Jenn Grant always wanted to be a singer-songwriter, even while she suffered through 10 years of stage fright. “I was preparing to face the fact that I would just have babies and stay home and sing them lullabies,” she says of that time before she conquered her fears. Before she made her new album, Orchestra for the Moon an enchanting record that will bring you down to earth, then blow you straight away.
It's Jenn Grant's first time playing The Pavilion and her band, the Night Painters, is missing three of its regulars. Its drummer, Jason Burns, and guitarist, Kris Pope, are near the end of a month-long tour with their main gig Down with the Butterfly, and its bassist, Sean MacGillivray, is in central Canada with his trio Great Plains. Glen Nicholson of In-Flight Safety is on percussion and the bassist is Chuck Teed of Ermine, both of whom filled in the weekend before on an identical Grant/In-Flight double-header in Sackville, where Mount A students trekked in ballet flats through a March blizzard to George's Roadhouse, across from the New Brunswick town's VIA station, where Grant won over an unfamiliar crowd, then celebrated with a smuggled half-can of Red Bull.
There has been no rehearsal of these Two-Nights-Only Painters in the eight days since, and Nicholson is literally straight out of the van, having finished back-to-back sets at four this morning. In Sydney. At The Pavilion, girls in sweater-dresses and leggings take self-portraits with tiny digital cameras while shaggy-haired boys sit on the floor and draw on the white toes of their black Chuck Taylors with ballpoint pens. None of the evening's backstory is evident so far, as the band—which also includes Dave Christensen on keyboard, flute and glockenspiel, and newly graduated Dal music student Kinley Dowling on violin—storms tightly through its half-hour set.
Until the final third of "The Last Waltz," the third track of Grant's 2005 EP. The jangly requiem for her first band, Navi, is the least-rehearsed of the bunch, and is supposed to wind down, then back up, but Nicholson returns a touch too early, bringing the band with him, pushing Grant and her guitar off-beat. She sing-laughs her way through the next lyric, trying to rein it in, then gives up, closes her eyes, tilts her head back and unleashes her glorious voice—the one Jill Barber said she wields "like an instrument"—in an unstoppable stream of improvised "oh"s.
She harmonizes with her vaguely sheepish band until the song reaches its end, and in that end they don't quite finish together, but that's what makes it a quintessential Jenn Grant moment—exuberant, honest and wholly unexpected. Just like the steps—from PEI campgrounds to Clayton Park cul-de-sacs to London hostels to a corner of Agricola Street, through a decade of crippling stage fright—it took her to get to this place, happily fucking up to 50 kids before nine o'clock on a clear and cold Saturday night in March.
Jenn Grant is an effusive, energetic talker whose cheery, girlish personality belies her musical persona, which is much deeper and more soulful than her merry demeanour would lead you to believe. Even her official biography begins simply with, "Twenty-six years ago, Jenn was born in a brown house in PEI."
Sitting in the lower tract of the Economy Shoe Shop's atrium in early April, politely sipping an Irish coffee she's not really into because she doesn't drink coffee, Grant reveals some of the more unique details of her Island upbringing.
"We lived in Marco Polo Land for a summer. It's a campground, it's a commercial campground," she says. "And we got a tent and it blew away. And we had a lot of hamsters and budgie birds travelling around with us—the travelling Grant family. It was all very crazy. There were always caged animals in the car. And then my hamster died at Rainbow Valley. And it was probably the most traumatizing thing that ever happened to me. Like, even more traumatizing than my parents splitting up."
This happened when she was 10. It comes later in the story, but first there's the hamster. His name was Howie, after Bobby's World-era Howie Mandell, and he was part of The Travelling Grant Family. "I saved my allowance money and bought Howie a little plastic house from the pet store," she says, "and it was cut too sharp and it cut him, and he fuckin' died. I remember opening the trunk"—she laughs, realizing how this sounds—"where he probably shouldn't have been, he must've had air, but anyway there was blood inside and it was awful."
This landmark life event occurred in tandem with another, of the nine-year-old Jenn Grant first putting her voice to tape.
"There was this place called The Boardwalk that was fun and summery and there was a little thing called Star-something, and it was this building or shack or whatever and you could go in and do some singing," she says. "I did "Stand by Me' and "Don't Worry, Be Happy' and I dedicated them to my hamster's life. I think maybe I sang those and he died the next day or that day.
And then I just listened to those tapes on repeat, by myself, over and over again and cried for two weeks.
"It sounds like a little nine-year-old version of me," she says later. "My voice sounds really high, but you can hear all these trillies and stuff. I sound like I'm singing, like, I'm really into it. I sound like I'm sad maybe, too. I was really trying to perform the song, I was like "This is it, this is the moment.'"
In Studio H, atop CBC Radio's Sackville Street compound, Jenn Grant sits in a roomful of men talking about her music. They are Glenn Meisner, the local legend who, with Karl Falkenham, has produced some of Halifax's best recent efforts out of this room, including Jill Barber's Oh Heart and Rose Cousins' If You Were for Me; affable engineer Pat Martin; band members MacGillivray and Burns; and producers Jason MacIssac and Dave Christensen of the Heavy Blinkers.
It's April 20, 2006, the third day of the sessions for Orchestra for the Moon, which, as it turns out, will not reach Halifax ears until April 27, 2007—372 days from now.
Grant heads behind the glass to do vocal takes on what the bottom of a nearby track list calls "Movin' On (Piano Song)," aiming for the "ooh-la-la-la-la"s at the end. (Now called "Unique New York," it's track three on Orchestra for the Moon.) She's alone in the booth, unable to hear the rest of the chatter unless a button is pushed.
"Beautiful voice," Martin says to no one in particular.
"It's not a bad vocal, but I think she has much better in her than that," says Meisner.
Grant leaves the booth and comes around the corner into the main room.
"How do you feel about harp on this song?" MacIssac asks her.
"I'm all over the harps," she replies.
"The Björk harps. The Joanna Newsom harps," MacIssac says.
"Maybe Björk could come in and do back-ups," Grant says wistfully. Then, seriously, "It's this little song I was hiding. I wrote it on piano like this"—she plinks away at the tabletop, her index fingers pounding out a quick, almost disco beat.
A few takes later reveal that little song as one of the best on the record, with multiple changes, great imagery ("The car is parked outside your front door/but you don't even travel for an hour anymore/since you learned to fly") and a killer backbeat. It's an absolute monster live.
"I was almost crying on the vocal track that they kept," she says in the Shoe Shop, spooning artichoke dip onto a pita wedge. "Because my dog had cancer and I couldn't stop thinking about my dog, and I had to sing these songs. But I was really almost crying on that take."
In 1990, when Grant was 10, her parents, Heather and Ken, broke up. The family, minus Ken, left PEI for Halifax, landing on Willowbend Court in Clayton Park.
"I remember the moment we drove in," Grant says. "It was a lot of townhouses, like the big circle thing—and I thought the whole thing was our house. 'Cause we were very, very well-to-do when I was a young girl." Her father is a vascular surgeon. "I didn't understand money, or what people had or didn't have. And then my Mom told me that we actually just lived in this one little thing, and I was like, "What?!" I shared a bed with my mother, and my brother and my aunt shared a room.
"Our neighbours were really weird—you know, really bad kids living in our neighbourhood and stuff. We did not fit in there at all. Our next-door neighbour robbed a bank one day, and this kid tried to hit me in the head with a baseball bat—he was trying to hit the budgie bird on my shoulder but he almost got me; this guy ran over me on his bicycle in my backyard when I was tanning—it was awful. It was awful!"
Eventually the family moved into a house on Pepperell Street, off Quinpool, where their neighbour was Mickey Quase, the man who would eventually connect Grant and Glenn Meisner.
But before that would happen there would be a few detours, including a half-assed but fun tenure at Queen Elizabeth High ("Did a lot of drinking and smoking weed in school. Was bad. But still friends with all my teachers and everything. Was really into make-up and fake nails, you know, stupid things.") followed by a few unfulfilling semesters at Saint Mary's University ("I was taking criminology. Like, what?"), followed by raves and then academic probation. "Nothing ever got too out of hand," she muses, "but it was out of hand enough."
After receiving her AP notice from SMU, she spent 10 months in London with her best friend, Lori Curtis. Grant tended bar, including in one called The Halfway House, and gave tours on the London Eye, a Ferris wheel built on the Thames river to celebrate the millennium. They lived in a house with Kosovan refugees.
"These fuckin' guys were so stupid—they used to listen to Bob Marley, and they'd turn the volume button up-down, up-down because they thought they were mixing it," she says, laughing. "And they'd constantly be cooking us eggs and French fries, and I'd be like "I'm OK, I just had some eggs and French fries.' And they were always drinking vermouth. Straight. All the time. And they were trying to sleep with me. This guy totally liked me. And it was really awful. I had nowhere to go. I had no money."
When the Kosovars kicked them out, they tried Spain for awhile. "Yo quiero trabaja or something like that?" Grant says. ""May I have a job please?' Yo quiero trabaja por favor? Nobody wanted to hire us. At all. Like not even Burger King. The only place that would maybe give us a job was if we translated sex tapes. And we said no. We used to steal bread from the hostel we were staying at, and then we would buy a can of tuna and a can of mayonnaise, and we would have two sandwiches for the day. We'd walk all day looking for jobs, and then stop and eat them, and as soon as we were done we'd be like "I'm starving!'"
Upon her return to Canada, Grant pulled together a NSCAD application. "I just did it when I was growing up," she says of art. "I just played with whatever was around. I'm messy. You know"— she scratches the butt of her knife across a greasy napkin—"just make art." She visited the downtown campus and was smitten. "I went on the tour, and then I cried after the tour. "This is so amazing!'" she says, fake-weeping.
She graduated on April 22 of last year, during the Orchestra sessions, with a BFA and a major in painting.
One of Grant's trademarks is gifting people with paintings. She asked Ron Sexsmith to sing on "In a Brown House," one of the few quiet story-songs on Orchestra, and he agreed. She couldn't pay him, so she painted him a PEI landscape. When she opened for Feist at the Marquee in January of 2006, she gave the singer a canvas featuring a sea cliff scene, ocean full of icebergs. (She also painted her own record's cover.)
"I was just like," she says, speaking in a measured, self-soothing tone, ""I am so excited that I am going to meet you, I don't know how to say I am so excited, so here's a picture.' She was like, "Thank you' and she gave me a hug and showed it to people onstage. I was really nervous when I met her because she had all these people around her. And I had my painting in a Sobeys bag. And she thought I was the merch girl. And I totally didn't tell her that I was not the merch girl for like 20 minutes. Until somebody else was like, "Jenn,' and she was like, "Oh, you're Jenn?' and I was like, "Yeah, I know. Doesn't matter. I can sell merch.'"
Grant isn't precious about her art, or pretentious about her art school background.
"I just did it because it was easier to do that than music. I wasn't afraid of doing visual arts," she says. "I don't care—I wasn't afraid of people criticizing me or looking at stuff and saying it wasn't good enough, or failing at it because I just don't care about it enough. I'm sure some people would look at my art and say, "That's not my thing' but I just don't care. You know? It's just something I do."
After two years at NSCAD, "I was like, "I want to be a singer-songwriter now.' Even though I've always wanted to be one. I've written songs since I was like eight years old. But I had such stage fright for 10 years. Tried to perform on stages, tried to conquer my fears. But I would do it and my voice would shake so badly and my body would shake so bad and I would be so upset afterwards. I would be so devastated that I couldn't do it. I was preparing to face the fact that I would just have babies and stay home and sing them lullabies.
"But I went to this matinee show, Caledonia was playing, and I just felt this feeling like "I really know that I can do this' and I signed myself up."
That Sunday show at Salvation, in what is now the One World Cafe at Agricola and West, was the impetus for a Grant-led trio called Navi, rounded out by her cousins Andrew and Daniel. The project fell by the wayside when Andrew moved to Ontario, but Grant knew now that she wanted to pursue music as a career, and once she had some songs together, she assembled a band to record an EP in 2004. They did sessions at the Rock Garden, a doomed few days at NSCAD where somebody erased all of the files—"I was like, "Holy. Fuck.'"—and finished up in Grant's bedroom in her mom's house. Two of the EP's six songs, "Don't Worry Baby" and "Make it Home Tonight," were re-recorded for Orchestra for the Moon.
"It wasn't for anybody, it was just for me to do," says Grant. "And then people liked it. But I listen to things way different now. For its time and its place it was supposed to be that way."
It's May 18, 2006 and Grant's back in Studio H after taking a short break from recording. Today she's laying down some major vocals; right now it's "White Horses," which in studio is a surprisingly prog effort that will eventually find its bass solo replaced by strings on record. Also on tap are "Don't Worry Baby," the true-love story "Britt "n' Kip," the lilting "Dancin' in the Wind" and the sad, solely strings closer "Blue Skies."
Up next is the alt-countryish opener, "Morning Break." Grant uses a white plastic fork to spear selections from $2.91 worth of bean salad from Pete's Frootique. "I need the oil from the beans," she says. "This is my vocal Olympics song."
Over the next few days, guests will start to drift in. Matt Mays sings on "Make it Home Tonight" and, with Rose Cousins, In-Flight Safety's Danny Ledwell and Jill Barber, on the chorus of "Dreamer." Cousins, who's here today—"She paints with her music, just like she paints with her paints," she says of Grant—also appears with Ledwell on the lover's lament "Rainy Day" ("And it's raining down so hard/and it's raining like you, so far"), and Tyler Messick duets on the Jim Steinman-style "Sound of Success."
Orchestra for the Moon is a huge record, in scope and sound (and buzz), absolutely stuffed with people and instruments. The Heavy Blinkers are a lush, intricate, giant band, and Orchestra reflects the musical tendencies of its producers, Blinkers members MacIssac and Christensen.
"I was scared that I would go away and it would be a record that didn't sound like me," Grant says now. "And I know that The Heavy Blinkers is not what I sound like. But I felt like Jason and Dave know me enough"— Grant has subbed in for Ruth Minnikin as a singer on a couple Blinkers tours—"to be like, this is maybe how she wants to be represented. In the end I'm really happy with the record." She pauses. "But the next one I'll make will probably end up sounding a lot different."
She wants to record that in January, and has a lot of material already—not a day passes without a song. "Now I've played with a band for a couple of years and have had this recording experience, on the songs I'm writing right now I picture other instruments," she says. "Because I want to be able to produce things myself. So I want to organize exactly what I want to have. I wrote this song the other day, and I want some banjo on it. But I want more simplicity. I think I am interested in simplicity right now."
But simplicity isn't coming her way anytime soon—Grant's about to release Orchestra for the Moon in a string of Atlantic Canadian gigs in May, hitting Wolfville, Souris, Charlottetown and Fredericton, followed by a central Canadian tour in June. But first up: the hometown show at Queen Elizabeth High School, in the auditorium in which Jenn Grant could not rouse the courage to perform a decade ago.
"It's going to be torn down on June 8. One last bash before school's out," she declares, crippling stage fright long gone. "I always wanted to play there. I had fantasies about singing on stage there, and now I'm going to do it.
"I think that I just had to find my comfort zone. There were a few times where I tried to and I just couldn't get it and it made me take a step back."
Now all her steps move forward, carried by a record full of hearty, heartfelt, heartrending, heartbreaking songs. Now it's as if the ballerina has spin-kicked her way out of the music box, strapped on a blood-red Gibson Epiphone and decided to tell you every thought she's been hiding in one of the most beautiful voices you've ever heard. It'll bring you down to earth, and then blow you straight away.
Jenn Grant CD release w/Stan Carew, Rose Cousins, Catherine MacLellan, Tanya Davis and David Myles, April 27 at Queen Elizabeth High School, 1929 Robie, 8pm, $10 adv (buy at Lost and Found, 2383 Agricola; www.CDplus.com 1592 Barrington or Pyramid Cafe, 2196 Windsor)/$12 door.
Tara Thorne thinks “Unique New York” would be an amazing score for an episode-closing Grey’s Anatomy montage, so if it happens remember you read it here first. When she’s not offering unsolicited advice to more talented people, Tara appears every Thursday on Information Morning and every day of the week as arts editor of The Coast.