to be in a band, we just worked so hard doing five or six nights a week, playing three sets per night,” she reflects. “At 19 years old you have the energy to do that and it was an exciting time, but it was too difficult to try to get along with everybody.”
“I later figured out even as a solo artist you still need a band,” Jordan laughs.
Around the same time, Jordan picked up work in the music industry for a local TV station, interviewing bands that would tour through town.
“Since it was the only video outlet for bands coming through Montreal I got to interview Phil Collins, Def Leppard, INXS, all these big bands in the 1980s,” Jordan says. “It was the only TV show they could do in Montreal.”
She kept plugging away on her solo material, trying to make a record and find the right musicians and producer to bring her vision to life.
“It was called artist development in those days,” Jordan laughs. “It was awesome it existed and thank god for that. I got a little money to pay my rent while developing the album.”
She heard word that a popular local group called The Box was looking for a backup singer and joined them, bringing her more presence and notoriety in the local scene. Her name started to get out and she finally released her debut album Tell Somebody in December of 1988.
That was when everything changed.
“MTV and MuchMusic were in their nascent stages so everyone was wildly into it. Every store you went into, every clothing or retail outlet would have televisions playing MuchMusic all day long. My first video went into high rotation when it first came out, so within one week I became so well-known I couldn’t go anywhere without being accosted.”
“It was the strangest thing because it all happened overnight, but I had been doing this for almost 15 years at that point. I suddenly became really well-known and it was really overwhelming and terrifying at the time.”
So, what does an artist do when they hit the big time? Go even bigger. On the heels of international touring and platinum-level sales, Jordan packed up and headed to Los Angeles to begin work on her next album. Released in 1992, Racine became a massive international success, leading to her collaboration with Joe Cocker on the song “Trust In Me” for The Bodyguard soundtrack, which went on to sell 27 million copies worldwide.
“When I was making the album [Racine] in 1990 it was a huge big deal to me because I was so deeply involved in writing every single song and going back to my real roots as a singer,” Jordan says, her voice filling with fond remembrance. “It was Rod Stewart, mixed with Stones, Led Zeppelin, add in some Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, then all the singers I so badly wanted to be but just couldn’t since I was a white girl from Montreal—Chaka Khan and especially Aretha Franklin were such huge influences to me. That’s how the song “Make You A Believer” came about, because I really wanted to work in that deep southern vocal phrasing and that represented for me all my influences together.”
Not just a reflection on her musical influences, Racine—the French word for roots—was also a personal testament for Sass Jordan.
“We had this little shack in the eastern townships outside Montreal where we would spend summers and the village there was called Racine,” Jordan recalls. “I was really trying to tie together all my influences and my own personal story as well.”
A quarter-century later, the album is still as special for Jordan as the day it was released.
“I find it amazing how many people it touched. You want it to do well, and you hope it might do great, but what are your chances of that? The most amazing thing is that 25 years later, people still love it. That’s a huge compliment as a songwriter and a musician.”
After her incredible success with Racine, Jordan decided to shake things up again and moved back to Canada.
“I get bored easily so I thought it was time for a complete change,” Jordan cackles joyfully. “It was all precipitated by becoming pregnant and having a child—I couldn’t stay in LA and didn’t feel that was the right place to bring up a kid.”
Upon her return, Jordan found a new social circle and absorbed new influences, leading to a change in sound towards a more pop-oriented format on her next few albums. Not only that, but she also took a turn into musical theatre, appearing as Janis Joplin in the off-Broadway production Love, Janis in 2001.
“The whole off-broadway thing, that was an accident—I didn’t even want the role,” Jordan groans. “I thought it was just going to be a free trip to New York for the audition and a fun weekend, then I somehow landed the part!”
“It was the most terrifying, horrifying thing I’ve done in my life. It was so hard and it was so scary singing the songs of someone I never really listened to or liked. I thought she was super screechy and I just didn’t love her.”
But Jordan jumped into the role and spent five months in New York channeling the spirit of the legendary blues-rock queen.
“What I’ll say about that now, is that I have an enormous amount of respect for Janis Joplin. Having to get that involved and hearing things more clearly, being so immersed in it all definitely changed my mind about her.”
That led to Jordan delving further into an acting career which featured guest appearances on the television series Sisters and Corner Gas, as well as appearing in both the Toronto and Winnipeg stage productions of The Vagina Monologues. She then landed a gig as a judge on Canadian Idol, which she kept for all six seasons of the show’s run.
“Six years solid of laughing my ass off—it was awesome,” Jordan chuckles. “The best part of that show really happened behind the scenes. It was crazy to see some of the people on that show just become overnight successes with no experience. They were just thrown to the lions. The people that did well on those shows were already going to do well anyways. It was enormously fun, we really had a great time.”
All that work on television didn’t keep her away from the focus on music though, with 2003 seeing the release of her greatest hits compilation Sass…Best of Sass Jordan and a performance at the massive SARS benefit show at Downsview Park north of Toronto. An estimated crowd of 500,000 showed up to see headliners Rush, AC/DC, and most excitingly for Jordan, The Rolling Stones.
“Doing the show with The Stones in 2003 was a blast because I was opening for one of my biggest influences. The shows where your idols are in the crowd are so amazing. Performing at the JUNOs early in my career with Stephen Tyler of Aerosmith being in the audience, then later getting to play with Aerosmith in Europe, and he would actually hang out with me—it was crazy.”
“When I was a teenager I would say to myself ‘one day these people will know who I am and I’ll be their contemporary.’ I said that over and over to myself as a teenager and then it happened over and over, meeting all my heroes—it was all amazing.”
And it’s not over yet for Jordan, who is busy re-recording her hit album Racine with a new group of musicians to celebrate its 25th anniversary, with a release date planned for the fall. She’s also busy giving back to the community through the Benevolent Artists National Charity, putting on celebrity concerts to raise money for charities across Canada.
“As far as I’m concerned, musically speaking, the best is yet to come,” Jordan states confidently. “I’m just going to keep working with friends and musicians who inspire me. We’re highly unlikely to change the world at our age, but once you’re a musician you’re always a musician.”
“Plus, I’m not that old,” Jordan breaks into laughter again, her energy never waning throughout our conversation. “I don’t believe in retirement, I like what I do.”