Ann Vriend isn't a country music artist but I'm always willing to make an exception for Canadians (the reason for my declared bias appears in this interview). Ann is an amazing soul performer who is on tour in Australia, carting a whole lot of vinyl albums with her. Accordingly, this is being called her 'Those Records' tour. I spoke to her when she was between gigs.
So it's 9 a.m. – that's quite early for a musician.
You're right [laughs].
Are you a morning person by nature?
No. No, no, no [laughs]. But that's okay. It's easier to get up when it's sunny and warm out than when it's cold and wintry.
Now I read somewhere that you're an honorary Australian, so I thought I'd give you a little pop quiz. The first question is: do you like Vegemite?
Oh boy. The answer is that I do now that I know you have to spread it very, very thinly on your toast, because I used to think it was spread on like peanut butter or jam, and I thought it tasted like melted car tyre. Not that I eat melted car tyre, but …
I lived in Canada for a year and I didn't come across anything equivalent.
No, there is not. Except maybe melted car tyre. Which they don't serve in jars or anything.
Very true. The second question is: have you seen a platypus and, if so, what are your thoughts?
[Laughs] I saw one in a zoo in Melbourne, I believe, and I tried to see one in Tasmania but they were very evasive. So they kind of look like a cross between a lot of things. They're interesting. I wouldn't say they were really beautiful. [They look like] god was on a scrapbook day.
Third question: how do you feel about Kylie Minogue?
I think she's pretty awesome. She's like Cher – she gets younger and younger.
My last question: have you learnt to surf?
No. I've tried. I think surfing is like 99 per cent trying to get on a surfboard and then 1 per cent losing it in the water and having it almost hit you in the head.
I suppose also when you're here you're working, so you possibly don't have a lot of spare time, between travelling across Australia – which takes a lot of time – and doing the gigs.
It's true. It always seems to be eaten up. You think you have half a day off here and there's a bunch of emails and you have to eat, and suddenly there' not time to do anything [else]. Having said that, we have a few days off right now, which never really happens on a tour but this tour worked out that way. So I did go to the beach yesterday, and I didn't surf but I watched people surf. I don't know if that counts [laughs].
Absolutely. That is also part of our national pastime. Now, you're out here on tour partly to celebrate the limited edition vinyl release of your album. I read that you are bringing the vinyl with you. So I have a couple of questions. The first is: why vinyl? And the second is: what's it like transporting vinyl from Canada to Australia?
First question: I'm a huge vinyl fan. I grew up with vinyl and my parents had a vinyl collection, and I learnt to operate the turntable when I was three because they got sick of me always asking them to put on records. Also is quite a retro-sounding soul album, kind of an early '70s, early '60s soul and that, of course, was the heyday of vinyl. It's the kind of album that you have had on vinyl if it had come out then. Then I had an opportunity to get it pressed on vinyl because there's a new pressing plant that's just opened about a year ago in Canada – it's the only one in Canada right now. There's a huge long list of people who want to get their albums pressed on vinyl and there's not enough plants these days, so basically I got an opportunity to have it done fairly quickly, which is a hard thing to happen when you're not a major-label artist. So I pounced on that opportunity because it just seemed too good to be true. But then I had to get it from one side of the world to the other. I looked into mailing it and it was astronomical – it was not an option. I would have had to end up charging so much per vinyl copy that probably no one would buy it. But I fly a lot with Air Canada, with touring so much, [so] I've now reached the Air Canada Premium Elite club [laughs]. So that means I can take three large bags for no extra charge. So I just did a lot of really careful packing with a bathroom scale, like taking things out of one suitcase and putting them in another until each one weighed an even 22 kilograms. It took about 45 minutes to pack the vinyl to make that all work.
And then you're taking them on the road with you, because you're going to a few different venues. Given that you've been here a few times now, do you find that you're drawn to play in the same venues, or are you trying to look for different places each time?
I have an agent here, luckily, who is taking care of that. Some of the venues, I think, I've played before. For instance, in Sydney I'm playing The Basement, and I've played there a number of times. In fact, I even have a live album that I recorded about five years ago, half of it was recorded there. We decided to do this [tour] last minute – we weren't necessarily going to do the vinyl tour. Then when we got the green light to do it, it was already November. So the places that he would normally be able to come up with were kind of hard, because a lot of people tour in March, because of Bluesfest. So we were just kind of, like, 'we'll get what we can get'. That's how the tour has worked out.
I notice also you're going to Goulburn in country New South Wales – have you played there before?
No, I've never been there before. It's certainly not one of your big cities or anything.
Some people who work in Canberra either live in Goulburn or live nearby, so it is a bit of a satellite town for the nation's capital. So there are probably pockets of people there who will be happy to have a great gig to go to.
Right, well, that's always good.
And in the country people are more willing to travel for things than people in cities. Something can be on round the corner in a city and people won't go, but people in the bush will travel three hours to see a show.
I know, it's crazy – it's the same in Canada.
Those distances in Canada are even more vast.
And then there's always the excuse of, 'Oh, but the roads are probably not very good and they're dangerous' and we're saying, 'Well, we got to the venue.'
After you return from this tour you'll be heading into the studio for your new album. Are the songs written and ready to go or are you still tinkering?
I'm tinkering with a few, especially lyrically. Musically they're pretty much ready to go. Well, I should say that my part of the music – which is that I write the chord progression and the melody of the songs and the form of them, but then my producer does a lot on his end on the arrangement side. I kind of do some. It's back and forth – he'll send me a version and I'll say, 'I like this', 'Oh, take that out' or 'What about this?' But the production that he adds to it really takes the song from just me at the piano to a whole different thing. That process hasn't started quite yet but it will start probably within a month.
Have you ever been unpleasantly surprised by an arrangement he's come up with?
Not really. Sometimes I think, Wow, I never would have thought of this – it's so outside of what I imagined. But he's the first producer that I've never thought, This guy – what is he thinking? He's so off track.. And there have been producers in the past where I've thought, Oh man, that's so cheesy or, Why would they think I would like that? and just been really panicking because I spent all this money and they're super-excited and over the moon about this thing and I'm [thinking], Oh god, no. But the good thing about Tino, having done my last album with him, there was no time when I thought, He has no taste – what is he doing?
Because it can be such a great collaborative relationship but, yes, if you feel that you're being misinterpreted that sense of collaboration disappears and then the album's not yours any more, to an extent.
Exactly. It really does feel like that. You think, Someone's doing a cover of my own song and I don't like their version.
That would be a weird feeling.
It's a very uncomfortable feeling.
When I was in Canada I was involved in college radio so I found out quite a lot about Canadian music and was always hugely admiring of the indie rock scene, as it then was, coming out of Nova Scotia and some other places. Could you talk a little bit about what's happening in Canadian music, where you fit into it and whether there's an increase in independent, possibly crowd-funded releases, as we've seen here?
I think there's a lot of scenes that are picking up right now. Crowdfunding is definitely a way that a lot of independent artists, and even established independent artists, are funding their albums. There's less and less people on major labels. The indie rock scene is big and the indie pop scene is big – bands like Arcade Fire. Of course, hip-hop and R&B – The Weeknd and Drake are two massive, massive artists. Obviously R&B is mostly an American scene but has a pretty big part of the charts right now and there's a lot of producers of that genre in Canada, and writers – some big guys writing for people like Miley Cyrus. 'Wrecking Ball' was written by a Canadian guy. So I think there's a lot of different pockets in Canada that are doing really well. Where I see my music is mostly on the soul side. I'm definitely not going for the same sound as The Weeknd or Drake, but it's exciting to me to see their success and see how that fits into the Canadian answer to what's happening in American R&B.
When I was there, there was very much that sense that the United States was so physically present, for one thing, so Canada was holding the line at the border but also holding a cultural line against the US. Obviously you can't help but be influenced by what's sitting right below you but at the same time, for a lot of Canadian artists it almost seemed like a challenge and it seemed to generate a lot of creativity and not defiance, but that sense of wanting to do really well and work really hard to make a different identity.
I think so. And luckily the government of Canada supports that, in that they've recognised long ago that if they don't actively support Canadian culture, it will just get swallowed up. Not that we don't have a separate identity, but numbers wise we're such a small country compared to their population and also the fact that their major, number one export is entertainment. So, as a result, it's very competitive but there are government grants that are funded, mainly via radio stations, where you can apply as an artist to get funding to make records or to support your record. And that's a big reason, I think, why Canadian music is doing well – because we have been lucky enough to get some of that funding and actually have a fighting chance in the marketplace.
Well, it is important – they're your stories and it's Canadian art. And you are part of the Canadian export. So your next show is at The Basement, then Canberra, Melbourne, Goulburn and Brisbane. Is there anything I've missed?
We're doing a couple of other things that aren't announcable yet [laughs] and we're doing a schools show in Melbourne as well. And we're doing some video filming and things like that.
So you're using your time well while you're here.
Trying to. Although I'd better be able to go to the beach a little more just so I can come back with a tan and show it off to everyone.
Ann on tour in Australia:
Wednesday 16th March 2016
The Basement, SYDNEY NSW
7 Macquarie Place, Sydney NSW Australia 2000
Thursday 17th March 2016
Smiths Alternative, CANBERRA ACT
76 Alinga Street, Civic ACT 2601
Tuesday 22nd March 2016
The Toff, MELBOURNE VIC
Level 2, Curtin House 252 Swanston Street, Melbourne
Friday 25th March 2016
The Goulburn Club, GOULBURN NSW
19 Market Street, Goulburn NSW
Saturday 26th March 2016
The Milk Factory, BRISBANE QLD
48 Montague Road, South Brisbane QLD 4101