It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Six years ago, up-and-coming Edmonton songwriter Ann Vriend was on the verge of mainstream success by way of a record deal.
What happened though was only too familiar a story in the music biz — the label’s main investor disappeared and the project never got off the ground.
With a contract signed, the recent music school graduate had just quit her waitressing job after cautiously holding on to it until she had pinched herself enough times to figure out it was all real.
“I finally allowed myself to believe this was going to happen,” she recalls.
“But it had been the carrot in front of my nose the whole time because it had been really shitty playing in crappy bars in Alberta all the time,” she laughs, “and touring by myself and having no money. The thing that kept me going was that pretty soon (that) was going to be over.”
Four albums later, and without the help of any record labels, Vriend is enjoying an ever-increasing amount of success in Canada, Europe and even Australia, where she’s toured five times and was commissioned to write a song for the Commonwealth Games.
Her latest and first self-produced, “Love & Other Messes,” was released last year and has critics drooling over her stylistic and lyrical qualities. Impossible to categorize, Vriend’s unique style brings together elements of soul, pop, country, jazz, blues and gospel and so, as many critics agree, it sounds both familiar and strange at the same time.
Opening track “Everybody Sings in Nashville” recounts a move to the American country music Mecca that lasted a mere three weeks.
“(People) are there to get discovered and write hit songs and whatever, which is fair enough,” she explains.
“But just to see so much of it in not a very large city. You get off the plane and there’s a band in the airport, and then it just doesn’t stop from there on in.
“I didn’t see a whole lot of joy in music. I saw a lot of people hanging on to a last thread trying to play music.”
“If You Were Here,” a duet with fellow Western Canadian songwriter Matt Epp that began as an ode to Jeff Buckley, addresses the struggles of a touring musician in love.
“I finally allowed myself to believe this was going to happen." - Ann Vriend
“Don’t Cry,” a solemn number with Vriend on piano and one of the album’s most powerful moments, is a re-make of the song originally recorded for her 2005 sophomore effort “Modes of Transport”.
“I’m from Alberta, but not a fan of pop country at all, but I’m surrounded by it,” she explains.
“I was doing dishes one day and I started singing this melody and (decided) to sit down and see what chords go along with that melody. And then I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I wrote a country song! Shit, I like it, but it’s a country song.’
In turn, the song was included on the album but “disguised as a sort of indie-pop song,” Vriend concedes.
“For this record I just embraced the Americana-Country side of some songs that I’ve written since. And I’m also seeing how country and soul music are cousins of each other.”
One listen to “Love & Other Messes” affirms that wherever Vriend takes her music next, and with whatever interest from record labels, it will be in the right direction.
She’s achieved a level of confidence and comfortability with her voice and music that most artists her age don’t. And she’s loving the autonomy to do it on her own accord.
“Obviously being an independent musician is harder in some ways, but in some ways it’s probably better too,” she says.
“I didn’t think, as a writer, I was very ready for that opportunity (in 2004). I’ve learned a lot about writing and about music since then. I’m a way stronger performer than I was then and so if that opportunity came by now I feel I could make the most of it a lot better than I could have then. But it sucked. I had to get my (waitressing) job back and at home it had been in the paper, ‘Ann Vriend gets major record deal,’” she laughs.
Long over the early career shock, Vriend is happy just “doing it the long, slow way of touring and building fans.”
Her extensive Canadian tour brings her to Newfoundland for a pair of performances on tonight at The Ship Pub, where she will co-host the Folk Arts Society’s weekly Folk Night, and Thursday at The Grapevine.