Music, politics and morals

Last month Canadian music legend and children’s entertainer Fred Penner stopped by the UMFM studios to help promote his upcoming December shows in Winnipeg. Penner was able to sit down with the Manitoban for brief chat about music, politics, morals and the indie scene in Canada.

Leif Larsen: You’re doing a show at the West End Cultural Centre in December?

Fred Penner: We’re doing an adult show on the 16th and a family show on the 17th.

It’s a nine-piece performance: my four children, myself, with Paul O’Neill on guitar, Don Benedictson on bass, Ryan Voth on drums and Karen Neustaedter-Barg on violin. It’s going to be a full evening and day.

LL: What is the difference between the adult show and the family show?

FP: The energy changes just a little bit. I’ll be doing some of the same tunes [ . . . ]. “Sandwiches” and “The Cat Came Back” are givens. Often I’ll vary things along the way, depending on the audience.

I’ve got so many songs to choose from — songs with sensitivity perhaps, songs with the morals or the thoughts that I have in this world about how we’re being treated as a race.

LL: Political songs?

FP: I have pretty strong moral codes in my brain here, and I’m concerned about what the next generation is coming into. [ . . . ] I think we’ve been much too manipulated by the banking systems.

The politicians and the people in positions in power need to realize that we’re in a quandary, and something has to happen from the top down and the bottom up until we find some common ground.

LL: Do you find yourself becoming more political?

FP: I’m in my 60s now, and that’s part of the aging process, is you see things along the way that you feel that you want to touch on.

I want people to do things that are moral, that are right. The golden rule is critical in our lives. We’re on a very odd and warped hedonistic path.

LL: Your music, when I was growing up, had some of those morals. Do you see any kids’ entertainers picking up that torch?

FP: Not quite the same way. There are lots are entertainers coming out right now, but I don’t see anyone picking up the gauntlet that I’m laying down.

What I’m really enjoying is your generation giving me feedback and telling me that they’re playing guitar or writing songs because of me. Or going into early childhood education because of me. That’s a really cool perspective, to feel that I’ve made an impact on the lives of a generation.

Often I’ll receive e-mails and songs from other performers, asking for guidance, and the first thing I say is: “Why are you doing this? What is your motivation or philosophy? What is your background for songwriting?” People often think that it’s for kids, so you can just give them anything and they’ll accept it. But no, children are the most vulnerable part of our society, and if you don’t give them absolute quality and concern from a moral perspective and a musical perspective, such that you’re bringing something really special into their world, then you’re doing them a disservice.

I encourage [children’s entertainers] to really develop their philosophy, realize that what they’re doing has the potential to make a lifetime difference in the world of that child.

LL: As parents, what are we doing differently than we were 20, 30 or 40 years ago?

FP: I think it’s the economics. [ . . . ] I think that because parents — and humanity in general — are over extending themselves financially, that forces them to work harder to pay off the debt, often to buy things that they didn’t really want in the first place.

LL: How do you feel about indie music in Canada, compared to the music you’ve produced?

FP: The indie artists that I’m seeing now are incredibly talented.

The players that I go to and see, it’s such a huge spectrum of possibility for any performer coming into the business. It’s only 13 notes on a chromatic scale, and the variations that can happen on that scale, it’s amazing that we’ve written so many songs.

It has to come from somewhere else. It’s not just the work because often the chord progressions are very similar. It’s not just the lyric because often those can be quite similar, but often it’s the spirit that goes into it.

You’ll see someone on stage who has that, and when you see a person who has the ability to grab you in an emotional way and bring you to tears, then you know that they have discovered what it is, as a performer and as a creator.

Fred Penner will be playing the West End Cultural Centre on Dec. 16 and 17. Tickets available at the West End Cultural Centre, Ticketmaster, Music Trader and Winnipeg Folk Festival Music Store.