Jenn Grant has an affinity for animals.
"They have sweet little souls," she says on the phone from a Chicago airport lounge. She and her band are in transit to Los Angeles to play a series of gigs. Moments ago she was watching over a long-haired Chihuahua named Bronx for a fellow passenger who had to run to the bathroom.
"Animals make people better people," she reports, firmly.
Grant has written a song in remembrance of her family's golden retriever, called "Heart of Sticks." When she speaks of him, she invariably uses his full name, Stanley Grant. While recording her new album Echoes last year on a farm in Schomberg, Ontario, Grant shot videos---now showing on YouTube---of her visiting with the farm's animal denizens, including llamas, cows, ponies and cats that Grant named, including supercute appellations Meowface and Arch Enemy (AKA Enemyface).
One might go so far to assume the persona Grant inhabits and exhibits is a fantasy ideal, joyously surrounded by furry friends, and that her music would be equally sweet.
But here's something else about Jenn Grant: She's a heartbreaker, and she says as much.
"You should know better, you were such a smart kid," are the lyrics on Echoes' opening track, delivered in a low register we haven't heard from the singer before. The words ache with tough love at best; at worst, condescension. It could be contempt, exhaustion or a genuine wish to an ex-lover for a healthier romantic future when she adds, practically growling, "Now go out and find the woman that you should." Whichever, there's a self-awareness, a growing maturity, laced throughout the songs on the record. There's a lot more going on here than idealized visions.
"Is it going to be hard to write this article, because of my weird vagueness?" she asks. Grant's sensitive to the fact she expresses herself, in word and song, a little differently than most. "The way that I write and perform is all very stream of consciousness," she says.
When Grant speaks, the words spill out either in a discombobulated gush, that non-specific stream of consciousness carrying over into conversation, or slowly and carefully, depending on the subject matter. When she and I meet to discuss the album and her career, it's at her favourite sushi restaurant on a weekday afternoon. A heart pendant dangles beneath her throat, something she found on a flea market hunt with Toronto singer and labelmate Justin Rutledge. Her eyes flash both green and burgundy with the light's discretion, below brunette locks. She orders the veggie dragon roll, which she loves partly because it looks like a dragon.
Echoes is Grant's second full-length release, and first on Toronto's Six Shooter Records, home to Rutledge, Hawksley Workman, Christine Fellows, Royal Wood and Amelia Curran. It was recorded using analog equipment, live off the floor, and produced by Jonathan Goldsmith, well known for his composing work in film and television as well as for producing songs for the likes of Bruce Cockburn and Jane Siberry. After the pop professionalism of Glen Meisner's CBC Studio H wizardry on her first full-length, Orchestra for the Moon, Grant decided to go in a different direction this time.
"It was great going into the CBC, having people help me," says Grant, admitting that at the time she didn't really know what kinds of sounds she was looking for. "Getting that album produced was my first experience watching any type of production."
Goldsmith had Grant come into his Toronto office and just play the songs over and over while he listened and smoked cigarettes, until he felt he knew them all. "He really got me," says Grant. "We were originally going to have two weeks of rehearsals [but] decided we didn't want them, we just wanted the band to come in completely unprepared and see how that went. I know Sean (MacGillivary, bass and vocals) and David (Christensen, bass clarinet, accordion, bass flute and vocals) and Kinley (Dowling, violin and viola) had a great time. It was a good way to get myself and them to be really creative." (Gary Craig of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings played drums and Halifax's Most Valuable Player, Rose Cousins, also added her pipes to the project.)
This record charts new musicalwaters. While Orchestra for the Moon was speckled with the stand-out singles and gorgeous meditations of "Dreamer," "Dancin' In The Wind," "In A Brown House" and "Don't Worry Baby," Echoes is a more unified experience, more exploratory, a collection of largely mid-tempo songs that require more time to digest, but are deeper felt as a result. The glazed sunshine of "Blue Mountains," the sweet ode to Grant's mom and dad "(I've Got) The Two of You," "Parachutes," written for Hey Rosetta! frontman Tim Baker, and "Fireflies," inspired by the same rural Ottawa Valley summer evening that prompted Tanya Davis to pen "Firebugs" on her album Gorgeous Morning---they all speak of Grant's warmth and sweet perspective on the world.
Yet, with them are songs such as "I Was Your Woman," full of pain and a dollop of recrimination in recalling a past love affair. If "Don't Worry Baby" off of Orchestra speaks of a certain whimsy in casual relationships and new love, "I Was Your Woman" speaks of responsibility, and how when hearts go to war there are casualties on both sides.
"I definitely write from a personal perspective," she says carefully, the gush slowing to a trickle. "I think everyone's been in situations where they've had hard relationships and things haven't worked out...it's about regrettable things, it's about betrayal. All that stuff...I think I must have been a fan of drama. There's an attraction to misery, to deep darkness. I think you have to make a choice somewhere along that road, to what you want. There are a lot of people who are unhappy in relationships and unable to find their own strength. It's hard to look at your own life sometimes and realize what you're doing."
Grant is understandably coy in talking about her personal life, but in a community as small as the Halifax music scene, everyone knows your business. Some have called Echoes a break-up album.
"It's a struggle to be honest," she admits, without a hint of fantasy idealism. "Because people are listening. People in your life. Sometimes, it's like, do I write this or do I ignore this?"
I ask: Do the people who the songs are about know that the songs are about them?
Have you talked to them about it?
"Not really. Not so much. The people who know me that intimately know that's what I do anyway." She adds, "As an artist I feel more confident. I felt like there was more strength in this record. Going through something but feeling stronger in the end for having gone through it."
Some of those experiences are documented in a melancholy way rather than an angry one, as in "You'll Go Far" and "Where Are You Now," both speaking of separations, but wistfully. Both are beautifully romantic in their yearnings.
"I definitely believe in true love," says Grant. "I think that if you meet somebody that makes you feel happy, you grow together."
But not every song is a coded expression of the artist's private romantic journey. Some are simply a romantic journey unto themselves. For example, the stunning "Sailing by Silverships" is a track that starts with a lonely acoustic strumming, building and climaxing in a pleaded, "If I sail into the silver light to meet you, would you take my hand and show me who you're praying to?" followed by a wordless, soaring coda of "ohs." It is the album's most ideal moment, and maybe its truest.
"Well, what I can say is...I have a lot of imagery that goes through my head," says Grant, who also paints the cover art for her albums. "That song is a clear one. It's just the water, when it shimmers and is silvery. That's what I'm thinking about."
Jenn Grant's Los Angeles shows went well. In an email she dishes, "We saw Dolly Parton and Perez Hilton, both who seemed to have little crushes on David!" She played at a Canadian consulate Grammy Awards party and a private showcase in front of NBC network bigwigs. Her first time headlining the Rebecca Cohn takes place Sunday, February 15, followed by a tour of the UK and, later, a show at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.
Grant is being carried away on her stream of consciousness. In tandem with her ability as a singer and songwriter, there's no saying where it'll take her.
For a moment in the video shot on that summery Ontario farm, Grant is conspiratorial. "Let's go," she says to the camera as she carries us across a courtyard towards her animal friends, "Heartbreaker" playing somewhere in the distance. The sun hits her face in a most flattering way. "OK, we're together!" she whispers.