Fred Penner Talks Hosting Polaris, Unreleased Music and His 'Intense' Cultural Moment
Published Aug 11, 2015It's been 14 years since children's singer-songwriter Fred Penner hosted his beloved television program Fred Penner's Place, yet he's never been more popular. Between university tours, recent festival appearances and an upcoming hosting gig at this year's Polaris Music Prize Gala, Penner tells Exclaim! that he's been "picking up some kind of vibe." So while he's still filling stages playing "The Cat Came Back" and "Sandwiches," there may finally be a place in his audience's matured hearts — and their music players — for the more "melancholy," "complex" and "adult" songs he's written over the years.
"I've gone through a pretty intense range of stuff," Penner explains from his Winnipeg home. "My ex-wife was the artistic director of the School of Contemporary Dance here in Winnipeg, and years ago we did a piece called 'In Passing.' It was a 45-minute dance piece that Stephanie Ballard, an iconic Canadian choreographer, was working on.
"I wrote, basically, a score, for piano and cello and viola, and it took me into a whole other range of stuff. It was based on the seasons, and it was very complex stuff that I go back and listen to now and think, 'Oh, I need to revisit that.' In my own world, I'll write songs that have melancholy and have some pain that's inside of it — that's part of the joy and cathartic element of the creative process."
Until now, it's been hard for Penner to consider releasing songs that diverge from his usual songwriting fare — "If I did bring these tunes forward and did more of an 'adult' album, for lack of a better word, it may be received with confusion," he says — but a number of factors, including the aging of his audience, are starting to change his mind.
"I think at this point, I'm getting closer to doing that — getting [out] some of the songs that I know are not part of the children's world or the family world. They have something to them that appeals to me. I'd need to get into the arrangement world and look at them objectively and see if they have the kind of feel that I'd like to bring forward.
"I'm 68 years old now, and at this point, I have nothing to prove, in some ways. It's a question in the back of my mind: How would people respond to that? But at the same time, if I really felt that the song had a value to it that was important to me, then I would step forward. I'm getting closer to that all the time, I think."
His new affiliation with the Polaris Music Prize — he'll act as host for the prize's gala presentation on September 21 — is even more inspiration. "The connection to Polaris is helping me to be a little stronger in my potential for going another direction, because they're celebrating such a beautiful range of talent. It's not fixed in rock or blues or hip-hop; it's whatever you feel is inspiring to you."
Penner chalks his continued relevance and importance up to the fact that the generation he inspired as kids now hold positions of influence.
"It's really intense, actually. This has been building for the last ten years. The television series has been off the air for 14 years now, but that generation are now university students, young parents. There's a really strong connection when I am performing either at universities, doing pub nights, or at festivals that will draw in that generation of Fredheads. There are often tears involved. There are often people walking up, just asking, 'Can I give you a hug?' There's a love vibe that certainly is coming from the audience, to a level that I could never really have anticipated.
"As a performer, you do what you do to the best of your ability, and if people connect with it along the way," he humbly concludes, "then that's the bonus."