Is Ann Vriend's musical schizophrenia at long last over? Since 2003 and the release of her debut album Modes of Transport, the Edmonton-based singer-songwriter has not only picked up accolades as a musician to watch, she's also, by her own account, confused many people. Originally tabbed as a pop pianist with a fully developed voice somewhere between country plaintive and seductive soul, Vriend has since resisted industry machinations to turn her into a producer-pliable, AM-radio-friendly chanteuse. That Vriend is actually a very radio-friendly songwriter is beside the point, especially in the rigidly programmed world of commercial radio.
We can lay the blame for Vriend's difficulties squarely on the door step of Simon & Garfunkle, especially their album Bridge Over Troubled Water.
"My parents didn't let us listen to commercial radio or watch TV while we were growing up," says Vriend, currently lodged back home in Edmonton while preparing for upcoming tours in Alberta and overseas. "All we had to listen to were the records they had from when they were younger, including Bridge Over Troubled Water. If you listen to the record, every song is very different from the last one. Because of that I always thought it was fine to have different genres together on a record."
In seven years and five albums she's deftly mixed pop, jazz, folk and soul without regard for programming strictures, nabbing regional hits ("St Paul," from 2008's When We Were Spies) and a cult following in the process. Vriend has stayed indie throughout, selling an impressive number of records off the stage and through her website, carving out a fanbase not only in Canada but Australia and Europe as well.
"People abroad think you're a big deal because you're touring and you're from a different place. They also treat you differently; in one club in Germany they retuned the piano just before I arrived, and then told me, 'The tuner is still here, because we want to make sure the piano is to your liking,'" Vriend laughs. "Meanwhile, I'll play a show at a soft-seater in Alberta, the piano was tuned three weeks ago and the guy will say, 'Is that not good enough for you, Ann?' In that tone of voice. OK. So, this is why I'm not always here."
After recording in Toronto and New York, Vriend chose a Calgary studio to lay out her latest album, Love & Other Messes. To do this she selected a group of seven musicians ("It was like I was picking a hockey team"), rehearsed them and then toured for a week, after which they went into the studio while the song ideas were still hot in their minds.
"I always felt that the end of tour is when we play best, and that's when we should be recording," she says. "I was lamenting this to the band, and they looked at me like, 'Well?'"
Love & Other Messes is Vriend's attempt at addressing criticism that her albums aren't musically coherent.
"My fear before was that I'd be pigeonholed with one kind of sound," she admits. "I never wanted to settle on one genre, but I actually had enough songs to make it work this time. It's a very American record, in a way, because you can hear both Memphis and Muscle Shoals in the sound, as well as a bit of Motown. There's also the roots and Americana side, that kind of goes into Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris."
For Vriend, much of what she's done on the record involves subverting clichés. Perhaps it has to do with her jazz-heavy training, or just her sense of humour, but she simply can't let a musical progression or a lyric go by without tweaking it somewhat. It works well for those looking for a hummable tune while driving in the car, but also rewards those looking for just a bit more.
"A lot of the songs have two different interpretations that could be read into them, one sincere and the other tongue-in-cheek. Like the song "Everyone Sings in Nashville," which some people have snickered at thinking it's a joke, which doesn't offend me because it had a sort of snideness when I wrote it. On the other hand I've played it in audiences of other songwriters and they just thought it was so mean!"
Vriend also has her way with the shuffle blues ("The Way You Let Me Down") and even nods in the direction of the Beatles with the sugary "More or Less," baiting a sweet melody with the sourest of sentiments. In the end, Love & Other Messes might be more musically cohesive compared to her other releases, but it still sounds like the work of a songwriter who, like her musical heroes, hears no sonic boundaries.
"I don't have any aspirations for the Top 40 with this record," she admits. "It's not that kind of album, it's just not mixed that way. It's mixed like a live '70s band, and in many ways it sounds like the Band. This is a CBC or NPR record and I'm fine with that."
Vriend is pleased with initial reactions to Love & Other Messes, which is also her first outing as a producer. She feels that she's made a point with the album, and is proud of the performances of her band. But even as she does this it's clear that she's still not sold on the notion of pleasing those who want her to settle into an identifiable style, and her quixotic musical wanderings will eventually continue on.
"I already have an idea about how I want to do the next record, and it's quite different from this one," she says with a wry laugh. "When they hear it some people will probably say, 'It's not your sound,' but, um, I'm not going to think about that right now." V
Sun, Jan 30 (7 pm)
Royal Alberta Museum Theatre (12845 – 102 Ave), $20
Five strange questions Ann Vriend has heard while on tour:
1) "Can you sign my socks?"
2) "If you don't have any spare change for me, could you go to the ATM?"
3) "You look like my ex-girlfriend from the '80s. Do you know her?"
Variation 1: "You look like Sarah Jessica Parker. Do you know her?"
Variation 2: "You look like Barbara Streisand. Do you know her?"
(Conclusion: me and the ex-girlfriend from the '80s both have big noses)
4) Aussie question: "Are you from Whistler?" (pronounced "Whist-la")
5) "How come you aren't famous?"