Canada’s Next Big Thing

Cover Dec 2, 2010

Jenn’s Not Taking It For Grant-ed

By Lenny Stoute

The upbeat, just this side of bubbly voice on the phone belongs to folk-pop songstress Jenn Grant, touring in support of Echoes, an album load of sombre, brooding tunes. Her vibe’s like that on account of Grant and bandmates are on the way to play Montreal’s newest hipster venue, Il Motore. Yesterday, it was a writing day and the day before that, playing the prestigious Glenn Gould Theatre in Toronto.

“It was pretty awesome. The sound was great; it’s a huge place in the old soft seater style. I have no idea how many it holds. It was a very nice gig” all sounds a little offhand but not because Grant isn’t appreciative of the venue’s status. She is, but increasingly she’s playing the soft seat circuit as talk builds that Jenn Grant’s the next big thing, the Feist in waiting, a redhead with a peaches’n’cream complexion, a killer way of working a vintage dress and her own voice.

All of this very nearly didn’t happen. A songwriter since her early years, Grant was testing the live performance waters when she was struck with a bout of stage fright so severe it drove her from the stage for what seemed like forever. Getting back to where she once belonged was kind of like weaning in reverse.

“I started booking small venues and playing short sets. Little by little, I worked myself back to where I got used to being on stage again. Performing is It’s my career and of course I take it seriously but I try not to take it too seriously. Sure, there’s a bit of acting to it when I’m up there. I’m interpreting a song so I have to make every effort to put myself into it.”

It’s Grant’s acute awareness of voice as instrument that’s won her a following and she has lots to work with. Once past the technical savvy, the hook is an ability to communicate a sense of the familiar and worldly without the songs sounding old. It’s the same knack which put kd Lang on the map. She’s working a mix of folk and pop with soulful, sometimes anguished pipes that’ll lead to big stuff.

After graduating from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University, Grant fell in with the Halifax music crowd, honing her chops with haute indie acts like Heavy Blinkers, Jill Barber and Matt Mays. She debuted as a solo in 2005 with an independent EP, Jenn Grant and Goodbye Twentieth Century, which went largely unnoticed.

It proved a useful warm-up for 2007’s full-length, Orchestra for the Moon, which featured collaborations from Ron Sexsmith, the Heavy Blinkers, Mays and Barber. The critics raved, all down the line the music community sat up and took notice and awards were won. A tour later that year of Germany and Canada in support of the album, including a stint opening for The Weakerthans, sealed the deal that a new and unique Canadian female voice was being heard far and wide.

Sophmore effort Echoes is a very different album, much darker, with more stately pacing and downright sombre in places, a sense of a settling of accounts running through it. “ It's very reflective of my personal state at the time and was actually part of the healing process. That said, I can’t just spew this stuff and even though I'm a stream of consciousness writer, they have to stand up as individual songs. Songwriting time is very important because I can’t write when I’m on the road. I have to go off and be by myself to do that. Coincidentally, I just finished writing with Hawksley Workman, who I opened for in the U.S. It’s the first co-writing I’ve ever done, something I wanted to try with him because we come from very different writing places. Hawksley is very tech-oriented and it’s very interesting to watch him put a song together. I’m more organic, just a girl and her guitar. It’s great to get outside your comfort zone and that’s what it did for me. We came up with one song that may be recorded.”

As if being the next big music thing isn’t enough, Grant has a lucrative alternative career as a painter. Examples of her art lively up her website and the cover of Echoes is a prime example. “OOOh, don’t remind me. I’ve got a backlog of commissions I have to get to and I’m not sure when. I think there’s about five and most are large canvases. I wouldn’t want to give up one for the other. There’s a lot of creative cross-pollination between the two, with one inspiring creative acts in the other. But if I absolutely had to choose between painting and music, it’d be music. I feel it’s what I should be doing and I’m really enjoying it now. I didn’t set any challenges or agendas going into the second album. It’s just a collection of songs that fit together which mean something to me. I don’t do the arrangements or any of that, the structure; that’s up to (producer) Jonathan Goldsmith and the guys in the band do their own parts.”

While debut disc Orchestra for the Moon showcased Grant’s subtle song writing skills, Echoes is all about the voice. Instrumentation is stripped down almost to bare bones, overdubs both vocal and instrumental are sparing, arrangements and tempos are all about letting the lady squeeze every bit of bittersweet juice out of that strange fruit. The album was recorded at the offbeat and decidedly organic Puck’s Farm in Schomberg, Ontario with an ear to creating a live, natural sound.

That Grant connected instantly in Europe may be due to echoes of familiarity within that sound, shadings of Thirties and Forties swing and torch, dabs of jazz and vintage soul. None is central to any particular tune, all hover around her music like an ex who still hangs out in a corner of your mind. Check the reviews and everbody from Patsy Cline to Feist is name dropped, which only means Jenn Grant’s got that something so hard to finger and everybody wants to get a hand on. “We weren’t going for a vintage feel or anything like that. My dad played piano and he used to play a lot of stuff from his day so maybe some of it must have rubbed off. I kind of wanted to make an album that had a pure sound.”

The fact the tracks were cut using all anaglog equipment couldn’t have hurt either but it’s still hard to grab ahold of exactly what’s vintage, even in the way Grant covers Neil Young’s “”Only Love Can Break A Heart” by wrenching even more anguish out of it . What it does make clear is the breadth of the emotional palette at Grant’s disposal as she goes about creating her folk-pop concoctions.

Meanwhile back in Halifax, there’s new love, a new home close to the Commons and a new dog to go walkies with there. Songs for the next album have been written, although Grant says she still needs a bunch more. Grant’s signed to Six Shooter Records, a hard hustlin’ indie with distributiion ties to Warner Music Canada and in the Grant camp there’s no hurry on that front. Echoes won’t get wide distribution in the U.S. until next year and when that happens, Jenn Grant may find there’s a lot more than reverberations left in Echoes.