Be Brave: An Interview With Jenn Grant

On Paradise, Jenn Grant looks for ways to stay connected and finds them in people, in nature, in dreams, in moments, and in the universe.
Jenn Grant
Ba Da Bing

Jenn Grant is a road warrior.

She toured intermittently for three years off the back of Compostela (2014), playing in front of approximately 300 audiences. She is quite prolific, and her new album, Paradise is her sixth full-length release since 2007.

When talking to PopMatters, Grant was in New York on the first leg of a tour that will include dates in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Ireland. She is a person in motion and feels like she is exactly where she is supposed to be. “When people ask me, ‘How long are you on tour for?’, I’m like, ‘I don’t even know, I just don’t worry about it. It’s great, today’s great.’ I feel really grateful for everything.”

She’s missing her dogs back home in Nova Scotia, Canada, though. “I’m obsessed with my dogs. I definitely cried when I left.” She dreams about them, too: “My little dog’s name is Bird, and I had a dream that we had three dogs. Bird was so little and she just became smaller. I was like, you can fit in my pocket, let’s go!” She’s content knowing they’re with their other dads, “they’re with miniature donkeys, they’re going hiking, they’re eating sweet potatoes and haddock, they’re getting their nails done, they’re sleeping in bed. So it’s okay.”

In one sense, Grant carries the East Coast of Canada with her. The songs on Paradise are replete with colorful and bucolic nature-related imagery inspired by her home in rural Nova Scotia. In “Lion With Me” she sings of “Herons, eagles passing by / Telling me it’s no time to die”. Later, in the same song: “One more winter, here we go / Dig my heart out of the snow”. With soft breezes, long days under the trees, ocean floors, flowing rivers, rain-filled glasses, and mountain peaks, Grant furnishes the listener with arresting glimpses into an environment that is, for her, personally and creatively restorative, as well as a source of inspiration that, she feels, reflects something deep inside her.

There were also practical reasons she and her husband and collaborator, Daniel Ledwell, moved to their present location in Lake Echo. “We really wanted a space that we felt like we could be fully connected to things that inspire us,” she explains. “We have this special place to come home to, especially after travelling so much. Danny is such a busy producer and we needed space for him to build a recording studio and to have space between the studio and the house, where artists can come, and everyone is not on top of each other. Some of the songs, like ‘Lion With Me’, I really think about our home, and whenever I’m singing that song I can picture everything. I feel like I can write in other places but it’s my preference to write at home where no one can find me except for the dogs. They’re co-writers, as well.

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“I do better, I think, as a human being,” she admits. “When I’m in the country, close to the water, close to the trees, close to the animals. That is what is restoring to me.” In several songs these images and symbols are also used to explore connections between women and the natural environment. The idea is most conspicuous in “I Am a River”. Here, a song Grants notes is about empowerment of women, the whole of nature itself, fully encompassing its physical features and its living inhabitants — “I’m a river flowing deep, I’m an eagle, my soul to keep / I’m a mountain, I am the peak, I am the prairie, I am the heat” — is felt and experienced by the individual woman who, ultimately, reminds the listener that she is also all women. “We’re everything we think we are / We’re everything, believe it”.

“I think women innately — and men do too — but women have a strong connection to nature,” she notes. “There’s a power in that, and a power in nature. I think that when humans can respect that power it’s a beautiful thing.”

Lyrically, Paradise pauses over many such occasions where deeper connections seem possible. That mood is established in the first line of the record when one person’s presence is felt in nature: “We were planting a garden with every wish and every seed / I can feel you here, your soul is in the trees”. In “Galaxies” she sings, “I’m here, my love, even when I’m standing out alone / There’s a galaxy of us that shines and I hear you calling me home.” The official video for the song depicts otherwordly travellers finding each other in a far-flung place, mysteriously and providentially. When I offered that there are moments on Paradise when consolation, comfort, and healing seem to be found in the big forces and mysteries that connect us — nature, love, dreams, the universe — she remarked, “I really love the way you put that. That’s exactly what I mean!”

Many of these elements come together in “Rocket”. “That song,” she explains, “I wrote after the night David Bowie died, and I had this beautiful vivid dream about him visiting me.” It was a “strange, beautiful dream, but very, very vivid. I was in outer space and there was this big dark sky. There were literally prisms around us, a couple planets. David Bowie appeared and he was wearing this golden tie and he was at the edge of this golden road that was in space. It was basically his farewell to the world and he was dressed up. He talked to me about not taking life for granted and to really embrace the gift you have been given. It was almost the push I needed for this whole next journey I’m going on musically. And whimsically we just jumped into a rocketship and sailed around in outer space together. I woke and was like, oh my god, ‘Danny, I can’t even explain to you this dream I just had.'”

The song is about recognizing your moment and the courage to take it. It’s about the “unknowingness of where do we go when we die, and where were we before we were born, and all of those great questions.” She reveals that it was also inspired in part by Gord Downie, the singer of the Tragically Hip, who disclosed in 2016 that he is battling terminal brain cancer. In a final live set that was broadcast live across Canada, Downie relentlessly poured energy and emotion from his voice and from his body for three hours. The concert or its live stream was watched by almost 12 million Canadians. “It’s what I’m interested in, and it’s what I was interested in at the time,” she says. “This reaction of people to something. For me, it was very timely. I felt really in awe of that human experience everyone was having with him, and I thought it was very beautiful and meaningful. I laboured over all the lyrics, and added something in there for Gord Downie.”

After Bowie’s appearance in her subconscious inspired the writing of “Rocket”, she says, “the next night we were walking into the studio, and it was an amazing night, stars everywhere. I just took a moment before walking in to the studio to just ask him to send me something. And that song wasn’t quite finished for me. It maybe sounds weird to lock them in together, but this had happened with Gordon Downie, and the concert, and so the end of the song is kind of for Gordon Downie. It’s for both, it’s divided. But it’s all from the same place.”

On whether any general lyrical themes were consciously developed for Paradise, she explained that “the theme kind of creates itself. I don’t think about a theme before I begin writing but I try to recognize one if it makes itself apparent, and that goes into the song choices as well. There are a few more political songs that didn’t end up on this record that I feel like were special, but I think they belong somewhere else. Thematically there is definitely an acknowledgement of being part of a creative community, feeling the reaction of a group of people as a whole over the loss of many great artists, reflecting on that, and feeling the sorrows and joys of people as a whole plays into this record.”

Dreams, she adds, are also “a fervent theme throughout, and I definitely didn’t really recognize that until the end. I’m a really vivid dreamer, alarmingly so, at times. It’s a bit much, but I’m feeling thankful about it in another way because it’s given me so much for the writing of this record. So much of it has come from dreams. So that’s been really good. I can hear full songs in my dreams, and it’s gotten strong over the last couple years. It’s really weird.”

Musically, there is a wide variety of styles on Paradise and its adventurousness arose partly out of new approaches to songwriting. “I did so much writing for this record over a year and a half, and I had never really played piano before. I wrote a whole bunch of songs on piano, and took a lot longer to write the songs because I had to learn the piano at the same time. I started teaching myself in weird ways — not traditional ‘this is how you play piano’, but ‘this is how I play piano’. My husband thinks that’s cool because I come up with different chords or different ideas because there’s nothing conventional about it. So there was a whole batch of piano stuff, and each song would take me way longer.”

She simply felt a deeper connection this time with the piano, she says, than with the guitar. “It was bringing out these more soulful tones and melodies than I was getting with guitar,” she notes. “None of the songs were written on guitar for this whole record, except for “Lion With Me” and “In My Dreams”, which was written on one string on a guitar. It was just kind of a melody that was transferred to piano.”

There was, she says, an effort to have two broad types of compositions — piano ballads and more pop-oriented songs written with basslines and drums — to “live together seamlessly”, to be brought into a cohesive whole. “Definitely with certain instruments like vocoders, sample cuts, and little bits of things like that, we knew we wanted to have a little bit of electronic stuff. We knew we wanted to have organic elements, and we wanted the vocals to be strong and warm and important. We knew we didn’t want to have a bunch of other people [involved], and we knew we wanted to keep it small.” In the end, she says, after writing 40 songs, “there was a moment where I had pretty much chosen the batch of songs, and went through each word, and really wanted to make sure I was saying what I was trying to say. I had never really done that before either.”

The result is a diverse group of songs anchored in Grant’s bright and clear vocal melodies. There are surprising departures into, for example, funk-influenced R&B (“Sorry Doesn’t Know”), ’80s-style synth pop (“Galaxies”), pure ’60s-style folk (“Lion With Me”, which includes vocal harmonies worthy of Simon & Garfunkel), and the hymn-like “In My Dreams”. Like mid-’80s Van Morrison, Paradise has the feel of soul-searching folk music, at its core, but spiked with soul and R&B and smoothed with pop melodies and hooks. “If I’m not pushing myself into new territories with new music, I feel like I’m not growing.”

Grant’s habit of pushing herself into new territories is at the heart of her story as an artist willing to take risks. She found her voice as a singer and her direction as a full-time musician in the mid-’00s and it was prompted, in part, by confronting stagefright, experienced to such a degree that it compromised her ability play guitar or sing in public. Today, Grant’s stage presence feels cool and self-possessed. But the long-term encounter with stagefright she describes evinces a certain tough-mindedness as well as an admirable willingness to share credit for overcoming it with fellow performers, near and far.

In the beginning, she says, “when I would play guitar for people my hands would shake so badly that I couldn’t actually play, and my voice would shake so much. I wouldn’t be able to sing the way I wanted to sing because everything was shaking. And it was devastating all the time. It took me ten years to figure out.” During this period she attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) and studied painting because, she says, “I thought that was the next closest thing — if I could do visual art and be surrounded by a creative community — it was getting me closer somehow” to her ultimate creative ambition. “So I attended NSCAD. I’m halfway through NSCAD and I thought, I’m ready, I’m going to quit art school and do music. But my mother encouraged me to stay and so I finished my degree quickly. So I started doing music while I was at NSCAD. By the time I graduated in 2006 I was like, alright, music full-time, let’s go.”

Two specific realizations prompted this decisive resolution. “I think it’s where you want something so bad. It was hard to do. I did try to take those steps a couple times where I thought, I’m going to do it, and then I would crash and burn, and I would be upset afterwards. But my cousins in Prince Edward Island, Robert and Andrew MacIsaac, they were very close, they grew up like they were my extra brothers in a way and they had a bit of stagefright too.” Putting aside some well-meaning but dodgy advice for fending off stagefright along the way — like, for example, taking horse tranquillizers — she found insight in an idea, simple in principle but difficult to implement.

She recalls, “there was a time when we were playing music together at the beginning and we were playing each other’s songs. And if I had a song they would come up with these duel guitar parts and then I would just sing. And something about lending strength to other people got me through it. I knew that they were nervous, and because they were nervous, I had to be brave.” It was just what she needed, she says. “You need to be brave so that other people can feel safe.”

The second realization took place while watching Teegan and Sara at the Marquee Club in Halifax in 2003 or 2004. “I was in the back watching them. It was awesome, there were tons of people there, they were great, and I felt so sad. Watching them, I felt like I was watching my destiny — I’m supposed to be doing this, but I’m not doing it. And I booked my first show the next day. So I have Teegan and Sara to thank a lot. I don’t think they know that, but it’s special to me.”

Now, Grant’s home as well as her records and performances are host to fellow musicians, artists, and creative people who are steadily working and collaborating in various combinations. When I asked if there is something characteristic of the Canadian Maritimes in this habit of mutual support and collaboration, she remarked, “I feel it. We’re surrounded. My life is full of amazing artists from Nova Scotia and the Maritimes. ”

She points out that we live in a moment where diverse talent and accomplishment is especially abundant in this region among women, many of whom are from Prince Edward Island or Nova Scotia and based out of Halifax. “There’s also something really beautiful, and I’m feeling it more than ever now, in that I grew up in this industry, this sisterhood, with Rose [Cousins], Catherine MacLellan, Jill Barber, Tanya Davis, and Amelia Curran. We all started at around the same time, and me, Amelia, and Rose all have records out within a month and a half of each other. Some people would think maybe that is something where we would be competing with each other for attention or awards or something. But I just feel the opposite. I feel that it’s such an incredible time for women, and I feel so inspired and connected to those people because we are making each other stronger. I’m really connected to those people. They’re a big part of this.”