"I don't know what God is. But I know myself, and I have a decent heart, and the universe must know my heart. I'll be okay."
That's Jann Arden, perched on a stool in a downtown Toronto hotel, telling me this. In town for the start of her cross-Canada tour for her new album, Uncover Me 2, she's as comfortable as a down duvet, pillowy of thought and of body, dressed all in flowing black and peeking out from behind the middle-parted curtain of her long, dark hair.
But that comment was the first glimpse into a part of her persona she rarely reveals.
Don't be fooled. The sweetheart of Canadian music is a tumbleweed diva.
Everything she has been talking about in the interview comes out with expletives and a down-home twang, like a hardscrabble story shared on a street corner of a Prairie town or in a truck stop, over a bad cup of coffee.
There were her father's drunken years, the time he left her, her younger brother Pat and a friend in the car for hours when he disappeared inside a tavern. (She ended up having to drag him out.) There's the story of her older brother, Duray Richards, troubled since his teenage years and convicted of murder the same year she signed with Universal almost 20 years ago.
Those early, difficult years are chronicled in the multi-award-winning singer's new autobiography, Falling Backwards. Listening to her, though, it becomes obvious: She is her story, but she has also transcended it. Ms. Arden is a fixture in the Canadian culture as someone who never wanted to escape it. She herself understands that "I'm the personification of what a Canadian celebrity is. It's almost an oxymoron – a Canadian celebrity. I don't care about fame." But just because she's a hardy tumbleweed, and not a tall poppy, that doesn't mean she's unaware of her persona and how it serves her. It's one thing to be influenced by the circumstances of one's youth without realizing it. And it's quite another to stand back from it all, understand it, and having survived it, write and laugh about it, seeing your parents as characters colourful enough to belong in a novel.
"My parents are the smallest-boned friggin' people you've seen in your whole life," she tells me. "They should be on a key chain." She even quotes them on the back of her book.
Ms. Arden is rooted in her background. "There's no place I [would rather]be than there," she says of her Calgary home, located only four kilometres from where she was born.
Her parents live in a house right behind hers on property she bought six years ago. "It's the only place I want to go back to. The only thing that lets me go out on the road is knowing I can go back there." She likes to say she's still that little girl with the bad perm who never dreamt about being a star, that nothing has changed. But she has a perspective on the story of her youth that only comes from having experienced some sort of escape from it, which in her case is creativity, music and a fame that made her feel worthwhile.
"I am the peacemaker," she says at one point, describing how she travels with her mother every month to Bowden, a medium-security institution in Alberta, to see her brother in jail, who still protests his innocence. She has also facilitated a reconciliation between her two brothers, who had been estranged for decades.
She has the ability to see herself at a remove. "I absolutely believe in some divine grace," she says, when I ask about her spirituality, a question that unlocks the inner diva she tries hard to hide.
"I've thought myself here," she explains in a dreamy voice. "I remember meetings with record people and I'm standing outside the room, shaking like a leaf, and feeling very small and insignificant. So I thought, 'I'm going to send part of me into that room who knows what she's doing and knows she can do it and is tall and pretty – and smart – and I'm going to send her in there and push everybody against the wall. So when I walk in as the other me, I've got room to work. That's what I've always done."
She projects herself as an archetypal brave-yet-vulnerable single woman, who withstands all the mean-spirited discussion about her weight.
"I look at myself in the mirror and think, 'Bought and paid for. Everything works ... Pretty darn cute, now go find some pants that fit.' I'm just proud of myself. I'm glad to be alive, I've always been like that. I just let Bryan Adams take a picture of me naked. It's out in Zoomer [magazine]in March. It's about women being marginalized ... I'm not hurtful toward myself, saying, 'Oh I hate my arms.' How can you hate your arms? It's your arm! So I said okay" to the nude centrefold.
But when nudged off the Arden-esque theme of always looking for love and being disappointed, she admits to being difficult in relationships. At nearly 50, she has never married and has no children. Surely there must have been some wonderful romances, I suggest. "Oh, many … there have been a couple that have altered and changed my life to the point where you come out the other end and you're unrecognizable. You know, I've been the hurter and the hurt-ee," she says. "I don't think I'm easy. I can be extremely selfish."
Honesty has always been Ms. Arden's stock-in-trade. But the country-girl salt-of-the-earth approach to fame is also shrewd. She knows that popularity doesn't always come from fulfilling expectations. "I don't have a team of stylists, coiffing me and spray-tanning me and putting me in glitter gowns coming down a glass staircase." It can come from confounding them.
"I hate red carpets. You now have these idiots saying, 'Who are you wearing?' And I'm like, 'Winners … and I have a bra from Wal-Mart.'"
Ms. Arden smiles sweetly and pushes at her hair. She doesn't like to admit it, but the tumbleweed diva has an ego that allows her to rise above the preoccupations of the typically famous.