Ready for the next generation

Children's entertainer Fred Penner has a new album and his musician friends just couldn't stay away


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Fred Penner is many things: an iconic musician, a beloved children’s entertainer, Canada’s Nice Dad.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/05/2017 (2099 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Fred Penner is many things: an iconic musician, a beloved children’s entertainer, Canada’s Nice Dad.

One thing Fred Penner is not: a nostalgia act.

At 70, he could have continued filling rooms with enduring multi-generational classics such as The Cat Came Back before settling into retirement after a venerated 40-plus year career, and no one would have faulted him. But that’s just not who he is.

COLE BURSTON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Winnipeg musician Fred Penner plays a song off his new album "Hear The Music," to children at the Regent Park School of Music in Toronto on April 25, 2017.

And so, in April, he released his 13th children’s album, Hear The Music, which features guest collaborations from a host of celebrated Canadian musicians, including Ron Sexsmith, Basia Bulat, Alex Cuba, Terra Lightfoot and Afie Jurvanen (aka Bahamas). Penner’s four adult children also lend their voices to the record.

The idea for a Fred Penner duets record has been percolating for a while. Six or seven years ago, Julien Paquin at Paquin Entertainment Group approached Penner about doing a similar project with Hawksley Workman.

“Then I was getting really busy, and he was getting really busy, and the whole project sort of slipped away,” he says, over the phone from Toronto. He returns to Winnipeg this weekend for a close-to-sold-out show at the Centennial Concert Hall with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

The idea for a duets record was resurrected by Linus Entertainment, which had distributed some of Penner’s earlier albums. He teamed up with his old friend and producer Ken Whiteley, and the pair blue-skied ideas for collaborators.

“The list was long,” Penner says with a laugh.

Specific collaborations were dictated by the songs as they unfolded. “It was, ‘I can hear Ron Sexsmith singing harmony on this song; I can hear the Good Lovelies in here. I’d love to work with Terra Lightfoot because she’s become a friend and I love her work,’’ he says. “All of these things started falling into place.”

And, not surprisingly, everyone Penner approached was keen to work with him. “They were so gracious,” Penner says of his collaborators. “It was really very wonderful. I’d hoped that they would be. And when calls were made, people were ready to bend over backwards to make the links happen.”

Bulat, for example, ended up recording her parts in Banff, Alta., and sending them electronically, but Penner was able to perform with most of his fellow musicians in studio.

Some connections came about organically. Sexsmith, who used to watch Penner’s TV show Fred Penner’s Place with his daughter when she was little, ran into Penner on Queen Street in Toronto and decided to invite Penner to a party he and his wife were hosting.

“He was on our patio until about two in the morning just singing songs and drinking wine and having a good time,” says Sexsmith, who will be performing at the West End Cultural Centre Saturday.

“Somewhere in there he mentioned he was making a record and wondered if I’d be into singing on it, and I said ‘Yes, of course!’ And so I guess it was a few months after that, I went to his place where he was recording it. It didn’t take very long and then we had a nice breakfast after.

“It’s really cool to see he’s getting so much attention for it, and I didn’t know at the time that all these other people are on it — like Basia Bulat and that — but that just shows you how well-loved he is in the business.”

COLE BURSTON / THE CANADIAN PRESS Fred Penner: 'I would love for this album to be the kind of thing you could put on by yourself without a kid, or listen to with your kid, or be comfortable enough to put on just for the child.'

Penner, of course, isn’t just well-loved in the business. Since the mid-2000s, Penner has been performing on university campuses for the same generation who grew up with Fred Penner’s Place, a demand that came as an overwhelming and welcome surprise for Penner after the CBC abruptly cancelled the show in 1997.

Hear The Music is as much for those 20- and 30-somethings as it is for a new generation of children.

“Fred-heads are now young adults and they’re having their own children; they’re wanting their kids to grow up with what they had,” Penner says, acknowledging that he’s also maintained a connection with his original fans via his shows for grown-ups. “That’s been exciting — to not wait for them to have kids and eventually come to one of my performances at a festival or soft-seat venue, but actually reaching out to them and saying, ‘I’m still connected with you. I’m interested in what you’re listening to and what you’re doing.’

“I would love for this album to be the kind of thing you could put on by yourself without a kid, or listen to with your kid, or be comfortable enough to put on just for the child.”

And why not? The messages in Penner’s songs — on courage, humility, teamwork and caring for our environment — aren’t just timeless. They’re ageless.

“That comes from a lifetime of seeing the value of music and wanting to go deeper — to dig down a little further into memory and feeling and co-operation and courage, and these values that are so fundamentally human,” he says. “We get so trapped in the busyness of our lives, we don’t stop and register these deeper values that need to be nurtured and expressed and talked about. If there are parts of that I can open a door on for the audience, that’s as good as it can get for me.”

— With files from Erin Lebar

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @JenZoratti

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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