Ahead of his performance at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, Fred Penner reflects on a lifetime of life changing memories and moments that matter
For 45 years Frederick Ralph Cornelius Penner has provided the soundtrack to generations of children across the great white north and beyond.
The Winnipeg native, beloved by legions of fans as Fred Penner, is a household name in his native Canada, with 10 Juno nominations, a 12 year run with popular children’s television program Fred Penner’s Place, and prestigious inductions into the Order of Manitoba and Order of Canada.
Yet, for the man who shows no signs of creative fatigue in his 70s, awards and accomplishments pale in comparison to the lasting impression his music has made to fans across the globe.
The Effect of Music
“When the whole career began, I had no idea where it would go,” Penner shared with The Herald.
“I brought what I thought was integrity and good music. I think the bottom line was truly the understanding of how music can affect the listener. I did a lot of work with special needs kids in Winnipeg. My sister Susie was a down syndrome child, and music was always my contact with anybody, anywhere. Having that philosophical base for my work was really important to me. That has been fed back to me.
“People have appreciated songs that I’ve said or messages that I’ve brought out and have adapted them into their lives and are coming back and telling me how a certain song made a difference in their lives. That’s such a really lovely awareness that all of that is happening, an awareness but not an expectation.”
Indeed, Penner’s reputation as a cross-generational artist is reaching folklore status. His catchy and infectious hits and albums are burrowed deep in the minds of the kid turned adult in many of us.
“That generation who grew up with me and Fred Penner’s Place, are now the young adults who have their own kids. It really is this beautiful continual circle of life that is coming to me. I’m really touched that so many people have made contact over the years and are still keen to connect.”
Not content to rest on his laurels –though who would blame him – Penner released lucky album 13, fittingly titled Hear the Music, in 2017, teaming with a who’s who with the Canadian music scene including The Good Lovelies, Terra Lightfoot, Ron Sexsmith and Basia Bulat.
“I think the important thing for me is the creative process, and learning how I can bring my vulnerability to that stage, and find a song and find a lyric and poetic path that fulfills me and gives me a sense of accomplishment,” he says of his more recent works and schedule.
“Because the phone is still ringing, there are festivals across the country and many many events constantly that are excited about me coming to their communities. That demand is still there, so I want to sort of honour that demand in a way by keeping that creative process high. If the songs are there and I can feel the inspiration to record them, then why not?”
In reflecting on nearly half a century worth of moments as an entertainer, Penner expresses that it is the human connection, cut away from the stage and gaga, that leaves the most recognizable mark.
“There’s unlimited images that pop into my mind with this journey,” he begins. “The majority come down to one-on-one connections that people bring to me, either on the streets or after performances. One of the earliest ones, after one of my first shows I did in Winnipeg after producing The Cat Came Back record in the late 70s, was a mother approaching me at the very end of the autograph line. She told me her story; that her and her husband had three kids and one of them was four years old and in the hospital, and had a brain tumour. They brought my record, and a little record player, into the hospital room with their family, and the family bonded from the music of that very first record. The child did pass away, and she just wanted me to know how important she felt I was in their lives in that most tragic time. I thought oh, Ok, and that sort of set the groundwork for everything I’ve done since then. Understanding the value of what this music can be, the potential of it being there.
“I have hundreds and hundreds of special needs people come to me, parents of autistic children come to me and say my music is the only stuff that really calms them, that they love listening to it with their child. You get this bank of beautiful accolades from such a range of humanity. Humbling is an understatement, but so many of those put those benchmarks up for me over my lifetime. That’s what I had achieved that’s part of my legacy and this is why I’m doing this. It’s quite overwhelming some times to think of how deeply people have been affected by anything that I’ve done.
“The accolades and the rewards – Order of Canada, Order of Manitoba – those are all distant gravy. I always come back to that core of why I am doing what I’m doing. Often young people aspiring to be performers ask me what advice I would have for them. First question is, why do you want to do this? What is your motivation and why do you want to be a performer? If they can’t answer that question or they’re thinking of fame and fortune, then you better think again. That’s a nebulous thing in any performing world.”
That connection goes both ways. For Penner, and his fans. In every concert, every performance, there’s a synergy between the iconic entertainer and those whose lives he impacts with his art.
“It’s that exchange of energy and participating and singing together that gives the audience a sense of wellbeing. Yeah, that’s what this is all about,” he says. “We are sharing in that beautiful musical moment together.”
Tickets for the NL Folk Festival are available now at nlfolk.com. For more on Fred Penner visit fredpenner.com