MUSIC: Ann Vriend the next big thing – or is she already?

Ann Vriend GigCity EdmontonAnn Vriend sounds like Loretta Lynn singing Aretha Franklin songs written by Marvin Gaye and produced by Mitchell Froom.

It is that weird – and wonderful.

The sound of the Edmonton singer’s new record, For the People in the Mean Time, owes a lot to her Italian producer Tino Zolfo, whose Froomish style with all its dubs, loops, samples, creaks, quirks and squeaks creates a Bohemian approximation of a Motown record. It’s nice – for a change – to “hear a single” on an indie project from this part of the world. The opener “The Long Road” is just one of many key songs whose hooks stand up to any pop tune on the hit parade. Vriend knows how to write a chorus, among other things.

It’s her voice that takes some getting used to. She’s singing soul tunes and doesn’t sound like a soul singer. Almost a soprano, her sensual tone comes through the best in mellower moments. Imagine Dolly Parton without the drawl. A Need So Wide – a love story set in a gritty street backdrop – may be one of the best of the album, its Supertrampian Wurlitzer riff forming the bones of a funky groove that breaks into a rousing chorus that would do Berry Gordy Jr. proud. The Greatest Killer, co-written with the great Canadian songwriter Dan Hill, is a gutwrenching heartbreak ballad. The greatest killer, by the way, is “love.”

On the happy side, You Can Have Me expresses a bold feeling: “You can’t have everything, but you can have me,” and we get Loretta Lynn filtered through Aretha Franklin, or maybe it’s the other way around. In Rush of Your Wings, a slower sort of urban-soul jam, Vriend evokes Suzanne Vega. Maybe it’s because one of Vega’s best albums was produced by Mitchell Froom.

Overall, For the People in the Mean Time is a stunning and (despite all the comparisons) original achievement.

Ann Vriend GigCity EdmontonLike a number of savvy modern artists, Vriend and her team have marketed this decidedly non-mainstream music beyond scene and time, developing pockets of loyal fans across Canada, Europe and Australia. But her inspiration comes straight from her hometown, living in the inner city. Walk out the door of her house and you’re on Boyle Street. Homeless people are her neighbours.

Vriend recalls being in the middle of writing one of the tracks on the album, In the Way, a couple of summers ago, when she heard gunfire.

“I was home alone, which is great because I was playing piano as loud as I wanted, and getting carried away writing this song, and the all of the sudden, oh, wow, 4 O’clock in the morning and I really should go to bed. So the windows are open, it’s summer, then I all of the sudden I heard these shots. There were most definitely shots, two and then another four, and they sounded close. So I go out to my balcony off my bedroom and just further on down my street these guys jump into a car and screech off, burn some rubber down the street, going to the wrong way down a one way street, nearly hitting a car going the other way.”

She phones the police, but a minute later a 40-man SWAT team descends. No one was killed – this time – in what turned out to be a drug-related matter.

Vriend is on the road a lot of the time, but she’s lived in the McCauley district since 2008, and has noticed a few things. “I’ve seen a progression since I’ve lived there from being where there’s a lot of bums who are severe alcoholics and people drinking Lysol and stuff like that, to finding more needles in the street and seeing a lot of crack dealing, including right next door to us. With harder drugs comes more organized crime and more gang-related stuff.”

The shooting, the aftermath, the SWAT team, the dodgy neighbourhood where she chose to live and all the social complications therein, all this stuff is going through her head – at 4 a.m., with a half-completed song at her piano.

“Initially it had been a song about some love thing, and then I started thinking that this song could be a little more intense,” she says. The first line, “These are the people in my neighbourhood, drinking their lives away outside” leads into the observation that homeless people go through the same shit as everybody else – excessive drinking and whatnot – it’s just all out in the open where everyone can see it. The difference between a bad crack deal and a senate scandal (both stories were in the paper the next day) is just a matter of degree, Vriend says.

“And who suffers? Both times it’s civilians trying to live their lives and they’re caught in the crossfire, literally and figuratively,” she says. “The song is about getting in the way in a lot of different senses.”

For the People in the Mean Time is in stores and on iTunes Tuesday, March 11, with the artist performing a CD release show March 20 at the Artery – just down the street from where she lives. She says, “I thought it would be nice to keep it in the neighbourhood.”