Spies like us
Ann Vriend and Matt Epp bring the Double Agent Tour to Canmore
Ann Vriend’s “When We Were Spies” has had music critics singing since it was released in 2008. The Alberta songwriter’s third disk gets going with the background of star-crossed secret agents thrown into a complicated, tangled web.
Vriend is playing in the Bow Valley, with Matt Epp, on her prairie Double Agent tour this weekend.
“I am a spy,” Vriend said from her Edmonton home. “As a result, I can’t talk much about it, or I’d have to kill you.”
It’s a concept album, she offered. And a role the Vriend seems to like, it’s one that may have subconsciously emerged through the time she’s spent in airports and one that she plays well enough to have seemingly credible people ask her incredulously, “Are you really a spy?”
For a secret agent though, Vriend is very open when discussing certain aspects of her life. Her parents’ recognition of some musical talent at the age of three when she picked out tunes on her toy xylophone, for instance. Or her strict upbringing that meant she could not listen to commercial radio or watch TV. The music she could listen to and did identify with, from her parents record collection, became for Vriend ‘bright lights.’”
Vriend also talks about being younger and getting into the business (the music business not the spy business) easily as well.
“I was really shy and had never really done any performing at all, I played all the time in my basement where nobody could hear me, when I heard someone coming down the stairs, I would stop playing,” Vriend recalled of her younger days.
As part of a self-directed school project, Vriend, rather ambitiously, wrote and recorded eight songs. Her project then caught the eye of the high school principal when a talent show came up and nobody signed up. Vriend was coerced into performing three of her songs at the show.
“I was mortified . . . I didn’t sleep for months leading up to this show,” she said.
People liked it. She next joined a band with a recent graduate. As a relatively unknown commodity, she won a songwriting contest in 2002 at Edmonton’s gone but not forgotten Sidetrack Café which involved winning the studio time necessary to record her first album and a trip to Nashville.
While she recognizes the moment in her life as having significance, it was hard for Vriend to articulate what the contest win meant for her career.
“There are so many people that want to be musicians, obviously, and they all have myspace pages — you kind of go, ‘Yeah, but do I have anything that anybody else really wants to hear, or is this just my own navel gazing? My own hobby?’” Vriend said. “That’s a question that you have to keep asking yourself, it’s not, you win a big contest once and then you know for the rest of your life you’re producing quality music. Unfortunately, you’re as good as your last show and you’re as good as your last song. It’s a very ‘insecure’ career. But, I still like it.”
Vriend said she hopes to release a live, acoustic “stripped down” disk at the end of the summer. But in the meantime she is writing material for her next studio album.
The melodramatic pop on “When We Were Spies” at times verges on jazz.
“I did go to a jazz and pop school, so I did learn a lot of the jazz theory and improvisation,” she said. “I’m a fan of jazz. I’m a fan of jazz just about as much as I’m a fan of folk, or Brit Pop, or . . . the list goes on. But it’s really tempting, when you’re writing and you have to play solo . . . . One thing I’m trying to get away from is trying to play as jazzy as I have in the past, to be honest. Keeping it simple is actually harder.”
The jazz-informed style she has played in in the past, Vriend said, had more to do with her satisfying her own creative impulses than what “served the song best,” sometimes.
These days, Vriend said, she’s more concerned with “letting the song be what it is.
“Getting my ya-yas out when I’m practicing is one thing, when I’m performing it’s just really trying to make it solid and, really, simple but powerful.
“I kind of believe that the craft of songwriting (works best) when the words and music are woven together so well that it just makes so much sense, emotionally and intellectually that you just go, ‘yeah,’” she said. “That’s not a very articulate way of explaining it, but that’s what’s important to me as a songwriter.”
For the performing artist, performing was second and songwriting was first, in her approach, from the beginning.
Vriend has been known over the years for perpetuating an awkward, even goofy stage presence, something she now credits as a lesson learned in comic relief when reading Shakespeare plays in her youth.
Vriend said she’s looking forward to her Canmore Double Agent show with Winnipeg’s Epp. She’s performed with him in the past, written a song with him as well.
“He’s an interesting ‘cat,’” she said. “He’s a really good person to work with, he’s fun to travel with . . . .I think Matt (Epp) is a really engaging performer, he has this natural charisma about him on stage, and off stage, as well, that really draws people in.”
That must be a case of the pot calling the kettle black.