by Martin Melhuish
“What would Jaren do?”
Have to admit, it’s a question I have asked myself a few times when making purchasing decisions based on the packaging involved (i.e. potential waste) since reading the manuscript for Talking Trash: My Year in Zero-Wasteland for the first time. Jaren Cerf is an inspirational character to begin with, but on the topic of personal waste management, she’ll also tweak your social conscience.
“You get this overwhelming guilt and you begin thinking about your own lifestyle and you start getting thoroughly depressed,” says Jaren, who is also a successful, much-traveled singer, musician, songwriter and creative entrepreneur. “But then you start thinking, ‘Well, if I can do this and I can do that, and if I only do 30% of what is suggested, that will make a lot of difference over time.’ Multiply that by the number of people who take a similar view and you now have a massive change in wind direction. That’s why I want everything to be solution-based because, even if you are super busy, you can still make some impactful changes with minimum disruption to your daily routine.”
The appeal of Jaren’s informative, entertaining and often amusing journal is that it is written from personal experience arising from a general do-it-yourself attitude which has been part of her DNA since she was a youngster growing up in Laramie, Wyoming. The west was built, for the most part, on the self-reliance and resourcefulness of its earliest settlers and before you get too far along in this book, you are going to recognize those traits in Jaren’s propensity for DIY in most areas of her life.
But, as she is quick to point out, she is not 100% zero waste and neither is she trying to preach perfection. She describes herself as simply a Mom who is trying her best every day to make a difference. “I think in society, it is too easy to feel like shit if you fall off the train,” she once told me during a chat on this subject. “I want to tell people, ‘Don’t feel bad if you fall off! Get back on, one thing at a time!’ We don’t have to be perfect about it.”
Though there have been various environmental movements that warned of the dangers of waste pollution to our fragile planet dating back to before the turn of the last century, the consumerism that accompanied the post-war economic boom in America contained the seeds of discontent expressed by a growing number of skeptics who saw a negative and destructive side of things in all that prosperity.
“A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built on sand,” suggested author and playwright Dorothy L. Sayers in her 1947 book, Creed or Chaos.
Best-selling author and social critic Vance Packard espoused a similar viewpoint in his book The Waste Makers, which predicted the rise of the American consumer culture. It was published almost six decades ago in 1960 yet his narrative at the time about the concept of planned obsolescence and “the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals” still ring true in a political climate where, in the name of corporate profits, regulatory laws are being rolled back and the environment, rather than being protected, is being left to fend for itself.
Even more frightening was Packard’s statement that “the uncomfortably challenging point to be recognized [is] that perhaps the United States has no acceptable alternative to ever-rising and wasteful consumption.” He cited a viewpoint expressed by “dispassionate social observer” John Kouwenhoven in a Harper’s article entitled, “Waste Not, Have Not – A Clue to American Prosperity,” that “we may not be able to get rid of the mess without also getting rid of abundance.”
According to Packard’s research at the time, the average American family was throwing away about 750 metal cans each year and each individual man, woman and child was using up to an average of eighteen tons of materials a year. “In the Orient,” he pointed out, “a family lucky enough to gain possession of a metal can treasures it and puts it to work in some way, if only as a flower pot.”
On Christmas Eve 1968, during NASA’s Apollo 8 mission which was the first to go “Round the moon and back,” crew member William A. Anders took a photograph, dubbed “Earthrise,” which many have credited with giving renewed impetus to the environmental movement. It was a picture of planet earth, blue, finite and fragile, but oh so welcoming, rising out of the blackness of space over the desolate and forbidding surface of the moon in the foreground.
In Life magazine’s 100 Photographs That Changed the World book, nature photographer Galen Rowell called it, “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” It was the first time that an image of earth had been captured from that perspective and it was compelling in its revelation of how small and delicate our planet really is. It changed the perception that earth has an infinite capacity to absorb the detritus and dreck produced daily by humanity.
Looking back at the ‘70s, especially the early years of the decade, the music world was inspired to make comment by this renewed focus on the environment and the fragility of the planet. In February of 1979, Canadian radio personality Doug Pringle and I, spent time with Marvin Gaye in Los Angeles. It was eight years after he’d released the track “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” on his masterpiece of an album, What’s Going On. The early ‘70s had been a transitional time in his life. Berry Gordy Jr., the head of his record label Motown, hated the record but Marvin said that he’d had a spiritual awakening and he was not going to be coerced into going back, at that point anyway, into writing songs about his “erotic fantasies” given the chaos he saw in the world at the time.
Other songs of the early ‘70s addressing environmental issues included “Natures Way,” Spirit (following their 1968 song “Fresh Garbage”); “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell; “Ecology Song,” Stephen Stills; “Lady Run Lady Hide,” April Wine; “Before the Deluge,” Jackson Browne; “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth,” Sparks, and, in the late ‘70s, the epic “Nuclear Apathy,” Crack the Sky. For a while, the ecology was getting some front window exposure as part of the pop culture.
Population Bomb, the controversial but impactful book by Stanford University Professor Paul Ehrlich and his wife Anne (uncredited) published in 1968, had warned about over-population and the environmental damage that would inevitably result from a population too large for Earth to support. There are an estimated 7.5 billion people inhabiting our planet today. It’s a number that is expected to rise to 11.2 billion by the year 2100. With stats like that, it doesn’t take a clairvoyant to see that waste management will have to be a priority for governments of the world in the future as well as a necessary lifestyle consideration for individuals who care about the quality of life today and for future generations.
A few years ago, one of those concerned individuals, Australian sailor Ivan MacFadyen, told of his horror during a yacht race between Melbourne and Osaka at the “severe lack of marine life and copious amounts of rubbish” he encountered. Speaking to Guardian Australia, MacFadyen described looking down and seeing all manner of garbage shimmering in the depths below, up to 20 metres under the water. “We went on to the U.S. and back again. We did 23,000 miles [37,000 kms] and I’d say 7,000 of those were in garbage. The boat is still damaged from it. We had to free the rudder of rubbish one night, which was scary. We were terrified of something ripping a hole in the boat.”
He concluded: “Humans are such a blight on the planet that we will just trash an area because it is out of sight most of the time. It completely changed the way I look at things. I used to chuck rubbish away without thinking twice, but there’s no way I will do that now.”
For author and environmental activist Jaren Cerf, who is also the mother of two young children, this issue is also a real and present concern that is never far from her mind.
I first met Jaren Cerf in the summer of 2015 when she auditioned for a theatrical musical I had written titled OH CANADA What A Feeling! – A Musical Odyssey. She ultimately joined the cast and earned rave reviews for her vocal range, charismatic presence and versatility in portraying Joni Mitchell – actually one of the songs she sang was the aforementioned “Big Yellow Taxi” – and Celine Dion in the show, which opened at Caesars Windsor prior to a critically-acclaimed two week run at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.
We became friends during the course of the show and stayed in touch afterwards, frequently spending time chatting about music and the arts, often brainstorming on creative ideas and concepts that we could work on together. And as the earliest of those chats played out, I began to understand that the woman who I had simply considered an extraordinarily talented singer struggling to find her niche in the music world had been there, done that and got the T-shirt, which was no doubt eco-friendly and recycled. Yes, I was also discovering her passion for environmental issues.
Jaren, in fact, had already lived the life of an international pop star and the more than 50 million views of her music videos on YouTube, thousands of followers worldwide on social media and numerous award nominations and top-of-the-chart Billboard hits in the EDM/Trance world, in which she continues to be revered, attest to that.
She first mentioned a zero-waste project to me just after Christmas 2015 and then, with an idea already formulated in her mind, she sent me this note on January 9, 2016:
Hey Marty -
I’m trying something out that doesn’t take up much time and, by the end of the year, I could have a pretty great book about it. I think I wanna try to become zero waste by the end of the year and see if someone like me could maintain it.
I just hammered out a few ideas tonight about the experience so far, and I wondered (if you have 5 minutes) if you think it could be something.
I read the chapter that she had “hammered out” in two hours that evening. Did I think it could be something? Does a bear leave deposits of organic, compostable scat in the woods?
In early March 2016, by popular demand, she was back on the road and performing at Trance Vision: Awakening in Moscow, one of the many cities globally she had played previously during a period in her career when she actually required bodyguards at a number of her club performances. Moscow was one of the “zero waste” trips she took during the time of writing the book you hold in your hands. The outfit she wore on stage that night, in keeping with that initiative, was a creation from the House of Jaren... her own DIY design. One of my favorite pictures from that trip is of Jaren sitting in the Geneva airport on a stopover dutifully putting time in on the manuscript, even though the demands of travel and the swirl of emotion around an important live appearance in a foreign country usually preclude extracurricular activities like book writing.
Jaren’s artistic versatility is a major part of the story connected to the life and times of this multi-talented Canadian/American performer and creative entrepreneur whose credits don’t easily fit on a business card: singer, songwriter, musician, recording artist, actress, women’s advocate, environmental activist, author, dancer, filmmaker, vocal coach, UX designer and, a little out of left field, championship yodeller. Though not something she kept up, she was also a pretty decent painter in her pre-teens. Today, if you ask for a thumbnail sketch of her professional competencies and experience, she will tell you that she is simply a storyteller.
Jaren arrived in Canada in 2011 after spending ten years in Los Angeles, following her move from her hometown of Laramie, Wyoming, working in the film and music industry. For a time in L.A., she was personal assistant to Golden Globe Award-winning actor Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap, Star Trek: Enterprise) and his wife, actress/dancer Chelsea Field (Masters of the Universe).
She had continued to pursue her music career, often playing her own original music in lounges with a fake ID because she was underage. In 2005, she met Montreal-based producer/DJ Matt Cerf at a party in L.A. It was the turning point in her career as she discovered Trance music and was soon propelled to international fame in that genre with a distinctive voice that one pundit characterized as “haunted by angels and demons alike.” The two have, to date, produced close to 125 songs together. Her American toplines (vocal tune and lyrics) paired almost seamlessly with European dance beats and success in that genre wasn’t long in coming.
Renowned Dutch Trance music producer/DJ Armin van Buuren, who has called her “easily one of the best singer/songwriters,” picked up one of the songs (“Unforgivable”), which became a worldwide dance hit, effectively launching her career in 2008 as she began to tour with van Buuren, and then on her own in 2009, subsequently earning a number of International Dance Music Awards (IDMA) nominations with trance partners Matt Cerf and Shawn Mitiska. The song “Man On the Run” (Dash Berlin with Cerf, Mitiska & Jaren) from this period has become one of the standards of the Trance music genre.
She had the first of her two children in 2010 and moved to her husband`s hometown of Montreal the following year. It was here that she met Sébastian Lefebvre, guitarist/vocalist with the internationally-renowned “pop-punk” band Simple Plan, with whom she began writing pop music for a long list of established artists and album projects while still creating material for the dance crowd. In 2013, one of those dance songs, “This Is My Goodbye,” performed under her alias Fenja, was number two for three consecutive weeks on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart for eminent French producer/DJ Antoine Clamaran. In 2014, Jaren co-wrote Andee’s “We Are Gold,” which debuted during the CBC broadcast of the Sochi Olympic Winter Games in February of that year.
In 2015, the same year that she earned a spot in the semifinals of the Great American Songwriter Competition in the Bluegrass/Country category, she completed the recording of her sophomore “folk” album 7 Year Itch, produced in her hometown of Montreal by Sébastien Lefebvre, and Swedish musician/composer Rickard Nilsson. It was the follow-up to her 2008 debut recording Fixin’ It Upright, which had been recorded in Sweden under the auspices of two of that country’s finest producers, Alar Suurna (Roxette) and Jerker Eklund (Jill Johnson). 7 Year Itch was released on Mother’s Day 2016. There’s no coincidence in the timing. This extremely personal set of songs, which is informed by her own voyage of self-discovery after having two children as she teetered on the brink of international stardom, has become the soundtrack and the centrepiece for a broader multimedia project under the title Bravura.
In late spring 2016, Jaren earned a feature role in the film, Song of Granite, an Irish/Canadian co-production shot in Ireland and Montreal, which documents the life and times of the late Irish traditional singer Joe Heaney. In March 2017, she performed for TeleFilm Canada in Austin, Texas at the SXSW (South By Southwest) premiere of the film and it was here, just by happenstance, that a motivational figure from her past suddenly appeared. While Jaren was having her official picture taken for Getty Images with the cast and crew, next up for his portrait was the star of the popular kids-friendly PBS series from the ‘90s, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and the crew behind the documentary film Bill Nye: Science Guy, which also had its world premiere at SXSW.
Because of the schedule, she didn’t have the opportunity to speak to him but this was a big moment for Jaren who, in her youth, had taken some inspiration for her environmentally active, zero-waste ways from the kids’ science show Beakman’s World (Paul Zaloom) and from Bill Nye himself, who emerged from his series as a tireless advocate for the scientific community and its persistent warnings of the disastrous impact of climate change on the planet. She recalls that about a decade ago, she took great interest in a contest that Bill and his neighbour, actor Ed Begly Jr., were having to see who could maintain the smallest carbon footprint.
“As an adult, I’ve fallen in love with statistics and studies – probably because my Mom recited studies all the time as I was growing up, and my Dad is very much into geology and archaeology these days… and I love documentaries. So, when I ran into Bill Nye in Austin, I was over the moon excited. I couldn’t believe I was seeing him in person. I actually physically pointed him out to my Irish friends and jumped up and down a few times like a 10-year-old. I have no doubt they remember the incident. But to me, scientists and science communicators like Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, David Suzuki and Paul Zaloom (Beakman’s World), are our real stars and we need them in our world, front and centre.”
Martin Melhuish, who acted as consulting editor on Talking Trash, is the author of more than a dozen books dealing with music and popular culture. In conjunction with companies like Nashville/Toronto-based TH Entertainment, he has also written, directed and produced documentaries for broadcast networks around the world.